04/04/2012 06:07 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2012

Campaign Energy Debate Missing the Biggest Opportunity

While Republican presidential candidates lash at each other and the president over gas prices, they ignore what may be the most promising and startling part of our energy future: an abundance of cheap solar power. Within the next decade, 100 million Americans in the nation's largest cities will be able to get cheaper electricity from their own rooftop -- without subsidies -- than from their electric utility, according to a new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

In three years, the solar epidemic will reach New York, due to a combination of solar availability and sky-high electricity prices. The City University of New York estimates that enough suitable rooftop space exists for solar panels to power half the city during times of peak electricity use.

Many residents and businesses will own these rooftop solar generators, and that changes everything. Electricity consumers become producers, energy costs become economic benefits, and ambivalence about energy becomes certainty about clean energy. It's already happened in Germany, where half the country's wind and solar power -- the most in the world, per capita -- is locally-owned, generating strong political support for more renewable energy. New York City is uniquely suited to this energy democracy because it already gets 80 percent of its electricity locally, mostly from dirty, utility-owned fossil fuel power plants.

The solar rooftop revolution is not inevitable. Roadblocks must be removed, such as oversized permitting fees and delays that local governments impose or punitive fees and limits that utilities place on local solar generation.

At the national level, Congress must recognize that the cheap solar epidemic won't reach all cities simultaneously. Incentives for solar should phase out intelligently, expiring for the frontrunners (like New York) without jeopardizing the opportunity for the latecomers (like Minneapolis or Detroit).

Congress should also shift away from using tax credits for solar, because as much as half of taxpayers' money goes -- not to solar power plants -- but to the middle men who funnel it to large corporations and wealthy households. It also leaves out solar built by community institutions -- cooperatives, schools, or cities -- that can't use tax credits.

Solar policies should encourage local ownership and energy democracy, like the poorly named but highly successful feed-in tariff. Used by dozens of countries and several U.S. states, the policy requires utilities to offer a long-term contract to generators of renewable electricity. The flexible tariff can replace inefficient tax credits and adjust for economic factors in each state or region.

The solar revolution has been a long time coming. Ten years ago, solar powered a few thousand homes and cost five times more than grid electricity. In 2011 alone, enough solar was installed in the U.S. to power nearly a half million homes because of improving economics. Solar still supplies a small fraction of American electricity needs, but its growth is exponential.

Policy makers must act now to keep the solar revolution alive, because utilities have another vision. Collectively, they plan to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on last century's electric system -- connecting distant and dirty power plants to cities hundreds of miles away via new high-voltage transmission lines -- just as a local solar revolution supplants it. If they succeed, the ill-fated investment will give their companies, shareholders, and customers an economic interest in delaying the deployment of economically competitive solar power.

This revolution is no different from others in history. Utilities won't willingly cede control of the electric grid. But the rise of local solar threatens to overturn their century-old paradigm in a decade and Americans would be wise to seize this energy democracy opportunity.