In 1931, Thomas Edison was talking to his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone about the future of energy when he famously 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.” Hope, indeed.
Our reliance on coal, oil and natural gas to generate electricity and otherwise fuel our economy has come at steep costs. And those costs are not all reflected in our electricity bills or at the gas pump. They show up in asthma attacks and emergency room visits and lung and heart disorders. And in climate change. Keep those costs in mind as you consider what investments we should make in clean solar energy.
Do we wait until the coal and oil and natural gas runs out before we make real room for solar? President Jimmy Carter put early generation solar panels on the White House in the 1970s. That was a nice gesture. But will we move well beyond mere gestures and into the realm of real action?
A coalition of businesses, energy and environmental advocates, and labor organizations are pushing to help New York catch up with other states that have made solar a priority. They are behind a bill to set a long-term target of 5000 MW of solar energy over the next 15 years—enough to supply 3% of New York’s power needs. The Governor mentioned solar in his state of the state address, but his goals appear to be more modest, even less than the small targets set by New York’s smaller neighbors, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Some states have already decided it’s time to act with real pro-solar policies. We can look to Colorado and Illinois and NJ. Those states have strong, long-term policies to attract solar investment. The result is that while most sectors of the economy are stagnating, the solar sector has not.
And solar growth means job growth. In fact, solar generates more jobs than any alternative form of electricity generation. The solar industry added jobs at a rate of growth of 7% in recent years, more than 10 times that of the economy in general. This growth has been concentrated in the states that have specific solar policies.
“But are we sunny enough for solar power?” you might ask. New Jersey is the nation’s solar leader. That’s right. The Garden State not the Sunshine State. New York and all of New England enjoy better solar potential than Germany, the country with the most solar in the world. So yes, we have enough sun.
So it’s clean, non-polluting energy. It drives jobs. And we have good solar potential. What about the costs? The cost of solar has declined dramatically over the past several years and many project that its costs will continue to drop. In some areas of the country—including the New York City area—solar electricity is already competitive with traditional forms of electric generation.
But here’s the most important point on costs: solar can actually save consumers money, because solar produces the most energy when demand for electricity is highest—on hot sunny days, when electricity is also the most expensive and the system is the most strained. In fact, a report issued last week by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority found that New York ratepayers would save a whopping $33 billion from the addition of 5000MW of solar because the new solar would eliminate the need to call on our most expensive and polluting fossil power plants on hot summer days.
It’s clean. It uses the abundant energy of the sun. It drives job creation. It will save consumers billions. That sounds like a winning proposition. Let’s prove Thomas Edison right.
Franz Litz is the Executive Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center and Professor of Law at Pace Law School.
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