Why Solar?

Today I want to offer a clear, concise statement on why solar is the only solution to our world’s energy and pollution problems.

(1) Our Sun is an immense nuclear reactor. The fusion of hydrogen atoms occurring within its core releases an enormous amount of energy that radiates through the solar system. Only a fraction of this radiant energy strikes our planet, but so powerful is the energy source that each hour enough sunlight falls upon the Earth’s surface to meet all of civilizations’ energy needs for a year.

(2) The compound that allows us to harness the Sun’s energy and convert it to power is silica. Silica is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.

(3) The mechanism by which we convert sunlight to power – the photovoltaic cell – is a near flawless machine: PV panels have no moving parts and therefore are long-lasting and require minimal maintenance. They have zero emissions.

The energy produced by our Sun is free, abundant, constant, and inexhaustible. No other existing source comes even remotely close to matching its energy output. The raw materials to harness this energy exists in abundance. And we have the knowledge to turn this energy into power. And yet…

Always there is an “And yet” with us. We can muddle the clear and confuse the simple. It is a strange habit for a species so advanced.

The problems with solar in United States are political, not technical. Very soon we will overcome the obstacles of solar efficiency and energy storage (begin the video at 6:40). All that will remain is for us to overcome our resistance, our fear, our confusion. We have an energy source 1/10,000 of which can meet all of our energy needs. All that is left for us to do is accept it. The greatest leap forward for society since the invention of agriculture is within our grasp. Limitless, free, non-polluting power will liberate humanity in ways we can’t comprehend.


A Stupid Move on Solar

That title is pretty uncharitable on my part. Jillian Kay Melchior is even more uncharitable, but she sums up my feelings pretty well upon news that the Obama Administration is slapping tariffs on imported Chinese solar panels:

The federal government last week approved a hypocritical trade measure that not only undermines the president’s environmental goals but also increases costs for U.S. consumers.

Most Chinese solar panels will now be subject to tariffs of about 24 to 36 percent, the U.S. International Trade Commission unanimously decided this week. They were responding to an anti-dumping suit filed by German-owned solar-panel manufacturer SolarWorld, alongside six American manufacturers, many of whom opted to remain anonymous.

These panel manufacturers have every reason to be secretive. In protecting their own products from cheaper Chinese panels “dumped” into the U.S. market, they’re screwing over other segments of the U.S. solar industry, including solar-panel installers and companies that use panels as an input for electronic products and will now have to cope with higher prices caused by the tariffs.

Moreover, the tariffs undermine the president’s green agenda. If the U.S. really wants to increase its reliance on alternative energy, as Obama has so often claimed, the uncompetitive domestic solar market could use all the cost-cutting help Beijing can provide.

An unfortunate but not unexpected outcome of last week’s election. There has been a lot of grumbling in the circles President Obama travels about the Chinese dumping cheap solar panels. I had guessed it was only a matter of time before we hit back. I view these trade/protectionist policies as both intellectually silly and economically harmful. Given all the subsidies we’re dumping onto our own solar industries – often with little to show for it – I can’t wrap my mind around punishing the Chinese for doing the same. Especially when the Chinese are providing a product we need at a price we can actually afford.

To be all fair and balanced, here’s Senator Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) complaint in favor of hitting the Chinese. After all, I’m not an expert in global trade. My concern lies in moving the U.S. toward a solar future, and so far, I’m not real impressed with what’s coming out of Washington, D.C. If the Chinese are subsidizing their solar manufacturers to our benefit, well, let’s accept that and see what we need to do domestically to make our manufacturers competitive with the Chinese. Let’s not, of all things, start a trade war that results in escalating prices for solar panels. That’s definitely a move in the wrong direction.

Enviro Quick Hits

Working on a number of long posts. In the meantime, enjoy these environmental news quick posts:

Environmental regulators at work (via Drudge Report): Business Gets $4,000 Fine for a Missing Trashcan Lid

Kicking our butts in the solar game: Germany’s Solar Power Use Jumps 50 Percent

Someone else wondering why we let sewage flow into our rivers: Fecal Matters

Paul Greenberg on our mistreatment of the American oyster: An Oyster in the Storm

An answer is only as good as the question: Pennsylvania Agency Didn’t Mention Water Pollution Near Fracking Site Because No One Asked

What Hath Obama Wrought? (A eulogy for solar power)

In February 2009, a newly sworn in President Obama and a democratic-party-packed congress approved an $831 billion economic stimulus program – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – to respond to the recession. A prominent feature of the stimulus bill was a planned infusion of $90 billion into the green energy sector. This $90 billion, in the form of tax credits, direct loans, and other incentives went to support clean energy technology, energy conservation, mass transit projects, and other programs. Of course, the most well-known part of this green stimulus was the government loan program for solar power and electric vehicle industries. President Obama was directing a green energy industrial policy with the goal of giving the United States a clean energy future.

We now know that his attempt at green industrial policy has failed.

Was it ineptitude? Poor planning? Pressure to spend the money that led to sloppy investment decisions? Was the failure an outright example of government graft and cronyism? Is it possible, given the complexities of modern industrial nations, that government simply isn’t capable of directing national economic policy of this magnitude?

Whatever the cause, it is the consequence, specifically for residential solar power, that I fear. I believe we are at a crossroads, a tipping point, for solar power in the United States. Prices for photovoltaics are dropping rapidly, and the pace of rooftop solar installations is gaining steam. Distributed solar capacity is expected to double from 3,536 megawatts in 2011 to 7,000 megawatts by the end of this year. I’m also following stories like this one pointing out that simply removing government red tape could dramatically reduce residential solar installation costs. Soon the price per kilowatt hour between solar and coal may reach parity, which many believe is the tipping point at which widespread adoption of residential solar will occur.

But will we get to this tipping point, given the inevitable political backlash against government-funded energy investment? Amongst our political class, who now is willing to support more spending for solar? I’ll go so far as to say that given the present political environment, the current 30% federal tax credit for residential solar is at real risk of expiring in 2016, if it is even allowed to last that long.

For solar supporters, casting blame does no good. I reckon the voters will hold Obama responsible at the polls. But win or lose, President Obama’s ability to pursue his green energy agenda is irredeemably compromised. Our best option now is to change the debate: we need to move beyond the failed stimulus approach and offer new ideas and new policies for achieving our solar goals. In death, we offer eulogies to praise the recently passed. Let us hope that the eulogy we may find ourselves offering is for the failed policies of one president, and not for our within-reach solar future.