Are you wondering how to evaluate candidates for the Legislature and Congress? Questions to put before them should be all about the three Es — energy, the economy, and the environment.

Regarding energy, future elected officials will have to consider whether to favor a greater shift toward sources of clean renewable energy — from the sun, wind, tides, waves, etc. Otherwise we will continue to rely on dirty and non-renewable resources that must be extracted from the earth, namely coal, oil and natural gas. The power of these three fossil fuels drove the Industrial Revolution. Burning them still generates much of our electricity and powers most of our vehicles. It’s hard to imagine living without them.

Fortunately, a new Industrial Revolution is upon us. The installation and operation of solar power is now cheaper than for natural gas. Furthermore, the price of solar panels continues downward (except for President Donald Trump’s tariff on imported panels), while each panel’s efficiency increases annually. Every legislator and member of Congress needs to keep these things in mind while crafting their legislative agenda.

Regarding the economy, all elected officials express concerns about jobs. Ask them if they know that employment growth in the solar industry has been 15 to 20 times faster than in the U.S. economy overall (until the tariff put a damper on that). Though it’s true that solar installations currently get a 30 percent federal tax break, the break is intended to be temporary. The ongoing subsidies to fossil fuel industries are built into the tax system more or less permanently.

Just like the original Industrial Revolution, the new one is bound to bring cost-saving inventions as well as extraordinary improvements to existing technology. For example, complete conversion to energy-efficient LED lighting can now save hundreds of dollars a month in electricity bills for commercial buildings. Further breakthroughs in LED technology are anticipated.

As for solar technology, solar roofing tiles are already available, some buildings now have solar wall materials, and in parts of Europe, bike lanes are being paved with solar panels. Battery technology to store electricity for use when the sun is not shining or the wind not blowing is also rapidly advancing. This truly is a revolution.

Regarding the environment and human health, everyone knows that emissions from power stations and the vehicles we drive are considered pollution. Milton Friedman, conservative economist and author of the best-selling book on economics “Capitalism and Freedom,” suggests “a tax on the amount of pollutants emitted by a car,” instead of regulations. Doing so would “make it in the self-interest of car manufacturers and consumers to keep down pollution.”

Here’s another way to think about it. We accept paying for trash pickup, which is visible roadside pollution. So why not have a way to pay for emissions that disappear as invisible air pollution?

The question of the day is, can free enterprise prevent such invisible pollution? The answer is yes, but only if government is willing to put a price on emissions, following Friedman’s advice. Such a plan has been advocated by George Schultz, former secretary of the Treasury under President Ronald Reagan. He called it “carbon fee and dividend.”

A steadily-rising fee based on the carbon dioxide content of fossil fuels would be paid to a trust fund by owners of all coal mines, oil and gas wells, or ports of entry. The plan wouldn’t increase the size of government, because fees collected would be returned equally from that fund to U.S. households as a monthly dividend check. A similar plan has worked successfully in British Columbia for 10 years.

The system would also have to be applied worldwide, of course. Under World Trade Organization rules, other countries without such carbon pricing would be required to pay a tariff on their goods imported here. It wouldn’t be long before the whole world would join in placing a much more true cost on energy from whatever source, with pollution priced as it should be.

Now it’s up to you to ask questions of all candidates for elective office about the three Es: energy, the economy and environment. Decisions they make as your representatives will make a big difference for your future and that of your children and grandchildren.

Peter Garrett of Winslow is a member of Sustain Mid Maine Coalition’s board of directors. He is the Citizens’ Climate Lobby state coordinator.

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