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Tackling the renewable canard of ‘only X percent’

November 27th, 2014 · 2 Comments

There are a series of arguments used by fossil-fuel defenders / pollution promoters to dismiss the utility of renewable energy electricity options. One standard is to dismiss wind and solar by saying that it only delivers X percent of the electricity. The intent of playing to that number, with the emphasis on “only”, is to prove the lack of utility of these renewables for 21st century energy requirements. What these commentators fail to do, of course, is to make clear that yesterday’s number is (much) smaller than today’s … and that today’s is smaller than tomorrow.

This came up in a recent back-and-forth with a climate denier (okay, actually more like a ‘climate impact denier’ and ‘climate mitigation delayer’).  As part of his advocating that the recent US-PRC climate accord is meaningless, he wrote:

Coal now provides some 65% of all the energy consumed each year by China, generating most of the electricity and heat for 1.3 billion Chinese and providing most of the power for industry.

Meanwhile, solar and wind power still meet less than 3% of the nation’s energy needs.

My response:

The ‘only 3% produced by wind and solar’ is a deceptive way to discuss renewables. One measure/angle of many; e.g., it is part of a picture.

Lets put that number in context.

First, lets look globally. From 2008-2013, (page 21 from source 1) averaged, respectively, 50 and 40% growth year-to-year. Wind, which is more mature, averaged 21%. That 21% means wind doubling roughly three years, the solar essentially a doubling annually.

Global PV in 2004: 3.7 gigawatt capacity. In 2013: 137 gigawatts (40 times as much in a decade). What nation is adding the most right now? The PRC. (Source 1, page 49)

Now, a standard climate action delayer argument is to advocate for the next great technology — that we can’t (shouldn’t) act now because we need to create some great new thing (more efficient solar, fusion power, etc) and that we’ll leverage that thing better than sliced bread to solve global warming, world hunger, and split ends.  That argument — which this delayer has used — ignore the critical importance of deployment and the lessons from deployment.) Wind, 17 gigawatts in 2000 and 318 in 2013. Nearly 20x increase in 13 years. Again, which is top installing nation now? PRC. (page 59). Okay, China’s 3% of wind/solar was well under 1% just a few years ago and will be 10% in a few years time.

The price to deploy solar systems has been plunging — globally — at double digit levels. (An indication of just how rapid: 2014 solar installation prices in the United States are 59% lower than predicted way back in 2010.) Many focus solely on solar panel costs (with per watt costs having plummeted down to the 50-70 cents range) when those ‘hard’ costs are only part of the equation. Soft costs — from optimum placement to permitting to sales to financing — are a critical part of the equation driving solar costs toward parity (or advantaged position) over fossil fuel electricity generation in more markets around the globe with every passing day.

While ‘technology’ advancements should not be dismissed, the serious revolution in business processes are outside too many people’s thinking.  Whether we look to new business models developed in recent years (such as rooftop solar PV leasing) or community groups bundling purchases,, business models are carving out chunks of the costs and reducing the barriers for solar deployment by governments, businesses, community groups, and individuals.

With the rapid advances, the solar revolution has created an environment for innovation with quality firms achieving and creating success from the smallest retail operator to major installers across the entire planet. Himin Solar Energy Group is — in essence — providing solar hot water to 10s of millions of Chinese. Portugal’s Martifer Solar is doing projects around the world, from solar paneling a World Cup stadium to installing nearly 30 megawatts of solar in the Ukraine. Grameen Shakti is literally transforming Bangladesh and has transformed thinking about how to effectively address energy poverty. And … the list goes on …

An oft-repeated supposed Chinese curse is: May you live in interesting times.  We live amid interesting times. In the very negative sense of the risks and challenges of our resource challenges (climate change, water use, etc …). There is also the very real positive sense — seemingly everywhere one turns, there are individuals, businesses, and institutions who offer tangible paths for addressing the challenges while truly achieving Triple Bottom Line (people, planet, profits) results.

Going back to the opening of this discussion, the climate action delayer’s comments about ‘just 3 percent’:  one percent yesterday, three percent today, five percent next week … how much in a decade?

Notes:

Source 1: Renewables Energy Network (REN) 21 Global Status Report 2014. This is an excellent source for seeing progress across a full range of energy efficiency and renewable energy arenas.

Re business practices, an excellent example is Jigar Shah’s role in helping create Sun Edison and a different model of solar deployment (see Shah’s Creating Climate Wealth).  Community / group bundling efforts — to get bulk discounts/wholesale prices for the retail market — are happening across the United States (and globally).  For example, Groundswell’s bundling of solar purchases in Washington DC / Maryland / Virginia (with resultant reduced costs to the purchaser of 13-22% due to bulk buying).

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Tags: solar · Solar Energy

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