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How do we create enough clean energy, fast enough to prevent catastrophic climate change? I’ve been asking myself this question for years, and the answer I keep coming back to, time and again, is simple. If we want more clean energy, we need to find ways to allow more people to participate in creating clean energy.

Right now, almost all of the profits from our energy system (the largest industry on the planet) flow to a few huge companies. In 2012, as gas prices in some parts of the country hovered around $5.00, Exxon Mobil was making $104 million in profits per day. No wonder fossil fuels own Washington.

Imagine if just a small fraction of that kind of money was flowing back into communities around the country.

Imagine community centers and schools saving money on their utility bills by putting up solar panels on their roofs. Imagine farmers’ cooperatives with crops and cattle beneath community-owned windmills.

Imagine a nation of voters who are not energy consumers, but energy producers.

This kind of vision has been floating around since the time of Edison. What is unique about the present moment is that we finally have the cost-effective technology to make the vision a reality.

In fact, in many places, the vision is already becoming reality: Portugal just met 70% of its energy demand via renewables for three months in a row. Solar power is officially at grid parity--meaning it’s as cheap for grid electricity consumers as any other fuel source--in India and Italy.Denmark got 30% of its power from wind in 2012 and is aiming for 50% by 2020. Australia recently announced that it now hosts 1 million solar arrays on the roofs of its businesses and homes.

The biggest story of last year was Germany. The country gets about as much sunlight as Alaska. But one sunny day last summer, the Germans set a world record for clean energy by producing half of their noonday electricity—the energy equivalent of the output of 20 nuclear power plants—from solar. Even more amazing is the fact that the vast majority of Germany’s solar resources are owned not by large utilities, but by everyday people. Fully three-quarters of the country’s solar capacity, and half of its wind capacity, is locally owned.

Here in the U.S. we’re moving along a similar trajectory. In California, the number of residential rooftop solar installations went from 500 in 1999 to more than 50,000 in 2011. In 2012, we set records for both wind power and solar power installations. And in 2013, America will add more new solar energy than any other kind of energy capacity but natural gas. January was a particularly notable month: all of the new energy capacity installed in the United States during that month was clean energy capacity.

But we can still go faster. In fact, we’ll have to go faster if we want get to 100% clean energy in time to put a dent in climate change. John Farrell of Energy Self-Reliant States notes that for every 2 kw solar array on top of a residential roof, the United States gains two adult voters in favor of solar energy. Long before clean energy makes up 50% of our energy mix, we can get to a situation where clean energy voters make up 50% of our electoral mix.

That’s the real tipping point. That’s why we need to break down the barriers that keep people from participating in the clean energy economy.  

So here’s a modest proposal: let’s open up to ordinary people some of the incentives for clean energy investments that big banks already enjoy. Specifically, let’s make it much easier for anyone to access the federal Investment Tax Credit.

Thanks to the federal Investment Tax Credit, investors can receive as much as 30% of the capital they put into clean projects back as a tax credit, which they can use to reduce their overall tax burden. As it stands now, though, this tax credit can only offset what the government calls “passive activities income.” A good example of passive activities income would be income from a rental property. The owner is not actively participating in generating the income; the income passively accrues.

As the above example suggests, the trouble with this system is that most individual Americans don’t have passive income--particularly not in large enough quantities to justify participating in the complex legal contracts tax equity investments involve. This in turn means a few huge institutions—think Wall Street and large banks—dominate the energy development market. And as for non-profits? Well, they aren’t taxable in the first place, meaning that any incentives through the tax code are difficult to access.

Changing the Investment Tax Credit is, in the context of our gridlocked political system, relatively low hanging fruit. It would do more than any other available policy change to open the clean energy economy up to us all, which would in turn do more to speed the transition to 100% clean energy.

It’s time that we can all benefit from the same clean energy tax breaks that big banks already enjoy. If we’re going to build a distributed energy system, a good place to start will be to build a distributed incentive program.  

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Comment Preferences

  •  Yep It's the Sole Climate Adaptation That Offers (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    elwior, 6412093, KenBee

    people rewards instead of sacrifice.

    And government doesn't need to buy or build anything, its only role is finance. The owners will arrange all the construction.

    We'll need more than tax breaks though to reach the middle and lower middle income home owners, some kind of active financing program is needed. Otherwise much of the population loses its ability to finance anything else for 5 or more years. And we have to arrange the financing such that it won't interfere home sales before a system is paid off.

    Most people won't do that for something they already have enough of --electricity.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 11:41:26 AM PDT

    •  Oops, Most People Won't Tie Up Their Finances (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      elwior, KenBee

      for something they already have. But with serious gov't relief we can get people down below middle income involved.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 11:42:25 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Solar liens (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      on a property to guarantee eventual payoff of a loan to install solar energy should be designed not to interfere with a property sale.

      Maybe a small loan payment surcharge on the remaining electrical bill could be the only homeowner obligation.

      Orly, it isn't evidence just because you downloaded it from the internet.

      by 6412093 on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 01:37:44 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Billy - it's a good idea (0+ / 0-)

    "let's talk about that"

    by VClib on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 12:14:04 PM PDT

  •  Residential Rooftop Solar (0+ / 0-)

    Utilities should be all over residential rooftop solar, both installation and maintenance and service contracts because that's where the money is.  What better way to collect free money for the utility by including the service contract in their monthly bill?

    •  fly over your city and count them up (0+ / 0-)

      you will not see many.

      Even Target and Walmart has roof top solar.

      The risk/reward to homeowners and landlords isn't yet an easy enough sell.

      We need to id ways to make that an easy sell.

      Seeing fancy ads with slick sales pitches isn't helping me anyway...almost the opposite (my other comment)

      Being good willed isn't enough.

      I have a difficult roof, but my nearby landlord neighbor has a flat roofed apartment building, and as not a particularly bright or sophisticated person, he is very cautious, yet obviously with such an easy huge installation could either reduce rents, have better tenants, cheaper energy costs etc....all that  in exchange for a contract with lot of fine print and something else out of his control to worry about.
        It's tricky....but his apartment building is like 99.9%, my guess, heh, in town.

      This machine kills Fascists.

      by KenBee on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 04:57:56 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  heard at Earth Day Festival from solar salesman (0+ / 0-)

    I was in line looking at the displays and listening to his end of his talking with prospective customers:

    'well, you can't do that, because if you got, say $10,000 at the end of the year, well what if everybody did that?'
    indeed. WHAT IF??? I felt like yelling at him..

    He was likely answering the common question about:

    1. cashback, credit, or rollover credit at year end from the utility company

    2. capacity in excess of projected needs

    3. rate at which you are paid or credited

    because whatever the question was this should not be the answer.

    What if everybody did that?

    Big adjustments are needed, and these phony requirements that inhibit installations are just, at this point, complete horseshit.

    For one thing, solar feeds at the time of day when air conditioning demands are highest.

    Two, while the utility companies have boobirded the solar installations in general (unless they own, profit, and control them) as being 'too hard to plan for'..and 'what if everybody did it' .....yet the 'public' utilities have peaker gas plants that do exactly that: ramp up output to match short term demands. The microadjusting that their larger facilities can't handle is a problem, it is expensive to start and stop these big complex facilities.
         And they all ready have to account for outages, surges in demand, and at this point they should be better equipped to handle residential and industrial and commercial solar..after all, they can predict the sunshgine and weather to the degree I would bet they need to, to be able to 'plan' and 'adjust'.

    So what's the real problem here?

    I bet it's more to do with paying off previous and current committments and investors rather than letting outsiders, customers add to their electrical supply, a supply they are obligated to pay for and adjust to.

    What if everybody did that?

    This machine kills Fascists.

    by KenBee on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 04:39:20 PM PDT

  •  I think we should be able to sell out tax credits (0+ / 0-)

    as someone who pays no income tax on my ss, how does a tax credit help me want to invest or buy something?
      My purchases out of savings should be incentivized as other people's monies are.

    Maybe there's a way to get the govt to pay me for my tax credit..if I could sell/transfer it, I could claim this incentive.

    There are a lot of older people with property and low income that a tax credit won't do much for.

    If it could be a tax credit or a rebate that would help incentive purchases made for the common good.

     I hope I am just being ignorant, it is totally possible, as I have to admit on a daily basis :>

    This machine kills Fascists.

    by KenBee on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 04:48:54 PM PDT

  •  My home system is not "residential rooftop solar" (0+ / 0-)

    My home PV system is pole mounted, not rooftop mounted. My cousin has one that is mounted on a ground based fixed rack. Many of my neighbors have similar mounting systems.

    I'm bringing this up to disabuse folks of the notion that residential PV solar is always necessarily mounted on your rooftop. Many of us do not have suitable rooftops on which to mount our PV systems, but we do have better locales on which to mount our systems. Mine is mounted about 75 yards from my main breaker panel in the best location near my house for solar PV production. It's always about Location, Location, Location. Don't limit yourself to just thinking about your roof as the place your PV system has to go.

    Eradicate magical thinking

    by Zinman on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 10:13:45 PM PDT

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