Robert Stayton, Solar Dividends

Robert Stayton, Solar Dividends: How solar energy can generate a Basic Income for everyone on earth, Santa Cruz, CA: Sandstone Publishing, 2019, 0 9904792 3 9, pbk, viii + 116 pp, $12.95

The author offers a simple message: that everyone should install solar panels which would provide them with an income, which would first of all pay off the cost of the installation and then provide them with an unconditional income for life. And the large amount of clean electricity generated would help the world to tackle global warming.

It isn’t always entirely clear whether everyone would be ‘eligible’ (p. vii) to install the panels, or whether everyone would have an obligation to do so; and neither is it always clear whether the money is earned by institutions and then distributed, or whether each individual would reap a separate income from their own solar panels and pay off the installation loan themselves ( – only the first option could be regarded as a Citizen’s Basic Income, although the second could be close to one). But whatever the detail, this is an interesting idea.

Following the introduction, the book offers a fictionalised vision, and financial detail, of a future in which poverty is eliminated, waste is recycled, and carbon emissions are under control. Both here and later in the book Stayton recognises that in order to provide a Citizen’s Basic Income of a useful value, energy prices would have to rise: and he pays considerable attention to the positive and negative consequences of this: and as he points out, fossil fuels would cost a lot more than they do if the price were to take into account the costs imposed by global warming. A carbon tax would both internalise the externalities, and make solar energy competitive.

The second part of the book begins with a chapter that relates the history and advantages of Citizen’s Basic Income. This is a generally good summary of the issues, although unfortunately it relies on flawed OECD research into Citizen’s Basic Income schemes that require high tax rates and, by abolishing means-tested benefits, impose net income losses on low income households, rather than on research into schemes that maintain means-tested benefits, avoid significant losses, and pay Citizen’s Basic Incomes of a reasonable size while restricting income tax rate rises.

Having decided that tax-funded Citizen’s Basic Incomes would not be fair, the author turns to funding Citizen’s Basic Incomes – ‘solar dividends’ – through the proceeds of solar energy production. As he recognises, this is a similar mechanism to the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend.

Advantages that Stayton lists for his proposal are that it would include everyone; each person would be contributing to the economy; each person would be supported by the economy; national boundaries would no longer separate us; and quality of life would improve. Final chapters discuss the institutions that would be required for the scheme to work, and also the possibility of a pilot project. A concluding chapter is a call for action.

In a short book it is not possible to discuss every aspect of such a complex idea, but perhaps if Stayton continues his research on his plan then he might ask himself why it hasn’t happened already. He is likely to find the reason in the policy process, which finds it difficult to process a single new idea, let alone two new ideas at the same time, in this case a massive roll-out of solar panels and a Citizen’s Basic Income. In the UK, solar panel installations frequently run into planning regulations and enquiries, and the volatility of government policy in relation to feed-in tariffs and other economic factors has imposed a significant brake on the development of solar energy. To expect a long-term plan for solar energy to make its way through the policy process at the same time as a Citizen’s Basic Income scheme was navigating its way through it would be asking rather a lot. However, a staged process might be feasible. If a Citizen’s Basic Income scheme paid for by adjusting tax allowances and rates were to be established, then a carbon tax and solar energy dividends would enable the Citizen’s Basic Income to be increased; and if a carbon tax and solar energy dividends were to be established, then the money could be used to pay a Citizen’s Basic Income. We might yet see implemented a Citizen’s Basic Income funded by the proceeds from solar energy.