Will Solar Save the Planet?

Will Solar Save the Planet?

As the IPCC sounds another alarm about climate change, solar energy supporters believe they have a solution.


(Reuters/Steve Marcus)

”We’re actually winning the fight against climate change, but most people don’t know it yet.”

That may seem a strange statement to make in a week when a landmark scientific report declares that humanity must quit fossil fuels within thirty years or risk catastrophic climate change. But Danny Kennedy, a former top Greenpeace activist who helps run the global solar company Sungevity, says that solar and wind power are growing so fast worldwide that they will displace fossil fuels much sooner than usually thought. He has lots of supporting data, much of which comes from the crazy tree-huggers at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Deutsche Bank and the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Not that the fight is over. When the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a summary of their Fifth Assessment Report on September 27, they effectively endorsed activist Bill McKibben’s argument that most of the earth’s remaining fossil fuels must stay in the ground. The IPCC calculated that, from this day forward, humanity can burn no more than one-half of 1 trillion metric tons of carbon if we are to have a better than 50-50 chance of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. At current rates, this “carbon budget” will be used up by the early 2040s. The upshot: the great bulk of the 3 trillion tons of fossil fuels still underground must remain there.

Encouragingly, the Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed the first limits on how much carbon new power plants may emit. Those limits, to be implemented next year if the EPA stands up to coal industry resistance, will make it almost impossible for new plants to run on coal, the most carbon-intensive conventional fossil fuel. As a practical matter, new coal was already dead in the United States, thanks to the grassroots activism of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign and a plunge in natural gas prices. The real test comes next year, when the EPA issues rules for existing power plants, the source of one-quarter of US greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, it’s renewables to the rescue. Kennedy argues that wind and especially solar are growing exponentially as millions around the world leave fossil fuels behind. In Germany, which has pledged to forsake fossil fuels and nuclear, “there are now thirty gigawatts of solar on rooftops—that’s the equivalent of thirty nuclear power plants,” he says. In China, renewables will make up more than half the power capacity added through 2030, when renewables’ capacity will equal coal’s, projects Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The solar growth rates in Kennedy’s homeland, Australia, are even steeper, rising from a mere 900 households in 2006 to 1 million today. “There is nothing else like these rates of adopting a new technology,” he says. “They’re faster than the adoption rates for cellphones.”

Solar is expanding even faster than wind power, thanks to plummeting costs and financing programs that enable people to put solar panels on their roofs with no money down yet lower monthly bills. “Solar is growing so fast it is going to overtake everything,” said Jon Wellinghoff, chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in August. “It is going to be the dominant player. Everybody’s roof is out there.”

Deutsche Bank projects much the same for the global market—and says subsidies will soon be unnecessary. Within eighteen months, says the investment giant, solar will be able to compete in three-quarters of the world’s electricity markets without subsidies. The industry is climbing the learning curve, explains Kennedy, driving down costs the same way computer manufacturers did: “Like Moore’s law predicts, every doubling in [production] volume has led to an 18 percent reduction in price.”

Solar is exploding in energy-impoverished countries as well. “There are literally millions of people in these regions who will get electricity for the first time in 2012 to 2015” thanks to solar, Kennedy says. In Kenya, the village Bar Nne waited decades for the national grid to reach it. Powerhive, a company Sungevity helped incubate, lit up the village in weeks, “replacing kerosene with solar, reducing indoor air pollution—and all at lower prices,” says Kennedy.

No political naïf, Kennedy knows that the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel titans must still be resisted. But he believes climate activists need to shift emphasis. “We’ve convinced the public that climate change is a problem and that the powers that be don’t have an answer,” Kennedy says. “The final step is to show we do have an answer. It’s divest, but also reinvest. Let’s talk about how we drive wind and solar forward in the US so they’re in not just half a million households but 40 million, which is entirely possible.”Mark Hertsgaard

Last month, Mattea Kramer and Miriam Pemberton argued for defense cuts and for increased spending in renewable energy—including solar.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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