How Solar Power is Leading America's Energy Revolution

A grounded, persuasive vision of America’s energy future. It is a future fueled by clean, renewable sources of power, with solar at center stage.

| April 2016

In Harness the Sun (Beacon Press, 2015), Philip Warburg shows how solar energy has won surprising support across the political spectrum. Prominent conservatives embrace solar power as an emblem of market freedom, while environmental advocates see it as a way to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, economic-justice activists celebrate solar’s potential to lift up low-income communities, and Native American leaders welcome the income and jobs that the industry will bring to their communities.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Harness the Sun.

Solar Energy's Promising Future in America

Solar energy’s time has come. Just a few years ago, as I was putting the finishing touches on a book about wind power, friends asked if my next would be about solar. I dismissed the idea at the time. If I ever wrote a book about solar, I told them, I’d have to call it “Dim Sun.”

How things have changed! On my computer screen, I marvel at the steady tick of kilowatt-hours produced by our home’s rooftop solar array. It generates about three-quarters of the electricity we need to run our appliances, light up our rooms, and keep a hybrid electric vehicle fully charged. Every year our solar panels spare the globe about 3.6 tons of CO2 emissions from the coal- and gas-fired plants that still supply most of New England’s power.

At last we have entered an era when solar energy is not just an environmental virtue but is also a boon to the economy. More than 640,000 Americans have already installed solar power on their homes and businesses, and almost 174,000 US workers have found jobs in the solar industry. Those jobs will grow in the years ahead, as solar energy reaches millions of American homes, businesses, farms, public buildings, and the portfolios of power companies large and small. Over a century has passed since Albert Einstein identified the sun’s photoelectric effect in 1905 — a discovery that later earned him the Nobel Prize for Physics. I can only imagine how delighted he would be by our progress, however belated, in harnessing this formidable source of power.

It seemed that a new solar era was dawning in the years following the 1973 Arab oil embargo. President Jimmy Carter proclaimed a solar revolution, calling for a fifth of America’s energy to come from the sun by the year 2000. The first federally designated Sun Day was held in 1978, and the government’s newly created Solar Energy Research Institute pressed ahead with a bold agenda for solar R&D. With strong bipartisan congressional support, Carter authorized tax incentives that created a burst of solar energy investment. While a few power plants were built using mirrors to concentrate the sun’s heat for electricity production, photovoltaic technology — converting sunlight to solar power  — remained a rare luxury, primarily used on satellites where the need for electricity in orbital space justified the exorbitant cost. Solar water heaters, much cheaper and easier to build, were of greater practical value here on earth, and Carter — amid much fanfare — had one such system installed at the White House.

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