Where’s Our Sense of Urgency on Solar?

By Jonathon Porritt

The reach of solar will spread, the scale will increase, and the impact on people’s lives will be massive. But the crucial question is, when? 

Around the world, dozens of universities and research institutes are hard at work trying to mimic the phenomenon of photosynthesis.

There’s so much “blue sky thinking” going on at the moment, that it’s hard to know how much of it will eventually translate into applied solutions on the ground. I sometimes struggle with this in the Briefings section of Green Futures: does it matter that some of the brilliant ideas and technologies the writers report on are unlikely to get off the drawing board?

This is all about lead times. The direction of travel is clear: we are in the early stages of transitioning from the age of fossil fuels to the solar age. But many scientists now believe the future of humankind depends on how long it takes us to negotiate this transition.

This thought struck me at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi in January. The vast exhibition space bristled with sustainable energy solutions of every kind, lifting my spirits at the sight of real industrial muscle lending its weight to the renewables revolution.

Solar technologies were particularly visible. It’s only been four years since the first World Future Energy Summit, but in that short time, the market has grown massively. So much so that even Saudi Arabia has set a target for meeting a third of its electricity needs with solar power by 2032.

Much of that growth is due to the success of a handful of large photovoltaic (PV) manufacturers in China. They have been able to drive down the cost of PV by around 6.5 percent per annum over the last few years, to the point where it’s beginning to compete with electricity generated from fossil fuels. Those costs will continue to fall for a long time to come; the reach of solar will spread, the scale will increase, and the impact on people’s lives will be massive.

It’s difficult to explain just how thrilling it is to be able to write those words. I’ve been talking about this transition to a solar economy for the best part of 40 years. During that time, people mostly responded with contempt, incredulity or patronising jocularity. Now it’s happening. My forecast is that PV and its sister technology – concentrated solar power – will provide around 30% of total global electricity by 2030.

But it has been a long time coming. If we have to wait an equally long time for every one of the new technologies on which a sustainable economy depends, then it may well turn out to be too late.

By all accounts, that was part of President Obama’s thinking at the start of his first term in 2008. He opted out of any pitched battle with Congress, and used his regulatory powers instead (on vehicle efficiency standards, for instance). At the same time, he pumped money into ARPA-E, a new incubator for alternative energy technologies funded out of the $800 billion stimulus from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

This has kickstarted what some describe as a “silent green revolution” in the Department of Energy. More than 150 different projects and programmes – many on the cutting edge of research – have been funded. A few of these have failed, to be sure, but more than a dozen have been picked up by venture capitalists and are showing real promise, including the solar cell manufacturer 1366 Technologies.

Everyone agrees that ARPA-E is great. But the rest of Obama’s first term was a miserable failure when it came to addressing climate change. As was his presidential campaign in that regard. The only saving grace was his eloquent reminder of the importance of climate change in the Inaugural Address. This was classic Obama: part moral homily, part economic advocacy, all draped in the American flag. As author Thomas Friedman puts it, “Green is the new red, white and blue.”

Both Friedman and former Vice President Al Gore (in his excellent new book, The Future) are out and about reminding people of the economic cost of accelerating climate change. For instance, it looks as if the damage done by hurricane Sandy will exceed $60 billion – precisely the sum of money Obama fought so hard to get by marginally raising tax levels on the richest U.S. citizens for the next four years.

What’s missing is any real sense of urgency – in the U.S. and Europe, let alone anywhere else in the world. And the only way to get lead times down is for politicians to press down on that urgency button as hard as they can, and keep on pressing.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future.


13 responses

  1. Find out at http://lowaltitudeclouds.blogspot.com/
    what caused the warming that ended over a decade ago. A link is included to a
    site that presents a simple science-based equation that calculates temperatures
    since before 1900 with an R2 of 0.9 using only one widely available variable.

    1. Please do not reference blogs, wiki or anything else on the internets (plural added for a joke). Reference peer-reviewed journals when making fantastic claims such as the one above.

      1. Average GLOBAL temperature anomalies are reported on the web
        by NOAA, GISS, Hadley, RSS, and UAH, all of which are government agencies. The first three all draw from the same data base of surface and near surface measurement data. The last two draw from the data base of satellite measurements. Each agency processes the data slightly differently from the others. Each believes that their way is most accurate. To avoid bias, I average all five. The averages in Celsius degrees are listed here.

        2001 0.3473
        2002 0.4278
        2003 0.4245
        2004 0.3641
        2005 0.4663
        2006 0.3930
        2007 0.4030
        2008 0.2598
        2009 0.4022
        2010 0.5261
        2011 0.3277
        2012 0.3770

        A straight line (trend line) fit to these data has no slope. That means that, for over a decade, average global temperature has not changed.

        Trenberth (of IPCC, etc. fame) has called it a “travesty” that the climate models have failed miserably to predict the flat temperatures following the rise that ended in about 2001.

        I wonder how much wider the separation between the rising CO2 level and not-rising average global temperature will need to get for some
        people to recognize that the AGW theory was a mistake.

  2. The real problem with solar is that it is not close to being efficient. The cells are not cost effective. Until someone figures out fusion I think we stuck with conventional means of creating power. I guess solar is okay if you live out in the sticks and just use it for one light bulb and coffee pot.

    1. And you get nothing from sundown to dawn so you need batteries and inverters with their inefficiencies and maintenance/replacement costs. Solar is OK only if there is no other option . . . or you have a stupid government that makes others subsidize it.

      The really big (megawatt plus) wind turbines may eventually turn out to be cost effective and no longer need the 25% subsidy they enjoy today. Keep in mind that their average production is only about 1/3 of nameplate capacity and a lot of people consider them an eye sore.

      Fusion has been the ‘hope of the future that will take 10 years to develop’ for several decades now. Don’t hold your breath.

      Breeder reactors are a known quantity that works and would provide for all of humanities energy needs for millions of years but the misguided anti-nukes have ‘poisoned the well’ for now.

      Meanwhile it’s fossil fuels. It is a relief to have discovered that added atmospheric CO2 has no significant influence on climate and helps plants make food. We need to stay vigilant on mercury and perhaps other atmospheric pollutants from burning coal.

        1. Sense of urgency? Is the author suggesting we throw more of our hard earned tax dollars at the problem? How many government energy research programs have made a real difference in the last five decades?

          Politicians drive nothing, but economics drives everything. I put in solar power for my home because it now makes economic sense with a 10 year payback, thanks in large measure to Chinese companies for changing the economics. Not because it’s green, not because some politician advocated it – I had it installed because it finally makes economic sense.

          Solar panel efficiency has been stalled at typically under 20% for 40 years now. The only new development is that the cost of solar panels has come down. Why doesn’t the government sponsor a program to reduce the manufacturing cost of solar panels? That could have far more effect that more blue sky energy boondoggles that don’t work or make economic sense without massive government subsidies.

          New technology takes time, and unfortunately, it can’t be forced by a “sense of urgency”. It depends on critical insights that come when the conditions are right. We don’t graduate enough science, engineering and math majors any more to lead this effort. My solar panels are from China, the inverter from a German company. It was installed by immigrant Mexican labor by a company with American management using American made wire and conduit. Draw your own conclusions.

        2. Your right economics is a key driver. But Necessity can be a motivator. During WW II rubber became scarce and it lead to synthetic rubber. When the Allies stopped Hitler’s oil supply he learned to make diesel from coal.

      1. Since electricity demand is much higher during the day than at night, solar produces energy when it is needed. Widespread use of solar would lead to energy being cheaper during the day than at night, instead of the other way around, but that hardly seems to be a serious issue.

        1. Some sort of backup is needed for cloudy days. Inefficiency contributes to SV being not cost-effective.

    2. Efficiency is not an issue since the energy source (sunlight) is available is available is huge quantities. Efficiency is a problem when you have to collect fuel.

      1. True. I was not arguing against alternative energy. I was arguing against reckless abandonment. The solar collectors are not that good. They don’t last that long and battery technology needs to be overhauled. In Texas, where hail the size of baseballs falls regularly, it gets expensive making replacements. We certainly need to work on it but don’t take away my pickup and give me a pair of skates.

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