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Reducing dependency on oil is simple: Look to the sun

There is some discussion going on about an ambitious energy proposal, something akin to the Apollo program in scope and vision but aimed at converting American dependence on foreign oil into a self-sustained drive toward renewable sources. Call it a solar moonshot. The idea is utterly doomed under the Bush administration but some form of it is exactly the sort of boost this country needs and the kind of collective effort that can reinvent America.

It’s about more than solar energy, for sure, because this country has enormous resources in wind and geothermal. We are still, despite our dependence on carbon-based energy, among the leaders in renewable-energy technologies. And we are still, for the moment, the most potent market in the world, meaning if something catches on here, look out.

Nothing has caught on here because oil, coal and natural gas are cheap — at least through poor accounting and in only the very nearest term — where most people operate. When people go to the gas station, they don’t ask themselves if they’d rather save the environment, promote peace and develop a new economy, they just pump. They pay for shortsightedness, but they don’t know it.

The United States has one of the cheapest prices for gasoline in the world, in real and absolute terms, despite our higher costs of living. We pay for this through other means, but we don’t recognize it so we let ourselves become addicted. If we consider how many tax dollars support and subsidize cheap fuel, we might re-think.

For example, government uses taxes to build roads and airports that feed the need for petroleum; without this infrastructure, we’d have compact communities and more efficient communications. But the largest energy subsidy relates to foreign policy.

The vast majority of our military protects access to oil. We are about to attack Iraq solely for that reason as we did once before: oil. We’re in Saudi Arabia for oil, not democracy, and that obviously upsets many Muslims. We went to Somalia because of its geography and geology. Our ongoing presence in Afghanistan has more to do with removing Central Asian oil than burqas. Kosovo was about corridors for oil to leave Kazakhstan and the Caspian region to the west, literally and figuratively, rather than through China or Russia (why else would the Russians care about Chechnya?). We’re also training Colombians to protect a pipeline.

And on and on. But the point is that if it weren’t for our oil thirst, we could save a bunch of money on the world stage and make more friends than enemies. But what would we drive?

Here’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation to get your mind working.

Let’s cut the bloated Pentagon budget from $360 billion a year to $260 billion (still bloated). That $100 billion can leverage converting 10 million homes per year to solar energy and create 300,000 jobs for solar energy installers and manufacturers. The stable demand and large volume this conversion creates will drop cost of solar energy by 50 percent. The result is residential electricity self-sufficiency, a nation more secure from terrorist attack and a vibrant industry able to sell globally. Solar energy doesn’t replace oil, but the natural gas we wouldn’t use to make watts can go into easily converted cars, which produce no pollution.

Impossible, yeah. They said we couldn’t go to the moon, either.

Contact Paul Swider at