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Edward Flattau

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Solar Scapegoat

Posted: 10/12/11 03:40 PM ET

Simply because "green" energy is a mainstay of President Obama's domestic policy, House Republicans are fixated on discrediting it, even if that means abdicating future leadership to China in the global technology revolution.

That explains why they are scrambling to treat the bankruptcy of Solyndra Corporation, a former solar energy poster child of Obama's, as indicative of the entire industry.

Ironically, many of these Republicans were for federal subsidies to solar energy startup companies before they were against them. They have only reversed field because of ideologically driven zeal to take down Obama and recapture the White House.

What are the ways the GOP is trying to diminish solar energy and in the process, the president himself?

Solar is a fringe alternative -- House Republicans argue that solar is an exotic boutique form of energy that will have little impact on the nation's energy mix for the foreseeable future. That is debatable. A little less than 3 percent of the sun's rays hitting the Southwestern United States annually provides energy equal to the total amount that the nation consumed in 2006. True, a major problem is storage of solar power when the sun is not shining, but scientists are experimenting with compressed air and molten salt among other options. Meanwhile, renewable energy accounted for 12 percent of our nation's primary energy production last year, hardly a trivial contribution. [In Germany, renewables constitute 20 percent of the mix.] Solar was a small percentage of the renewable input, but with a 69 percent increase in installations here in 2010, it is one of the fastest growing industries. Furthermore, its potential is anything but "boutique." Some scientists believe that solar could provide more than 50 percent of the nation's energy needs by 2050 with a $10 billion yearly investment and the setting aside of 46,000 square miles of public land to accommodate commercial facilities. Farfetched? Look at what we spend in a year in Afghanistan. And assessments have already been conducted that show our southwestern desert can meet solar's open space requirements without jeopardizing environmentally sensitive or heavily populated areas.

Solar is too expensive and has environmental problems of its own -- Germany has already demonstrated that solar energy's price can be reduced to compete with fossil fuels through an economy of scale. As for the toxicity of some of solar panels' components, researchers are experimenting with benign plastic-related substitutes.

Solar is a poor job creator -- Although solar and other renewables create new jobs, the number by itself is insufficient to solve our unemployment problem. Still, it is not insignificant. The American solar industry employs some 100,000 people, more than coal and steel. Overall, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there were 2.7 million green jobs in the nation in 2010, an 18 percent increase over 2009, hardly inconsequential in the big picture. And we are not even talking the ancillary benefits in the form of decreased air pollution and reduced reliance on fossil fuels.

Solar's fate should be determined by the free market, not government subsidies -- This is totally unrealistic. China has snatched the lead from us in the solar energy field with the help of $30 billion in subsidies to its local industry. The Chinese now make 54 percent of all solar panels in the world, putting them at the top of the heap. Our industry will continue to need a government jumpstart to be competitive in the global marketplace.

When one strips away the negative propaganda, solar energy may not be quite ready for prime time, but it is far more than a pipe dream.

 
 
 

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