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It's Time For a Solar Revolution

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This country spends, in a typical year, $350 billion importing oil from Saudi Arabia and other foreign countries. While this is no doubt good news for the Saudi royal family, one of the richest in the world, it is bad news for the average American.

The vast majority of the American people understand that now is the time to move to energy independence so that we are no longer subject to the greed of OPEC or Wall Street speculators, or need to fight "wars for oil" in the Middle East. Americans also know that if we are serious about addressing environmental pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and the imperative to create millions of good-paying jobs, we must move aggressively to energy efficiency and such sustainable technologies as solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass.

Thomas Edison, one of history's greatest inventors said; "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that." He was right then, in 1931, and he remains right today. The American people agree. Today, 92 percent of all Americans want our country to develop solar energy resources, and 77 percent believe the federal government should make solar power development a national priority.

That is why I was joined by 10 of my colleagues (Senators Whitehouse, Cardin, Gillibrand, Merkley, Lautenberg, Leahy, Boxer, Menendez, Specter, and Harkin) in introducing the Ten Million Solar Roofs Act. The bill is all of 9 pages and is pretty straightforward. It calls for 10 million new solar rooftop systems and 200,000 new solar water heating systems over the next 10 years. When fully implemented, this legislation would lead to 30,000 megawatts of new photovoltaic energy, triple our total current U.S. solar energy capacity. It will increase by almost 20 times our current energy output from photovoltaic panels. The legislation will rapidly increase production of solar panels, driving down the price of photovoltaic systems. It also would mean the creation of over a million new jobs. The passage of this bill would dramatically reorient our energy priorities and would be a major step forward toward a clean energy future for the United States.

What the Ten Million Solar Roofs Act does is provide consumer rebates for the purchase and installation of solar systems. Here is how it works: Take the example of a homeowner who decides to install a 5 kilowatt solar system which, depending on location, would produce enough electricity to cover most, if not all, of an average electric bill (the solar panels would produce excess power during the day which can be sold back to the utility, covering some or all of the cost of electricity when the sun is not shining). That system today costs roughly $35,000 to purchase and install. The federal tax credit of 30 percent reduces the system cost to $24,500. Many states offer additional incentives. In Vermont, for example, a homeowner could get an additional rebate of $1.75 per watt, which would further reduce the system cost to $15,750. Our bill would provide an additional rebate of as much as $1.75 per watt, covering up to 50 percent of the remaining cost. The result: the consumer now pays $7,875 for the solar system.

This is a pretty good deal for a family that plans to stay in their home or wants to increase their home value, or a small business looking to stabilize its energy costs. It's also a good deal for the nation because we save money by preventing the expensive construction of new power plants, we eliminate large health care and other costs associated with air and water pollution, and we take a big step to address global warming.

We know this concept works because it is already being implemented on a smaller scale in California. This legislation extends nationally the California Million Solar Roofs initiative, started by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. Now several years into the program, California is on track to meet its goal of installing 3,000 megawatts of new solar by 2016.

Interestingly, while solar has a great deal of public support, you might not know that from listening to energy debates in Congress. As a member of both the energy and environment committees, I am constantly astounded by how many of my colleagues prefer to focus on what the government can do for the nuclear or coal industries, rather than why the government should support clean and sustainable energy. In fact, many senators and congressmen are fighting for a "nuclear renaissance" and want the federal government to offer loan guarantees covering the cost to build 100 new nuclear plants. This could place at risk up to $1 trillion in taxpayer money.

In my view, this is an absurd proposal. First, it is enormously expensive and financially risky. Second, if we don't know how to safely dispose of the highly toxic nuclear waster we currently have, what are we going to do with the new waste generated by 100 additional plants?

You may not hear much discussion of this in Congress, but the construction of new nuclear power plants is the most costly approach to producing new energy. Each new plant costs $10 to $17 billion to construct, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has determined that the risk of default on taxpayer supported loan guarantees is more than 50 percent. The simple truth is that building new solar capacity is a lot cheaper than building new nuclear plants. The cost to produce electricity from new nuclear plants is estimated to be 25 to 30 cents per kilowatt hour. Compare this to the cost of producing electricity from solar photovoltaic panels at 13 to 19 cents per kilowatt hour. Also, importantly, the price of solar is coming down, whereas the price for new nuclear keeps going up. You do not have to be a financial wizard to figure this one out.

The time is now to reorder our energy priorities. Between 2002 and 2008 we put $70 billion of federal tax dollars towards fossil fuels, and just $1.2 billion towards solar power. New nuclear plants get more than triple the government subsidy that new solar plants get (and this does not fully account for the huge subsidy nuclear plants get through the Price-Anderson Act, which caps their liability in the event of a catastrophic event at a nuclear plant). This is not right.

If we are serious about moving toward energy independence in a cost-effective way, we should invest in solar energy. If we are serious about cutting air and water pollution and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we should invest in solar energy. If we are serious about creating a significant number of good paying jobs and making the United States a world leader in the production of sustainable energy, we should invest in solar energy. And, as we move forward in the solar revolution, a very good step forward would be the passage of the Ten Million Solar Roofs Act.

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