In Race against Carbon Catastrophe, Solar Power is Making Strides

The world probably needs to get back to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere if truly radical climate change is to be avoided. But we are going in the wrong direction fast. In April, the Mauna Loa observatory measured CO2 in the atmosphere at about 396 parts per million, the highest recorded since records began being kept. The level was up nearly 3 ppm in a single year, itself an unusual statistic. Before the Industrial Revolution, at the time of the American Revolution, the level was 280 ppm. The Founding Fathers would already not recognize America’s balmy climate if they traveled in time to the present.

There are responsible and irresponsible players in this crisis. The Chinese are the most irresponsible in having the highest level of CO2 emissions, though they are actively trying to bring those down. Arguably the most irresponsible of all is the United States, with the second largest amount of CO2 emissions but doing very little about it (and our big corporations, including Big Media, are trying to exercise on us a Goebbels-like Big Lie that we needn’t do anything).

Then there are responsible countries, like Germany and Portugal, who are investing in renewables in a big way.

On last Friday afternoon, because of clear skies and good weather, Germany was at one point producing 22 gigawatts of solar power, a new record. Today (Monday) is a holiday in Germany, and electricity needs will be only a third of normal. So, for a couple hours this afternoon, all Germany’s electrical power needs will be supplied by renewable energy. That must be a first for an industrialized, G8 country.

Germany has defied the predictions of those who said that mothballing its nuclear plants would cause it to produce more CO2. Its carbon dioxide production was down 2% in the past year. It replaced 60% of its formerly nuclear-generated electricity production with renewables, and became 5% more efficient in using energy.

Germany’s achievement is owing in part to the influence in the 1990s of the Green Party on energy policy in that country. But soon investing in solar energy will no longer be high-minded, it will just be economic common sense. By 2017, even if you don’t count all the damage hydrocarbons do to the atmosphere, solar power will reach grid parity with them. That is, it will be economically competitive to put in a solar plant instead of a coal one. (In some areas of the US, solar grid parity will be reached in 2014). Of course if you factor in the health and climate damage caused by CO2 and other dirty emissions, solar is already much cheaper than hydrocarbons.

Japanese firms, with the Fukushima nuclear disaster/tsunami in mind, are going into solar energy in a big way. Kyocera is planning the world’s largest solar power farm in the south of the country, which will generate 70 megawatts. If Japanese technical innovation and scientific ingenuity is turned, as it seems like to be, to renewable energy, they may well rejuvenate their lagging economy and become a big player in the burgeoning solar and wind turbine markets. The Japanese public has turned against nuclear pretty decisively, as have most companies there. They have lost a lot of trust in their government and in the Tepco firm that managed Fukushima.

The Indian government is likewise planning to put in a fresh 10 gigawatts of solar energy production by 2017.

There are daily new technological breakthroughs both in wind turbines and solar cells that will make them more efficient and more competitive over time. The world is on the right track. It is just a day late and a dollar short. The US and China aren’t accomplishing what Germany is. Not to mention the rest of the world. We can’t get back to 350 ppm at this rate. We are going toward 450 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, which climate scientists such as James Hansen now warn is probably catastrophic for the earth and for human beings.

29 Responses

  1. I’ve met many self-described “Realists” who hold two beliefs simultaneously: a)we need to control events in the middle east to secure energy supplies, and b) an industrial economy primarily powered by renewable energy is not an economical option for the foreseeable future, given that it needs high levels of subsidy and government intervention.

    But the realists never seem to factor in the most expensive subsidy imaginable: the trillions that go into playing the Great Game across the middle east (and a few other regions). Military occupation, civil and military aid, the cost of dealing with blowback from terrorist groups responding to the incursions… the tangible economic costs are almost incalculable, before we even get into the deformation of American political life.

    Perhaps the optimists are the true realists here.

    • Cynical version: the realists have been carrying out a long-term plan to use war and tax cuts to exterminate social programs that give the non-rich leverage against the rich. So the oil war is well worth it.

      Charitable version: the realists don’t think it’s worth the costs and risks changing our existing socioeconomic arrangments and picking a new set of elites via alternative energy when we surely are getting away with the status quo. This seems to be the main excuse given by AGW deniers, who obviously also deny any costs from the status quo.

      • Both versions seem plausible. But I do believe that the energy debate would be transformed if all the direct and indirect subsidies were acknowledged, and I can’t think of a bigger subsidy to any industry than the strategic commitment to controlling the world’s oil.

      • Or maybe they made an informed, forward-looking choice? Looking at what the inevitable failures, in the Murphy-space where humans and their machines actually live (not that idealized closed world of Engineer-space), can cost?

  2. Solar energy has actually being doing better than many predicted as a result of its rapidly chaging costs. Spreading grid parity in the coming years will produce even more drastic changes.

    Interestingly, Egyptian presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi was advocating policies of making solar energy a high priority. But it seems that the military/intelligence elites care little about the country and are bent on getting Shafiq to help maintain their political-economic positions for as long as possible.

  3. I just wish there was a more “small solar” approach. Big solar is tearing up a lot of the desert landscape here in the Southwestern United States, at the expense of threatened species like the desert tortoise. We should be putting more solar on buildings, instead of continuing the big power plant model.

    • There’s not enough big profit in that model, not enough opportunities for CEOs to “excel” in the Great Game of Compensation (sic) Maximization…

    • But the richer you are, the more likely you are to believe that capitalism can’t possibly cause the extinction of the human race, so the less motivated you are to buy your own solar homes. Whereas in Europe, rich people might believe differently, but the further north you are the richer you are, yet there’s less sunlight. Southern Europe is in short-term survival mode right now. And the best solar sites in the world are either inhabited by the wretchedly poor or by oil economies.

      It’s like God is setting us all up with extinction by a sick joke, to prove to us that private property and self-interest have no relationship with long-term survival.

  4. How much electricity would not be used for A/C use in the South South-West if roofs were painted a light colour?

    Flying into DFW airport, It is interesting that industrial buildings have white to light coloured roofs, while the residential housing is almost always dark to black colour.

  5. Arguably the most irresponsible of all is the United States, with the second largest amount of CO2 emissions but doing very little about it

    Actually, the United States is the world’s largest investor in solar technology, investing $55.9 billion in clean power in 2011, compared to $10.3 billion from India. The American contribution represents 21.5% of total global investment, or, in a certain parlance, “very little.”

    link to cleantechnica.com

    • Love the chest thumping. We’re Number One!

      Does that not kind of go around the point that “America,” especially if you include all the carbon-converting-by-CO2NOxSO2mbustion post-nationals that may have some legacy connection to the good ol’ USA, and the MIC worldwide, and all the efforts “we” are putting into keeping the home fires burning, hot and high and producing lots of CO2 and methane and that kind of schmutz, are pretty much “Number One” per capita in “doing unto others,” via frackery and chicanery, to support that consumatopian lifestyle and the mythical Liberty&Freedom that characterizes We The People? How many billions, or trillions, of dollars is being “invested” in Who Cares? I’ll Be Gone, You’ll Be Gone-ism?”

      How much are we World Leaders in Everything “investing,” in mountaintopping and fracking and nuclear plants that will never be built (like the ones I and my neighborly rate-payers are ponying up $9.5 billion in “pre-expenditures” to pad the balance sheets and jump the bonuses of Florida’s Progress “HaHa” Energy and its C-suite? And we are being urged to keep on buying those Chevvies and Fords and building yet more miles of ‘superhighway” — another “investment in the [totally short-term, immediate, who cares about 20 years from now] future?”

    • Love the chest thumping. We’re Number One!

      Aw, did I present you with some facts that you found inconvenient?

      Too bad. I do that a lot.

      Going into you canned tapdance and changing the subject are not the responses of an honest person to information he didn’t know.

      • Facts? or factoids? And the deprecating response falls short of addressing the points I questioned.

        Is the “correct” approach to applaud the application of a Band-Aid to a paper cut, when the patient is bleeding out from a bunch of arterial wounds and choking on his own vomit?

  6. If the cost of renewables can be pushed below that of the fossil fuels, then that will create a disincentive to use fossils. At that point, expensive fossil fuel production will cease and cheaper coal and oil production will likely be requiring huge subsidies to stay profitable. At that time, renewable energy funded lobby groups can be relied upon to push for the end to those subsidies as it will be a form of unfair competition that cuts into their profits. Also, at that time, environmental lobby groups will be able to get laws pushed through banning dirty forms of fossil fuel production, as there will be less entrenched political interests backing those forms. Even if those forms of production later become profitable, laws will act as a brake on their use.

    But the key is that renewables need to become cheap and profitable.

    • Renewables are already often competitive even with the current stacked deck. But you are assuming the price is “natural.”. It is constructed through subsidies to hydrocarbons and putting off the books their health & environmental impact.

    • Shannon you are assuming the US political system is not broken and that there is time to make gradual change.. I assure you there is absolutely no time to waste stopping runaway global warming because the Arctic is starting to release methane from ice crystal encasement in hydrates in offshore areas like the East Siberian Arctic Shelf where some 1700 billion tons are vulnerable to heat increase. Kilometer wide plumes of methane are reaching surface of the Sea and this is something not described before. On land on the tundra lays also 1.7 trillion tons of carbon in peat and organic dusts again vulnerable to heat increase. It’s game on.

  7. Solar energy for individual homes is available. However, the cost is far more than the 99% can pay. The price will stay that way, until we run out of oil. Then the government will take over, and charge an arm and a leg for the Solar and/or wind power. Same with green powered vehicles, they are way over the average persons budget.

    In BC, household utilities costs are obscene. Some of us, are getting together, to see if solar would be more reasonably priced, if a large group got together.

    In BC, citizens are going underground. The price gouging in BC is terrible. Food costs are so high, people who would have never thought, they would have to rely on the Food Banks, find they now have to. They say, be prepared for your community, to feed everyone within a 100 mile radius. Instead of paying over $15.00 for one chicken, I now pay $6.50. Many of us grow our own vegetables. Or vegies are available in farmers markets. Organic eggs and meats of all kinds are readily available too. All I buy from the supermarket is, salt, pepper, coffee, tea, flour and sugar. I try to support the mom and pop stores. I saved $2,500 on a bath room reno, through the underground.

    The Campbell/Clark BC Liberals, work for Harper….Harper refuses to answer, why Canadians can save up to $7,000 per year by shopping in the U.S. Canadians save mega bucks by gassing up their vehicles in the U.S. as well.

    Perhaps read: Harper gives a speech in New York, at the Council of Foreign Relations. This was in Sept 25/2007. Harper even encourages Canadians to shop in the U.S. Perhaps, this is why.

  8. I am a regular reader because you bring an informed perspective to MENA events, skeptical of simplistic explanations.

    I continue to be disappointed that you don’t apply the same sort of skepticism to energy issues.

    The Guardian article you linked to is ridiculous, simplistic and credulous. As commenters there have pointed out, Germany has slashed its electricity exports. That means other European countries have had to replace the electricity they were importing from Germany. It means nothing to report that Germany has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions if other European countries have had to increase theirs.

    Keeping electrical grids stable and reliable while using increasing amounts of renewable energy is going to be hard and expensive, with many technical challenges. On the same day you link to that Guardian article, The Oil Drum has now posted a report, “German Power Grids Increasingly Strained”.

    link to theoildrum.com

    I continue to support the rapid deployment of fourth generation nuclear power plants concurrently with the rapid deployment of renewables. This will help address strains on the electrical grid, keep costs down, and allow us to deal with the ‘waste’ from second and third generation nuclear plants. (What others call waste, supporters of fourth generation nuclear plants call fuel.)

    German domestic electrical consumers are paying about 2.5 times what I’m paying in my part of the USA. I’d like to keep it that way but also shut down the fossil fuel powered plants. (The electricity I purchase is mostly from coal-fired plants with some nuclear.) This is going to be much harder than you report, even taking into account the increasing cost competitiveness of wind and solar power.

    • all the grid problems can and will be solved. Renewables have repeatedly been dismissed on such pretexts and the supposed obstacles have repeatedly been overcome.

  9. Yes solar should be done as the Germans have done it. No solar farm but solar on every building and house then everything plugged into the grid. The grid was Germans first problem but was overcome a few yrs ago. If you want to see real advancement in Green Power go to here.

    link to guardian.co.uk

    Then again when I talk to people here it’s always, well those are small countries and it’s easier. This is where I have to walk away; this country seems to be afraid of taking on big projects other than war. Hell we went to the Moon within 10yrs of JFK speech and look at all of the things we have today because of the research that went into that one project. Sad we have no real leaders in this country any more just followers of whatever corp. Amerika wants.

    Answer to the head line about German is the nukes stay off line and are decommissioned while they move on to clean fuels and they know coal isn’t one of them no matter what the industry and potus says.

  10. Actually, if the Greens had not opposed nuclear all along, Germany would have had virtually carbon free electricity for a long time now, just as France does.

    Already 20 years behind France in that respect, Germany has just said it will concentrate on decommissioning nuclear instead of fossils for the next ten years. If they do that, they have at least 20 years more to get rid of coal and NG, if at all possible with intermittent energy. That makes them fully 50 years behind France, optimistically. Thus, a number of ppms of elevated atmospheric CO2 should be attributed directly to Germany’s Green movement.

    • The Greens did not shut down Germany’s nuclear reactors.

      If the Greens had had their way, Germany would have far more solar and wind power than it does; you’re forgetting that they were not in power, only coalition partners, and a long time ago. Then Germany wouldn’t have any emissions, either.

      Nuclear power plants produce poisonous by-products, are hard to finance, and Germany couldn’t have built many of them starting at the time of the SDP/Green alliance anyway.

      Electricity importing countries could have put in their own solar & wind installations.

      Almost everything you said was wrong.

      • Parties in parliamentary democracies have influence on some policies even when not in power.

        Again, France was done in 1992 and Germany could have been too. They could do it now in very short order if they used the same amount of money for nuclear as they use for renewables. The 2012 feed-in-tariff for solar PV is some €0.2443, which would buy five times as much nuclear:
        link to germanenergyblog.de

        The current German policy is typically green in that it has no real concern for actual environmental consequences, but is very much into making sacrifices, and compelling others to sacrifice. Granted, there are a number of heavyweight Greens that acknowledge that the climate needs urgent, rational action – not symbolic sacrifice. But too few, too little, too late, I’m afraid.

    • Jesper, that sounds really good right up to the morning after the accident. That’s the problem with nuclear; when each major nation in turn has its disaster, folks like you go into hiding until memories have faded, and then you all start putting out your crap that “the accidents are worth it”. Which tells us that we can’t trust you when you switch angles to “Thorium is safe”, or “Fast breeders are safe”, or “New reactor designs are safe”. All of those might be true, but you have already shown by past words that in your hearts you don’t care about the victims of the old designs, thus we suspect you might be willing to lie about the new ones.

      The one thing that one never, ever, ever sees from a nuke advocate is humility, and that says the most of all.

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