President Jimmy Carter famously installed solar panels at the White House in 1979. Just as famously, Ronald Reagan had them removed shortly after he assumed the presidency.
Both moves were largely symbolic, as solar power, still in its infancy, was expensive and inefficient. Over the years technological improvements have made solar power a more reasonable option for many users. In fact, George W. Bush had new solar panels placed at the White House in 2002, and Barack Obama added more in 2013.
Despite a hefty supply, and long history, of oil and gas in Texas, the state has embraced renewable energy as well — especially along the Gulf Coast, including the Rio Grande Valley. Gulf breezes feed wind farms in Willacy and Kenedy counties, and more turbines are in the works in northern Hidalgo County.
Local officials might be able to build on those resources and earn a reputation as a forward-thinking region by expanding its use of clean energy.
The sunny South Texas climate also provides plenty of opportunity for solar development, and several entities have made initial investments. Local educational institutions have developed solar arrays that augment their current power supply and also serve as labs for engineering students to test solar technology and work on improving it.
Businesses such as H-E-B already are experimenting with clean energy. The grocery giant has installed solar panels at many stores across Texas, including the Valley.
It appears that renewable energy is becoming a viable option. Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc., beyond making electric cars, already markets solar panels for home rooftops, and also is working on solar roof shingles that look like current home materials.
Valley officials could capitalize on the trend by promoting the technology. They could court corporate sponsorship of high-profile, public renewable energy projects that could serve both as educational labs and public displays of the technology to inform and inspire the public.
Officials should examine whether renewable energy is a viable option that could reduce their need to buy power, and save their taxpayers a little money. Could solar panels be placed on government buildings? Could wind turbines be incorporated into communications towers, lampposts, etc.?
Musk, whose SpaceX already has made major investments in the area, might be convinced to provide solar panels to new or renovated municipal buildings, in return for the right to publicize the installation. His company might even find ways to build panels that can be used in the renovation of historic buildings that would retain their original look.
Like H-E-B, many businesses utilize buildings that have plenty of roof space. New businesses seeking tax abatements might respond to proposed tax breaks in return for installing solar roofs, or even wind or geothermal technology if it’s practical,.
Renewable energy could be near the point where public investment is more than a statement, but also a cost-effective alternative that can increase public recognition while reducing energy costs — and help reduce the strain on our environment.