Published on
the Brattleboro Reformer (Vermont)

Sunny Side Up


While the arguments rage on in the United States about drilling for oil in our coastal waters, relicensing aging nuclear plants or mining more coal, Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders is busy exploring an energy vision that goes beyond oil, coal or nuclear power.

Sanders has proposed legislation calling for the installation of photovoltaic solar panels on the roofs of 10 million homes and businesses over the next 10 years.

It sounds like a lot, but this is only about 10 percent of the homes in the United States. Just the same, these 10 million solar homes would generate up to 10,000 megawatts of electricity -- or about the equivalent of 13 Vermont Yankee-sized nuclear reactors.

There are around 102 million homes in the United States. If 70 percent up them had solar panels, energy experts say these solar homes could supply 70 percent of peak U.S. energy demands during the summer months.

Combined with energy efficiency and weatherization, Sanders said his proposal has "huge potential" and can help the nation become energy independent and break our dependence on fossil fuels.

Sanders sees the federal government priming the pump with tax credits and subsidies. The U.S. solar energy industry benefitted from similar tax breaks and subsidies in the 1970s and early 1980s, until the Reagan administration ended them and all but killed off renewable energy research and development in the process.

Shortsighted decisions such as these have put the United States two or three decades behind the rest of the industrialized world.

For example, of the 11 companies that produce 96 percent of the world's medium to large wind turbines, only one company, GE, is based in the United States. Why? Because the European and Japanese firms got government aid to develop their companies and provide markets for them to sell their products.

So Germany, which is not exactly a hotbed of sunshine, has put up 88 percent of Europe's photovoltaic solar panels. Germany has a policy where it will pay 0.10 Euro per kilowatt hour to whoever produces wind or solar electricity -- or roughly double the amount paid for non-renewable energy.

Not only is the German government choosing to pay power producers a premium for solar and wind energy, that nation also has about one-third of the solar equipment manufacturers in the world and about a third of the world's wind turbine production capacity.

While Europe and Japan have a robust industrial sector producing equipment for the next era in electric generation, the United States has allowed its manufacturing sector to wither, with one glaring exception -- the military.

The United States has a military budget bigger than every other nation on Earth, combined. The insatiable appetite of the Pentagon is gobbling up not just the money that could be used to implement Sanders' plan, but also the business, engineering and scientific talent that could be used to develop renewable energy technologies.

So, what's more important to our national security? Rebuilding our rail network, increasing research and development in wind and solar power and moving our nation away from a carbon-based economy, or continuing to indulge our imperial fantasies as the world's last military superpower?

How we answer that question will determine whether this nation has a future in a post-carbon world, or whether the United States will be doomed to being an also-ran in the global economy.

Copyright © 2008 MediaNews Group

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