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For their own good
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Time to harness the sun
By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published July 22, 2007
A lot of Floridians probably nodded in agreement when Gov. Charlie Crist promoted his campaign against global warming by dismissing the cost of replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy. "How expensive is the sun?" Crist asked. "It's just a matter of harnessing it." Makes sense in Florida, where one thing we've got a lot of is sun. Right?
Wrong. Though the sun is a noncontroversial fuel, it is also the least productive. Of the five major renewable fuel sources currently used to generate electricity, solar is the wimp. Every other source - biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric and wind - produces so many more kilowatt hours of electricity that solar is barely on the chart kept by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The truth is, generating electricity using the sun is expensive. While a kilowatt hour of electricity can be produced from conventional sources for less than 10 cents, the same amount using solar thermal technology costs at least 50 percent more, according to an analysis by CNET News. To bring the cost down there needs to be a technological breakthrough on solar energy, particularly in storing it when the sun is not shining.
The problem is that while the sun has worshippers, it lacks a powerful political constituency. The U.S. Energy Department will spend $427-million researching new uses of coal, $303-million on nuclear technology but only $159-million on solar energy this year, the New York Times reported.
That's like Congress showing favoritism to sharks and stingrays while ignoring dolphins, mainly because the sharks and stingrays have friends in high places. "Coal and nuclear count their lobbying budgets in the tens of millions," said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. "We count ours in the tens of thousands."
It's not that solar energy doesn't have promise. The source is plentiful, free and nonpolluting, and the technology is proven though not perfected. Other countries are moving ahead in solar research, and it would be a mistake for the United States to relinquish the lead. There is more to commend renewable fuels than just cost.
Crist and other promoters of solar energy should acknowledge it will be more expensive, particularly in the short run. The payoff will be less pollution and less reliance on foreign oil. But the solar future won't arrive unless we spend more now on research.
Here's a worthy goal for the governor. Tone down the feel-good romanticism and build a formidable, special-interest constituency on behalf of the sun. Every Floridian should sign on.