July 26th, 2012

The Democratic establishment, led by Barack Obama, are scared of defending renewable energy as the last chance of avoiding climate catastrophe, which it is. Messages must be positive, they think. (Winston Churchill after Dunkirk did not agree.) The goal of American technological leadership looks more frayed by the day, as Chinese solar panel manufacturers wipe the floor with their competitors. That leaves energy independence and job creation, which are fair enough but not inspiring.

They are missing a striking feature of one technology, solar PV. This turns households into energy producers, not passive consumers of energy supplied by large corporations. They acquire a long-term financial interest in details of energy policy – like spot market pricing, net metering and renewables obligations – previously reserved to a handful of engineers and financiers.

Consider poor Chris Christie, Republican Governor of New Jersey. In the days when climate change was recognized by his party and renewable energy a bipartisan cause, he started a pro-renewables policy that has made his small and northerly state the second US. state for solar PV, with 15,578 installations. Now he’s stuck, and refuses to follow the party line.

It isn’t just that there’s an industry of installers and suppliers, with growing clout. 10,000 installations at least must be on New Jersey house rooftops, with plenty more being planned. Solar householders don’t just have a financial interest in maintaining pro-renewable policy; they have a psychological one too. Installation is complex in the American Permit Raj, so householders have invested time and trouble. Their roof makes a public statement to their neighbours of civic responsibility: we are doing our bit. Like Christie, they are trapped by their own investment, in a good way. Trashing renewables, as the Tea Party GOP is doing, insults them personally by ridiculing them as impractical idealists. And aren’t these pioneers likely to be opinion-formers and models for others?

The other renewables also create lobbies and vested interests, but in the traditional way. Backyard wind turbines are a quixotic niche; the typical wind farm is multiple turbines of at least 1.5 megawatts, so they are put up and run by largish firms. Landowners get rent, municipalities get taxes. communities get construction and maintenance jobs. The same pattern holds for CSP, geothermal, biogas, hydro, tidal, and wave, which all fit into a conventional corporate model.

Solar PV is different, in a way that taps into powerful American narratives. The original Homestead Act was passed in 1862, codifying the Free Soil principle of the Northern abolitionists: the vast lands stolen from the native Americans would be settled by small independent farmers, not slave-owning planters. After the defeat of slavery, conflicts continued between homesteaders and ranchers. Western films slotted these conflicts neatly into archetypes of the small man ruggedly asserting his independence against greedy and cynical aggressors in an beautiful but unforgiving landscape. The community is sometimes indifferent, sometimes supportive.

Still from Shane

My suggestion is to wrap support for renewable (and especially solar) energy into this narrative of the brave homesteader. The enemies are the weather (dust storms, tornadoes, and drought), and the evil barons of oil and coal. The hero or heroine is defending himself/herself and his/her nuclear family, but also a wider principle of right and solidarity. The ads and songs almost write themselves.

Footnote: homesteading is currently the slogan of radical greens and survivalists aiming at complete self-sufficiency. Fair enough, but given the history they have no exclusive claim to the term and its resonance.

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8 Responses to “Solar homesteads”

  1. Rob in CT says:

    Timely post. My home PV array was turned on yesterday. As I type, I’ve got another tab open that shows what it’s producing, how much the house is drawing and how much is being sold back to CL&P. Today, I hate clouds. ;)

  2. koreyel says:

    Here is a question that wants an answer:

    If the government subsidies that go to big oil and big gas were instead given to homeowners (in the form of generous solar PC and solar hot water tax incentives), how much money would be available and what sort of a positive push might we expect?

    Of course this is taking money out of the hands of consolidated wealth and spreading it as sort of fertilizer to regular people, to grow their local economies and businesses, so it goes against the grain of government by the rich, for the rich and of the rich. Ergo it isn’t going to happen in Acirema, but still, the question is a good one and the math begs doing. That is, if James hasn’t already done it…

    • Rob in CT says:

      I was under the impression that direct subsidies to oil/gas aren’t that huge, but the indirect subsidy of allowing them to pollute as much as they do is worth a lot.

      I could be wrong.

      In any case, the PV system I now have was HEAVILY subsidized. In the end, I’ll have paid for about 45% of it. The new CT subsidy is generous, and then I get the 30% federal tax credit.

    • I don’t think we need to answer that question. The wholesale price of solar modules, in a general glut, is now around 75c/watt and rapidly heading south towards 50c. If you can have German balance-of-system costs, that would mean installed prices today of under $2.50/ watt. In that case you no longer need a cash subsidy at all in many places.

      I agree that in a level playing field, solar should get a price advantage over fossil fuels by carbon tax or green subsidy, but it’s not practically essential to keep the revolution going. Very fortunately, as it’s not going to happen any time soon in the USA. But “German BoS costs” won’t arrive by magic. They require solar-friendly policies other than cash: wide permit exemptions, streamlined utility hookups, clear rights to net metering, quick and credible tecnical standard-setting. Roughly speaking, the California or New Jersey environments. Since US federal policy is gridlocked by GoP obstructionism, it’s down to the states.

  3. NickT says:

    Perhaps Bill Clinton could make an ad declaring that “The Era of Big Energy is over”.

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