Renewables to the Rescue?

This past week in Denver, the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) held its annual conference, Solar 2006. The theme of the conference was “Solar Energy: The Key to Climate Recovery”.

The first two days of the conference featured several of the leading scientific experts on climate change, including NASA’s James Hansen and NCAR’s Warren Washington. The uniform view was that it was basically too late to avoid climate change – it’s already here and happening at a frighteningly accelerating pace – and that it was getting close to being too late to avoid catastrophic planetary damage. The best we can hope for is containing future impact to modest levels, and even this would require a massive and rapid shift to much lower carbon energy. To prevent widespread loss of species and coastal areas, it is suggested that the U.S. will need to reduce the absolute quantity of annual CO2 emissions by 60-80% from today’s levels by 2050 – which frankly seems beyond reach. Failing that, all we can do is become more adaptable as a species to the sweeping global climatic changes that are inevitably forthcoming.

All of which was terribly depressing, seemingly hopeless. Fortunately, the last two days of the conference were a little more inspiring.

The Chair of the conference, NREL’s Chuck Kutscher, asked experts from each of the segments of renewable energy and energy efficiency to quantify the economically/technically plausible deployments of these technologies in the U.S. by 2030, to see if we could get onto a path of 60-80% CO2 reduction by 2050. When each of these independent analyses was added together, the overall conclusion at the closing session was that it was indeed viable for the U.S. to achieve the dramatic emission reductions that are estimated to be necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change.

In seeing the summary results of this broad integrative effort, I found some questionable assumptions, and certainly additional analytic refinement through a robust peer review process is required to make the conclusion unassailable by critics. And, the analysis was silent on the undoubtedly large economic costs of making such a huge transition in the energy system. But, there was undeniably some comfort that the energy path required in the U.S. to avoid really bad global damage is probably doable, though it certainly will require huge and immediate political will that sadly seems lacking.

The conclusion of this initial scoping study also made sense in that it requires intensive effort on all dimensions of alternative energy – renewable supply and demand reduction – to achieve the overall goal. In other words, there is no one single “silver bullet” solution to our energy/environmental challenges. Solar alone can’t do it, neither can wind, nor can biomass, nor efficient building technologies. All of the tools that we have available to us must be used thoroughly if we’re going to get to where we need to go.

Next year, the theme of the annual ASES conference will be “Solar Energy Puts America to Work” – discussing solar energy as an economic development vehicle, in addition to an environmental savior. Hopefully, this message will be less threatening to those in denial about climate change, thereby generating stronger political impetus for alternative energy. We hope to see you in Cleveland next July for Solar 2007.

1 reply
  1. thomas percy
    thomas percy says:

    At breakfast late last week, my wife raised the subject of the Energy Review with the comment “It’s just the Government buttering it’s own bread, Nuclear Energy is wasteful – Dad often said [her late father Eric Colbeck invented the boron steel for control rods that has made the whole Nuclear industry feasable] that Nuclear had only two uses, to make a loud noise or boil water, and doing the latter wastes about two thirds of the pile’s heat to keep the birds warm” !!! [And contribute to Global Warming ??]Whereas [and here I must admit to partiality as a descendant of several generations of coal miners, who sank and ran what became the oldest working pit in the world – Guinness book of Records – Wearmouth Pit in Co.Durham] clean coal technology in CHP units close to railways and built up areas would use our own energy supplies, be much more thermally efficient, and provide employment. In the late 50’s I was in a works using CHP [75%+ thermal efficiency] and abstracting some CO2 from the stack for aspirin production. Also using Ammonia Absorption [see http://www.guha.biz for instance] cold can be produced and distributed instead of heat during hot summers.One might also use coal, in conjunction with Hydrogen produced by offshore wind to produce motor fuels. And possibly revive the “gasworks” industry in a modern guise ?Nuclear and Wind, being often remote from users, have a further waste in transmission losses, more heat for the environment ?I have given further more detailed comments below,regardsAndrew Stobart, A Ferrand Stobart & Associates, Secretary Grünhaus ProjectBower Orchard, Orleton, Ludlow SY8 4HU 01 568 780837www.grunweb.org.ukAdditional Comments1/. Many MP’s and Civil Servants, while “learned in the law” are scientific analphabets2/. Concentrating on wind and Nuclear and “distributed” electricity is in line with Lenin’s comment “Communism is all about electricity – centrally generated”. And of course maintains the Treasury’s “hand on the switch”, to ensure continued revenue from taxes on energy.3/. Electricity Distribution Systems can be closed down without the use of explosives, an example was during the recent fighting in the Balkans, I have known for over 30 years how to “close down London” one dark night. Luckily terrorists are long on explosive technology and short on mechanical ditto.4/. Wind Energy Farms , based on mechanical principles old when Nicholas rented the windmill in E.Yorks from the Knights Templars in 1185, is using a less than efficient technology – especially offshore. Short paper available on this contraoffshore.doc I question the present economics here, this should be looked at independantly ?5/. Inshore Tidal Power [ponds which can double as coastal erosion protection barriers] and inlets/estuaries is the most reliable and predictable source of Renewable Energy.[tidalpower.doc] Some technologies are available to direct drive heat pumps [Note, 95% of Swedish Homes have a Heat Pump vast potential here to save gas and oil for home heating ? The “mini chp” units now available could be the motive power to “multiply” the heat supplied by their fuel ?]6/. Municipal CHP is a MUST, see http://www.woking.gov.uk for their unit, and http://www.greenfinch.co.uk for the Ludlow Food Waste Digester CHP unit. Every source of biodigestable waste should be harnessed for this, including all sewage works not yet fitted with sewage gas collection.7/ Microhydro inland, probably most useful for agriculture, there is a technology to use electricity so generated to “fertilise” crops without the use of chemicals. Can be used to direct drive Heat Pumps, abstracting heat from the water.8/. Biofuels, work is on going here, vast opportunities for UK agriculture ?9/. Solar Energy, a DIY design for a Solar Water Heater is available using scrap pipe, wooden planks, and aluminimu kitchen foil. For Solar Elecetricity the potential seems both enormous and untapped:-The present UK Government reported in Feb 1998 [Lord Clinton-Davis House of Lords Statement] that the overalll UK estimated electricity generation potential from Solar is 70,000 to 110,000 MW, equivalent to between 64 and 100 Nuclear Units of 1100 MW each.Comment from the USAIf you figure a 50 year life span, which is reasonable, then a 100 watt panel at $400 ($4 / watt) in NY generates electric at about $0.11 / kWh, less than grid price here ($0.15). Cut that cost in half for California.Calculation method for Solar PV installations [Yahoo Group membershoip required]http://groups.yahoo.com/group/wastewatts/files/pv%20calculations.xlsGerman Solar PV Programmehttp://www.solarserver.de/solarmagazin/index-e.htmlLatest USA manufacturing plant being erected for cheaper Solar PVhttp://nanosolar.comhttp://nanosolar.com who seem to be saying that they will be producing cells wholesaling at around$1.00/watt ?Work in Italy aims at reducing the cost still further:-http://www.electronicsweekly.com/Articles/2005/10/10/36498/STdevelopsdye-sensitisedsolarcells.htmare predicting $0.40/wattAFS/as 12/07/06

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