Political Animal


November 07, 2011 11:20 AM Solar power and the culture war

By Steve Benen

In his column today, Paul Krugman shines a light, so to speak, on advances in solar technology.

These days, mention solar power and you’ll probably hear cries of “Solyndra!” Republicans have tried to make the failed solar panel company both a symbol of government waste — although claims of a major scandal are nonsense — and a stick with which to beat renewable energy.

But Solyndra’s failure was actually caused by technological success: the price of solar panels is dropping fast, and Solyndra couldn’t keep up with the competition. In fact, progress in solar panels has been so dramatic and sustained that, as a blog post at Scientific American put it, “there’s now frequent talk of a ‘Moore’s law’ in solar energy,” with prices adjusted for inflation falling around 7 percent a year.

This has already led to rapid growth in solar installations, but even more change may be just around the corner. If the downward trend continues — and if anything it seems to be accelerating — we’re just a few years from the point at which electricity from solar panels becomes cheaper than electricity generated by burning coal.

That kind of breakthrough isn’t exactly imminent, but it’s nevertheless evidence of exciting advancements. Krugman added, though, that our political system may well delay the energy transformation because “a large part of our political class, including essentially the entire G.O.P., is deeply invested in an energy sector dominated by fossil fuels, and actively hostile to alternatives.”

That’s clearly true. It manifests itself in policymaking — Republicans fight for oil industry subsidies, while killing investments in alternatives — as well as the larger political environment. Dave Roberts recently had a terrific piece on this.

So you’d think this would be a home run, right? At a time when jobs are at the top of every politician’s mind, surely a bit of low-cost economic stimulus that doesn’t increase the deficit and leverages tons of private capital and creates tens of thousands of jobs can serve as the rare locus of bipartisan cooperation. Right?

Except the industry in question is the solar industry. And because this industry involves clean energy rather than, I dunno, tractor parts, it has been sucked into conservatives’ endless culture war. Rather than lining up to support the recession’s rare economic success story, Republicans are trying to use the failure of a single company — Solyndra — as a wedge to crush support for the whole industry.

Roberts added, “This. Is. Insane.” He’s right — the solar industry offers so much promise, it’s truly ridiculous to think U.S. policymakers would turn their back on these advancements and rewards, simply because Republican politics have gone stark raving mad.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • stormskies on November 07, 2011 11:25 AM:

    This could in fact be a good use of a 'litmus' test to find out exactly what politicians are so bought out by the fossil fuel industry, and those that are not.

  • DAY on November 07, 2011 11:26 AM:

    Updating an old saw, "Congress fiddles while America burns".
    Meanwhile, the rest of the world makes, buys, and installs solar panels.

  • c u n d gulag on November 07, 2011 11:31 AM:

    I finally agree with the Republicans about something - solar power is waaaaay overrated.

    I mean, what good is solar power at night, huh?

    Answer me that!


  • T2 on November 07, 2011 11:33 AM:

    Big Oil don't like them solars.

  • Gandalf on November 07, 2011 11:40 AM:

    Listen I like Krugman but is it really necessary to point out the nobvious withoput actually pointing it out. Support for solar power or global warming science has zero to do with facts or what's good for the country or the people. It's all about lowlife congresspeople being bought and paid for.

  • Ryan Cooper on November 07, 2011 11:42 AM:

    It is remarkable how Republicans can make absolutely everything into a culture war issue. I do think it's worth emphasizing the point about unpriced externalities though. Right now, we coal-fired power plants are imposing costs greater than their value added to the economy. Krugman's right to say that we couldn't have a totally solar-based energy system tomorrow, but he's also right to say that solar power would be price-competitive with coal right now if we were actually paying for all the crap they're dumping into the atmosphere now.

  • Texas Aggie on November 07, 2011 11:54 AM:

    What Ryan just said.

  • MR Bill on November 07, 2011 12:06 PM:

    I've gotten to see this first hand: my family's farm in Clay Co. NC (that's the mountains) pursued and got a solar company to locate a 1 megawatt field on our property: it was unused pasture, right on the 3 phase powerline, making going on grid easy. Relatives (the same relatives who sold family property that became a trailer park) who don't live there said we had destroyed their views. (The relatives who live across the road are fine with it, and think it better than trailers or the chicken houses that dot the county..)Then a local realtors group (a hotbed of the local Teaparty) began to claim that the solar farms were 'ruining property values' and agitating for a ban.
    After a moratorium of several months (during which time the applications for fields had lapsed), the county has passed series of rules.
    There is still no land use planning, no restriction on idiot vanity houses on mountaintops, no restrictions on the chickenhouses.
    Somehow the solar farms were so offensive to these people they've been yelling socialism.
    My dad, who worked for TVA right after WW2 is puzzled, and wonders what will happen when TVA is finally forced to close the worst of it's coal fired plants...

  • american okie on November 07, 2011 12:11 PM:

    Dear C U N D gulag, what good is solar power at night. Right! What good is a flashlight at night. Oh yeah, batteries--they store electrical energy don't they. I'm not saying that there aren't still issues with solar energy, or that it can supply all our energy needs, but come on, you can do better than that. Batteries.

  • Kiweagle on November 07, 2011 12:34 PM:

    @T2 on November 07, 2011 11:33 AM:
    Actually, one thing Benen and Krugman fail to mention is the fact that oil companies are the ones buying up solar companies so as to diversify their portfolio and protect their own interests.

    If I'm not mistaken, one of the top producers of solar technology is BP.

    Another thing that people forget is that solar panels are guaranteed with a replacement warranty that lasts - on average - 40 years. FORTY YEARS! Seriously, name me another product on the market that offers the same protection.

  • square1 on November 07, 2011 12:52 PM:

    Yes, what Ryan just said.

    I generally consider myself a solar proponent. However, in reality, I am power-agnostic. That is, if ALL energy industries were required to internalize all their external costs (and benefits) and were properly regulated, I suspect that what we would end up with is a whole lot more nuclear, solar, and wind.

  • MichaelF on November 07, 2011 12:53 PM:

    I put in a comment waiting moderation on The Conscience of a Liberal. Louisiana, for all its backwardness, has a very good incentive for solar installs: a 50 percent refundable tax credit, which is in addition to the 30 percent Federal tax credit offered nationwide.

    For a personal investment of $5000 dollars, I was able to contract for a $25,000 install, a 2.2Kw grid tied PV system and thermal (hot water) with gas backup (both the PV and thermal is Schuco). Both have reduced my energy consumption by about 25 percent, though the PV will hopefully provide more energy as I replace appliances and air conditioning with energy efficient units.

    I'm very happy with the install. Both crews doing the work said they had plenty of orders, so good for them. The state tax credit came through for the full amount pretty quickly, and I've still got $1000 or so dollars on the federal tax credit (because this year my total deductions and credits zeroed out my federal taxes).

    And in my case, you can hardly see the panels at all. The house sits almost precisely east-west, and the gabled roof has good southern exposure. Not that I think the neighbors would object, but not being visible is I guess a good thing, since the houses are mostly pretty old (around 100 years old or so in the immediate vicinity).

  • LL on November 07, 2011 12:54 PM:

    Look, the GOP and its 'bagger extremists are a lot of things, but "mad" is not one of them. They're not insane at all. They're using every last arrow in the quiver to win the current battle for control of the US government. That is their goal. So they can transfer even more wealth to their rich friends, deregulate everything (except for things like reproductive rights) and beggar the rest of us to the point where we have no power at all. Ideally, while the GOP was in control after 2012, there would be a major crisis that would allow the party to rescind the Constitution and institute one-party rule under an evolving police-state.

    That would be their ideal scenario: police-state domestic rule with a strong addition of corporate feudalism. Very similar to the NSDAP's plans for Germany, pace Godwin.

    So, they're not insane at all. They're just trying to win back total power with every tool at their disposal. So far, it's working fairly well for them, but it is a very risky road they're walking now, and the whole thing could fall in on them at any time.

    The simple fact is, if the GOP can take back the Senate, and the White House in 2012, and hang onto the House, they win, and the country is lost. That is what they want.

  • Mitch on November 07, 2011 1:31 PM:

    @american okie

    You must be new here my friend, but that's okay. We were all new once. Gulag was being sarcastic to the extreme.

    Gulag is probably my favorite regular here and is always good for a laugh. But sarcasm is hard to catch over the internet if you aren't familiar with the writer.

  • emjayay on November 07, 2011 1:55 PM:

    But I've never been able to figure out what "c u n d gulag" is supposed to mean.

  • Stephen Stralka on November 07, 2011 1:56 PM:

    You know what was a real scandal? Deepwater Horizon. Strange how that whole fiasco had no impact on the Right's conviction that we can just drill our way out of our energy troubles.

  • Mitch on November 07, 2011 2:01 PM:


    In case Gulag doesn't see your question:

    His handle means, "See you in the Gulag," (Soviet-era political prison).

    He started using that handle back in the Bush days when Dems and progressives were called traitors and un-American. I guess he figured if Bush was going to start hauling us away for treason we could all meet up again on the inside, lol.

  • square1 on November 07, 2011 2:03 PM:

    @Stephen Stralka: Yes, but in the case of deepwater drilling, there was bipartisan agreement that it was safe and economically viable.

  • RalfW on November 07, 2011 3:51 PM:

    Since it's the Chinese who are most likely to gain the market share the US fails to grab in developing solar, the GOP is in fact rooting for larger trade deficits and a growing technological advantage for our biggest global competitor.

    It sure looks unpatriotic from where I stand to have the Republican view of solar power!