If energy use is set to effectively double between 2010 and 2030 (and this blog has tried to make the case that it is), and if most of the fuel to power that energy use is expected to be coal, then we have a problem. Several problems really, ranging from air pollution, mercury and fly-ash to mining fatalities, black lung and CO2 emissions.
But as I hoped to show in my previous post, the infrastructure we’re planning to build does not change the portfolio mix–the percentages of energy we will get from nuclear, hydroelectric, natural gas, wind and solar farms–and coal–don’t look set to change. For every old coal power plant we retire in the U.S., China and India will build two or three. And for every new nuclear power plant we build throughout the world, the developing world will clamor for more–but that ‘more’ will be delivered by coal.
Kind of a pickle we’re getting into.
In order to change the equation, we would need fuel sources that could be built without long term planning and permitting schedules, sources that could respond to local needs and conditions. It would be ideal if they didn’t have a large footprint, as that is often the cause of planning and permitting delays.
And it would be nice if the energy was clean.
So I offer for your consideration solar power. Not the big photovoltaic solar farms that are beloved by utilities (as it meets their requirements to generate clean power without surrendering ownership or control). They are just as difficult to permit as other plants. Their electricity has to be piped to customers, often at long distances. A plant the size of a coal-fired plant produces a tenth of the electricity.
Nope. We really have one realistic hope to get us through to 2030 without choking on our own exhaust. And that’s your roof. The roof of your home. The roof of your business. The roof of your church, synagogue, fire department, school and city hall. Rooftop solar produces local power for local consumption. It requires zero additional footprint. The investment is real–but getting cheaper by the month. The fuel is free–and will remain so forever.
I work for a solar power company, a home solar specialist. I am not writing this because I work for a solar power company. I went to work for a solar power company because I wanted to write this.
Solar power produces 0.1% of this country’s electricity. There are roughly 160,000 homes with solar panels on their rooftops–and roughly an equivalent number of offices, warehouses, IKEA or Walmart stores, community centers, etc. with solar.
But solar power drops in price by an average of 7% per year. By 2015, it will be cheaper than electricity provided by a utility for about half of American home owners. It already is cheaper in places like Hawaii, the Netherlands, Aruba and Curacao. Utilities keep raising prices. Solar keeps getting cheaper.
After 2030 we will need to supplement solar–but that’s the subject of another post. For now, while other fuel sources are running frantically on a treadmill just to maintain their percentage of the market, only small-scale solar can effectively serve as a substitute for coal.