The Biggest Energy News Isn’t Oil Or Natural Gas, It’s Solar
Judging by the attention given energy subjects by most American media in recent months, the most important news on the energy front has involved gasoline prices at the pump, a pipeline for Canadian shale oil, and the risk-reward ratio of fracking for natural gas. In terms of the world’s energy future, however, and indeed, its fast-changing energy present as well, the really big news may well involve solar energy.
An article on the Bloomberg website today headlined “Solar’s 80% Plunge Hurts Utilities From Hawaii to Spain” suggests what this story is all about.
With the cost of electricity produced by solar panels plummeting 80 percent in the last five years, largely because manufacture of these panels has come to resemble making computer chips, solar-produced electricity is no longer just becoming competitive with other fuels. The Bloomberg story’s notes: A Spanish company funded by General Electric “is preparing to build a solar plant to supply electricity 25 percent cheaper than a local utility charges for traditional power, a breakthrough that’s sending tremors through the global energy industry.”
Think of what is happening here already and likely to happen soon! And while doing this thinking keep in mind the linkages among all sectors of the energy marketplace — petroleum, natural gas, and alternatives such as solar and wind.
Solar quite soon is likely to begin generating a large part of centrally-produced electricity in places with very sunny climates. This, in turn, will increase the excess of other fuels used in power plants such as natural gas, and drive down their operating costs. Because the solar panels used in power plants can also be used on individual homes and businesses, many more of these will get off the power grid (at least partially), driving down electricity prices still more.
We are never going to see totally solar-powered passenger vehicles because of the diffuse nature of solar radiations. What we will see soon to a far greater extent are vehicles powered by batteries that are charged in whole or part with cheaper solar-generated electricity.
And the political implications of all these marketplace changes?
One of these days there will be a real energy debate in this country. It will pit cleaner, renewable, and inherently more abundant alternative sources of energy (solar, wind, ocean wave, et. al,) against dirty, exhaustible, environmentally hazardous and increasingly less cost effective sources. Energy from still living nature versus energy derived from grave robbing of dead plants and animals.
This debate probably won’t happen in 2012. Republicans want to focus on higher gas prices at the pump, and on a shale oil pipeline. The Obama Administration’s own foolish emphasis on funding solar companies rather than simply buying solar products for government-owned properties meanwhile, has temporarily given solar a bad name in this country.
This debate, then, will likely be deferred until the 2014 election season, and not come to the fore as a really big vote-getting issue until the 2016 elections.
America led the world in solar technologies in the 1970s. Ronald Reagan and the petroleum industry buried it again after the 1980s. But you can’t bury something as obvious as this forever.
Not even in America. Not even in a country in which Old Man Oil has been happily drilling away unchecked for so very long.
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