No Sense of Urgency: Obama’s New Solar Energy Commitments are still Just Baby Steps

(By Juan Cole)

President Obama has long expressed concern about climate change and its impacts, and was mocked by Mitt Romney for saying he wanted to stop the rising of the seas. But climate change activists have been dismayed that the president nevertheless spoke of an “all of the above” energy policy, urging further oil and gas exploitation, talking about unicorns like clean coal, and generally doing little to tackle the enormous problem.

The US emits 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, more than any country save China. A large proportion of the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was put there through the past 150 years by the US itself. While the emissions have fallen by a billion metric tons a year recently, that fall came about largely because of the poor economy and increases in wind and natural gas power, replacing very dirty coal plants. This reduction has been touted by the Obama administration.

But really folks, if a morbidly obese person is warned that they will die if they don’t lose 600 pounds, and they try and try over 5 years and manage to lose 100 pounds, you don’t pat them on the back and say ‘well done!’ You say, what are you thinking, you need to lose another 500 pounds or you will die!

Obama’s relatively lackadaisical approach to climate change was challenged a few days ago by his own office’s report on the problem. It is said that Obama was disturbed by the White House report and feels a new urgency to move on the green energy front.

Since the president faces an extremely hostile House of Representatives that would gladly ingest arsenic if Obama spoke out against the dangers of arsenic, he has little hope of enacting new legislation on renewables. Therefore on Friday, President Obama used policy directives and executive orders to push for more solar energy aimed at helping the solar industry finally take off.

This set of commitments is very welcome, but it just has to be said that it isn’t nearly enough and does not express the sense of urgency on this issue that climate scientists such as James Hansen have insisted is necessary. In the medium term, Obama’s use of the Environmental Protection Agency to close the dirtiest coal plants will reduce CO2 emissions far more than will the new solar panels Obama is seeking to install or facilitate the installation of.

The US has just enormous solar potential on rooftops throughout the country but especially in the South, Southwest and West. Plus utility scale solar would be easy in the Southwest. But the grid has to be built out and solar has to be integrated with wind, hydro and hydropumps if we are to take full advantage of our solar bonanza (the US is way sunnier than virtually anyplace in Europe but Germany is tremendously ahead of us on solar power). Even in the upper midwest, my 16 rooftop solar panels nowadays are generating 90% of my electricity needs and also fueling my hybrid electric plug-in car (a Chevy volt). Why everyone who can afford it doesn’t do this (it saves money in the medium to long term) is beyond me.

10 percent of Germany’s electricity now comes from solar. In the US it is still only 1.13 percent– even thought the PV panels are much cheaper now than when Germany put most of its in.

Obama’s team notes that a third of all new energy generation in the US in 2013 was from solar. But solar is still an extremely small part of our energy mix, because we are starting from such a low level. So the morbidly obese person still needs to lose 500 lbs quick, or else.

Obama’s new commitments are as follows:

Build a skilled solar workforce;

Provide innovative financing for deploying solar;

Drive investment in energy upgrades to federal buildings;

Improve appliance efficiency; and

Strengthen building codes.

It seems to me that providing innovative financing for installing solar panels is one of the more important steps that could be taken. In fact, utilities themselves should start installing solar for nothing or very little down, so that they can benefit from profit sharing with consumers and can cut down on a foreboding up-front expense.

The White house noted:

“Last year was a record-breaking year for new solar installations, and the amount of solar power installed in the United States has increased nearly eleven fold – from 1.2 gigawatts in 2008 to an estimated 13 gigawatts today, which is enough to power more than 2.2 million American homes.”

It went on to affirm:

“The commitments represent more than 850 megawatts of solar deployed – enough to power nearly 130,000 homes – as well as energy efficiency investments that will lower bills for more than 1 billion square feet of buildings. Additionally, the President announced new executive actions that will lead to $2 billion in energy efficiency investments in Federal buildings; smarter appliances that will cut carbon pollution by more than 380 million metric tons – equivalent to taking 80 million cars off the road for one year – and will save businesses nearly $26 billion on their energy bills… “>

Obama is right that for the government to throw billions at solar will likely reduce the costs of the solar panels through innovations in technology and economies of scale– just they have become 50% cheaper in the past two years.

It is much easier to save carbon emissions through efficiency than to generate energy with less emissions. Obama is therefore setting new standards for freezers and refrigerators (currently carbon spendthrifts), noting: “Through 2030, these standards will help cut carbon pollution by about 158 million metric tons – equivalent to the annual electricity use of more than 21 million U.S. homes and will save consumers over $26 billion on their energy bills.” But note that in 16 years at today’s emissions rates, the US will put out 80 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. So this savings is a drop in the bucket.

Obama’s highlighting of solar power is a welcome step, and some of what he announced will be consequential. But let us face it, these are baby steps when we need a vigorously run marathon.

Related video:

AFP: “Obama renews solar energy bid despite setbacks”

17 Responses

  1. It is interesting that US costs for installed home PV systems are $20,000 for 4kW versus $8,000 in Germany (and $400 for a 4kW gas generator). The PV parts cost is about the same, and labor rates and real estate costs are much higher in Germany. The difference is almost entirely markup after the factory, consisting of middlemen, installers (but not their labor, just their markup), advertising, and permits. The permits alone are more than twice the cost of the gas generator. Now Germany has markup too, and higher real costs in all of those after-production areas.

    Does this show that the US economy consists so predominantly of markup, that nothing can be done efficiently? Does it show that there is no real competition in the allegedly free market? Does it show that the basic problem in US solar energy use is political? This appears to be worth further study.

    • John. I don’t think much is showing up as installer profit. There are several issues that need to be addressed to reduce what are called in the industry “soft-costs”. Indeed part of the soft-cost burden is paperwork, most of it on the city and county level. Also electrical codes in Germany are easier on solar installations than US codes, which means we have some additional hardware costs. In utility scale, getting new codes for 1600volts versus today’s 100volts through the approval process is slow (you need to spend more on wiring at lower voltage). I don’t think the problem is a lack of study, it is just slow working through the many issues.

      One frustrating soft-cost, cost of customer acquisition, paying the sales staff. This is worsened by would be customers who balk because of sticker shock, so in some sense it is self-reinforcing.

  2. “Since the president faces an extremely hostile House of Representatives that would gladly ingest arsenic if Obama spoke out against the dangers of arsenic, he has little hope of enacting new legislation on renewables. ”
    Dr. Cole, this is a very strong metaphor suggesting National suicide posture. Is that right?

    • I think “national suicide” is in the eyes of the beholder. It is accurate for those of us with ordinary means, but for those of us with extraordinary means, some adjustments to wealth accumulation strategies and dwelling locations are the key considerations. (The national internal security apparatus is already bulking up to handle the civil unrest that might impinge on those with extraordinary means.)

      Anyway, I think the nation’s most imminent concern right now is “Prowlergate”. Top left WP. link to washingtonpost.com

  3. Rod in Holland

    Don’t worry! As soon as Mr. Market is ready to profit from solar, they’ll tell the President and he’ll accommodatingly change gear!

  4. Pumping poison into the air is very profitable for Politicians and the Rich people who own them.
    Obama has been as good to the Rich as Clinton and Bush/Cheney were and I don’t see how some nice words and small gestures will do anything but lull the uninformed. Which is what Obama is good at.
    We need a New Party! Democrats and Republicans work for the 1%, we need a party for the 99%

  5. “But climate change activists have been dismayed that the president nevertheless spoke of an “all of the above” energy policy, urging further oil and gas exploitation, talking about unicorns like clean coal, and generally doing little to tackle the enormous problem. ”

    No surprise there. Obama was talking about “clean coal” when he first ran for president. Except for saying he loves his children, anything else that comes out of his mouth should be regarded with skepticism.

  6. The situation is not good to the nth. link to arctic-news.blogspot.com The trace of CH4 and CO2 along with temp shows definitively an Extincton level temperature rise is set up.
    The scale of change needed to reverse is align money to Earth.
    This I’ve attempted to describe in terms of Thermodynamic Law where a system held in isolation is forced to see entropy rising..
    As long as we are enslaved by monetary not beholding to Earth the efforts of even the best intentioned won’t have capability..

  7. We just need to keep spreading the word that solar power is now cheaper than conventional energy over the long term. The residential solar power revolution is just now gaining momentum. I’m confident that residential PV will become a significant provider of our energy needs.

  8. The only things Obama has shown any enthusiasm for have been advancing the Republican agenda, persecuting whistle blowers, deporting Mexicans, and pissing on his voter base.

  9. The slow pace of solar power development is absolutely maddening. You would think, for instance, that Phoenix, Arizona would have built the first commercial solar plant decades ago and that the entire state would be solar by now, but, in Arizona, the first solar facility was built in a much smaller city–Flagstaff (my hometown).

    Here’s a link to the APS website which includes a video celebrating the 16th anniversary of the APS solar facility in Flagstaff. link to azenergyfuture.com

    The above is good, but unfortunately, APS has the monopoly on power in the state, so it continues to hang on to old sources of power while developing solar very slowly.

    On top of that, in 2013, the Arizona Corporation Commission eliminated corporate incentives for solar and reduced residential incentives.

    We all need to speak out and push for more solar!

  10. It’s a good bet that as soon as the elections are over in November Obama will approve Keystone XL. He has had too many connections with Big Energy to go against them and has probably gotten permission from them to delay approval so as not to undermine Democrats at the polling booths.

  11. The US is incapable of driving energy policy from the federal level because of political deadlock. The energy transition in the USA is going to be driven primarily at the state and city level, but will be very uneven. For instance Iowa is a leader in wind, and is also installing a lot of solar, one state over in my former state of Wisconsin, run by the tea-party there is almost no wind or solar.

    The next step for renewables is going to be storage, already the states of California, New York, and just last week Hawaii have energy storage mandates. The revolution will happen, but it won’t happen at an even pace everywhere.

  12. In the 2013-2014 period, China is committed to installing 26 gigawatts of solar. They are already more than halfway there. The United States needs to step up, match that rate, and continue on quickly. The reality is that it will take the leadership of the U.S., China, and Western Europe to push alternative energy developments globally at a much quicker pace while facilitating at a quicker pace the transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy.

    Nevertheless, I would like to point out that President Obama has done more for alternative energy than any president and has addressed climate change more than any president. He has done this despite heavy opposition from fossil fuel companies and heavy obstruction from the the Republican right. As everyone knows, it’s obvious that a great deal more needs to be done. Short term, this can only be done with more Democrats in the House and Senate in 2014 and 2016. Long term, it can only be done when Republicans join Democrats and commit to a vigorous bipartisan plan for reducing carbon dioxide emissions and their equivalents.

    Time is now critical on a number of fronts. The issues are too numerous to spell out. But the bottom line can be squeezed into this statement: the costs of fossil fuels are rising and becoming economically dangerous, and the costs of alternative energy are falling and are too important to ignore. Because alternative energy systems like solar and wind have now reached parity and because solar and wind prices will continue to fall, we can expect enormous pressure to extend the fossil fuel age yet a little longer.

    We are in for a bumpy ride and I for one appreciate that Obama’s handling of the economy (despite one hand tied behind his back on climate change, jobs, unemployment, scientific research and infrastructure) makes it more likely to survive that ride, even if I suspect that Obama thought we had more time than we actually do. The key again is an eventual bipartisan commitment, though I have great difficulty having sympathy for many business as usual types (both Democrats and Republicans, I’m afraid) who have known about global warming for a quarter century and who pretend this is all happening too fast for them. But we have to keep that bipartisan goal in mind.

  13. “10 percent of Germany’s electricity now comes from solar. In the US it is still only 1.13 percent– ”

    Your numbers are a bit off. From the link you provided: “Solar PV accounted for 19.7 percent of German renewable electricity and 9.7 percent of overall renewable energy supply in 2013. ”
    Confusing way to put it.

    In 2013, 25.3% of german electrical production was renewable. 19.7% of 25.3% is 5% (.197*.253 = 0.05).
    (see link to destatis.de)

    In the US its closer to 0.3% (link to eia.gov)

    Why do you use Germany as the “good” example? Their per capita CO2 emission has gone up in the last couple of years due to the increased use of coal (see for example: link to spiegel.de)

    France seems like a much better example. Their CO2 emissions per capita (2009-2013) is 5.6 metric tons/ capita while Germany’s is 9.1 (link to data.worldbank.org)

    Of course the US is a pathetic 17.6 :(

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