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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.

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