Let the Sun Fight Terrorism

With oil prices falling again, the US may be tempted to avoid making expensive investments in alternative energy sources or in conservation. But the nation needs a long-term perspective to reduce its dependency on Middle East oil - a dependency that only helps entangle it with terrorists.

One hopeful sign comes from San Francisco, where voters recently approved a ballot measure that will turn the city into a solar-energy leader, while also possibly getting it off California's wild ride in electricity prices.

The environmental benefits of alternative energy are largely driving this move, in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Europe is moving much faster than the US toward renewable energies as a way to cut back on greenhouse emissions. The European Union plans to produce 22 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2010. Denmark currently gets 14 percent of its power from the wind. Britain is increasing its public investments in solar and wind.

The antiterrorist angle is a more recent rationale. It's much more difficult to target a power system when it's dispersed on countless rooftops. And it's much easier to deal with Saudi Arabia when it doesn't hold an oil club.

The question, as always, is whether these renewable sources can economically replace the current dependence on fossil fuels for electricity.

Recent advances in technology have greatly reduced the price of a kilowatt-hour of electricity produced from solar cells and wind turbines. And economists are getting better at calculating the real, long-term costs to the world of burning dirty coal in power plants.

San Francisco plans to produce 20 megawatts from solar panels and wind generators to power public buildings. A second measure passed by the voters allows the city government to underwrite widespread residential and commercial use of solar as well. San Francisco's steps should help stir solar development in other parts of the country and stimulate investment in the manufacture of solar and other equipment. Some cities are already moving in that direction. Seattle, for example, encourages utility customers to voluntarily contribute to a fund for renewable energy.

California set an earlier example by spurring car companies in the 1990s to develop hybrid electric-gas vehicles to meet state requirements for reducing air pollution.

Residents of the City by the Bay, despite their often foggy weather, are thinking clearly about their energy future. Here's hoping some of that thinking finds its way to Washington.

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