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Here Comes the Sun

Paul Krugman, New York Times
… 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.

… 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?
(6 November 2011)

Solar Power and its Discontents

Kevin Drum, Mother Jones
Can solar power ever get cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels on a level playing field? Photovoltaic solar cells are getting cheaper a lot faster than most people realize, and last week I posted this chart originally constructed by Ramez Naam: [CHART at original]

Naam refers to this as “Moore’s Law” for solar: in the same way that electronic components get steadily cheaper every year, so will the cost of solar. He estimates that the price of solar has declined at a fairly steady 7% per year for the past three decades, and if that continues, then solar will compete with fossil fuels by 2020 or so and will be significantly cheaper by 2030. This sounds great, but Joshua Gans urges caution:

Think about what that means for environmental policy. If we believe Moore’s Law in solar, then the safe bet in terms of behavioural reactions is not to react. Within a decade or two, energy will be socially as cheap as it is privately as cheap now. That means that changing habits for environmental austerity is not the way to go.

In other words, why bother conserving if solar is going to get so cheap that we’ll have all the clean electricity we need within a couple of decades?
(7 November 2011)

Five challenges facing the energy sector in 2012

John Kemp, Reuters via Financial Post
Global energy markets stand at a crossroads. The big themes that dominated the opening years of the century (prosperity, markets, peak oil, global warming and clean technology) are giving way to a different set of concerns centered on inequality, affordability, regulation and techniques for extracting oil and gas from tight rock formations and ever-deeper below the surface.

Some changes have come from outside the energy industry. The financial crisis has diminished confidence in free markets. Falling real incomes and rising unemployment in the advanced economies have pushed climate concerns into the background in favour of a focus on jobs and cutting household bills.

Other changes have come from within the energy markets. A decade of soaring real oil prices is at last beginning to transform the long-neglected supply side of the industry, encouraging widespread employment of technologies such as ultra-deepwater drilling and hydraulic fracturing to extend conventional oil and gas reserves.
(7 November 2011)

‘Tipping Point’: A primer on the Alberta tar sands

Charles Morris, Eco Catholic, National Catholic Reporter
As more attention is brought to the proposed Keystone Pipeline that would bring Alberta Tar Sands Oil from Canada through the central United States to refineries in Texas, people of faith are looking for resources to help them understand the issues involved and who will be affected. Tipping Point: The End of Oil is a powerful new documentary produced by Clearwater Media. It serves as a primer for parish adult education, and justice and peace groups.

Tipping Point, first shown on CBC’s Nature of Things in January, introduces us to the real stories of real people whose health and way of life have been tragically upended by the “biggest construction project on the planet.” The movie begins with the story of the indigenous people of Fort Chipewyan, who live downstream from the Tar Sands and have been dying in disproportionate numbers from rare forms of cancers.

The lines become drawn. On the one side are the First Nation of Canada and the intrepid scientists led by Dr. David Schindler of the University of Alberta. On the other side are the petroleum companies and the Alberta government. We follow the story of Francois Paulette, a famous chief of the Dene nation and a champion of indigenous rights, who takes up the cudgel representing the folk of Fort Chipewyan in bringing public attention to the deleterious impacts that processing operations have on their survival.

Initially, the Alberta government insists that there is no harm from the operation. A physician who worked with the Fort Chipewyan community and acted as a whistleblower was investigated for malpractice and driven out of the community. However, with the persistent challenge of Dr. Schindler, the support of environmental groups and especially the involvement of the Hollywood director James Cameron, the tables are turned. [Mr. Cameron is Canadian by birth. Pandora, the setting for the movie Avatar, is based in part on the Alberta Tar Sands.] The Alberta government finally admits publicly that the monitoring system had been primarily PR.
Greater moral issues are raised. The process of extraction is very energy-intensive and releases far more greenhouse gases than traditional drilling methods. Can the need for more oil from North American sources justify the impacts on future generations? What is the trade-off between economic development and environmental justice? In a time when peak oil is now a reality, what is the best path forward for real energy security? And what is the role of the United States, since the U.S. is by far the biggest customer for Tar Sands oil?
(7 November 2011)