We spoke with leaders in the solar energy field, and they had some interesting rebuttals to the most common attacks leveled by the fossil fuel industry - an industry that is increasing viewing clean energy as a grave, long-term disruptive threat.
They were unanimous in pointing out the massive underwriting that fossil energy received for decades, and asserting that the solar industry will do just fine, given a level playing field:
As Rex Gillespie of solar water heating systems manufacturer Caleffi North America pointed out, there's plenty of "government support for...oil and coal," so "if it's going to be a level playing field, then each one of the technologies needs to stand on their own, whether its oil, gas or solar."
Power industry veteran Kevin Smith, the CEO of large-scale solar power developer SolarReserve, echoed Gillespie, noted that "conventional energy has had support for 50 years, and that [this] support continues on, built into the tax codes, kind of forever tax credits for oil, gas, coal..." He added that "what you pay at the pump for gas isn't what it costs us as a nation...you've got, aside from the environmental impacts...we have to maintain international military presence to protect our interest oil, all those are paid by taxpayers."
Tor Valenza (a.k.a. "Solar Fred") explained that the government "does have a responsibility to support emerging technologies," just as it did in the past with computers and "for years with oil and gas and coal."
Finally, Schneider Electric Renewable Energies Commercial VP-Americas Rudy Wodrich noted that solar is "a great alternative...to get off that oil and coal bandwagon that we've been stuck on for the last 100 years."
The fossil fuel industry likes to fund pundits and "experts" to talk about "expensive" clean energy. But this is just an attempt to shift attention away from the enormous handouts fossil energy received for many decades. As this chart illustrates, between 1950 and 2010, the three main fossil fuels - oil, gas and coal - received $594 billion in federal energy subsidies in the United States alone. In stark contrast, renewables (primarily wind and solar) received just $74 billion in federal energy subsidies during that time period, or just 12% as much as the fossil fuels received.
In addition, we know that the production, transmission, and consumption of fossil fuels has serious, adverse and very expensive effects. A Harvard study released earlier this year found that "the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually." Oil, of course, has enormous costs in terms of air pollution, terrible spills such as the one we experienced in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the funding of dictatorships and terrorist groups around the world, and the huge economic cost entailed to the United States (e.g., in 2010 alone, the U.S. ran a $269 billion net trade deficit in oil, accounting for about 42% of the country's entire merchandise trade deficit in that year).
Dirty energy industries' dirty little secret is that they are the expensive forms of energy. They have been on the dole for years, including access to public property that they always wreck. The public needs to know that its money is being given to these industries, but that will only happen when a lot more people in the clean energy sector stop being afraid to drive honesty into the cost conversation. Pay attention to these solar leaders. They are leading the way.