Talk Newspaper: Jeff Golden
The city of Ashland is saying it. Barack Obama is saying it. John McCain is saying it. Even George W. Bush, sometimes, sort of, is saying it: our future well-being, arguably our survival, depends on a massive shift from fossil fuels to renewable, non-carbon energy.
Agreement on the big premise lets us move on to other questions. Do we have the technological resources to pull it off? Definitely. How about the political will? The jury's still out, with part of its deliberation on display in this year's presidential election.
One more question: Do we have the attention span?
Last Monday's Tidings reported, "Oregon, which weathered the tech boom and bust, may be headed for bubble trouble in solar manufacturing. Experts predict a worldwide glut of solar panels "¦'The industry,' says [a solar industry executive], 'is growing too fast compared to the demand side. There are too many companies on the market.'" The article quoted the head of Oregon's solar programs predicting that if Congress lets solar tax credits expire "the U.S. market will shrivel up."
Shrivel up? Tell me this is someone's twisted joke. With what we know right now?
Here are seven things we know almost beyond doubt:
1) Our fossil fuel exhaust has to drop steeply and soon. The Bush administration admits as much, even if Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin don't.
2) Every minute, or every day (depending on whose research you choose) enough solar energy falls on the Earth's surface to meet the world's energy demands for a year. That doesn't mean — and nobody's claiming — that we can actually get every watt we need from the sun, but we'll never be limited by potential supply.
3) Solar still needs public subsidy not because of any costly materials (like, say, oil) but because relatively few units have been produced in America, burdening each one with a hefty portion of fixed R&D and manufacturing set-up costs. Get over the initial hump and the price of solar panels is likely to go the way of circuit boards, DVD players and cell phones, i.e, through the floor.
4) Once the system is in place, the fuel isn't just more affordable than ever-costlier oil, natural gas and oil; it's free.
5) Whatever we spend to solarize America won't come close to what our fossil-fuel habit drains from the Treasury in lavish tax goodies, public health costs, climate-chaos disasters, and a global military force (costlier than all the world's other nations combined) designed in part to keep the oil taps flowing.
6) Solar is the easiest source to decentralize. Every rooftop panel, every modest array on the south-facing edge of a neighborhood, means less long-distance power transmission: lower construction costs, fewer environmental conflicts, less energy leakage, and a step towards homeland security a bit more helpful than taking our shoes off at airports. This one deserves much more attention than it gets; we depend a hundred times a day on a networked power grid connected by millions of miles of exposed, unguarded lines. A nation serious about security would generate new power as close as possible to where it's used.
7) The build-out of a full solar industry would probably trigger more family-wage jobs than any trend since Pac-man hit the screen.
Are we ready to watch all this "shrivel up?" Maybe — if we let ourselves get distracted by the unfounded claim that solar (and wind) power can't meet much of our demand. Al Gore knocks back that argument with relish in his challenge to power America 100 percent renewably in ten years (judge his case for yourself at www.wecansolveit.org). The real number might turn out to be 40 percent, or 55 percent, or 63.2745 percent. None of us know. Solar's potential hinges completely on what we're willing to do collectively in this country.
What are we willing to do? For starters we can commit to state-of-the-art conservation practices to reduce the energy shortfall that will be part of aggressive change. We can be loud, clear, organized and persistent in telling political leaders what we want — what, through our votes, we demand: a sun- and wind-powered America. We should let them know we're willing to revisit and revise our consumption habits to get it, and (since we know there's no magic bullet) that we'll listen to their reasons for falling short of 100 percent — but they better be a hell of a lot sounder than what we've heard so far.
And when our attention starts to stray, let's remember America's radical retreat from solar energy when an incoming Ronald Reagan took an outgoing Jimmy Carter's panels off the White House roof. Imagine how different today would be if we'd stayed Carter's course. Now world oil prices have again stirred our interest in the sun's energy. Will you sit back and watch another retreat back to fossil fuel?
Maybe we can plead ignorance for falling back asleep in 1980. We can't today. What we can do is demand an abundant and safe energy system for our children and theirs.
Jeff Golden is the author of "As If We Were Grownups," "Forest Blood" and the new novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts at www.unafraidthebook.com).