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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 4/22/18

100% Renewable Energy is Within Our Reach

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From Common Dreams

America's twisted politics may slow the transition to renewables, but other countries are now pushing the pace.


'What Medicare for All is to the health care debate, or Fight for $15 is to the battle about inequality, 100% Renewable is to the struggle for the planet's future.'
(Image by (Photo: Laurel L. Russwurm/flickr/cc))
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We watch in horror as the damages from climate change continue to mount.

Last year, Hurricane Harvey dropped more rain on Houston than any storm has ever dropped on any American city, ever. Hurricane Maria set back development in Puerto Rico 25 years, according to early estimates. And the tab keeps mounting: in 2017 alone, the economic cost of hurricanes and wildfires was greater than the cost of paying tuition for every American in a public college or university. We can't have a working nation or a world if we don't stop the climate from careening out of control. That's been clear for decades now, but what's been less clear is precisely what we should do about it.

Happily, that's no longer the case. We now know exactly what to do, and we're increasingly certain it can be done. We have to switch off of coal, oil, and gas, and on to 100% wind, water, and sun energy sources. And though this drive for a conversion to clean energy started in northern Europe and northern California, it's a call that's gaining traction outside the obvious green enclaves. More and more major US cities have taken the pledge to go 100% renewable by the year 2050, while others have taken action to sever their ties with the fossil fuel industry, signifying a global shift in how we're thinking about our energy system.

What Medicare for All is to the health care debate, or Fight for $15 is to the battle about inequality, 100% Renewable is to the struggle for the planet's future. It's how progressives will think about energy going forward.

Former President Barack Obama drove environmentalists crazy with his "all of the above" energy policy, which treated sun and wind as two items on a long menu that also included coal, gas and oil. That's simply not good enough. No more half-measures.

Scientists now tell us that at current rates, within a decade we'll likely have put enough carbon in the atmosphere to warm the earth past the Paris climate targets. And in any event there's no need any longer to go slow: engineers have in the last few years brought the price of renewables so low that it would make sense to switch over even if fossil fuel wasn't wrecking the earth. In fact, that's why the appeal of 100% renewables goes well beyond the left: if you pay a power bill, clean energy is increasingly the common-sense path forward. But that doesn't mean it's going to happen automatically: the fossil fuel industry recognizes its peril, and is rallying all the political power its cash reserves can buy to prevent the idea getting traction. It's going to be a hell of a fight.

To understand why it took a while to get here, consider the solar panel. We've actually had this clever device for quite a while: Bell Labs produced the first recognizable models in 1954. They were only about four percent efficient, and they were incredibly expensive to produce, which meant that they didn't find many uses on planet Earth. In space, however, they were essential: Buzz Aldrin deployed a solar panel on the moon not long after Apollo 11 touched down.

Improvements in efficiency and drops in price came slowly for the next few decades (Ronald Reagan, you may recall, took down the solar panels Jimmy Carter had installed atop the White House). But in 1998, with climate fears on the rise, Germany's Green Party found itself holding the political balance of power after a close election. In return for its support, the Social Democratic government began moving quickly toward renewable energy. German demand for solar panels and wind turbines coincided with rapidly growing Chinese industrial capacity in the early years of the new millennia, as factories across the People's Republic learned to make the panels ever more cheaply.

There are now days when Germany generates half of its power from the sun -- and, more to the point, the price of a panel began to truly plummet years ago, a freefall that continues to this day. By 2017, solar or wind power had won most competitive bids for electric supply, and India announced the closure of dozens of coal mines and the cancellation of plans for dozens of new coal-fired generation stations because the cost of solar power was badly undercutting fossil fuel. Even in places like Abu Dhabi, the comparative advantage of free power from the sun is impossible to resist, and massive arrays are going up amidst the oil fields.

One person who noticed the falling prices and improving technology early on was Mark Jacobson, the director of Stanford University's Atmosphere and Energy Program. In 2009 his team published a series of plans showing how the United States could generate all its energy from the sun, the wind, and the falling water that produces hydropower. Two years later, along with actor Mark Ruffalo and other co-conspirators, Mark co-founded The Solutions Project to take the idea out of academic journals and into the real world. The group has since published similarly detailed plans for most of the planet's countries.(If you want to know how many acres of south-facing roof you can find in Alabama, or how much wind blows across Zimbabwe, these are the folks to ask).

With each passing quarter the price of solar and wind power has fallen farther, moving the 100 percent target from aspirational goal to the obvious solution. I spent the spring of 2017 in some of the poorest parts of Africa where people -- for the daily price of enough kerosene to fill a single lamp -- were now installing solar panels and powering up TVs, radios, and LED bulbs. If you can do it in Germany and you can do it in Ghana, you can probably do it in Grand Rapids and Gainesville.

That's especially true since renewable energy is lights-on popular across the American political spectrum. The polling data is almost unbelievable: in a country with a yawning partisan gulf on virtually every issue, one poll after another shows that massive majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents favor government action to develop renewable energy.

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
 
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