Friday, August 24, 2007

Is solar energy a viable solution to reducing oil dependence?

I originally wrote the following article to answer the debate question used in the title. You can see the rest of the debate at The picture was taken last week at our reunion in Maine.

The sun shines all over the world, not just in the United States!

Already, Japan and Germany draw a (relatively) high percentage of their energy from solar panels. This has been accomplished through excellent government incentives. Those countries have no oil resources of their own and want to limit the use of the coal that they have to avoid the pollutants that burning coal produce. Germany in particular has had a long history of bad air because of burning coal, so it is conscientiously finding alternatives, including enormous wind farms.

Developing countries are leapfrogging over dirty energy methods directly into the 21st century by installing solar panels.

In Africa, an organization called Solar Electric Light Fund (SOLAR - is helping villagers in Ghana, Nigeria, Mali Rwanda and Uganda replace kerosene lamps and diesel generators (or burning cow dung.) Using solar energy, often with back-up batteries, they have electricity for light to read by, computers and TVs. Beyond this simple electrification, using solar power to power water pumps so they don't have to carry water over great distances, solar-powered drip irrigation systems increase the yield of their crops, while medical clinics, where medications can be kept cook in solar-powered refrigerators, improve their health.

China and India want all of the conveniences we have, and need to find energy sources to do so. Since China has enormous coal resources, that is the first place they look for energy. But China also has tremendous pollution problems, particularly in the industrial cities in the east. Although they are building many new coal-fired plants every year, they are also investing heavily in solar and wind. Working with organizations like Environmental Defense, they are creating a very viable solar power industry, because they are aware that they need to make renewables the power of the future. Nevertheless, China is rapidly passing the US as a producer of CO2. We need to help China with its goals for wise development.

What many don't know is that Chinese pollution is carried on the trade winds to the US West Coast, adding to the smog. Helping China go solar has other added advantages for us.

We can also learn from China to create a viable business environment for renewables. Presently far more than half of US government subsidies for energy research go to finding methods to make coal "clean" and dispose of nuclear wastes, the next largest is for fuel cells (which at present appear to be produced using natural gas, also a carbon-based fuel, which is rapidly reaching its peak.) Only a tiny remainder is earmarked for solar and wind. The United States needs to change its priorities to keep up with China.

Fortunately, American business people are doing it on their own anyway, since they realize that solar is the future. A company named Solar Edison ( has figured out a way for businesses like Walmart to finance large installations. Another company, Citizenre, ( is developing a way for residential customers to rent the panels at or lower than what they are paying for electricity now - locked in over 25 years. Imagine what progress could be made with good government incentives and research subsidies! Replacing subsidies for dirty energy with subsidies for clean could easily bring America up to the same level as Germany and Japan. The United States should return to a position as a leader, not a dirty old coach potato!

See the rest of the original debate

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