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It's time for a solar power revolution

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders

In a typical year, the United States spends $350 billion importing oil from Saudi Arabia and other foreign countries. While this is no doubt good news for the Saudi Royal Family, one of the richest in the world, it is bad news for the average American.

The vast majority of the American people understand that now is the time to move to energy independence so that we are no longer subject to the greed of OPEC or Wall Street speculators, or need to fight "wars for oil" in the Middle East.

Americans also know that if we are serious about addressing environmental pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and the imperative to create millions of good-paying jobs, we must move aggressively to energy efficiency and such sustainable technologies as solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass. Today, 92 percent of all Americans want our country to develop solar energy resources, and 77 percent believe the federal government should make solar power development a national priority.

That is why I was joined by 10 of my colleagues (Senators Whitehouse, Cardin, Gillibrand, Merkley, Lautenberg, Leahy, Boxer, Menendez, Specter, and Harkin) in recently introducing the Ten Million Solar Roofs Act. The Bill calls for 10 million new solar rooftop systems and 200,000 new solar water heating systems over the next 10 years. When fully implemented, this legislation would lead to 30,000 megawatts of new photovoltaic energy-triple our total current U.S. solar energy capacity. It will increase by almost 20 times our current energy output from photovoltaic panels.

The legislation will rapidly increase production of solar panels, driving down the price of photovoltaic systems. It also would mean the creation of over a million new jobs. The passage of this bill would dramatically re-orient our energy priorities and would be a major step forward toward a clean energy future for the U.S.

What the Ten Million Solar Roofs Act does is provide consumer rebates for the purchase and installation of solar systems. Here is how it works: Take the example of a homeowner who decides to install a 5 kilowatt solar system which, depending on location, would produce enough electricity to cover most, if not all, of an average electric bill (the solar panels would produce excess power during the day which can be sold back to the utility, covering some or all of the cost of electricity when the sun is not shining).

That system today costs roughly $35,000 to purchase and install. The federal tax credit of 30 percent reduces the system cost to $24,500. Many states offer additional incentives. In Vermont, for example, a homeowner could get an additional rebate of $1.75 per watt, which would further reduce the system cost to $15,750. Our bill would provide an additional rebate of as much as $1.75 per watt, covering up to 50 percent of the remaining cost. The result: the consumer now pays $7,875 for the solar system.

Interestingly, while solar power has a great deal of public support, you might not know that from listening to energy debates in Congress. As a member of both the energy and environment committees, I am constantly astounded by how many of my colleagues prefer to focus on what the government can do for the nuclear or coal industries, rather than why the government should support clean and sustainable energy.

The time is now to reorder our energy priorities.

Between 2002 and 2008, we put $70 billion of federal tax dollars towards fossil fuels and just $1.2 billion towards solar power. This is not right.

If we are serious about moving toward energy independence in a cost-effective way, we should invest in solar energy. 

If we are serious about cutting air and water pollution and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we should invest in solar energy.

If we are serious about creating a significant number of good paying jobs and making the U.S. a world leader in the production of sustainable energy, we should invest in solar energy. And, as we move forward in the solar revolution, a very good step forward would be the passage of the Ten Million Solar Roofs Act.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006 after serving 16 years in the House of Representatives. He is the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history. Sanders is the former mayor of Burlington, Vermont.

September/October 2010