In order for solar power to compete with other forms of energy, the conventional thinking goes, it needs to become way cheaper.
Installing rooftop solar panels can be prohibitively expensive, after all, and it takes years before the resulting energy savings pay off. For the individual, it doesn’t matter whether solar panels will save you money in the long run if you can’t afford them in the short run.
For those of us who are renters, the decision of whether to go solar is even more irrelevant. We don’t have the option to install panels ourselves. And unless your apartment comes with utilities included, your landlord has no incentive to install solar panels, because you would get all the savings.
But while the average family may be unable to make a costly investment in solar, the government has much deeper pockets — and an entire Department of Energy to work with.
There are already some state incentives to help bring down the cost of solar panels for homeowners. But the federal government can do more — starting with powering its own buildings with solar power, yielding savings every year that could make a big difference to taxpayers and help expand the industry, potentially lowering prices for the rest of us.
The same can be said for corporations, only their savings would result in bigger long-term profits to shareholders.
Yet while the solar industry is growing rapidly, it still remains a small part of our overall energy grid. One reason it’s not growing quicker is that energy companies and utilities are lobbying against its expansion, especially when it comes to privately owned panels.
Solar power allows individual home or business owners to produce their own energy and cease to be customers of the local electric companies — and the fossil fuel and nuclear industries that supply them.
When utility providers use coal, natural gas, or nuclear, in other words, they remain the centralized provider of energy and they get the profits. When you put a solar panel on your house, they don’t.
So maybe the reason solar hasn’t taken off more isn’t because it isn’t a viable technology, or because it’s more costly for consumers. Maybe it’s because it threatens corporate profits.
We didn’t forestall the switch to cars because we wanted to save jobs and profits in the horse and carriage industry. If we choose to give up on solar power because it’s expensive, rather than finding ways to make it cheaper, we’re basically choosing to continue burning fossil fuels.
Do we really want to protect dirty energy jobs and profits while the planet cooks?
Instead of lobbying to continue polluting the planet, the energy and utility sectors could expand their repertoire to include selling and installing solar panels. That would be a win-win for everyone.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. This column previously appeared in the Hazard Herald.