Alternative Energy Sources Gain Ground Author and journalist Vijay Vaitheeswaran discusses the relative merits of alternative energy sources. He says spending on hybrid cars is an investment in the future, more than a way to save money now. Vaitheeswaran also says there are parts of the country where solar is price competitive with fossil fuels.

Alternative Energy Sources Gain Ground

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We wanted to see how cost effective some of those forms of alternative energy such as hybrid cars and solar energy are for the consumer, so we turned to Vijay Vaitheeswaran, a correspondent for The Economist and author of Power to the People: How the Coming Energy Revolution Will Transform an Industry, Change Our Lives and Maybe Even Save the Planet.

I just mentioned hybrid cars. Let's just begin with that. It's one kind of alternative energy that people are looking to. Will it in fact save the individual money if they plunk down what it costs to buy a hybrid car?

Mr. VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN (Correspondent, The Economist): At the moment, the economics probably don't work out simply because this is a new technology. And at the moment, cars like the Toyota Prius are more expensive even when you account for some of the rebates and tax concessions that are given. At $3 gasoline, you probably are going to need quite a long time for that to pay out.

But think of it this way: Within a decade, most cars and trucks are probably going to have hybrid components in them. This is really the essential enabling technology for the future of the automotive industry and you are, in a way, making an investment in the future of clean cars.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's turn to another kind of alternative power that people have been using: solar panels on one's roofs. Now developers would argue that they don't want to spend the money because it costs homebuyers, but what about the individual?

Mr. VAITHEESWARAN: If you live in a part of the country such as the Southwest that has good solar potential and, crucially, if you buy an efficient system, then actually you can find that it is cost-competitive with retail electricity.

Now, I say that because a lot of times people make a mistake in comparison. They say, what does it take to produce electricity from a coal plant or a gas plant or nuclear, and they look at the cost of solar and say, gosh, well, it's obviously more expensive.

In fact, we have to remember that solar energy is provided right in your house at the point of use. So the right thing to compare it against is the delivered cost or so-called retail cost of the power from that distant nuclear or coal plant.

And so when you actually do the comparison right, what you find is the best solar systems are indeed competitive.

MONTAGNE: At the end of the day is there a single, at this moment in time, number one clean and cheap energy source?

Mr. VAITHEESWARAN: The cleanest, safest, surest bet for anyone who wants to invest in clean energy is energy efficiency - that is, the energy you don't use is the best energy that you can use. And that's actually the one that's the least sexy, doesn't get a lot of press; that's the one that's often so-called low-hanging fruit.

If you look around your own house, look at the kind of ways that we use energy in our lives. The avoided energy simply means there are that many coal plants and solar panels that don't need to be built to prop up our lifestyle. So that's really where we should look first.

MONTAGNE: Thank you.

Mr. VAITHEESWARAN: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Vijay Vaitheeswaran is a correspondent for The Economist and author of Power to the People.

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