The Climate and Energy Bill of 2009 | Backgrounder 1

There is no one reason to go solar. People are attracted todifferent aspects. Even individuals usually have a variety ofmotivations for their decision to install PV panels.

I talked with a woman last week who already had the panels up andwas just waiting for her utility company to come out and replace theold style meter with a new bi-directional one. Her enthusiasm for theproject was so strong that at one point she felt compelled to swear shewasn’t a shill for the solar industry.

Going solar?

Going solar?

But when I asked why she and her husband were taking this leap intosolar, the silence that followed went on for so long that I thought wehad been disconnected. When she finally answered, it sounded like adifferent person. Her tone was meek and apologetic; her voice barelyaudible.

“I’d like to say it was just because I care about the environment,” she answered, “but it was mostly…about the money.”

Another pause, and then: “We wanted to lower our electric bill.” Itwas the voice of a defendant breaking down on a witness stand,admitting that, “Yes, yes, I did it. I confess!

Well, who doesn’t want to lower their electric bills? Isn’t that how a market economy is supposed to work?

She hurried to add, though, that the couple also cared about theenvironment. If they hadn’t been concerned about climate change, shesaid, they probably would not have made the change.

Which begs a question: Given the grave consequences of climatechange, if most people need a combination of economic andsocial/ethical factors to go solar, how will that happen?

One hint comes from the conversation above. We’ve learned a lot in ajust a few decades about the environmental costs of generatingelectrical power. These costs, however, aren’t reflected in the priceof electricity. The problem isn’t new. The price of electricitygenerated by burning coal didn’t include the 30,000 early deaths fromheart and respiratory diseases caused by coal-fired power plants in1999 alone.

Some blame the “invisible hand” of the marketplace for failing tointernalize these costs. That’s the easy way out. It’s not the fault ofsome vague and unaccountable economic principle. It’s not even aneconomic failure. It’s a question of political will. In the immortalwords of Pogo: We have met the enemy and he is us. Wecollectively allowed government regulators to turn a blind eye,protecting energy companies from the rigors of the marketplace.

And yet, the couple described above were able to install solarpanels. How? Because they didn’t have to buy them; they lease the solarpower system. The monthly cost of the lease combined with theirnow-reduced electrical bill comes to less than what they had beenpaying for power.

The Missing Ingredient

Leveling the playing field

Leveling the playing field

But there’s one more component needed. The solar company thatinstalled and owns the PV array wouldn’t earn enough from leasing aloneto make this system profitable. Not while the government subsidizedtheir coal-burning competitors by forcing downwind communities andtaxpayers to bare the full cost of burning coal. (And this is withoutfactoring in climate change — the biggest cost of all.)

The missing ingredient came first from state governments thatdecided it was time to level the playing field for all forms of energy.

TomorrowWho was the first governor to change marketplace rules for electricalgeneration in his state in 1999, resulting in that state becoming #1 inwind-power capacity in the nation today?

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