Solar is Waiting in the Wings
Three energy experts over at Scientific American just hatched a grand plan to dethrone coal, oil, gas, and nuclear power from their posts as reigning energy giants in the U.S. The authors conclude that by 2050, solar power could end U.S. dependence on foreign oil and slash greenhouse gas emissions. They write,
Solar energy's potential is off the chart. The energy in sunlight striking the earth for 40 minutes is equivalent to global energy consumption for a year. The U.S. is lucky to be endowed with a vast resource; at least 250,000 square miles of land in the Southwest alone are suitable for constructing solar power plants, and that land receives more than 4,500 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of solar radiation a year. Converting only 2.5 percent of that radiation into electricity would match the nation's total energy consumption in 2006.
The authors project that solar energy could provide 69 percent of the U.S.'s electricity grid and 35 percent of its total energy, including transportation, by 2050. What's more, this energy would cost no more than today's conventional power sources.
But for now, solar is waiting in the wings, listening for its cue. What's needed, of course, is for the government to throw some funding at solar -- over $400 billion in subsidies would do the trick. To be parceled out over the next 40 years, it's still a substantial investment, but the payoff would be well worth it, say the authors:
Solar plants consume little or no fuel, saving billions of dollars year after year. The infrastructure would displace 300 large coal-fired power plants and 300 more large natural gas plants and all the fuels they consume. The plan would effectively eliminate all imported oil, fundamentally cutting U.S. trade deficits and easing political tension in the Middle East and elsewhere. Because solar technologies are almost pollution-free, the plan would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 1.7 billion tons a year, and another 1.9 billion tons from gasoline vehicles would be displaced by plug-in hybrids refueled by the solar power grid. In 2050 U.S. carbon dioxide emissions would be 62 percent below 2005 levels, putting a major brake on global warming.
Solar technology could do great things for this country, but it needs a boost -- something bigger than what the private sector can provide. We won't be able to adopt promising new technologies like solar unless we create an entirely new energy infrastructure. Such a project will more resemble the creation of the railroads, the inter-state highway system, personal computers, the Internet, and the space program than the installation of catalytic converters and scrubbers, or the phasing out of ozone-depleting chemicals. The latter involved mere technical fixes, not wholesale technological revolutions.
We need an ambitious public investment commensurate to the colossal task at hand. How about a ten year commitment to buy down the price of solar? Whether through auctions or carbon taxes, federal carbon regulation has the potential to generate tens of billions of dollars annually for public clean energy investments. See the Breakthrough Institute's "Fast, Clean, & Cheap" for more on our own plan on how and why to make it happen.