Solar and Energy Independence

The Fourth of July: fireworks, steak tips, beer and American flags.I’m writing from Boston, where the historical connection isparticularly strong, and the fireworks celebration especiallyexcellent. We love our Independence Day. But how many of us try torelate the meaning of the Fourth to the state of the world today? We’vebeen an autonomous country, for good or for ill, since 1776. Twohundred and thirty-three years. We’re good buddies with our formersovereigns, and while taxes remain contentious, they’re not sparkingany secessionist wars (at least not yet, eh, New Hampshire?).

The Boston Tea Party was staged to demonstrate resistance to theidea that we were subsidizing other countries’ profits at the expenseof our own. The colonies were being told to pay more tax on tea sothat, in essence, the British could woo the East India Trading Companywith lower import tariffs while not losing any money themselves. Nicedeal for the mother country, but the colonists weren’t standing for it.The Tea Party was three years before the signing of the Declaration ofIndependence, but it was this sense of desire for fiscal independencethat precipitated that world-shaking event.

Okay, you are probably saying, why am I reading a history lessonabout tea on GetSolar? Because independence–fiscal and otherwise–isstill something near and dear to American hearts, and energyindependence is one of the most vital issues facing our country today.In 2008 we imported nearly half of our petroleum: we may be ranked #3in oil production, but we have the singular honor of being ranked #1 inconsumption (Energy Information Administration).Our needs, habits, and trade systems mean we are eminently vulnerableto fluctuations in the cost of fuel. While world trade demands we beinterdependent rather than independent, it’s still nerve-wracking tocontemplate the degree to which we rely upon foreign products tomaintain our way of life.

Solar power plants, wind farms, hydropower, biomass: renewableenergies present an escape route. We don’t have to be trapped by risingimport costs if we’re importing less. And yes, solar energy and otherrenewable technologies are very expensive. Yet I like to think of it asbuying a house instead of renting. All that money we throw at otheroil-producing countries to feed our insatiable appetite for energy, andwhat do we get out of it? Sure, we get energy, and a functioning (sortof) world economy. But putting money into domestic renewables is theinvestment that keeps on giving.

Cost does need to come down. Grid parity, the point at which thecost per kilowatt-hour of renewable-generated energy works out to bethe same as the energy from traditional sources, is the holy grail ofthe solar industry. We’re on our way, though. President Obama has stoodbehind promises he made on the campaign trail and thrown heavy fundingbehind renewables development. Perhaps not quite as he envisioned–thestimulus funds were an emergency transfusion. All the same, we’ve beenseeing positive signs in this country of renewable energy adoption. TheEIA sees a sharp growth in the percentage of our energy that will comefrom renewables over the next 15 years or so:

EIA: Grid-connected electricity generation from renewable sources, 1990-2030 (billion kilowatthours)

This forecast puts solar power and other renewable energies as a14.2 percent slice of the energy pie by 2030. Not bad, right? At theend of 2008, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) tallied9,183 MW of installed solar power capacity in the US, with another6,000 in the pipeline–and that number has undoubtedly risen since theend of the March, when the report was last updated (full report here/PDF).An attainable goal in the near future of 20,000 MW of solar capacityequates power for about four million homes. You can see that the burdenof energy production in this country is not going to rest squarely onthe shoulders of the solar industry, but at the same time, solar cansure do some heavy lifting.

We love our freedom in the United States of America. To pursuefreedom from the bonds of imported energy is a mission in keeping withour nation’s history as well as with our sense of national identity. Weneed imports, but we also need options. Solar power can and should bepart of the greater energy solution.

To end on a lighter note, you’ve got to check out the Census Bureau’s “Fun Facts”about the Fourth of July. Did you know that Georgia leads the nation inwatermelon production, for instance? Happy Independence Day, everyone!

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