The Need to Rebrand Solar Energy

Like
most aging baby boomers, solar energy still doesn’t seem very
comfortable in a business suit. Despite a new generation of
entrepreneurs reducing costs and improving yields, solar energy is still
a popular Republican punching bag.

The GOP’s new Pledge to America doesn’t even mention solar. Even the White House rebuffed a proposed solar installation, fearful of
bringing up yet more comparisons to the sweater-wearing, mood-killing
Carter years.

Part of this is a branding problem. Though solar innovation really took off
in the 1970’s, bolstered by record oil prices and America’s increased
awareness of its environmental mortality, its American birth came in the
early 1950’s. Companies like Bell Telephone and Western Electric pioneered photovoltaics
- and in a move sure to delight Republicans - turned a new technology
into both skilled American jobs and fantastic amounts of cash and
investment.

Conservative politicians decry the subsidies required to help solar get through
those awkward years. After all, why should American taxpayers provide
money to businesses that can’t sustain themselves?

Critics would do well to note that, despite innovations in the 1970s, solar has
only stepped to the front line of energy diversification within the
past decade. Compare that timeline to oil. The first major strike
occurred in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
It took 50 years for small, subsidized producers to become the “Big
Oil” of national lore. What changed? Venture capitalists - working on
government-leased, subsidized land - struck a gusher in Spindletop, Texas in 1901. Suddenly, oil was Big.

The same can be true for solar, if only policymakers considered it through
the same lens. Solar energy currently provides 485MW, less than 1% of
America’s energy needs. With proper incentives, analysts at companies
like FirstSolar argue the sun could rise to meet 25% of domestic energy production by 2025.
Solar’s growth is already apparent: the U.S. Energy Information
Administration recorded just over 21,000 functioning photovoltaic panels
in 1999. There are over 500,000 today.

Few investors regret letting today’s oil giants take subsidies in their
younger days. Solar needn’t be any different. Today’s policymakers need
to take a long view on solar technology. Even if the immediate return on
investment is cloudy, the sun’s gonna shine someday.

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