Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Need for Energy Leadership

One of the problems with the right wing Republican leadership of the last six years (12 years if we're only talking about Congress) is that opportunities for American technological leadership have been ignored for years for the sake of the oil companies who still are not doing a good job of diversifying our energy.

In The New York Review of Books, Bill McKibben reviews several books, including Travis Bradford's book, Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry; McKibben offers some timely comments about solar energy:
During the last decade (as Janet Sawin of the Worldwatch Institute has previously described), Japan has heavily subsidized the purchase of rooftop solar panels by home owners. The Japanese authorities began to do this, in part, because they wanted to meet the promises they made on their own soil at the Kyoto conference on global warming, but also, Bradford suggests, because they sensed that the industry could grow if it were encouraged by an initial investment. Within a few years, the subsidy had the desired effect—the volume of demand made both manufacturing and installation much more efficient, driving down the price. Today, the government subsidy has almost entirely disappeared, but demand continues to rise, for the panels now allow homeowners to produce their own power for the same price charged by the country's big utilities. Japan in some ways is a special case—blessed with few domestic energy sources, it has some of the world's most expensive electricity, making solar panels more competitive. On the other hand, it's not even particularly sunny in Japan. In any event, Bradford says the Japanese demand for solar power (and now an equally large program in Germany) will be enough to drive the cost of producing solar panels steadily down. Even without huge technological breakthroughs, which he says are tantalizingly near, the current hardware can be made steadily cheaper. He predicts the industry will grow 20 to 30 percent annually for the next forty years, which is akin to what happened with the last silicon-based revolution, the computer chip. No surprise, too, about who will own that industry—almost all the solar panel plants are now in Japan and Germany.

Ronald Reagan was a conservative, though not nearly as right wing as the current president. Reagan was something of a conservative pragmatist and one of the things his administration did was designate the computer industry vital for national defense and therefore eligible for considerable investment to restore America's sagging computer industry at the time; Reagan's investment led to a resurgence of American technical leadership that was sustained and nurtured during the Clinton years.

We know by now that George W. Bush doesn't have much imagination but he is anxious to recover something of his image. The new Congress would be wise to find areas of alternative energy that would be worth investing in and that would like create high-paying jobs for Americans. It's something to think about, and I might add, sooner than later, because our energy problems are guaranteed to continue. Energy independence based on sustainable energy is not a slogan, it's increasingly a national priority that we can no longer neglect.

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