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October 07, 2011

Why Americans Like Solar Energy

Listening to an NPR story yesterday about a San Diego company that makes solar-powered parking meters and has doubled its number of employees during the past year was a nice counterpoint to all the frantic attempts recently by supporters of dirty energy to disparage the solar industry. Fortunately, most Americans haven't been buying it. Recent polling and surveys indicate that, by and large, regardless of our politics, we still think developing solar energy is a great idea. 

Think about that last sentence for just a second. People in this country who vote Democratic think that solar energy is smart for the country, and people who vote Republican feel the same way. It's an issue that unites us. There don't seem to be that many of those these days, so it's worth examining why.  

No, I don't think it's because the U.S. solar power market grew a record 67 percent last year, which makes it our fastest-growing energy sector. And it's probably not solely because the solar industry created jobs at a much higher rate than the rest of the U.S. economy during the past year. I don't even think it's because the cost of residential solar panels has dropped to the point where it's now affordable for millions of homeowners to buy or lease a system and start saving on energy while helping the environment.

These are all great things, obviously. The Sierra Club even has a program to promote solar-leasing to our members and supporters that runs through the end of this month. Too many homeowners still don't realize that they can get a solar system installed for little -- or even zero -- money down.

But I don't think economic stats are what's behind solar energy's broad-based support from the American public. Instead, it's something so basic and obvious that folks just "get it": Capturing energy from the sun is renewable and sustainable, while burning fossil fuels is not. Clean energy is easier. And that means that solar energy will always make more sense economically in the long run.

But what a lot of people might not realize is that we aren't just talking about the long run anymore. Solar makes more sense economically right now. Compare it, for example, to generating electricity by burning coal. An article in the August issue of the American Economic Review (the journal of the American Economic Association, a group that no one has ever accused of being a bunch of tree-huggers), shows that the overall costs to our economy of burning coal are so high that they're actually greater than the market price of the energy that's generated. In other words, the roughly $53 billion in damages that the coal industry inflicts on our economy every single year is greater than the value of the electricity it generates!

And yet the supporters of Big Coal want us to believe that solar energy (the fast-growing, job-creating, renewable-energy alternative) doesn't make economic sense? I think their meter's in the red and their time is up. Want to help get the real facts out there? Take this Solar Energy Quiz and share it with your friends. I bet you already know more about solar than certain members of Congress.


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Michael Brune

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