Monday, May 28, 2012

In Race against Carbon Catastrophe, Solar Power is Making Strides

by Juan Cole

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.

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.

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