SHIFT: How President Obama could create a New Deal for clean energy

President-elect Barack Obama's team sent out an e-mail earlier this week to people on his campaign's giant e-mail list, inviting them to send in their own ideas about energy and the environment. They want to harness the change Americans seem to crave on this front, the spirit that may have helped them win a couple of weeks ago. They want to harness us.

My advice? Harness our roofs. All of them. And we'll have a cleaner, more secure energy supply for the whole country.

A New 'New Deal'
Since the economy has taken a turn for the worse, people on all sides are peppering the new president-to-be with ideas on rebuilding key infrastructure — roads, bridges and power lines — as a way to get America working again.

Great, but when it comes to energy, let's focus on distributed generation — power generated from a lot of small facilities, like solar panels on your home, rather than one big plant. That will let us generate all the clean energy we need today with a redundant system that protects us better from both terrorist attacks and grid malfunctions, and should help the average home-owning American out in the long run.

Let's use the part of the grid that works today — the part from your house to the transmission lines.

A Three-Step Plan
Here's what a new administration could do on day one:

1. Push for home green power generation for people facing foreclosure. Consider the number of homeowners with mortgages worth more than their home, and consider the mortgage "workouts" being considered by the government and being done already by some banks. All of that value is lost at the stroke of a pen, but yet each of those homes could be a small power plant. Wouldn't it be better to recoup some of that vanished home equity by subsidizing a home solar-panel installation, with financing through an agency, like Sallie Mae, that manages student loans?

Loans would be paid back over time as the economy gets healthier, and this home improvement would increase the house's value and provide a more stable power grid for everyone — unlike, say, installing a Wolf range. You could even throw in a tax break for homeowners who sell more power back into the grid than some preset standard, to encourage efficiency.

2. Mandate a national renewable portfolio standard (RPS). An RPS is the law in some states; it dictates that a certain percentage of power generated and used in the state must come from renewable sources or the utility must pay a fine. Do this at a federal level, and make the federal RPS look like Colorado's — which requires a portion of that green power be from distributed generation. And since an RPS is usually a percentage goal phased in over time, increasing by a certain amount every year, why not give utilities a tax break for beating deadlines?

3. Pass national net-metering requirements. That ubiquitous, spinning electricity meter on houses around the country actually runs both ways. But utilities in only 30 states are required to buy any excess power you happen to produce right now — called net metering — and even then, it's generally at a much lower rate than that same home would pay to buy power from the utility. But if the proposed national RPS requires distributed generation, utilities will want to buy that power. Even allow them to mark down the power they buy from you at the start, but gradually minimize this over time.

Cowboy Up
It won't be easy. Naysayers will say, despite the evidence, that renewables aren't an answer by themselves, and they'll want "clean coal," or nuclear, or something. People tired of taxpayer funded bailouts will get irate. And a typical 4 kwh home solar array costs $15,000 to 30,000, not exactly chump change in an environment where you can't get credit. But with clever financing options driving demand, America's natural innovative tendencies will bring the price down. We've even got a workforce of hundreds of thousands in Michigan and Ohio, able, willing and experienced in manufacturing a $15,000-30,000 product that every American household needs.

Harness our roofs and you harness us. Let's put our fellow citizens, our taxpayer money and our passion for a cleaner environment and safer country to work, for everyone.