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Living the dream

A nation running on clean, renewable energy isn't a fantasy; it's smart policy.

July 29, 2008

People scoffed at former Vice President Al Gore's call for the nation to get all of its electricity from clean, renewable sources such as the sun and wind within 10 years: "It's impossible." "The timeline is too short." "The technology isn't there."

Maybe they're right. No matter. The nation and its economy have everything to gain by taking this goal seriously and formulating interim steps toward it, instead of dismissing Gore as an obsessive environmentalist who can't get his head out of the global-warming clouds. Climate change is just one compelling reason to wean ourselves off oil and coal; this nation's own energy independence is of equal importance, as is avoiding the despoilment of wilderness areas and coastal waters by new drilling that would provide only short-term relief. Nations that can produce and sell energy will hold the leading edge in the global economy, whether that's through oil or by developing the best alternative-energy technologies.

This much we know: Solar installations on homes more than paid for themselves before the run-up in energy prices, and they are an ever-better investment now, especially because utilities buy the excess energy they produce. The problem is that start-up costs, about $20,000 per home if installed during construction, are paid back over about 15 years -- although that can be as short as five years in the sunniest zones. Retrofitting an existing house with solar installations is far more expensive. This means that nearly every house built without solar during California's recent construction boom represents an opportunity lost. Even California's solar initiative, which requires builders to offer solar as an option, doesn't go nearly far enough.

Under a more effective energy policy, the federal government would provide interest-free loans for solar installations, allowing homeowners to repay with the money they earn by selling their excess energy. Because the money would return to public coffers, it could be continually recycled into new installations. Similarly, subsidies for wind farms in the Midwest and Texas (and solar farms in the desert) would prove a better energy investment than subsidies in the same regions for corn-based ethanol.

The question isn't so much whether we can manage energy self-sufficiency as whether we're willing to shift gears on outmoded energy policies. The science is reliable and will only improve (and become cheaper) with greater use and more research. A program that requires measurable year-to-year progress toward real energy independence is more the stuff of determination and smart policy than of dreams.

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