Thanks to a recent study by SolarPulse, a Denver-based energy company, I’ve begun to reexamine some of my assumptions about the politics of solar energy. For a long time, I’ve accepted the “conventional wisdom” that Republicans in general are skeptical about global warming and cool to solar energy while Democrats in general hold the opposite views.
The truth may be more complicated. SolarPulse studied data on investment in 25,000 household solar panels in California over the period 1997-2015 and found that homes in Republican-leaning districts were five times more likely to invest in residential solar panels installed in the past five years. Digging deeper, SolarPulse found that neither income nor party affiliation explained the difference. Instead, residents in sunny, dry and less populated areas invested much more heavily in solar – a hard-headed, pragmatic calculation unfettered by partisanship. “If all politics is local, then solar panels aren’t political at all” was SolarPulse’s conclusion.
Here’s a second piece of evidence that the partisan divide may not be as wide nor as intractable as often imagined. According to another study conducted by Yale and George Mason University professors, a significant shift is underway in voter attitudes on the causes and seriousness of global warming. Substantial differences of opinion and belief persist, but they are narrowing even among conservative voters.
Even more importantly, a majority of registered voters across the spectrum tend to support specific policies and programs to reduce carbon emissions and to promote clean energy. For example, the Yale-GMU study found that
- “Funding more research into renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power (84% of all registered voters, 91% of Democrats, 87% of Independents, and 75% of Republicans).
- “Providing tax rebates to people who purchase energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels (81% of all registered voters, 91% of Democrats, 84% of Independents, and 70% of Republicans).
- “Regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant (75% of all registered voters, 88% of Democrats, 78% of Independents, and 61% of Republicans).
- “Requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax and using the money to reduce other taxes such as income taxes by an equal amount (68% of all registered voters, 86% of Democrats, 66% of Independents, and 47% of Republicans).”
These results suggest that the stage might be set for a new, more ambitious political consensus on solar energy. The New York Times has reported that the major difference between rank-and-file members of the two major parties is the intensity of their interest in acting on climate change; it’s not a matter of their concern but of their priority they attach to it. Perhaps we can drop the ideological assumptions, broad generalizations and misleading labels that hinder productive discussion of energy issues. Instead, perhaps we can focus pragmatically on issues such as the increasing efficiency and cost competitiveness of solar energy, its most appropriate role in production by and for electric utilities, and the potential for using solar energy to reduce the cost of living and raise the income for less prosperous Americans in cities as well as more isolated rural areas.
American voters seem ready for such a serious effort. The question is, are the leaders ready to lead?