Column: Subsidies for solar: the 3 biggest lies

When Kate Hepburn called Burt Lancaster a liar in the move "Rainmaker," Lancaster said he wasn't lying, he was "dreaming."

Today, lots of people are doing a lot of dreaming about solar power. And the more popular solar gets, the more frequently these dreams are repeated as truth.

Here are the three biggest:

Dream Number One: Solar costs more than coal and oil and natural gas.

The truth: It just seems that way because other people pay many of the costs of fossil fuels.

That is what the National Academy of Sciences found last year in a study called the Hidden Costs of Energy. Coal costs $63 billion more than what people pay for it - all in the form of the sickness and death that result from releasing coal particles into the air and water.

That is the equivalent of about 25 percent to 100 percent of what people pay for energy from coal. If that sounds like a subsidy, it should, because that is exactly what it is.

Oil subsidies are even more extravagant.

"The web of direct subsidies includes billions in government-sponsored low-cost construction loans and tax breaks like the Foreign Tax Credit," said energy analyst Blaine Townsend in the San Jose Mercury News. "'Last in, first out' accounting practices, special write-downs for core operations and royalty 'relief' for leases in the Gulf of Mexico have robbed the federal coffers of billions more."

The International Energy Agency says fossil fuels are subsidized $550 billion a year around the world.

Let's not forget nuclear. The federal government pays a large part of the insurance for nuclear power plants. If government subsidized insurance for solar companies, our costs would drop dramatically.

I'm not saying they should - I was just noting how subsidies create an advantage for one kind of energy.

When I studied business at the University of Chicago, I met on many occasions Milton Friedman, America's greatest economist. Friedman - and every freshman Econ student - knew economic comparisons are only valid when "all other things are equal."

And when you compare "apples to apples" and strip away all the hidden subsidies, solar is not just cleaner and easier, it is also cheaper. People who do not like subsidies for solar are on the right track, they just chose the wrong fuel.

Dream Number Two: Solar energy in the desert uses water that we do not have.

The truth: People often confuse different kinds of solar energy. Photovoltaic solar is by far the largest solar technology - and requires no water. Compared to hydropower, which uses 18 gallons of water for every kilowatt of energy produced, or other kinds of energy which use about 1-2 gallons for the same amount of energy, photovoltaic solar creates energy directly so it does not need water for cooling.

One megawatt of solar - enough to power an industrial park or a good sized farm - saves two million gallons of water a year. Solar thermal power does require water - lots of it. It is good to know the difference.

Dream Number Three: Solar is immature and speculative, says the Wall Street Journal.

The truth: Germany has created 500,000 new solar jobs in the last ten years. This year alone, Germans will build the equivalent of three nuclear power plants with simple solar panels. The speculation part is over. Today they are cashing in.

As are other large companies all over the country including Walmart, IBM, Los Gatos Tomatoes and many others.

Next year, one of America's oldest and most respected companies will install one of the larger solar plants in the country: That would be Dow Jones, owner of the Wall Street Journal.

Their editorial writers apparently missed that story.

Or maybe they were just dreaming.

Tom Rooney is the president and CEO of SPG Solar. Write to him at