No more tears

Out with the old in India.

Out with the old in India.

(Come friend Aunt Ruthie on Facebook and let’s hang out.)

Why solar power, you ask? No, you don’t: Solar power is obvious in its appeal, a no-brainer, a second nature—and not just because it powers your iPad for free. Look no further than the late philosopher king John Denver: “Sunshine / on my shoulders / makes me happy,” and there you have it.

Sunshine, in moderated non-Sacto-summer amounts, makes us mammals content on some primal, prehistoric level. (Yeah, and sunshine “almost always” made Denver “high”—insert favorite SN&R medicinal-marijuana-ad joke here.) But let’s not dwell.

In the form of photovoltaics, solar power has been around since the ’50s, initially as a power source for satellites, then in select off-the-grid uses such as oil rigs, navigational buoys, remote rail-cross signals and the like. Then, as now, solar cells were subsidized on the global whim of oil prices. If you would like solar panels on your roof, SMUD has a not-uncomplicated four-step program to help you get there, as does PG&E.

What’s next? According to The Wall Street Journal, “U.S. subsidies for solar projects are winding down … a popular renewable-energy tax credit funded through the Treasury Department is also set to expire at the end of the year.” How Congress will respond is anybody’s guess.

Perhaps the biggest advances in solar power won’t lie on American shores anyway. In India, solar power is brilliantly subsidized to take its magic back to where it began—to where the grid can’t go, to where solar’s unique portability can do the most good. With a quarter of its 1.2 billion population unable to access electricity, the annual bill for black-market kerosene can cost an Indian family more than $360 a year. An excellent article from The Associated Press by Katy Daigle details that government’s 11-year, $19 billion plan of credits, consumer subsidies and industry tax breaks that encourage solar investment.

Water is being purified by the sun now. Homes previously lit by dim, smoky kerosene lanterns—the kind that peels paint off walls and brings inhabitants to tears—are now lit by 100-watt light. The cost is $300 per household.

The impacts are on home security (the light literally scares the tigers away) and education. “When school starts again, I am ready now to get high scores,” 14-year-old Suresh Baby told Daigle. “I couldn’t see the words in the book before, with the smoke and the tears.”

Now he can.