By Tom Baxter
If the subject of solar power makes you think of Birkenstocks and tofu, an advertisement currently going the rounds of conservative email lists will be a surprise.
The Patriot Power Generator, sold by a small company in Tennessee, is a solar-powered generator with a continuous output of 1,800 watts, enough to keep the refrigerator running and the lights on for several hours. The way it’s being marketed represents in a small way the sea change going on in the politics of alternative energy.
It’s being sold as a “portable crisis device,” not as an answer to global warming. In a video, someone identified as an Indiana policeman talks about how the generator helps to keep his family safe from “potential criminals” in a blackout. The text paints a dark picture of a future in which increasing storms (a passing allusion to climate change) batter a decayed infrastructure prone to long power outages.
“I don’t need to depend on the government,” writes a satisfied customer from Texas who used the device after Hurricane Harvey. The recent collapse of the Texas power grid also figures heavily in the advertisement, and it would not be surprising if it doesn’t cause a lot of Americans, particularly conservatives, to think harder about the security of their power supply.
This survivalist approach to marketing a solar device is part of a much broader shift in attitudes about electricity, and how we get it. Technological change (not to speak of climate change) is increasingly rendering meaningless the right-left dichotomy between coal/nuclear on one side and solar/wind on the other. The new C3 solar cell technology, developed by the Atlanta company Solar Inventions, is part of a cascade of scientific innovations which have driven down the cost of solar cells and made it easier to extract electricity from them. The company won the first American-Made Solar Prize for the new technology.
Senate Rules chairman Jeff Mullis has attracted more attention in this session with his bald-faced drive to get big money even more involved in the legislative process. But his name is also atop Senate Bill 299, which makes it easier to finance solar energy projects and evens the playing field for the solar industry in other ways. This builds on legislation passed a few years ago by former state Rep. Mike Dudgeon, who now advises Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. The bill was introduced too late for passage this year but is likely to have strong bipartisan support next year.
Like the Patriot Power Generator, support for pro-solar legislation by the Republican Senate leadership is a sign that solar is gaining wider acceptance as it gains ground in the larger economy. South Koreans own the huge new solar panel plant in Dalton — the largest, according to the company, in the Western Hemisphere — just as they will own the $2.6 billion electric vehicle battery plant near Commerce, assuming the company’s problems with the International Trade Commission get worked out. But Georgians will work in these plants, and that mightily influences how politicians view what they make.
We’ll get some indication of how these changing attitudes play out politically if, as expected, Public Service Commissioner Chuck Eaton gets tapped to fill a Fulton County superior court judgeship. That would give Gov. Brian Kemp a PSC appointment, and his pick would say a lot about where the state is moving on energy issues.
The rapid buildout in the infrastructure for electric vehicles is closely related to solar’s new acceptability in both red and blue locales. Last month, the region’s largest electrical utilities — Southern Co., the Tennessee Valley Authority, Dominion Energy, Duke Energy Corp., Entergy Corp. and American Electric Power — announced the formation of the Electric Highway Coalition, the latest in a group of regional compacts formed with goal of building enough fast-charging units to connect the entire country for electric vehicles. This massive conversion is going on largely under the political radar, but it has huge implications for the way in which utilities, and the state public service commissions which regulate them, operate in the future.