Buying the Sun


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What if “unplugging” meant kissing the electrical grid goodbye altogether? You could manage all energy use personally–even sell any excess to a neighbor.

We might even smile to an empty mailbox, knowing the utility bill will never come.

Sounds nice, but probably impossible, right? Perhaps it is possible after all. Renewable energy is on the rise, and it’s climbing to unprecedented levels.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) made lukewarm predictions that global renewable energy use would only rise from 14 percent (as of 2012) to 19 percent by 2040.

Much to the chagrin of hungry utility companies, these forecasts for long-term change are far from the mark. Thanks to recent developments in both solar and wind installations, rates of growth are actually much closer to twice the IEA’s projected figure.

Obviously nothing is happening overnight. Transitioning from a dependable source of energy to a new one requires considerable uprooting, perhaps decades-worth of infrastructure redevelopment to accommodate. The evolution of wood to coal, then coal to oil as the dominant energy source in the US was a centuries-long ordeal.

It helps to know, however, that solar energy is the fastest growing source of renewable energy in the country. Nine out of 10 Americans–Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike–all wish for an expanded use of the industry.

Ken Johnson, Vice President of Communications for the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), wants nothing more than to see these desires met. The national nonprofit trade association has been working to fuel the industry since 1974.

Move over fossil fuels, here comes the sun. Johnson takes a moment to speak with BTR about the ongoing battle between renewable and nonrenewable energies and what their future might have in store.

BreakThru Radio (BTR): You’ve written about how some critics are manipulating the truth to try and bury the solar energy industry. I’m wondering, what are some of the tactics they’re using to do this?

Ken Johnson (KJ): Well, it’s mostly a distortion of the facts. There are always two sides to every story. They love to talk about the incentives, or as they call them “subsidies” for solar power, without ever acknowledging the fact that established energy industries like coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power have been receiving preferential treatment in the tax code for up to about a 100 years.

But the simple fact of the matter is solar energy and other renewable energy sources have received a pittance, if you will, in comparison to the subsidies and incentives oil and gas alone have received. This goes all the way back to 1914.

BTR: So what kind of breaks are we talking here?

KJ: Massive ones. Fossils fuels have received about $600 billion in tax breaks over the past 100 years. All we’re asking for as an industry is a level playing field.

BTR: That doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

KJ: You know, you hear our friends, conservatives especially, talk about having a level playing field. Well, we don’t have one today because traditional energy resources have had such preferential treatment in the tax code for such a long time. As a result, they’ve been able to establish huge market shares. It’s really tough for the new guys on the block to gain a foothold.

But thanks to the 30 percent solar investment tax credit, which was approved in 2006 by bipartisan vote and signed by President Bush, we’re showing that solar can and will grow in the United States–given a fair opportunity to compete.

BTR: What has this growth looked like so far?

KJ: We’re clicking on all cylinders–thanks in part to the solar investment tax credit; thanks in part to smart state policies, like net energy metering, and also renewable portfolio standards. These are the kinds of incentives we need [to be able to] compete with entrenched and incumbent energy companies.

If you look at our growth alone, it’s pretty remarkable. In the last four or five years, we have added more installed capacity than we did in the previous 40 years. We now have 20 gigawatts of installed solar capacity in America. In layman’s terms, that’s enough clean, reliable electricity to power about four million homes.

BTR: Do you expect this kind of growth to continue? Where do you see it headed?

KJ: Well, guess what? We’re going to double it in the next two years. We’re going to go from 20 gigawatts to 40 gigawatts. That will be enough to power about eight million homes! But from an environmental perspective, it’s even better news. We expect by the end of next year to have enough solar installed in the United States to offset nearly 50 million metric tons of carbon emissions.

That’s the equivalent of taking about 10 million cars off US highways, or shutting down 12 coal fire plants.

BTR: How do we go about battling all of the nay-saying clean energy critics who are providing misinformation?

KJ: Well, what we have to do as an organization, and as an industry, is to do a better job of telling our story to the American people and policy makers. I spent a long time on Capitol Hill for two Republican-led committees: the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Homeland Security Committee. I learned that Republicans don’t dislike solar, they dislike this notion of un-level playing fields and incentives.

We have to do a better job of saying, “Hey, that’s all well and good, except oil, gas, coal, and nuclear power have gotten like a 100 year head start on us. If we’re serious about cleaning up the environment, if we’re serious about making certain that we enhance our energy security and our national security, and most importantly, help prepare America for when oil, gas, and coal are going to run out–then the development of renewable energy should be a priority.”

BTR: And if we don’t?

KJ: Look, depending on whose numbers you use, there’s about 100 to 150 years–maybe 200 if you really squeeze every last drop out of the ground–left for oil, gas, and coal reserves in America. This is true for around the world, and then it’s gone. Then, what do you tell 10 billion people at the time? “Good luck, try burning wood, it worked for the pioneers.”

To hear the rest of our interview with Ken Johnson, tune into this week’s episode of Third Eye Weekly.