By Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President,
Illinois Renewable Energy Association
In the northern hemisphere December 21 is the shortest day of the year and marks the beginning of winter. For earlier people, the gradual reduction in sunlight marked the beginning of winter and ushered in a period of time when survival was difficult. It was an important time as the months of winter were know as “the famine months.”
They understood the importance of the sun in their lives and created structures, stories and ceremonies to alleviate their concerns regarding whether the sun would return and ensure their future survival.
Since our work involved international travel we were fortunate to have visited two solar-oriented archeological sites in Europe. Stonehenge in England is aligned on a line of sight with the winter solstice sunset while New Grange in Ireland is on a line of sight with sunrise.
Today’s society with its emphasis on holiday parties and gifts obscures the basic concern of human survival. Also obscured are the significance of solar energy and the role it plays in photosynthesis which supports life on earth including the production of oxygen.
Another obscured phenomena is the potential of solar energy to produce electricity needed to power modern society. The amount of solar energy reaching the earth is thousands of times greater than all the energy consumed by the global population. Previous efforts to make greater use of solar energy were waylaid by efforts to push nuclear energy and later by plunging oil prices. While the solar transition in the United States could be slowed by a new push for fossil fuels, renewable technologies are well advanced and increasingly cost competitive.
David Roberts reports that on a least cost basis (made by dividing the total lifetime costs of building and operating a power plant by its total lifetime output) the cheapest form of electricity is from onshore wind, closely followed by utility-scale thin film solar PV. The cleanest sources of energy are now the cheapest.
More renewable energy capacity is being installed in the developing world than in the developed world as they are not competing with a well established electrical system. In the developed world electrical demand is stagnating or falling slightly while renewable energy installations are displacing existing power plants. In the United States federal and state policies supporting renewable energy add to the competition utilities face from natural gas plants. But most of the current economic damage to the existing utility economic model is a result of cheap natural gas.
The least cost of electricity calculations do not include the costs of climate change. If a carbon tax were implemented it would give an additional financial advantage to renewable energy sources.
If solar costs keep falling as expected as a result of continuous technological improvements and increasingly larger production facilities, solar advocates believe in a few years solar will be the cheapest source of new electricity. Roberts and others believe solar is winning and will leave developed countries with the challenge of dealing with non-competitive fossil fuel and nuclear generators.
With module prices as low as 55 cents per watt for small orders and with supportive federal and state policies in place, it is time to invest in solar energy.
The winter solstice and the following bleak months remind us again that energy storage is essential and that progress in energy storage remains crucial for a sustainable energy future.