In the late 1970s as the first major oil crisis was fracturing Western economies, US President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the White House. Although the gesture was largely symbolic, it was theater designed to focus the awareness of the world on energy issues. A newspaper cartoon of the day summarized our political-economic choices brilliantly. Behind a great desk some corporate magnate was smugly enumerating the advantages his corporation enjoyed. “Coal?” he asked. “We own the coal.” (smile) “Oil and gas? We own the oil and gas.” (broader smile) Then: “The sun? We…” he faltered, and at this point his expression soured dramatically. “It’s not feasible,” he finished lamely.
It’s telling that in an industrial world dominated by the power of carbon industries, the next president, Ronald Reagan, had the solar panels unceremoniously removed. Governments are still largely in the thrall of oil and gas. The US has spent well over a trillion dollars (a gigantic subsidy if ever there was one!) fighting ambiguous wars for control of access to Middle Eastern sources. The Canadian Prime Minister and his Conservative party are largely propelled by oil and gas money and the strategy of liquidating our tar sands resources into a global energy market. Christy Clark’s provincial Liberal party is banking on exporting fracked natural gas to fund the province’s well-being well into the 21st century.
Despite the carbon industries’ enormous, mutually back-scratched advantage (industry-directed government in exchange for government-supported industry), alternative energy technologies are making tremendous progress. New solar technology is particularly impressive.
Oil industry propaganda tries to shame alternative energy industries as being reliant on government subsidies such as feed-in tariffs for their success, supposedly unlike the purveyors of carbon fuels. But carbon-based energy industries enjoy enormous subsidies, here and elsewhere.
A January 2013 International Monetary Fund study demonstrating just how big. On a “post-tax” basis (also factoring in the negative externalities from energy consumption) subsides globally are about eight per cent of total government revenues!
In Canada the government spends millions promoting pipelines and spying on environmental activists, hostilely labeling such citizens as “terrorists.” In B.C. the government grants access to crown land and water at bargain-basement prices, obsequiously bowing to corporate interests (many of whom differentially funded the Liberal party campaign in elections).
Aside from distorting so-called free markets, these subsidies crowd out priority public spending (in some countries these subsidies are up to double the amount governments spend on social projects like health care and education).
Alternative energy is in the air and under discussion, even here in the northwest, home of cloud and rain, fog and cold, despite the oil and gas advantage.
It’s Sunday (no pun intended) and the sun is brilliant. Today is the Terrace solar power demonstration project!
Camera in hand, I walk down Eby and along Walsh to the home of Chris Gee and Tara Irwin, who have graciously volunteered their home as a site for a solar power demonstration project.
On their shed’s south-facing rooftop, an aluminum frame waits for new, thin-film solar panels that are stacked nearby. Representatives of the Skeena Watershed Coalition and Goose Creek Renewables talk up the technology while about thirty people sip a hot drink and ask questions.
Although still expensive, the price of solar panels has dropped over 97 per cent since 1975. If feed-in tariffs (such as those in Germany, or even those sweetheart deals B.C. run of river projects have received from the Liberals) were available for consumer solar installation, it would begin to be perfectly “feasible” to begin more aggressively shifting our economy from carbon to renewables.
New technologies are often threatening. But think how quickly we have adapted to smart phones. We are foolish not to move quickly toward non-carbon energy. Let the sun shine in!
Retired English teacher Al Lehmann lives in Terrace, B.C.