Progress in Alternative Power, From National to Global Views

1159687__2At least once a month, some self-styled electrical power expert (often from the Republican side of the aisle) will insist that:

  • Wind and solar energy will never have more than a minimal market share of energy resources
  • Wind and solar will remain above grid parity, in terms of consumer costs, well into the middle of this century
  • Because wind and solar do not reliably produce enough energy (because wind doesn’t always blow, and sun doesn’t always shine) to take the load off conventional power sources like coal, gas, oil and nuclear
  • Solar, and especially wind, are ‘fragile’ technologies that break or fall apart too often to substitute in any fashion or at any time for reliable fossil fuels and even nuclear

And, in spite of the fact that these allegations are in part correct, there remains a way to incorporate renewable energy technologies into mainstream resources. Or, as the International Energy Agency (IEA) puts it:

“An increased level of systems thinking is needed to integrate the broad range of individual

clean energy technologies into the energy system. Increased attention and resources are

required to expand smart grid pilot projects on a regional level.”

In other words, the problem is not so much with the actual renewable energy technologies themselves as in our ability to plan and allocate. Let’s address the issues point by point:

Internationally, solar energy has grown from three countries vested to more than 10. In the U.S. alone, renewable have grown from  approximately 68 quadrillion Btu per year (or Quads) to 95 quadrillion in 2011, even adjusting for recession (2007 to 2009).

Even acknowledging that hydroelectric power provides the lion’s share (2.7 Quads out of 8 Quads) of renewables is to ignore the fact that nuclear energy and renewable energy are nearly neck and neck (8.3 Quads compared to 7.8 Quads), and that public opinion is still weighted heavily against nuclear energy since the Fukushima nuclear plant failure.

Taken individually, we see that solar energy has mushroomed from  slightly more than 500 megawatts (MW) in 2000 to slightly more than 700 MW in 2009, with significant gains up to and including 2011 in spite of lingering recession. This gain, of 1700 MW, is one of the most phenomenal advances in energy sourcing in history, and would be the equivalent of adding about four nuclear power plants to the U.S. electricity grid – all at the same time!

So if you’re a clean energy enthusiast, don’t get discouraged when you read or hear ‘experts’ bad-mouthing renewables. Very often, they are speaking on behalf of the coal or natural gas industries, which in the five years before 2012 lobbied politicians et al to the tune of more than $72  billion! And what did solar energy get? A meager $1 billion.

It’s a sad comparison with Germany, for example, which gets almost four times less sunlight but has 6 times more installed solar power. This is called making lemonade from lemons, and the Germans are masters of technology. For a more accurate comparison, consider that Germany installed 3 gigawatts (GW) of solar in December of 2011. The U.S.? 1.7 GW during the entire year.

In the U.S., the clear renewable energy leader is California, which at the end of 2010 had 1022 MW of installed solar, or 48 percent of the national total. The runner-up was New Jersey at 12 percent. In fact, it is California’s eminently ‘green’ profile – in everything from banning plastic bags to instituting its own MPG and vehicle emissions standards – that makes the state an expensive place to live.

Of course, quality always costs more. Ask yourself, is it cheaper to buy a lifetime-warranty Delta faucet selling for $40, or a generic Chinese faucet for $12 that lasts about two years?

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