“Bless the early adopters because they’re showing us how it works,” said Bob Inglis, founder of RepublicEN, a group of conservatives dedicated to finding free-market solutions to fight climate change and spread clean energy.
The early adopters that Inglis was referring to are people who’ve made the commitment to go solar at home, even in today’s energy marketplace where getting solar can be expensive or difficult in many areas.
I’ve written previously about the former South Carolina congressman’s conversion from climate science denier to climate solutions champion. So I was pleased last week to have the chance to interview Inglis by phone. We talked about early adopters and what it would take for solar to go mainstream.
Carbon Dividend Would Help Solar Sell Itself
These days, Inglis is promoting a climate solution backed by a number of prominent Republican leaders including former secretaries of state George Shultz and James Baker III, as well as major corporations including BP, ExxonMobil, Johnson & Johnson, GM and Shell.
A serious policy idea from Republicans to reduce climate change is good enough news in itself. And when a similar approach is also backed by Democrats from Al Gore on down along with leading climate advocates including climatologist James Hansen and author Bill McKibben, the news just gets better.
Called carbon dividend, the idea involves four components: a gradually increasing, revenue neutral carbon tax; a dividend payment to all Americans; rollback of the existing regulator structure; and border carbon adjustments to ensure American competitiveness.
Under a carbon dividend system, the carbon tax would make fossil fuels and everything made with fossil fuels more expensive. But the dividend payment would offset any additional costs for most consumers. Seven out of ten American families would get more money back in dividend checks each month than they spend on higher prices for gasoline, utilities and other needs.
By raising the price of conventional electricity and making clean energy relatively cheaper, a carbon dividend will help solar power take off, Inglis thinks.
“The most powerful incentive is going to come when there are economic reasons apparent from our power meters as to why solar makes sense,” Inglis told me. That’s when “consumers will pursue their self interest and they’ll be dialing solar installers without anybody telling them what to do. It’s going to change the way we do electricity in this county.”
More Reliable than Solar Subsidies
Today, solar and other forms of renewable energy rely on a crazy quilt collection of grants, rebates, tax credits and tax exemptions from government at the local, state and federal levels that are always on the verge of expiration. That makes it hard to count on any particular incentive in the future, thus making it more risky to invest in clean energy.
“For wind and solar, we’re now a year and a half into the five-year extension [for tax credits] and they’ll be facing another near-death experience when those credits expire,” Inglis said.
Relying on temporary government incentives over the last couple decades has lead to a boom-and-bust cycle in the renewable energy industry that has put many promising companies out of business and slowed the spread of solar and other renewables. Carbon dividend promises a better way.
The advantage of carbon dividend over incentives for clean energy is that the dividend is both longer-lasting and more fair. And as a free-market solution, it will appeal to conservatives who have never been comfortable with government subsidizing renewable energy.
Many conservatives still remember the big debate over the solar company Solyndra, whose 2011 bankruptcy left taxpayers holding the bag for $535 million in loan guarantees supported by the Obama Administration. Those conservatives see Solyndra as a poster child for everything that’s wrong with trying to grow clean energy through government subsidies. Inglis thinks conservatives will be open to putting a price on carbon if it replaces today’s energy subsidies.
“The better policy and more durable solution is to level the playing field, all-costs-in on all fuels and all subsidies gone. Then, let’s see how the free enterprise system works out. I think solar will do well at that point without any credits once we’re paying the full cost of fossil fuel electricity.”
Both Republicans and Democrats seem to like the main components of carbon dividend, the carbon tax and the refund checks to citizens. Where those on the left may disagree is whether it’s necessary or even a good idea to repeal subsidies for renewable energy and to cut existing regulations on carbon emissions.
But Inglis thinks that progressives would be willing to forgo some traditional environmental regulations once they see that a simple carbon price would be more effective. Inglis also thinks that that clean energy supporters would be willing to give up subsidies for renewables if fossil fuels also had to give up their subsidies, whose value is several times greater than subsidies for renewables.
“Get rid of all subsidies [for both renewables and fossil fuels]. That’s something that should appeal to conservatives as well as progressives. Let’s just have a transparent accountable marketplace. That works for the entire political spectrum.”
In the Meantime, Solar Needs Early Adopters and Advocates
A carbon dividend could solve many of the problems that have kept solar from spreading in the past.
For now, Inglis thinks that the people who’ve already gone solar or gotten electric cars have done the country a great service by showing the way for their neighbors.
“For people who have gone ahead and gotten solar on their roof or who are driving cars on sunshine, they’re showing their neighbors how it works,” Inglis said. “For a lot of us it’s like Missouri, ‘the Show Me State’ — you have to show us how it works. That’s pretty exciting. There’s a real role there for people who are leading and blazing the path.”
The power of example, Inglis said, helps make new technologies spread more quickly.
“It’s like the first people who sign up for an app. They tell their friends and it starts spreading.”
I’d add that solar supporters with a conservative bent should consider joining the 3,550 members of Inglis’s group nationwide who have already come out in support of effective, free-market climate solutions like a climate dividend.
— Erik Curren, The Solar Patriot