April 22 marks the 42nd anniversary of the first observance of Earth Day. There is much to celebrate. We’ve made remarkable progress in protecting the environment since 1970; today the Cuyahoga River no longer burns. And we’ve also mustered the political will to addressed major threats to the environment such as acid rain and the impact of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the ozone layer.
However, there are dark clouds on the horizon. The Tea Party has essentially declared war on the environment. Sadly, renewable energy is a favorite, and a frequent, target.
With respect to renewable energy, the Tea Party’s vocal opposition spans the entire programmatic gamut- from tax incentives in Florida, to continued participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (REGGI) in the Northeast. Of course, as Florida Governor Rick Scott’s recent refusal to veto new renewable energy tax breaks demonstrates, such pressure is not always successful- it is, however, relentlessly applied.
The opposition to renewable energy programs is particularly unfortunate. Globally, the United States already lags behind other nations, such as Germany, in the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources.
Domestically, fostering the expansion of renewable energy requires credits and incentives that help level the playing field between renewable energy and the entrenched fossil fuels industry. Such incentives are not mere subsidies. Instead, they are a necessary recognition of the market’s inability to price energy transactions in a way that adequately addresses externalities. In a nutshell, externalities are costs to society, such as public health and environmental impacts, which are not reflected in the market’s pricing of producer-consumer energy transactions. In this regard, climate change is “the mother of all externalities” because it is impossible to put a price on the end of the world as we know it being brought on by greenhouse gas emissions.
But securing a level playing field for renewable energy is only the beginning. The focus of our policy also needs to change. For far too long, we’ve fixated on the large-scale projects of huge utility companies, and paid insufficient attention to the transformative potential of residential wind and solar, as well as local ownership.
As one author has noted, residential renewable energy represents “a democratic shift in control of resources and a break from the way electricity and energy has been produced over the past century…” Along with other forms of local ownership, it has the potential to transform families, farms, and communities from being energy consumers, into more self-sufficient and independent energy producers, while simultaneously reducing costs and emissions.
Renewable energy’s potential to localize and democratize energy production can be seen in Germany. An astonishing 51% of Germany’s renewable energy is generated by private citizens and farms. Moreover many of Germany’s larger-scale renewable projects are locally owned and operated.
Leading voices in the United Kingdom have also recognized the revolutionary potential of locally-owned renewable energy. For example, ResPublica, an influential British think-tank, has called for, in the words of Senior Researcher Caroline Julian, “a truly transformative capitalism [that] will place markets back into the hands of the people” by focusing on local energy production rather than simply “greater market efficiency and increased competition amongst the larger energy suppliers…“
The Germans and the ResPublicans are on to something fundamental here. Our energy policy should also seize the opportunity presented by renewable energy to democratize energy production in America by empowering citizens and local communities.
Today, high instillation costs are often the primary obstacle to residential wind and solar projects. Restrictive covenants that, in some neighborhoods, prohibit instillation form a second barrier. While it is true that many states have passed legislation prohibiting these types of provisions, the statutes vary widely and, in some cases, fail to address existing covenants and deed restrictions.
One potential solution is a model Residential Renewable Energy Rights Act that could serve as a basis for uniform legislation at the state level that would bar new restrictions on residential wind and solar instillations while simultaneously rendering existing ones unenforceable as a matter of public policy. Coupled with a robust program of state and federal incentives, rebates, and credits for residential and larger-scale local or community-owned renewable power generation projects, a Residential Renewable Energy Rights Act would help lay the foundation for a radical transformation in American energy production.
Today, renewable energy provides us with a unique opportunity to empower the people and create a more democratic system of energy production, even as we build a better, cleaner, world. It is a green revolution worth celebrating on Earth Day this year!