Opinion: Fiddling While the Climate Burns

R. William Potter | May 21, 2012 | Opinion
Arguing about the costs of solar is like debating the price of water when the house is on fire

You’ve heard the clichés: “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” Or “fiddling while Rome burns.” My version of what those clichés capture — debating trivialities in the face of eminent disaster — goes like this: Like arguing over the cost of water when your house is on fire.

To what do these clichés so aptly apply? To the threats posed by global climate change, largely caused by human activity — primarily, the burning of fossil fuels. We’re rearranging deck chairs and arguing over the water bill to put out the fire that threatens us all, while solutions go begging.

Even as the evidence continues to mount, New Jersey officials — like their counterparts at the national level — fret about the allegedly high cost of solar subsidies, and seem unsure of doing what is needed to save solar, while the planet we know is changing rapidly, and not in good ways.

For a vivid account of fiddling while the climate burns, take a look at “Can the State Save New Jersey’s Solar Sector?” by Tom Johnson, who quotes opponents to the dreaded solar subsidies that make this sector possible.

As a lobbyist for the chemical industry — prodigious generators of climate-altering carbon emissions — put it at a hearing on S-1925 the current saving-solar bill: “At some point the state has to say ‘Solar, we are cutting you off.'”

Echoing this myopic view is the state’s ratepayer advocate, who acts as if consumers are screaming for cutbacks in solar subsidies. In fact, every opinion poll on renewable energy shows overwhelming support for more, not less, public spending on carbon-free energy development.

For example, a nationwide poll by ORC International (March 22 – 25, 2012) confirms the backing renewable energy enjoys across the political spectrum. “More than 8 out of 10 Americans [83 percent], including 69 percent of Republicans, 84 percent of independents and, 95 percent of Democrats agree with the following statement:

“The time is now for a new grassroots-driven politics to realize a renewable energy future … We need to take action to ensure that our taxpayer dollars support renewable energy.”

Further, more than two out of three Americans (68 percent) agree that it is a “bad idea for the nation to ‘put on hold’ progress toward cleaner energy during the current economic difficulty.”

Yet at the recent hearing on S-1925, little of this national consensus seems to have made its way into the halls of the Legislature. But if the save-solar bill does not pass, what then? “Right now we’re in a crisis,” warned cosponsor Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), meaning without action soon, “there will be no more solar in New Jersey.”

What about the state Board of Public Utilities? The BPU already has plenary power under a 1999 law to do whatever it takes to assure continued investing in an energy future based primarily on renewable power — such as solar PV electric systems and also wind. As one study after another has concluded, when investments (aka “subsidies”) are made in renewables and energy efficiency, a cleaner and “carbon freer” energy future is within our grasp, if only we choose to reach for it.

But the BPU hesitates to act and the state Legislature puts out mixed messages: theoretically favoring more solar — and the 10,000 solar Jersey jobs now at risk — but worried about the allegedly high cost of solar investment strategies. As a result, a cloud of doubt hangs over the entire process, as the BPU awaits legislative action that may never come or arrive too watered down to do much good.

Let’s hope I’m proven wrong because our house — this state and the global house we will someday pass on — is on fire, and the fire will soon be beyond control unless the dithering stops.

Hhow bad is it? A recent New York Times editorial by James Hansen — the global climate scientist who first sounded the global warming alarm in 1981 — should light a fire under decision-makers in New Jersey and beyond. Entitled “Game Over for the Climate” (May 10, 2012), he warns that if we continue our fossil fuel addiction and develop Canadian tar sands, it’s good bye to the planet Earth as we know her:

“Concentrations of carbon dioxide would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure the disintegration of the ice sheets … Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities, Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 90 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk … If this sounds apocalyptic, it is.”

New Jersey and other low-lying coastal states are especially vulnerable to even a modest rise in sea level, never mind 50-feet higher. A Princeton University study a few years back, which now looks wildly optimistic, projected the loss of 4 percent of the Garden State’s land area to rising ocean waters. Good bye Atlantic City; hello beach front property in Freehold.

The irony, putting it mildly, is that investing more ratepayer funds in renewables actually pays ratepayer dividends in lower electric bills. That’s because solar works best on the hottest and sunniest days, which coincide with peak electric demands on the power grid. More solar at peak times translates into less need to run the costliest, dirtiest power plants, saving costs for everyone.

So, don’t call them “solar subsidies.” These are public investments in solar and energy efficiency using tax credits, power purchase mandates and the Societal Benefits Charge. These are akin to infrastructure development — like better schools, police, and transportation. They are saving the future. As Hansen concludes his jeremiad, “We can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and not be judged immoral by coming generations.”