Why Solar Income Is Key to Fiscal Responsibility

11/30/2010 04:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With all the talk in Washington about being fiscally conservative, it's time to remember that true fiscal responsibility begins with solar income. Everything we do depends on energy -- markets, communication, industry, agriculture -- all of it. Aside from nuclear power, the only energy we get is from the sun. This is our solar income -- enough readily available energy to power the planet many times over.

But despite the recent attention on reducing deficits in our national budget, nobody is mentioning the huge deficit in our solar budget. We are virtually ignoring our massive solar income, and burning up our solar savings instead. This is deeply flawed economics.

Every year, the sun bombards earth with far more energy than we could ever want. According to the November 2009 cover story in Scientific American, global energy use is less than 15 Terawatts, while the amount of solar energy we get every year is a whopping 6,500 Terawatts. Most of this falls on remote or inaccessible locations, but nearly 10% of it is in suitable locations, "readily available for generating renewable power." In other words, 580 Terawatts of energy -- 35 times more than the planet needs! -- is falling on the ground as sunlight each year. We literally just have to pick it up.

But instead of harvesting our enormous solar income, we're burning through our dwindling solar savings.

Politicians and petroleum companies like to talk about "oil producing countries," but humans don't actually produce petroleum. Or coal, or natural gas. These fossil fuel "reserves" represent the accumulated solar savings of ancient plants harvesting solar energy over eons. Now we're extracting and refining these reserves, draining our savings as fast as we can.

Clearly, tearing up your paychecks while burning through your savings is not fiscally conservative -- in fact it's a recipe for economic disaster. But this is exactly what we're doing. We are literally burning up our solar savings in a way that threatens our safety, security, and climate, while letting our solar income go to waste.

Because our entire economic system depends on energy, no attempt to fix the economy will succeed without putting our solar budget in order. Which means that optimizing our use of renewable energy is fundamentally the most fiscally conservative investment we can make. The Chinese understand this, which is why they're leading the world in solar energy development, while the US falls behind, dithering over tax cuts to millionaires.

But with a fresh crop of fiscal conservatives headed to Washington, it's an ideal time to face our fundamental economic realities. There are three ways we can put our country back to work; invest in a smart, clean, safe, secure future; and reduce the deficit in our solar energy budget. We can do this by finding common ground on Efficiency, Clean Energy Manufacturing, and Sustainable Infrastructure.

1st -- Increasing Efficiency You don't have to believe in climate change to understand that we can create jobs in communities across America by retrofitting homes and businesses to save money on energy bills. The GSA is moving to LEED Gold for all new Federal buildings; and the Army recently improved their high-performance green building standards, which the Army Corp of Engineers estimates will generate energy savings of 45% or more. If even the Army understands that energy efficiency is a sound, fiscally conservative investment -- we should be able to convince a few Republicans in Congress as well.

2nd -- Expanding Clean Energy Manufacturing Lets bring back manufacturing jobs by building cleaner vehicles, electric cars, mass transit, wind turbines and solar power. All of these can be made right here in America, and all of them will create jobs and boost the economy. As Van Jones pointed out in his recent keynote at West Coast Green, tons of steel and thousands of parts go into making each wind-turbine. We can put Detroit back to work, as well as hundreds of suppliers across the country by turning the rust belt back into a world-class manufacturing center concentrated on clean energy. Every study done on the subject agrees that many more jobs are created by expanding clean energy manufacturing and deployment than by subsidizing fossil fuel investment.

3rd -- Investing in Sustainable Infrastructure Every year the American Society of Civil Engineers grades our infrastructure, and every year we get D's and F's on the basic systems that handle our water, energy and transportation. Aging water lines leak enormous amounts of water, while outdated stormwater and sewer systems cause polluted water to flood our streets and streams. Nearly 2/3 of our power is lost in transmission from the coal plant to the outlet, so building a smarter grid would save billions in energy costs. Investing in smarter trains, faster buses, better roads and bike lanes will improve our economy, security, health and environment.

Each of the last six presidents announced in office that we can't keep borrowing money to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on foreign energy each year. Harvesting solar income is the only way to boost our economy in the short term, while reducing deficits in the long term. And any honest debate about fiscal responsibility needs to take this into account.