I wired the funds for our first solar panels today. Not cheap. But there are so many utility and state and federal tax incentives for doing this right now where we’re doing it that it actually is fairly cheap. It’s also a chance to help get this industry moving, because as demand grows, prices will drop.

In many areas of the country, the incentives are not nearly as high, and eventually we need solar to stand on its own, without incentives. But this planet has been good to me, so I don’t mind taking a flier for her.

(Pinball penance? I promise: I leave the machine entirely off except when I’m playing.)

We won’t be entirely ‘off the grid.’ Indeed, much of the time, when it’s sunny, Charles and I will be selling a trickle of power in to the grid. I’ll let you know more as it unfolds.

In the meantime, consider this:

Apples to apples: Solar cheaper than coal
By Tom Rooney

Next to Milton Friedman, Pee Wee the landscaper is the most persuasive teacher of energy economics I have ever encountered.

Pee Wee had the cheapest lawn service in the neighborhood, but we never knew why.

Then the city inspector showed up and told us: Pee Wee was dumping his trash in an empty lot a few blocks away.

Pee Wee’s service was not so cheap after all: It just seemed that way because other people were paying for it.

I was thinking about Pee Wee as I slogged through 373 pages of a new report called the ‘Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use.’

This is the most thorough cost accounting of energy sources I have ever seen.

It shows how coal and other fossil fuels create enormous costs that the rest of us pay for. Whether we know it or not. Whether we like it or not.

The National Academy of Sciences reports that the damages from coal costs us $62 billion a year – that comes about to about from 25 percent to 100 percent of what we pay for electricity from coal.

If that sounds like a subsidy, it should. Because that is exactly what it is.

And the National Academy did not even count any damages from climate change, water pollution from mining or dozens of other costly problems.

But still we hear that fossil fuels are cheaper.

Republican functionary Christopher Horner’s new book proclaims that renewable energy will ‘bankrupt’ this country and is a ‘declaration of war against America’s most reliable sources of energy – coal, oil, and natural gas.’ Wall Street Journal editorial writer Stephen Hayes agreed, calling it a plot between Big Government and Big Labor.

Before I became a card-carrying member of this conspiracy, before I ever heard about Pee Wee, even before I became the CEO of a solar power company in California, I studied for my MBA at the University of Chicago. There I met and spoke with on many occasions the inspiration for Horner and Hayes, the great man himself: Milton Friedman.

Even more than a libertarian icon, Friedman was an economist who always asked one question: What does it cost?

Not the price, that often hides the cost. You do not need a Nobel Prize to see the freshman mistake of those who say wind and solar are too expensive to compete with coal: They confuse price with cost. Just like Pee Wee’s customers.

The hidden costs of oil are even larger.

Writing in the San Jose Mercury News, energy analyst Blaine Townsend says ‘the web of direct subsidies includes billions in government sponsored low-cost construction loans and tax breaks like the Foreign Tax Credit. ‘Last in, first out’ accounting practices, special write-downs for core operations and royalty ‘relief’ for leases in the Gulf of Mexico have robbed the federal coffers of billions more.’

We have not even started counting the costs of what could be the biggest and most expensive oil spill in history.

And if you want to put a price on what it takes to send our bravest and best heroes into harms way to protect our supply lines in faraway places, go ahead.

Just make sure it starts with T.

Turns out, when you add up all the costs of all the different kinds of energy, solar and wind are often less expensive than fossil fuels. And the price of solar is going down, while the costs of coal and oil are going up.

This is not something we can wish away because it depends on questionable hockey stick graphs or purloined e-mails.

The National Academy of Sciences says it is happening now and is real today.

Fossil fuels are costing us more – way more – than any of us ever suspected.

Now it is hidden no more.

Utilities get it: That is why more and more are doing everything they can to move away from coal in favor of their cleaner and less costly alternatives.

For that, we owe a debt to the National Academy of Sciences and economists like Milton Friedman. And Pee Wee.

Tom Rooney is president and CEO of SPG Solar in Novato, Calif., one of the oldest and largest installers of solar energy systems for commercial and industrial users in America. He can be reached at tom.rooney@spgsolar.com.

☞ As environmentalist Fred Stanback notes, ‘there has never been a solar spill.’


Yesterday, Portugal legalized same-sex marriage – joining Canada, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Mexico City . . . and, in the land of the free, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C.


So far, I’ve given you the first, second, and third (well, Marc Fest gave them to us). And at the end of this series, I’ll give you the link to all 12. But for now . . .

4. Abolish paper.
Forget slow scanning. The ‘Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M Instant PDF Sheet-Fed Scanner’ works so fast and so reliably, it seems like magic. It’s one of the most amazing machines I’ve ever bought. I’ve used it to scan hundreds of family photos in minutes. It’s gotten me closer to the ideal of a paperless office. The Scansnap received 106 5-star and 13 4-star ratings out of 124 customer reviews on Amazon (as of 5/9/2010). Available for PC and Mac . . . approx. $420.00.

☞ Since Marc first told me about this some months ago, I haven’t abolished paper, but I’ve scanned in hundreds of photos. As I gushed at the time, this thing’s terrific.


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