A Plan for the Solar Revolution

It’s not too late for the United States to lead a solar revolution that transitions the world to carbon-free energy, but it will take commitment on a scale not seen since World War II.

| April/May 2009

  • UN climate conference
    Visitors to the 2008 UN climate conference in Poznan, Poland.
    WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
  • Obama and solar panels
    President Obama is very supportive of renewable energy and action on climate change. But is the U.S. government ready to act quickly enough to solve our energy problems?
    LAURA RAUCH/GETTY IMAGES
  • Melting glaciers
    Maps showing rapid Arctic ice loss. This consequence of climate change will ultimately lead to rising sea levels around the world.
    HUGO AHLENIUS/WWW.MAPS.GRIDA.NO/GO/GRAPHIC
  • Pasture with wind turbines
    Wind turbines are a good alternative to carbon dense fuels such as coal.
    ISTOCKPHOTO
  • solar revolution - installing solar panels
    Among its benefits, the solar revolution will provide a source of labor-intensive jobs, such as installing PV panels.
    PHOTO: JOHN KEITH/ISTOCKPHOTO
  • Efficient new batteries
    Engineers are developing advanced batteries for new hybrid-electric vehicles.
    GM CORP/JOHN F. MARTIN
  • 350 parts per million
    Climate activists form the number 350. Many scientists estimate 350 parts per million as the highest safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Current levels are about 387 parts per million.
    JOHN QUIGLEY/SPECTRALQ
  • Japanese bullet train
    An energy-efficient train in Japan. The United States could benefit from a highly efficient light rail system.
    ISTOCKPHOTO
  • Earth from space
    Can we reduce greenhouse gases enough to avoid the worst effects of global climate change? Scientists warn that we don’t have much time to act.
    NASA/VISIBLEEARTH.NASA.GOV

  • UN climate conference
  • Obama and solar panels
  • Melting glaciers
  • Pasture with wind turbines
  • solar revolution - installing solar panels
  • Efficient new batteries
  • 350 parts per million
  • Japanese bullet train
  • Earth from space

Today, the United States lags behind Europe and Japan in establishing the building blocks for a carbon-neutral future. Once the world leader in renewable energy, America has ceded its place to nations whose governments have made the transition to low-carbon energy a priority. But change is coming. The solar revolution is coming.

Those of us who, for the past 30 years, have urged sweeping changes in the nation’s energy posture have always understood the power of the interests aligned against change. We were challenging the oil, coal, electric utility, and automobile industries, all of which were profiting handsomely from the status quo. We thought we needed a crisis — an energy “Pearl Harbor” or “Sputnik” challenge — to mobilize the public behind such a far-reaching change. We thought we might have had it in a war in the Middle East, a Chernobyl meltdown, or an Exxon Valdez oil spill. But these crises came and went without producing discernible improvement in national energy policy.

Instead, the opportunity now has come in an unexpected form: a global economic crisis coupled with the election of a new president with an unusual willingness to take a fresh look at everything, as well as a House and Senate dominated by his political party and a robust mandate for change from the American public. Already, President Obama has begun working to promote renewable energy, boost energy efficiency, combat climate change, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and create green jobs. All of these changes are desperately needed, and better yet, investing in these areas has the potential to heal the economy and the environment at the same time.

But most importantly, we need to understand the scale of the effort that is needed to solve these problems. We need a national commitment to solar and renewable energy comparable to our mobilization for World War II, when the United States unleashed its scientific creativity and its industrial power to support the war effort. We need what Jimmy Carter referred to during the energy crisis of the ’70s as “the moral equivalent of war.”



A National Commitment

In 1979, President Carter announced that by the year 2000 the United States would get at least 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources. The Solar Energy Research Institute (since renamed the National Renewable Energy Laboratory), of which I then served as director, was at the heart of this effort. Leading a team of distinguished scientists and analysts drawn from national labs and major universities, the institute prepared the technical and policy blueprint to meet or surpass the 20 percent goal.

Halfway through his first year in office, President Reagan abandoned the goal. Jim Edwards, the dentist who served as Reagan’s first secretary of energy, reduced the institute’s $125 million budget to just $25 million and fired half its staff. Reagan then ordered that the solar water heaters be ripped off the White House roof.

Fran Tracy
12/14/2009 8:54:09 PM

Since we loose 3 jobs in the regular economy for every one developed in the green sector, how are we going to ge ahead? It is not necessary to limit the co2 gasses since the emails prove the whole global warming theory is a hoax to bilk us out of millions of dollars and create welfare states of the developing countries at the expense of the US and some other countries. Fran







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