Friday, October 24, 2008

Commentary: Power by the People for the People

Anyone reading this blog is very likely a proponent of solar power. For any sceptics who might happen by, you are certainly welcome. Either way, as a solar professional I have found there are good and not-so-good ways to stimulate solar growth in the United States and worldwide. This election year is proving my point.

Energy has never been more important to developed countries and the very rapidly developing countries of the Far East. Conventional sources of energy production--coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear--are being consumed at alarming rates. These sources get costlier as they get harder to find and mine. They're hard on the environment from which they're extracted; they pollute air and water; and they are downright dangerous to use. They are also controlled by huge conglomerates and utilities that produce and set pricing pretty much as they please.

Solar and wind power offer a rare opportunity for all of us. These truly renewable power sources can help us rearrange the typical utility-ratepayer relationship. Producing power with solar panels on the roof or adjacent lot or parking structure directly gives "power to the people." When connected to the power grid, net metering makes the utility more of a facilitator than a power provider. This sort of opportunity on a mega-scale is rare in history.

So, when voting on issues involving solar or wind power, be wary of who is behind such issues. Oil and natural gas companies and for-profit utilities are getting involved in renewable energy production either for sheer profit motives or government mandates. Overall, this isn't actually bad because it means less fossil and nuclear resources will be consumed. On the surface, the Pickens Plan (wind power) is the perfect example of this (see "Pickens: J.R. Ewing with a Twist?" Sept. 16 posting). But it also means bigtime petroleum billionaires and farflung, impersonal corporations keep control of energy, its distribution and its pricing. Furthermore, while we might assume energy from the sun and wind are cheaper to produce over the longrun, we CANNOT assume these power providers will pass along the savings.

By making direct investments in solar and wind, we are producing reliable power by ourselves for ourselves. We must all try to keep it that way.


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