Ever since Bell labs developed the first working solar photovoltaic cell in the mid 1950s, people have both lauded the potential–and indeed the poetry–of solar power, while others–the “realists” and “pragmatists”–have derided it as a niche technology whose costs and inherent limitations would always prevent it from overtaking good ol’ fossil fuels and nuclear power as the dominant source of energy for the world. Unfortunately for the naysayers, the geopolitical, social, environmental and economic impacts of both fossil fuels and nuclear power–which require massive subsidies, cause billions of dollars in health issues, and are tremendously expensive to regulate and clean up after (see my recent article on the spill of coal sludge in the Tennessee Valley)–have begun to far outweigh the supposed affordability and abundance of traditional energy sources.
So while countries like the United States avoided implementing strong subsidies for solar energy and other renewable sources, visionary leaders in Germany and Spain enacted powerful subsidies for renewable energy and compelled utilities to buy that energy at higher rates in order to stimulate the market and create jobs. Sure, the pragmatists might have argued–and probably continue to argue–that the money being spent on these subsidies, which amounts to roughly 20 cents per month per utility customer in Germany, could be better spent elsewhere. But in the meantime, Germany has developed into a leader in solar energy, creating tens of thousands of jobs in the process. Now, according to the New York Times blog, Green Inc., it seems that visionary leadership has begun to bear fruit. In fact, “On Tuesday, First Solar, a global photovoltaic cell maker based in Tempe, Arizona said it had reached an “industry milestone” by reducing its production costs to the point where making solar cells that produce one watt of power costs $1.”
To put that decrease in costs in perspective, not long ago solar cost $10/watt, and even four years ago it was still at $3/watt. Even more impressively, “The Company’s long-term financial model suggests manufacturing cost targets of 65 cents to 70 cents by 2012 and it believes reductions below these levels are possible over time,” meaning that by 2012 “solar power will be able to match peak-hour pricing by from coal and natural gas,” at which point the subsidies for solar could disappear. Now let’s compare this with the coal, nuclear, natural gas and oil industries, all of which need constant subsidies in order to encourage more energy exploration and to cover the enormous costs of investing in new infrastructure. Renewable energy creates more jobs per kilowatt hour, requires more innovation and intelligent planning with respect to resource use and allocation, and lowers health care and regulatory costs for society, all while slashing greenhouse gas emissions and freeing us from dependence on dirty coal and dirty nations under whose sands is buried oil and natural gas. Is that now an attractive investment?
So I see two main points here. The first we’ve already covered, and it’s that for those who think that the status quo is here to stay, the election of Barack Obama as president, and the recent strides in governmental support for and private innovation in solar energy augur well for a future powered by clean, equitable and beautiful energy. The second point has to do with the fact that for years–and in some cases decades–people have argued and fought for renewable energy, even when others made all of the aforementioned claims about its limits. Those visionaries are the kind of people we need in every society, and we should do everything we can to support, encourage, listen to and collaborate with these individuals. At present, visionaries are vilified, marginalized and laughed at; instead, let’s listen to them and embrace change. The 100% laptop; the idea of nonviolence (as first taught by a revolutionary named Jesus of Nazareth); microfinance; renewable energy: all these ideas were brought to the world by people who were willing to go against the grain, to endure ridicule and ignorance to change the world.
Lastly, I want to point out that no matter how cheap solar energy gets, there will always be an up-front cost associated with it because, in effect, you are buying 30 years worth of energy in one fell swoop. That is why I am constantly arguing for innovative new financial mechanisms that will cover that up-front cost and enables homeowners, businesses and governmental agencies to re-pay the loans through the savings they realize. With these financing mechanisms in place, along with continued innovation in solar manufacturing, distribution and installation, we will undoubtedly be able to usher in a new era of a renewably powered society. And think about the imagery of this new society: the old one was powered by dirty stuff pulled out of the depths of the earth, whereas this now society will be powered by the sun, the wind, the waves, and the hands and minds of the people that design, build and maintain all these beautiful systems that power the great cities, villages and rural areas of the world. . .