[This text is the introduction to Solar Dividends: How Solar Energy Can Generate a Basic Income for Everyone on Earth]
A New Approach
No one owns the sun. This simple and obvious fact has been true since humans invented the concept of ownership. Before now, no one paid attention to this fact, because the idea of anyone owning something as big and powerful as the sun seems absurd.
Now this fact has emerged from obscurity to become vitally important for the survival of modern civilization. That’s because humanity has embarked on a dramatic shift in the most fundamental resource that we use—energy. We are witnessing a historic shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and we have an unprecedented opportunity to ensure that this time everyone can benefit from the energy that runs our civilization.
Humans built modern society over the last two hundred years by burning fossil fuels to mine minerals, power our factories, produce our food, and transport our goods. But now the carbon dioxide released over two centuries of burning carbon-based fuels has accumulated in our atmosphere to levels not seen for three million years, triggering climate change and ocean acidification. The effects of these changes threaten to wreck human habitats, agriculture, and the world economy, putting vast numbers of people at risk.
“Even as we witness devastating climate impacts causing havoc across the world, we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption. For many people, regions [and] even countries, this is already a matter of life and death.”
This ominous warning came from United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres as international leaders convened in Poland in December 2018 for the COP24 conference on global warming.
He sounded the alarm because the first twenty-three annual COP climate summits, starting with COP1 in 1995, saw each in turn fail to arrest world carbon emissions, which continue to grow beyond all targeted limits. Despite his warning, a headline published at the end of the conference sang the same tired refrain: “COP24: Countries struggle to muster political will to tackle climate crisis.”
Why so little progress? Because just a few people, corporations, and nations own fossil fuels, and those owners resist efforts to convert from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy. If we do convert, then their reserves become worthless. So they use their enormous energy wealth to fund think tanks to obscure the science of climate change, pay lobbyists to pressure politicians to delay actions, and support media mavens to sow doubt about renewable energy.
Need proof that energy interests are powerful? At a time when we should be cutting back on fossil fuels, the US paid $649 billion in direct and indirect subsidies to coal, oil, and gas interests in 2015, according to the International Monetary Fund. That’s more than the entire US military budget for 2015 ($599 billion). Worldwide, fossil fuel subsides totaled $5.3 trillion, or 6.5% of global GDP. It takes considerable clout to get nations who say they are trying to control carbon emissions to instead provide that much support for maintaining those emissions.
If catastrophic climate change doesn’t motivate nations to overcome the resistance from fossil fuel interests, we should stop beating our heads against the wall, step back, and approach the problem from a different angle. That’s what this book does. Instead of confronting global warming head-on, it advances an original solution to economic insecurity, and that solution carries with it an automatic side effect of addressing climate change.
This solution develops from a novel idea—that we set up every person on the planet with a big section of solar panels, sell the electricity the panels generate, and give the money to the person as “solar dividends” for life.
This solution derives from four incontestable facts:
- Solar energy is inexhaustible. Our sun has been delivering energy to Earth for five billion years, and will continue for another five billion years.
- Solar energy is available all over the world. Solar energy falls on all inhabited parts of the globe, more so in some places than others.
- Solar energy has economic value. When photovoltaic panels convert the sun’s rays to electricity, that electricity can be sold for cash.
- No one owns the sun.
Since no one owns the sun, it’s fair to say that everyone has a right to a share of solar energy, because anyone can collect solar energy and put it to use. At this point our laws have not yet defined this as a legal right, nor has the United Nations declared it as a human right. It’s more of a natural right, equivalent to your right to breathe in the air from the atmosphere we all share.
This book takes that notion a step further by turning that natural right into a practical program, showing how we can make a better world by helping everyone to collect their share of solar energy.
There is certainly enough sun to go around. Every five days the sun delivers to Earth the energy equivalent to all the fossil fuel reserves in the world. Harvesting just one part in 6,000 of the solar energy hitting our planet would replace all the energy we use worldwide today. And the most important feature of solar energy that distinguishes it from fossil fuels is that it won’t run out, so this will be the last energy transition we need to make.
In the twenty-first century, the best way to harvest that solar energy is with photovoltaic (PV) panels. PV panels sit silently in the sun and generate electricity that feeds into the electric grid to power our modern world. Because people pay for that electricity, solar panels can generate money, day after day, year after year. We can distribute that money as solar dividends, and with enough panels we can generate solar dividends for everyone on Earth.
Distributing money is easier than distributing solar panels. Giving everyone solar panels to generate their own electricity might seem like a good idea, but it would not be fair. Those that don’t own property to put them on would find the panels to be useless. Even those with property may not have suitable space to install solar panels, or they may have poor access to sunlight because of trees and buildings. Community solar farms put panels on leased land in the best sunny locations and distribute the benefits as money instead of electricity.
We could largely eliminate poverty because the money the panels generate becomes a minimum basic income for each person. We would do that to reverse the growing economic disparity in the world, lift everyone out of deep poverty, and erect a stable economic floor on which people can build lives as jobs disappear into robotics and artificial intelligence.
When we reach the stage where we’ve installed enough panels to cover everyone, the combined electrical power of those panels will generate enough energy to replace fossil fuels almost entirely. As we stop burning fossil fuels, carbon emissions will drop, and we can halt the march toward catastrophic global warming. At that point, we will be running on sustainable and clean energy sources that can carry humanity far into the future.
This new approach transforms the effort. Instead of struggling against climate change, we work to secure the economic welfare of every person. The focus shifts from invisible carbon dioxide to real people, and the problem scales down from global to individual. We strive to save people, not the world, but in the end the world gets saved too.
So by tackling the problem of poverty, we deal with the problem of climate change. That’s how we approach climate change from a different angle.
We sidestep the label of “utopian dream” by building this project with real hardware in the form of solar panels and generating real money that people can spend. If we install enough of this hardware and distribute the benefits as described in this book, then we will go a long way toward solving three of the world’s biggest and most intractable problems: global poverty, global warming, and global energy supply.
The program pays for itself from the revenue generated by the solar panels themselves. The money first pays off the installation costs and then pays for the ongoing solar dividends. Because solar energy arrives endlessly, the money the panels generate for each person flows endlessly. If the panels are maintained and replaced as needed, the money can flow for a lifetime, from birth to death.
The plan reaches unprecedented breadth by including everyone. Every person living on Planet Earth would be eligible. Never has an economic plan encompassed everyone. We can do that because every nation on the planet gets a share of solar energy.
And because the idea includes everyone, it creates a force of unity among all people. Unlike fossil fuels, solar energy is a common resource we can all share. Solar dividends will be a positive thing whose benefits all people receive, something we can promote and defend because of all the good they do.
Solar dividends are for you, your children, your grandchildren, and all of your descendants. If you help build this idea into reality, you’ll create a legacy that connects you to all of your succeeding generations. Solar dividends offer a path of hope for our future.
You may think this sounds too good to be true. You might understand the basic idea, but can’t yet see how it would work in our present world. This book explains how we can do it, starting from where we are now.
My program is easy to grasp, but not easy to carry out. In order for this idea to succeed, several threads have to work together. Rather than show you one thread at a time, let me first describe the whole tapestry they weave, so you get a picture of where we are going. In Part A, I’ll present to you a vision of the future based on the most straightforward approach for creating solar dividends. Then in Part B, I’ll switch to the present and examine that approach in more detail to see how we can reach that future. I’ll also present alternative approaches in case the primary one meets too much political resistance, or if alternatives might work better in different locations.
Much of the interesting technology described in Part A is already under development, as documented in the endnotes. You may still have some questions after reading Part A, but you’ll find many answers in Part B. If you are impatient to get to the nuts and bolts, you can skip ahead and read Part B first.