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Why Is There so Much Political Energy Behind Solar Power?

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California and other western states are among the darlings of the U.S. Energy Department's solar power initiatives. The Obama administration said it was throwing another few million dollars into the so-called SunShot solar power initiative. Last year, Obama called for renewable energy goals that, by American standards, are pretty lofty. This year, he went a bit further, calling for an "all-of-the-above" domestic energy strategy. But with his administration in the hot seat over the bankruptcy of solar panel company Solyndra, why is there so much political energy behind solar power? Shouldn't there be a bulk renewable energy initiative to help all parts of the alternative energy sector?

Energy Secretary Steven Chu last week said he was going to throw another $12 million behind start up programs in the solar power sector as part of his department's so-called SunShot initiative. SunShot aims to decrease the overall costs tied to solar energy substantially by the end of the decade. This, according to the Energy Department's logic, would make it cheaper to use solar power to generate as much as 18 percent of the total electricity generated in the United States by 2030. By that time, the much-hyped Keystone XL pipeline will have leaked a few dozen times, given the rate at which the current route is dumping that nasty crude oil all over the place.

Obama's critics in the Republican Party aren't too thrilled with his solar power initiatives, however. They want the White House to hand over everything but the kitchen sink in order to get to the bottom of the bankruptcy of Solyndra, which couldn't keep afloat despite a $535 million loan guarantee. That's half-a-billion bucks! Politics aside, that's a lot of money. The White House, however, defended the measure by saying the renewable energy sector was getting very competitive and maybe some of Obama's Chicago-style political muscle was just what the doctor ordered. And then it pumped more money into solar.

A sign of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. What about wind? What about hydroelectric power? What about wave energy? Or algae that makes oil? In Scotland, the government there is throwing money at the smallest of things to get more renewable energy on the grid. They want to go 100-percent renewable, not just make things a bit cheaper to manufacture. Last week, U.S. lawmakers proposed a bill that, ironically, was supposed to take the politics out of the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. This came at a time when most of the press statements coming out of the British Department of Energy and Climate Change -- note the "and" -- had to do with greening up the economy and, of course, launching the largest offshore wind farm in the world. All of Europe, for whatever it's worth, is looking to actually decarbonize the economy. Yet, U.S. lawmakers are still waxing Palin-ic by chanting 'drill, baby, drill.'

Solar power works and is set to get cheaper. Land use, however, is an issue, unless you have a nice big desert to spare. Wind is fine, assuming you're in an area, well, that's windy. And nobody's too sure about either of those prospects. That leaves biofuels, algae-based solutions, tidal power, and so on. So why solar? Why no WindShot? Or WaveShot? Right now, solar is used to heat salt blocks that boil water for steam energy. Does the United States need a SteamShot? What happened to last year's Sputnik moment? If it's an "all-of-the above" policy, maybe it's a shot of reality Washington needs to start, at least more than on paper, investing in all of the renewable energy resources.

Daniel Graeber is a senior journalist at the energy news site Oilprice.com. He is a writer and political analyst based in Michigan. More of his articles can be found on his Authors page at Oilprice.com

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