Playing Catch-up with US Solar

In recent years, a consensus has emerged in the geophysical and meteorological fields that human emissions of greenhouse gases have begun to change the earth’s climate. While major uncertainties remain about the details, there is widespread agreement that the impacts of this change will be mostly harmful, and that it is in the human interest to limit future emissions of CO2 from burning coal, oil, and natural gas as much as possible.

RE Insider – September 7, 2004 – No one has yet produced a credible blueprint for achieving the necessary reductions in greenhouse gases in which solar energy does not play a very large role. In my personal view, it would be desirable to produce more than half the world’s commercial energy from solar sources within the next few decades. The solar electric cell was invented at Bell labs fifty years ago. Most of the major technical advances of the last five decades have similarly been made in the United States. Many of them have been underwritten with US tax dollars. As recently as 1998, the United States still produced more solar photovoltaic modules than any other country. Given the incredibly small volumes produced, this is more an indictment of the world than a credit to us. By 1999 Japan leapt into a commanding lead, and it has since widened the gap every year. Last year, Japan produced 3-1/2 times as many solar cells as the United States. About the same time, Germany, Holland, and several other European countries began putting in place policies to promote solar electricity. Last year, Europe produced 80 percent more cells than the United States. At some point in the very near future, solar cells are poised to become a classic disruptive technology. As prices fall with economies of mass production, demand will skyrocket around the world. The policy question facing the United States is whether we will be exporting solar cells to the world or instead be importing solar cells from Japan while we desperately play catch-up – much as we are currently doing with efficient hybrid automobiles. Playing Catch-up with US Solar The Bush Administration, and the Republican leadership of the House and Senate, are committed to an energy policy designed by the Vice President that is dismissive of any important role for solar energy. This is a prescription for economic catastrophe. It hitches American prosperity to a fuel concentrated in mostly in a handful of unstable Middle Eastern countries that, when burned, changes the climate. What America needs instead are: – A $30 billion, five-year federal procurement of solar modules, structured to reward falling prices. Solar arrays should be on the roofs and south-facing walls of every army barracks, every post office, every school, and every library in the country, starting in the sun belt and moving north. – The United States should adopt the highly-successful German buyback model that overcomes the resistance of ordinary consumers who don’t want to buy this year because they believe prices will fall next year. – At least a ten year extension of the federal production tax credit for renewable energy. Long-term predictability is of enormous importance to companies that we are asking to make major investments in new manufacturing facilities. The on-again, off-again nature of American tax credits has destroyed many good companies. In the event that there is no political change or policy change in the federal government, then America’s best hope lies in efforts to aggregate similar initiatives at the state and local levels. A wide variety of these are currently underway. Twenty-five years ago, in calling for much the same program, I argued that a solar transition, phased in over the next half century, need be neither painful nor very expensive. We – and, frankly, the rest of the world – have largely wasted the last quarter century. Total global photovoltaic production last year was a paltry 742 MW. I no longer offer any hope that such a transition can be painless or cheap. However, I continue to believe it might at least still be possible to achieve this huge transformation of the world’s basic energy system in time to avoid an irreversible climatic catastrophe. But with each passing year, each passing month, each passing week, the odds grow more slim. At some point – perhaps sometime soon – it will simply be too late, even with a mobilization of resources akin to that which followed Pearl Harbor. The sooner we get serious, the better. About the author… Denis Hayes left his graduate studies at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to coordinate the first Earth Day in 1970 – an event often credited with launching the modern American environmental movement. Twenty years later he headed the first International Earth Day, with 200 million participants in 141 countries. Hayes returned in 2000 to serve as chair of the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, and remained as head of Earth Day Network, the group coordinating Earth Day activities worldwide. Today, Hayes is President & CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, a $100 million environmental foundation located in Seattle. An environmental lawyer by training, Hayes has published more than 100 articles, books, and papers on energy and the environment. During the Carter Administration, he headed the federal Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory). In 1993, he received the Charles Greeley Abbot Award of the American Solar Energy Society, and in 2000 he was elected as a Fellow of the Society. Among his many accolades, Time magazine selected Hayes as one of its “Heroes of the Planet,” Look magazine named him one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th Century, and the National Audubon Society included him in its list of the 100 Environmental Heroes of the 20th Century.