The Near Term Potential of Solar Power

Good piece from Paul Krugman on solar power. I guess I don’t understand why the Republican Party is so blinkered on this issue, so unable to understand it may be part of the answer of making America more resilient, less dependent on foreign oil and less choking on coal emissions. Is it a case that they are simply against it because the out group, the Democrats and environmentalists are in favor of it? Have they done the math? And if not why not?

For decades the story of technology has been dominated, in the popular mind and to a large extent in reality, by computing and the things you can do with it. Moore’s Law — in which the price of computing power falls roughly 50 percent every 18 months — has powered an ever-expanding range of applications, from faxes to Facebook.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Paul Krugman

Our mastery of the material world, on the other hand, has advanced much more slowly. The sources of energy, the way we move stuff around, are much the same as they were a generation ago.

But that may be about to change. We are, or at least we should be, on the cusp of an energy transformation, driven by the rapidly falling cost of solar power. That’s right, solar power.

If that surprises you, if you still think of solar power as some kind of hippie fantasy, blame our fossilized political system, in which fossil fuel producers have both powerful political allies and a powerful propaganda machine that denigrates alternatives.

Speaking of propaganda: Before I get to solar, let’s talk briefly about hydraulic fracturing, a k a fracking.

Fracking — injecting high-pressure fluid into rocks deep underground, inducing the release of fossil fuels — is an impressive technology. But it’s also a technology that imposes large costs on the public. We know that it produces toxic (and radioactive) wastewater that contaminates drinking water; there is reason to suspect, despite industry denials, that it also contaminates groundwater; and the heavy trucking required for fracking inflicts major damage on roads.

Economics 101 tells us that an industry imposing large costs on third parties should be required to “internalize” those costs — that is, to pay for the damage it inflicts, treating that damage as a cost of production. Fracking might still be worth doing given those costs. But no industry should be held harmless from its impacts on the environment and the nation’s infrastructure.

Yet what the industry and its defenders demand is, of course, precisely that it be let off the hook for the damage it causes. Why? Because we need that energy! For example, the industry-backed organization declares that “there are only two sides in the debate: those who want our oil and natural resources developed in a safe and responsible way; and those who don’t want our oil and natural gas resources developed at all.”

So it’s worth pointing out that special treatment for fracking makes a mockery of free-market principles. Pro-fracking politicians claim to be against subsidies, yet letting an industry impose costs without paying compensation is in effect a huge subsidy. They say they oppose having the government “pick winners,” yet they demand special treatment for this industry precisely because they claim it will be a winner.

And now for something completely different: the success story you haven’t heard about.

These days, mention solar power and you’ll probably hear cries of “Solyndra!” Republicans have tried to make the failed solar panel company both a symbol of government waste — although claims of a major scandal are nonsense — and a stick with which to beat renewable energy.

But Solyndra’s failure was actually caused by technological success: the price of solar panels is dropping fast, and Solyndra couldn’t keep up with the competition. In fact, progress in solar panels has been so dramatic and sustained that, as a blog post at Scientific American put it, “there’s now frequent talk of a ‘Moore’s law’ in solar energy,” with prices adjusted for inflation falling around 7 percent a year.

This has already led to rapid growth in solar installations, but even more change may be just around the corner. If the downward trend continues — and if anything it seems to be accelerating — we’re just a few years from the point at which electricity from solar panels becomes cheaper than electricity generated by burning coal.

And if we priced coal-fired power right, taking into account the huge health and other costs it imposes, it’s likely that we would already have passed that tipping point.

But will our political system delay the energy transformation now within reach?

Let’s face it: a large part of our political class, including essentially the entire G.O.P., is deeply invested in an energy sector dominated by fossil fuels, and actively hostile to alternatives. This political class will do everything it can to ensure subsidies for the extraction and use of fossil fuels, directly with taxpayers’ money and indirectly by letting the industry off the hook for environmental costs, while ridiculing technologies like solar.

So what you need to know is that nothing you hear from these people is true. Fracking is not a dream come true; solar is now cost-effective. Here comes the sun, if we’re willing to let it in.

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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8 Responses to The Near Term Potential of Solar Power

  1. Kyrie Eleison says:

    Maybe they are the devotees of Mr. Burns who want to erect a giant shade that will block out the sun thus forcing the citizenry to use their established method of energy consumption…

    In all seriousness, though, I cannot see any sort of challenge to the established energy system until a method is worked out to somehow monetize the solar exposure we get, properly metered and paid out to yet another cartel-esque industry feeding off of something that they played no role in producing at all. Simply using the current kW/h method will not work due to the variances of solar output – perhaps we could measure it in “sunshine units” … no, wait – that is already taken.

    According to your subject group, there is no possible way we could ever compete with China in this industry anyways, so why bother? I suppose the notion of a highly competitive and “free market” is only suitable when you are the one who is winning. Let China absorb all of the costs for the R&D – they have easier access to rare minerals and other resources than the U.S. does.

    Once they have made some significant headway into solar development and have wasted obscene amounts in order to achieve a few breakthroughs, basically once all of the “real” work has been done, then we will swoop in and reverse engineer everything. We’ll churn out cheap knock-offs of technology that we scarcely understand (and could prove to be quite unreliable and/or dangerous) just to make a quick buck or two.

    If tax dollars get wasted, people get subjected to human rights violations, or the environment gets trashed in the course of their efforts – who is going to stand in front of that tank in protest? Whatever happened to that guy anyways? Who cares? Better him than me. The ends always justify the means.

    • @Kyrie Eleison. Maybe but it doesn’t have to be like that. We can begin to take back power from the 1%. Manufacturing is beginning to shift back to the US as folk realize that China has 16% wage inflation, is knocking off all the IP they get sent to make, and actually there are better ways to make a buck. Solar power costs as per the article are already plummeting, though the rare earths supply is an issue, it is probably not insuperable. And we don’t yet know if China is able to make major tech breakthroughs, though clearly they were over much of the last 2000 years ago. I guess if I had the choice to be ruler of China with its problems or the US with its, I would opt for the latter, though I would hope to negotiated a brain transplant for the Republican party as part of the deal. What is wrong with America is a limp Democratic Party and a crazy Republican base limiting the candidates it offers to people with no solutions to anything.

      • Kyrie Eleison says:

        Here is an extreme and oversimplified critique of the major financiers of our lovely GOP, at least how they and their philosophy appears in my view. I know that it does not apply to all of them, as a few did manage to make it big on their own merits. Like lottery winners, though, the average person has about the same chance to do so as well:

        I’ve been born into privilege and have had everything either handed to me on a silver platter or rigged by my friends so that I will always win. You know, the true “entitlement mentality”. Let’s expand on this for a moment:

        The concept of private property is universally appealing since, for most of us, it means security. It means we get to keep the fruits of our own labors, and since we are born of this earth and cannot survive without it, reserving a small piece of it for ourselves on which to work and raise a family is essential. It would be very difficult to find a person who would not agree with this concept, mainly because they were native to this land and have been scattered… but let’s not muddy up the waters. Certainly we have all learned our lessons from the “tragedy of the commons.”

        Somewhere along the way, though, this idea gets corrupted. Things everyone needs that are NOT produced by the fruits of our own labors, rather they just happen to be discovered on the “private property” we now own, become the exclusive property of the owner. People start to get grossly enriched off of these fruits, and through this unjust enrichment they have the means to expand their holdings through enticements, pressure (be it legal or illegal), sabotage, market rigging, war … you name it – if there is a way for it to be had, it will be.

        Getting back to the critique:

        Thus, this is the way I choose to live my life, and my freedom is precious. People like me keep the aisles smiling at Wal-Mart. I had no part in setting up the majority of these establishments, but you can bet I’m not going to let them fail on my watch. I can try to expand on these ideas, though, and attempt to monetize everything. We’ve conquered the intellectual property frontier, and are making significant gains in the biological/agricultural one. Water is next.

        People like the traitorous Warren Buffet have us pegged fairly well – we are probably the most averse to a hard day’s labor than anyone else on the planet. However, this is not going to stop us from turning this idea against others in an attempt to place blame squarely on the shoulders of the poor for allowing themselves to remain in such a predicament.

        Wealth is a virtue. Poverty is a vice. Clearly, “God” loves me more than He loves you. So go ahead and Occupy. A wiser adversary would not allow themselves to be so openly exposed. We’ll find a way to deal with those annoying hackers who realize this fact. Doing everything through proxies and keeping ourselves in a perpetual cloud of secrecy has become a way of life for us also.

        Don’t act so disgusted. We’ve spent enough time studying human behavior to know that, if given the same opportunities, every one of you would do the same. You can try to deny it, but it would be like trying to deny things like the gold rush. Steer into the skid, and quit trying to fight your true instincts. Once you come to grips with this epiphany, we will welcome you aboard with open arms. In fact, we have a seat already waiting for you.

      • @ Kyrie Eleison. Excellent comment that I will post in its own right as a guest blog. Jonathan Swift would be proud of this one…. Thanks

      • Kyrie Eleison says:

        I need to apologize for going off on a tangential rant, since it was focused solely on philosophy and politics instead of the topic of solar energy.

        After reading a lot of the comments people have been making on Mr. Krugman’s article, it occurred to me that there appears to be a lot of uninformed and negative thinking going on in regards to solar energy.

        There seems to be way too much focus on using chemical means to solve energy problems. Combustion of fossil fuels, the use of battery technologies, and even things like nuclear fission and fusion involve the conversion of matter from one state to another, leaving us with unwanted waste products and an ever-shrinking supply of fuel. It would appear that we are stuck in a mindset that we must destroy to create, that we must constantly consume instead of conserve, and therein lies the problem.

        It would serve us well to remember that since the birth of the universe, we have been using fusion power. It will not ever get any more efficient than that. Our use of this gift leaves a lot to be desired, though. So why reinvent the wheel?

        A potential avenue to pursue in order to alleviate the “storage problem” already exists but remains profoundly underdeveloped and largely overlooked. Yes, currently it is extremely expensive however its innate characteristics cannot and should not be ignored as a solution.

        I’m sure you have guessed by now that I am referring to superconducting materials. The closer to room temperature we get, the more they will revolutionize the things we can do with energy and technology. Let’s make it happen.

      • @Kyrie Eleison. Very interesting comment. In the short term I suspect there is not much alternative but nuclear power for the next 20 odd years before uranium starts to run out too. Fusion is the real power source that I would hope develops successfully as it does not have any toxic waste as I understand it. Superconducting materials sound interesting though I guess it takes a lot of energy to achieve the low temperatures. That is one of our problems. Even oil now requires a lot of energy to extract, not to mention waste in tar sands etc. I think where you are right on target is the need to have a massive research effort to find alternatives.

      • Kyrie Eleison says:

        It is true that currently available superconducting materials require extensive cooling. It should also be noted that these temperatures keep getting warmer and warmer, especially since the transition from using metals to ceramics, traditionally thought of as only being useful for insulators. Strange how that worked out, isn’t it?

        We’ve gone from Tc temperatures close to absolute zero, to 30K, to 60K, to 125K. Room temperature is ~300K so we’re nearly halfway there already. I am not an expert physicist, but if one were to plot that trend on a graph it would appear very similar to the plot of transistor density as outlined by “Moore’s law.”

        Of course, eventually we will reach a theoretical limit in both instances, but so far our advances in technology have kept pushing that limit further and further out.

        Don’t get me wrong – the benefits of fusion energy sound great. We are all made from stars, after all. I’m just trying to be realistic. So far, some of our most promising fusion reactor designs rely heavily on cryogenic superconducting magnets anyways, so advances in one may be required to spur advances in the other.

      • @Kyrie. Great information. Thanks….I am ever hopeful that scientific advance will come to our aid, but we need to bet on quite a number of horses so to speak and take this very seriously. I can’t help feeling that the world of Twitter and of ‘Reality TV’ (not) distracts us from these problems. I would love more kids wanting to be scientists and engineers and get stuck into all this. And I would like very bright graduates to work on this and not on inventing weapons of mass financial destruction on Wall Street. Nothing on Wall Street actually adds value though insurance, foreign exchange, and the stock market can help the real economy but should not be allowed to become a huge casino cut off from the real economy.

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