With all the bad press about the renewable energy industry, it’s easy to miss the fact that we are moving steadily down the road towards energy independence. It’s a trip that we need to make, but it hasn’t been easy and there’s no way we can afford to coast now.
First, we need to be proud of the progress we’ve made so far. Costs for rooftop solar equipment have plummeted. Germany is miles ahead of the U.S. in this regard; in Germany a rooftop system costs about $2.50/watt – about half the price of a comparable system in the U.S. At one peak time in May, solar provided an astounding 30% of Germany’s national energy demand. Fully installed rooftop solar can be cheap.
Speaking of cheap, natural gas is providing our economy with a short-term bridge towards a renewable future. Until we have cost-effective, high-capacity energy storage and a hundred times more renewable energy than we have now, we will need the peaking and base load capacity that natural gas provides. Cheap natural gas is a good thing, and we need to encourage the development of clean and cost effective domestic fuel sources.
Ticking off a few more mile markers: electric vehicles are a commercial reality; utilities are major consumers of solar panels and generators of clean electricity; new financing techniques are making renewable energy projects more affordable than ever.
We need to buckle up for the tantrums from the children in the back seat. The growing crescendo of political yelling and screaming can be quite distracting. Every four years we are subject to the same arguments: “the other guy’s energy policies are bad, and mine are good.” Wahhh, wahhh, wahhh.
There are plenty of dead ends along the way, and there will be more. A recent MIT study found that the $6.9 billion invested in carbon capture and storage is unlikely to ever make coal clean. The billions invested around the world for construction of the hydrogen highway is turning out to be a washout (remember that President Bush made the first big push for hydrogen-powered cars to wean us off foreign oil). And the promise of thin film solar turned out to be an elusive mirage when we got closer to the reality of really cheap crystalline silicon. Mistakes like these are inevitable; just back up and get back on the road.
Unfortunately, this is a hazardous road. Some companies gradually coast to the side of the road as they run out of gas. Other companies crash spectacularly, burning their fellows in the resulting accusatory flames. So there will be more casualties along the way; it’s part of the journey.
Finally, there are laws that must be obeyed. In addition to our ethics, there are two other Rules of the Road. The Laws of Thermodynamics won’t bend or break – trespassers will be violated. The Laws of Economics mean that new energy technologies will only succeed if they are economically superior to the technologies they replace.
So on this year’s Independence Day, keep in mind how much progress we’ve made. Don’t be demoralized by the bumps, distractions and dead ends. Have a hot dog and a cold beer and enjoy the ride.