Developments show how booming demand and support for solar is shaking up energy paradigm
Jon Kirkpatrick, bottom, and Bevan Walker install a solar panel in Montpelier, Vt. (AP Photo)
Move over dirty fossil fuels, the solar revolution is coming.
That, at least, is the buried headline contained in new reporting from Reuters on Sunday which looks at the ability of the solar industry to upend the world’s energy system in ways similar to recent innovations which allowed oil and gas companies to squeeze previously unattainable deposits from underground shale formations.
With a focus on Japan, Reuters catalogs how the rising capacity and falling prices of solar energy—even as it currently survives without contributions from a fleet of dormant nuclear plants —has led the country to turn off its “giant oil-fired power plants” one after another.
The news agency reports:
Japan is retiring nearly 2.4 gigawatts of expensive and polluting oil-fired energy plants by March next year and switching to alternative fuels. Japan’s 43 nuclear reactors have been closed in the wake of the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima power plant after an earthquake and a tsunami – since then, renewable energy capacity has tripled to 25 gigawatts, with solar accounting for more than 80 percent of that.
Once Japan reaches cost-revenue parity in solar energy, it will mean the technology is commercially viable in all G7 countries and 14 of the G20 economies, according to data from governments, industry and consumer groups.
A crash in the prices of photovoltaic panels and improved technology that harnesses more power from the sun has placed solar on the cusp of a global boom, analysts say, who compare its rise to shale oil.
“Just as shale extraction reconfigured oil and gas, no other technology is closer to transforming power markets than distributed and utility scale solar,” said consultancy Wood Mackenzie, which has a focus on the oil and gas industry.
The reporting offers much credit to China for this global trend. The manufacturing giant, fueled by a set of renewable energy initiatives established by Beijing, has dramatically cut the cost of producing solar panels and related technology. And though it lacks the same spending power, India, the world’s second most populous country behind China, is also seen as a place that could take advantage of decentralized, solar power to the benefit of its nearly 1.3 billion people and the world at large.
These factors, of course, are not the only ones feeding into the complex dynamic of a global energy transition. And if the fossil fuel industry has its way, the real promise of a “rooftop revolution” or “100% Renewable Energy Vision” is a long way off, indeed.
According to Michael T. Klare, professor at Hampshire College and author of many books on the energy industry, writing in a recent essay at TomDispatch, there are four key trends that will ultimately impact how—and how fast—society will meet the challenge of fulfilling the transition to a truly renewable energy system. These important factors, Klare argues, include: “the world’s growing determination to put a brake on the advance of climate change; a sea change in China’s stance on growth and the environment; the increasing embrace of green energy in the developing world; and the growing affordability of renewable energy.”
And what does this renewable energy system even look like? This video, produced by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy earlier this year, offers an explanation of the current crisis and at least one vision for what could be possible:
Filmmaker and journalist Avi Lewis, who has been working on the film project that aligns with his wife Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, referenced the above video in a recent speech he gave in Canada as he explored the current historical moment that the crisis of climate change has delivered to humanity. And, agreeing with something that Klein and many others have argued, the crisis—though certainly dire—is better viewed as a grand opportunity.
“A great economic and energy transition,” he stated, “—away from fossil fuels, endless extraction, and consumption, and towards a restored public sphere, a sane and stable economy and environment—answers the political moment perfectly.”
And the technology that would fuel this transition is now “ready for prime time,” says Lewis, noting that the “price of solar energy globally has been cut in half in just 5 years” and that even without the benefit of government subsidies, energy created from the sun has been become actively competitive with coal.
In the end, Klare indicates how experiencing the impacts of global warming will be the most decisive element in terms of shifting the motivations of government officials, business leaders, and a global population at large who may become less and less complacent in the face of an increasingly inhospitable world. He writes:
… as the destructive effects of climate change become more pronounced and more embedded in daily life across the planet, the impetus to slow the warming phenomenon will only intensify. This means that the urge to impose strict curbs on fossil fuel consumption and the companies that promote it will grow, too.
We’re talking, in other words, about the building of genuine momentum for an energy transition which, in turn, means that the majority of people alive on the planet today will experience the ascendancy of renewables. As with previous energy transitions, this shift is going to produce both winners and losers. Countries and companies that assume early leadership in the development and installation of advanced green technologies are likely to prosper in the years ahead, while those committed to the perpetuation of fossil energy will see their wealth and power decline or disappear.
“For the planet as a whole,” he concludes, “such a transition can’t come soon enough.”