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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 9/9/21

Joe Biden's Solar Plan and the Prescience of Jimmy Carter

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From New Yorker

The best time to plant a solar panel was 40 years ago -- but Biden is trying hard to make up for lost time.

Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter
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The Biden Administration's announcement on Wednesday of a plan that could set the country on a course to generate 45 percent of its electricity from solar panels by mid-century might -- might -- someday be remembered as one of those moments that mattered. That's because it sets a physical target whose progress will be relatively easy to measure -- it's the energy equivalent of announcing that "before this decade is out" we will achieve the goal of "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth." This plan is much more ambitious, though: the Apollo project focused all the nation's technological might on moving one person; this is more akin to landing all of us somewhere very new. But physical targets are easier to track and understand than, say, the squishy and amorphous chatter about "net zero" emissions and so forth. Observers will be able to track with ease our progress and see if future Administrations are keeping up the pace.

By itself, of course, converting one country's electricity system to run nearly half on solar is not going to curtail global warming. But an effort at this scale will move us fast along the learning curve: the cost of solar has regularly fallen about 30 percent with each doubling of capacity -- so increasing its scale from less than four percent, which it is at present, to 45 percent should make what is already the cheapest energy on Earth far cheaper still.

There are plenty of pitfalls. For one, a target is only as good as the money behind it; Congress needs to step up and start appropriating, and the $3.5-trillion budget plan could be the first down payment on that task. (A task made much more difficult by news that much of corporate America is throwing down hard to stop parts of it.) And the political problems only start there: siting solar farms often kicks up local opposition from people who don't want to look at them. Even in green Vermont, where I live, this is a budding problem.

And there are deep questions about whether we've even got the metals and other materials left to make it happen -- in a recent paper, Megan K. Seibert and William E. Rees argue that proponents have failed to address questions such as how "giga -- tons of already severely depleted metals and minerals essential to building so-called RE technologies will be available in perpetuity." The London-based Carbon Tracker Initiative, however, has recently made a case that material constraints will steadily become less of an issue; for the moment, the regularly falling cost of solar seems to make their case. And, as Saul Griffith, the author of the forthcoming book "Electrify," says, using renewables requires far less in the way of materials than a fossil-fuel-based energy system.

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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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