Here comes the sun

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Events out of Japan persist in an irradiated gloom as another Earth Day approaches. But among energy policy wonks in the United States the refrain (perhaps pronounced more circumspectly since March 11) remains the same: renewable energy sources would sure be nice but, shucks, for the foreseeable future, America has no choice but to power its industrial output and middle-class lifestyle (or at least what remains of it) via reliable fossil fuel industries—natural gas, coal, oil—and our long-time pinch-hitter nuclear energy (which had been on-deck for a mighty bipartisan resurgence before the disaster unfolding at Fukushima Daiichi, a level of calamity for which adjectives have yet to be invented).

Let’s put aside for a moment that this stupefyingly self-serving position generally originates out of the mouths of politicians, think tanks, and research facilities generously larded by cash from oil and natural gas corporations or executives and management therein. Let’s ignore the fact that these energy sources look economically efficient compared to renewals only if you completely discount the massive subsidies power lobbyists are able to achieve for their respective industries and only when you refuse to price in their many diseconomies: degradation of land and water, poisoning of cattle, destruction of, oh, say the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico and Valdez, Alaska, childhood asthma, heart and lung disease, air pollution, climate change, mercury poisoning, 20,000 years or so of nuclear contamination, yougettheidea. Let’s not ponder the ethical implications of a handful of human generations consuming the earth’s fossil fuel wealth, nor the increasingly bizarre and costly lengths energy producers must go to in order to source new fossil fuel reserves under the Arctic, squeezed out of Canada sands, tapped from the deep ocean or blasted out of hydrofractured shale (while denying, denying, denying that we’ve achieved the dread era of peak fossil fuel production).

But can we agree as a society that if their true costs were within the realm of the reasonable, dare one say, even the competitive zone of even the discounted costs of our current energy supply grid, the United States would be wise to maintain a preferential option, particularly regarding taxpayer dollars via subsidies, for the development of practical renewable energy infrastructure?

One leftie, birkenstockmarkety news source reports we are already there. According to Bloomberg Business News, solar energy’s time may have arrived without anyone noticing. Turns out part of the reason solar power has never compared well to fossil-fuel produced energy has been a fundamental misassumption about how to price the power. “Electricity from coal costs about 7 cents a kilowatt hour compared with 6 cents for natural gas and 22.3 cents for solar photovoltaic energy in the final quarter of last year, according to New Energy Finance estimates. [But] comparisons often overstate the costs of solar (italics all mine) because they may take into account the prices paid by consumers and small businesses who install roof-top power systems, instead of the rates utilities charge each other …

"Solar isn’t expensive,” one solar executive told Bloomberg. “In many areas of the solar industry you’re competing with retail power, not wholesale power.” This is like comparing a utility plant's apples to your Aunt Betty's oranges. (But don't fret DIYers out there. According to this same report those rooftop solar installations also will become much cheaper in the near future.)

Bloomberg reports: “Large photovoltaic projects will cost $1.45 a watt to build by 2020, half the current price." Solar production is already viable against fossil fuels on the electric grid in the world's sunny regions, so the Middle East still has a role to play as a power producer if it learns to tap its solar as much as it taps its oil wealth. A solar infrastructure boom has already begun and industry executives, perhaps with too sunny (sorry) a perspective, are predicting solar capacity to double by 2013. It has already quadrupled since 2008 (albeit from a small baseline). GE, noted hippie energy naturalists, are prepared to jump in big time with the construction of the nation’s largest photovoltaic panel factory, with an eye to building panels capable of producing 400 megwatts of pwer each year.

Government initiatives like California’s decision to commit to producing a third of its energy via renewables by 2020, certainly will help drive down overall costs of the production of renewables like solar. Natural gas, which the U.S. has in abundance, has been touted as a "clean burning" alternative to coal and treated as the utility-infielder of the energy industry, but there is plenty of reason to fear that the means of its extraction from shale deposits can be devastating to citizens at the surface and threatening to water sources relied on by millions. And a Cornell University recently cast serious doubt on the notion that shale gas plants a smaller carbon footprint than coal.

No energy source is not without its problems, but we may be able to dispense with the biggest obstacle to solar power, a rhetorical barrier that pretended its cost were prohibitively expensive. So when we look for paths ahead to modernize our energy grid and get the fossil fuels out of our economy, our politics, and our foreign policy; let’s have no fear of atomic energy by just saying no in the first place to its planned second coming (lest we inadvertantly provoke, well, the real second coming). Let’s just keep on the sunny side of light.