OP-ED, NOV. 5, 2014
Want solar and more jobs? Support a carbon tax
By Ryan Egly
There are some topics that defy the polarization that plagues nearly every issue we commonly discuss. These rare unifiers can be recognized by the disparate types of citizens that they bring together.
One tell-tale sign is SUVs moored among electric cars and bikes. The local food movement provides a weekly snapshot of this urban dichotomy at farmers’ markets across the state. Another example is solar power.
Those paying attention to global warming, those with a deep-seated distrust of an expansive government, and those concerned about national security find common ground in decentralized, oil-free power production. It is truly a sight to behold: off-grid survivalists meet eco-urbanites at the solar talk.
But there is a problem: Those groups on the fringe, who are willing to pay early adopter prices, represent only a small fraction of energy users and are nearly always on the low end of the consumption scale. For the rest, the deciding factor is the price per kilowatt-hour.
If the playing field were even between clean and polluting energy, clean would have carried the day long ago. But it isn’t. The catastrophe that we are living through as the result of increased greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is captured nowhere in the pricing mechanism for fossil fuels. A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund cites that 50 percent of the earth’s wildlife has disappeared in the past 40 years. This is one of an endless number of figures that justify the use of the word catastrophe.
But there are ways to level the playing field, one of the most practical of which is a fee and dividend tax on carbon. It is not only a market-based solution that will drive grid parity for clean energy, but it also creates more jobs than are lost in the polluting energy sectors.
As mentioned in a previous article, the REMI Carbon Tax Study is the key to understanding how a tax could both facilitate our energy shift and create more jobs than it makes irrelevant.
The central idea is this: 100 percent of the revenue generated by the tax (the dividend) is returned to households, which drives consumer spending. No additional government programs are created, and there is no pot for politicians to grab from for special interests. The jobs created from this influx far outweigh losses in low-labor energy sectors, such as coal and oil.
The barriers to our energy transformation are largely political and are no longer technical. In the case of solar, we owe the lower costs per kilowatt-hour largely to German taxpayers who are now reaping massive rewards. I had the chance to experience firsthand the power of a progressive and responsive energy policy while working for a solar consulting group in Bonn.
On a sunny spring day in northern Europe, Germany is able to realize nearly 50 percent solar production nationwide. How were they able to accomplish this, in a climate that is far from optimal in terms of solar radiance? They did it through pricing schemes that guaranteed a fixed rate of return over 20 years, often making solar a better financial decision than investing.
The demand that was created brought China into mass solar production, which drove down the cost per kilowatt-hour. According to Steve Johnson, president of LightWave Solar in Nashville, the time required to see a return on your investment for commercial solar in Tennessee has come down to around five years.
As impressive as the gains have been, more needs to be done to transition our energy intensive society in the U.S. within the timeline dictated by the physics of our warming planet. A fee and dividend tax on carbon is a job-creating way to get us there.
Ryan Egly is a Smart-Energy engineer in the greater Nashville area.
Originally posted in The Tennessean: http://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2014/11/05/solar-jobs-support-carbon-tax/18440275/