Sunday, July 29, 2012

Solar Not Oil

From the blog Informed Consent this hopeful essay suggesting solar energy could be the way we maintain our lifestyle of middle class comfort. I am not convinced as we seem to forget how much oil we need to produce the infrastructure to create electrons from solar energy. It takes energy and oil to produce solar panels. However in the interests of not being a total wet blanket...

Proponents of natural gas fracturing and oil drilling are delirious with joy over the ability to recover shale gas, which has brought down world gas prices and made the US a major player again. Likewise, North Dakota wells are set to produce up to 800,000 barrels of oil a day soon. (Although, since the world uses roughly 89 million barrels a day, and the US uses a fifth of that, and demand in Asia will likely spike in coming years, the ND addition is just not that much).

Fracking is dangerous to ground water purity, and both oil and gas, as hydrocarbons, contribute to global climate change, which is a dire threat to human well-being in coming decades and centuries.

But oil and gas triumphalists have another think coming. It is that the cost of generating electricity by wind and solar is falling rapidly. However hard they try to suppress government funding and tax breaks for renewables, Big Oil and Big Gas are doomed to lose, and in only about 4 years. At that point where it is just cheaper to generate electricity with renewables, no one is going to invest in hydrocarbons. Even with a price advantage it will take decades for renewables to displace hydrocarbons (the electricity grid, transportation, batteries, all have to be redone). But it isn’t a matter of “if.”It is a matter of when. All the anti-climate-warming propaganda and pro-hydrocarbon advertising is intended to slow this process; even Big Oil and Big Gas are not so stupid as not to see the writing on the wall. But if their delaying tactics can make them billions in the meantime, they have every reason to go for it, especially if they are moral cretins who don’t care about the health of the planet.

Here is some of the writing on the wall in today’s news:

1. Scientists have found that solar photovoltaic cells could be producing electricity at less 50 cents a watt by 2016, four years earlier than other projections. At that point, it would be crazy to use hydrocarbons to generate electricity. As for those solar panel companies that keep going under after getting Federal support? Some go under, others thrive. The industry is changing with breakneck velocity, leaving some competitors in the dust. The same people that wax lyrical about how the market creates efficiencies by creating winners and losers seem to just about have a fainting spell at the idea that a solar company failed. The industry is highly dynamic and has the momentum of rapid technological breakthroughs and rapidly falling prices.

2. Germany is on the verge of producing more solar energy than wind energy, the first major industrialized country to reach that milestone. Germany wants to produce 35 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020, only 8 years from now.

3. Researchers at UCLA have created a solar-power-generating window. If all those glass box skyscrapers in southern California could be put to work generating electricity, it would probably power the whole state.

4. The British government has given the go-ahead for two huge offshore wind farms off the coast of Norfolk (the eastern coast). Together, they will have the capacity to produce over a gigawatt of power (roughly one nuclear power plant’s worth). Britain is the leader in offshore wind energy generation.

5. With Japan’s nuclear energy plants being phased out because of public fury over the Fukushima disaster, the country is trying to move quickly to renewables. It is placing a big bet on offshore floating wind platforms. Japan has been in the doldrums in many ways since the bubble burst in the 1990s. But its scientists and engineers are among the best in the world, and I wonder whether research on wind and solar energy might have the potential to revivify not only the economy but also the national spirit.

6. Scientists have concluded that it is perfectly practical to provide 2/3s of US electricity from solar over the next decades. The main problem is not electricity generation or having enough land to put the cells on, it is the poor electrical grid of the US, which will have to be redone.

7. Algeria wants to go solar, aiming for 650 megawatts of solar energy by 2015 and a massive 22 gigawatts by 2030. The Desertec Foundation has big projects in Egypt and Morocco, and Algeria, an oil producer, has decided to join in. Theoretically, a small portion of the Saharan desert could power the entire world. Desertec plans to turn North Africa into a clean electricity-producing zone that could meet nearly a fifth of Europe’s energy needs. Algeria is eager to turn to renewables because its rapidly growing population is using more an more of its petroleum production, which is declining.

8. Some 750,000 Australian homes have solar panels on the roof, heading toward 10% of the 8 million households in the sun-drenched country. The present rooftop panels generate about two nuclear power plants worth of electricity.

9. China is going to make a major push for solar energy after 2015, aiming for a mind-bogging 50 gigawatts worth by 2020.

10. The Egyptian gas pipeline through the Sinai to Jordan and Israel has been blown up 15 times since the Jan. 25 revolution. Egyptians are angry that the government of deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak had sold the gas at substantially below-market prices to Israel. Because of the interruptions, Jordan’s government is more eager than ever to move to solar and wind power. A sign of increased international interest in the nascent Jordanian renewables sector is that a Chinese company wants to invest $200 million in a solar project. Jordan has a goal of getting 10% of its electricity from renewables by 2020, though that may be an ambitious timeline. If its government were smart, it would go all out and double that goal, and try to meet it.

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