Inauguration over, now it’s time to get down to work

As an African American, I am still reeling from the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Three days later I wake up and still can’t believe we have a black president. Obama taking office gives inspiration that this country can change and that all things are possible.

So now, let’s get down to work.

Last week SVTC’s white paper, Towards a Just and Sustainable Solar Energy Industry, was received surprisingly well by policymakers, environmental groups and solar companies. So now it’s just a matter of putting the report recommendations into action, and that means letting go of a lot of baggage that pits environmental protection against profitability. In his inauguration speech, Obama said, “Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”

These disparaging words were cast on financial institutions, the health care industry, and the US public agencies and institutions responsible for protecting the environment. Despite phenomenal advancements in science and technology, this country has not had the political will to profoundly change environmental policies since Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law almost 30 years ago.

So, now we have to make up for lost time as we prepare the nation for a new age in renewable energy. There are several immediate actions that we can take to ensure growth in the solar sector and at the same time protect public health, workers and the environment – and we don’t have to look at these things as conflicting goals.

Significant long-term economic and technological support will be needed to find new ways to create solar panels without toxins, implement proper testing of new and emerging materials, and expand recycling technology and product design, but there are some things that can happen right now:

1) Companies can setup takeback and recycling programs to make it easy for consumers to return solar panels to the manufacturers. This is a very doable action for solar companies over the next year. Companies like First Solar (http://www.firstsolar.com/) and Solar World (http://www.solarworld-usa.com/) already have takeback and recycling programs. Other companies have expressed interest in working with SVTC to develop programs.

2) Securing federal funding to reduce the environmental and health impacts of the solar industry should be a “no brainer.” The federal government will spend an estimated $54 -100 billion (depending on whose counting) for renewable energy investments. Since congress allocates funding to develop new, innovative solar technology it only makes sensible that they invest in R&D to determine the lifecycle impacts and ensure long term environmental sustainability of solar and the public’s investment in renewables.

SVTC is inviting solar companies, environmental and social justice advocacy groups, and policy makers to work with us (collectively) to explore possible steps toward long term sustainability in solar. We hope this two year project will find new ways to incentivize sustainable practices so that new environmental policies are integral to the competitive market (that supports green jobs, addresses climate change), and solar companies won’t have to make real, or perceived, hard choices between profitability and protecting the environment.

Sheila Davis
Executive Director
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition

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