Energy & Environment

The US government needs to transition to solar-powered future

Obama solar panels
Obama solar panels
The Paris Climate Agreement won’t go into effect until early November, but we are already on course to miss our emissions reduction target.

{mosads}Under the agreement, the U.S. pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. A new study published in Nature shows that assuming implementation of all current, active policies (including the president’s centerpiece Clean Power Plan), the United States will fall short of its pollution-cutting pledge by 551 million to 1.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions in 2025.

The lower end of the estimated shortfall is more than Saudi Arabia’s total carbon dioxide emissions from its energy consumption in 2011.

Even if the U.S. were to strengthen the Clean Power Plan and adopt a host of other proposed and currently voluntary measures, the nation would likely still fail to meet its commitment under all but the most optimistic of scenarios.  

But a bigger problem is that even though President Obama signed this historic climate agreement, he continues to allow new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters. That’s on top of the existing leases that are on track to release 30 to 43 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere. The federal government itself continues to be powered by the very energy sources that are driving us over the climate change cliff.

But we have a cleaner and healthier alternative.

If — in addition to leaving fossil fuels in the ground — the Obama administration demonstrated its commitment to changing the way we generate and consume energy by putting solar panels on federal buildings and supporting policies that would allow the country to take full advantage of rooftop solar energy, we could uphold the Paris Climate Agreement.

President Obama has done more than any of his predecessors in advancing a renewable energy economy. His all-of-the-above strategy, however, fails to account for renewable energy technologies’ differing impacts on our climate, land and wildlife.

Under the current federal definition of renewable electric energy, agencies get just as much credit for investing in biomass — which can emit nearly 50 percent more CO2 than coal — as solar energy.

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. There’s a huge untapped potential for distributed solar energy that could build a clean energy future, and realizing this potential starts with the government.

Federal agencies currently own and lease 360,000 buildings with a total footprint of over 1.2 billion square feet of space. If solar panels are installed on all compatible federal buildings, and if non-compatible buildings use energy from local distributed solar projects, federal facilities could generate over 24 billion kWh of solar energy annually.

That’s enough to power more than 1.8 million American homes for a year or shut down close to 5 coal-fired power plants for a full year.

That’s why the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, is urging President Obama to invest in energy that’s good for the climate, wildlife and people by putting solar panels on all compatible federal buildings.

Solar energy generation in an area that is already built up helps to replace fossil fuel consumption and reduce water and land needs for energy generation, while also protecting ratepayers from fluctuating energy prices and creating local jobs.

Not only would this help align our government’s operations with its climate pledges, but it would also show an investment in distributed solar energy that would positively influence market prices, policy and other building occupants — owners and renters alike.

A clean and wildlife-friendly energy economy is within our reach, and the American people strongly support it.

A recent Pew Research Center poll confirmed that solar energy is extremely popular among Americans, with 89 percent across the political spectrum favoring expanded use of solar power. The realization of such an energy economy, however, demands visionary leadership and political will.

While re-installing solar panels on the White House was a good first step, we need the federal government to show its commitment to the transition to clean, wildlife-friendly energy sources on all of its facilities.

The Paris Climate Agreement is historical in bringing nations together, but a livable climate future and adaptation to unavoidable level of climate change demands more. It demands nations not only holding up, but exceeding their climate pledges.

In order for the United States to meet its emissions reduction target, we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground and we need federal leadership in transitioning to a fossil fuel-free and wildlife-friendly energy future.

Tudenggongbu is the Center for Biological Diversity’s senior renewable energy campaigner. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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