Warming Up to Solar and the "Energy Transition"
The energy transition. The words roll off the tongue, but what does it really mean ? Is it possible to move towards an economy based on renewable energy and to cool down global warming ?
The prospects for a new energy economy are growing, but old patterns of thought and practice around the energy industry are hindering this growth. Investment in solar and wind has gone way up in the last 5 years. It doesn't seem too long ago that these were seen as "boutique" energy provisions, nothing that would really get funded.
But wait! Within the US, it is projected that six to eight gigawatts of solar energy production will be added in the next year, and the solar energy companies are moving up, not down, the NASDAQ and the NYSE. Whether government will be able to incubate some of this growth, and provide a boost to the industry remains to be seen. There is a federal credit that offsets 30 percent of installation costs for residential solar-- this law is expiring in 2016, ginning up both worry among solar firms and agitation by groups like 350.org for more comprehensive, stronger legal back up of renewables. The Federal Administration's policy of "use all sources of energy is as antiquated as a neanderthal, and can only encourage global warming, though the administration does pay lip service to pushing forward solar.
As energy dollars shift around, we want to see those dollars go into renewables. Ask any homeowner who has installed solar panels on his house and who gets a refund check from the energy grid.
The solar energy industry is as complex and, especially, money-bound an industry as any capitalist one. But it is multi-faceted and changing as I write this. The industry (it can be called this, because it employs about 140,000 people in the US) is growing and new solar installations have experienced arithmetic, if not geometric growth in the last few years. The solar industry now employs more people than work in coal mining.
Greentech Solar, a solar and energy research company, reports that solar installations increased by 41 percent in 2013, and are projected to increase by another 26 percent in 2014, bringing the US total energy from solar closer to the 20 gigawatt milestone. At least six GW are projected to be added this year, mainly in residential systems but some in large power arrays (the science-fiction-esque huge panel arrays you see in photos usually in the desert).
One of the leaders in switching to solar power among tech companies has been Verizon, which added significant solar capacity to its systems last year. Mainstream news sources, such as Slate and the Washginton Post, have lately been reporting on the bubbling up of the use of solar energy among such blue chip companies. However the main story lies in the mix of companies like FirstSolar and SolarCity and others that have leveraged their position as some of the largest providers of solar array installation, attracting both progressive (and wallet-watching) homeowners and government interest for larger scale projects to replace dirty coal plants. Wallet-watching, because solar has become much more cost effective. Government interest, because even the gov't is now noticing the effect of dirty power plants on global warming.
With the recent discovery of enormous new reserves of natural gas in the continental US, the prospect for dominance of renewables dims a bit, at least for the near future. There is much needed action on carbon dioxide levels, to finally get off the dime and seriously address global warming. The international climate conference next fall is shaping up to be a do-or-die moment.
But the use of solar, the ultimate renewable, is growing at a fast clip. Projections of 75 gigawatts of yearly world production by 2019 are almost looking conservative to industry observers. Groups like 350.org are understandably pleased that there is some real movement away from gorging on fossil fuels. Shove the pigs out of the trough, as Jim Hightower used to say.
There will be a People's Climate March in New York on September 21, the street activist wing of the global climate movement. Hope you can all make it down there.
Dave Burt is a housing counselor in Boston and avid consumer of coffee when it is available.