(By Juan Cole)
The story of a doomed race who need to be saved by a messiah is on people’s minds today. It functions at a spiritual level. There is an analogous story at the physical level.
Humankind is facing the biggest crisis in its 120,000-year-long existence, the physical equivalent of original sin. It is dumping 32 metric tons of carbon dioxide, a dangerous greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere every year. The sooner it stops doing that (and repents), the less severe the climate change calamity will be. Only a crash program to move to energy generated by wind, solar, wave, geothermal and other non-carbon-based fuels can avert a potential climate destabilization. Not only does burning coal, oil and gas produce C02, but drilling and hydraulic fracturing produce methane, an even more deadly greenhouse gas. Moreover, world demand for energy is growing. We use 15 terawatts now, but will need 30-50 terawatts by the middle of this century. The only plausible place to get that kind of energy cleanly is solar. It is thus the physical savior. And there is good news on the solar front. Humankind is facing the biggest crisis in its 120,000-year-long existence, the physical equivalent of original sin. It is dumping 32 metric tons of carbon dioxide, a dangerous greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere every year. The sooner it stops doing that (and repents), the less severe the climate change calamity will be.
1. Photovoltaic cells are rapidly dropping in price per kilowatt hour of energy produced, with a 60% decrease in just the past couple of years.
The price of solar power generation per photovoltaic panel has fallen from about $76 in 1977 when Jimmy Carter was sworn in as president to $0.74 cents today. Even with installation costs, a solar power array on the roof of your home costs only $3 per watt of electricity generated, about what it would cost to rig up a coal-burning facility.
2. In 2013 alone, solar power in the US almost doubled, with 4.3 gigawatts added. The amount of solar power production in the US now is estimated to be about 10 gigawatts (it takes 60 watts to operate a light bulb; a gigawatt is a billion watts). The stupid meme you hear from hydrocarbon boosters that renewables are a tiny part of US energy production depends for its effect on your not thinking about the future. There weren’t many iPads when they were first introduced, either. Now the world is full of them.
3. There are now five countries with at least 10 gigawatts of solar power production capability– Germany, Italy, China, the United States and Japan. 10 gigawatts is sort of like 10 small nuclear power plants. Germany is the leader with 35 gigawatts of solar power, about 7% of its total electricity generation. Italy also gets 7% of its electricity from solar.
4. New molten salt energy storage technologies allow solar plants to work into the night. The 280 megawatt Solana thermal solar power plant in Arizona can store energy in molten salt for up to six hours, so it will go on generating electricity for 6 hours after sunset.
5. Some 70% of solar power in India is now sited in Gujarat state in the country’s northwest. It has almost 1 gigawatt in solar power, filling some 4 percent of its electricity needs, and has big plans for the expansion of solar power. Moreover, the Indian federal government is building the largest solar farm in the world in the desert of Rajasthan, with a capacity of 4 gigawatts. It will double India’s current solar power generation (though other big solar projects are planned by state governments). India is expected to add 2.8 gigawatts of solar power in 2014 alone.
6. Global demand for solar photovoltaic power in 2014 is estimated to be 49 gigawatts, a 26% increase over 2013.
7. China alone plans to install 12 gigawatts of solar generating capacity in 2014. Given the country’s enormous air pollution problems and heavy dependence on coal, public pressure may have forced its leaders to accelerate a move toward renewables, since earlier estimates of added solar capacity had been substantially less.
8. Ethiopia has contracted for 300 megawatts of solar power. The country of 91 million, Africa’s second most populous, is making a push to raise its annual electricity production from 2000 megawatts to 10,000 megawatts. Ethiopia is also pursuing hydroelectric, geothermal and wind power.
9. Saudi Arabia will invest $100 billion in generating 41 gigawatts of solar power by 2032. The kingdom uses petroleum for electricity generation, which reduces its income from exporting oil. It would be much cheaper for it to generate the electricity with renewables and then export the petroleum at over $100 a barrel. Even in the likely case that petroleum is gradually phased out as an energy source, it will still be used for petrochemicals and plastics, and if Saudi Arabia has cheap renewable energy, it can still aspire to a high standard of living.
10. Mexico, another oil producer, also wants to move quickly to renewables for electricity generation, for the same reasons as Saudi Arabia. It has the potential to be a solar giant in Latin America, and wants over a third of its electricity to come from renewables within 13 years.