By Karl Wolfgang Böer and Neville Williams June 24, 2014
We all know the threat we face from climate change and catastrophic weather caused by centuries of human-generated carbon emissions — 38 billion tons a year now and growing, with carbon dioxide measured in Hawaii at 400 parts per million in May 2014 (compared to 215 ppm a century ago).
How can we change this? We are all familiar with renewable energy technologies that can replace fossil fuel driven energy and can dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions: photovoltaics (PV), solar thermal, hydro, wind, ocean waves, tidal power, bioenergy, solar heating and domestic solar hot water. This magazine has featured these renewable energies since its inception, usually ahead of their mass commercialization.
So we know the problem facing the planet and we know the solutions. Now we all have to get involved, if we aren’t already, to do what we can, because disaster stares us in the face. The United Nations’ recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demands a reduction of carbon emissions, and the new and dire White House Climate Assessment outlines the terrifying dangers we face already. We have to act now. We’ve run out of time, but not out of solutions.
The good news is that solar PV has become the cheapest form of energy on Earth. PV’s costs, stimulated by China’s vast manufacturing commitment, have dropped 75 percent since 2008 — from $3.50 a watt 10 years ago to 50 cents today. Now non-Chinese companies like SolarWorld and SunPower and Japanese firms nearly match Chinese PV prices. Multi-megawatt (MW) PV projects now produce electricity, in some markets, at wholesale prices of 5 to 6 cents a kilowatt-hour, competing head on with wind and natural gas, while approaching closely the cost of coal-fired power generation. This news — while long overdue — comes as a welcome surprise. Solar has reached grid parity at last. Renewables already account for 28 percent of global electricity demand. It shouldn’t be this hard to complete the transition.
We have the solutions, in proven technologies and energy efficiency. What’s missing? Popular will, political action, corporate leadership and visionary entrepreneurship. Opportunities abound. Now all of us must help by conserving energy, using affordable solar on our homes and businesses, and pressuring government officials to put solar to work. Let’s elect representatives who understand both the threat and the means to rectify it.
Let’s educate the young about their energy future, and brand sun power as glamorous, even sexy. The steadily growing solar industry (now at $100 billion) needs to recruit students, in engineering, business, communications and IT, to pursue lucrative lifelong careers in clean energy.
We can’t undo the greenhouse effect, but we don’t have to make it worse. Humanity has been digging a hole for itself for generations. Now is the time to stop digging, not just for our children and grandchildren, but for ourselves.
The worldwide capacity of installed PV is 130 gigawatts (GW), and global wind capacity has reached 300 GW. America’s installed PV panels produce more energy than all nuclear power plants in France and the United States combined! In April, First Solar commissioned the world’s largest PV farm, the 290-MW thin-film Agua Caliente plant. At 4.8 GW, PV in the United States has gone mainstream; it now powers nearly 2.2 million American homes, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, cutting carbon pollution by 4.4 percent.
The U.S. market for PV last year hit $14 billion. You only have to look in your pocket for an analogy to solar’s growth. Just a dozen years after Blackberry put an email client in a cell phone, that expensive, American-invented, Chinese- produced device is now used by 80 percent of Americans. Solar is on a similar trajectory.
The Solar Energy Industries Association claims a solar installation occurs in the United States every four minutes! Jon Wellinghoff, immediate past chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said recently, “Solar is growing so fast it is going to overtake everything. It could double every two years.” At that rate solar will power all American homes within 12 years.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory projects that wind and solar could produce 15 percent of U.S. electricity by 2020, and 27 percent by 2030. We think this is conservative. Shell Oil analysts predict that by 2070, PV will be the planet’s main source of energy, entirely replacing fossil fuels. Simple economics alone will achieve this, but we can’t wait that long. Given that America represents only five percent of the world’s population, yet produces 19 percent of global carbon dioxide, it is the responsibility of U.S. citizens, their industries and their government to take the lead in moving from fossil fuels to clean energy.
And here is how we know that power from the sun is winning: the conventional fossil power industry is pushing back. Like dinosaurs in their death throes, the 100-year-old central-generating utility monopolies see solar as a threat to their business model, and project declining revenues. Distributed solar generation is the future; it is going to break the grip of coal and even of centralized natural gas. Some utilities will diversify and decentralize accordingly, and may even try to monopolize solar power. But if that leads to the closing of coal and even nuclear plants, who cares? Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute says fossil fuels are the new whale oil. Meanwhile, nuclear power has become “unfinanceable,” while solar’s costs continue to decline.
Electric utilities could play a huge role in switching to solar, wind and energy storage. So could oil companies. Three years ago the French oil giant Total acquired the American PV manufacturer SunPower. Now Chevron is back in the game. Exxon and Shell exited the business when it didn’t meet early expectations. They may come back, and they have the capital to invest in renewables. What will they do when electric cars start eating into the oil business? And that brings us to batteries. The next big thing in the energy revolution is storage. Billions are being invested right now by Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, the Google boys and Elon Musk — the latter putting $5 billion into lithium-ion battery production. These people see the future and we need to follow them. Molten salt, compressed air, large lithium-ion batteries, gravity-fed hydroelectricity and hydrogen can store sunlight for use at night, and to solve wind’s “intermittency” problem. Residential solar-plus-storage is rapidly breaking new ground.
Even without storage, PV beneficially makes electricity when the sun shines — just when the stress on conventional generating plants, and on our antiquated power grid, is highest. This is the key argument against the utility executives who claim that solar destabilizes the distribution system. PV poses no insuperable technical risks to power networks.
“Utilities lack imagination,” says Jigar Shah, founder of SunEdison. They will start “imagining” soon or they will be out of business, and they won’t be the first monopolies to fail. They will be outsmarted by the “smart grid” and smarter solar technologies. Sixty-five percent of American rooftops covered with installed PV and linked with storage systems could provide enough power to replace every coal and nuclear plant in the United States.
How much time do we have to initiate the switch? None! The planet’s reservoir for collecting and absorbing carbon dioxide will soon be filled. Glaciers are disappearing; seas are rising (up to an estimated 7 feet when Greenland’s ice is gone); and weather is more violent and extreme than ever before. We cannot deposit more carbon dioxide in the oceans — they are already too acid. We can’t capture and freeze it and bury it in caverns; it will soon evaporate and escape at high pressure, with devastating effects like the carbon dioxide outburst of Lake Nyos in Cameroon that killed 1,700 people in 1968.
Where will all this end? We don’t want our children or grandchildren burdened with a problem we weren’t able to solve.
But we can solve it and we can prevent ongoing increases in carbon emissions. Humans are waking up to the severity of the problem and becoming aware that all the technology we will ever need is here, now, and is affordable. There’s plenty of private and public money available to do what we must. And sunshine will be abundant to the end of time.