Solar Energy Gold Rush

The Progressive, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Solar Energy Gold Rush


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

For environmentalists, it was like going back to the future. In early October, White House officials unveiled plans to install a bank of solar panels on top of the residence to heat water for the President's family and supply some of its electricity needs. More than thirty years before, in the midst of a debilitating energy crisis, President Carter had put a solar hot water heater on the West Wing. But in 1986, Ronald Reagan removed the panels--and, at the same time, slashed federal subsidies for renewable energy. The return of a solar system to the country's best known home felt like a vindication to many greens. Perhaps solar on the White House could do for renewable energy what Michelle Obama's vegetable plot did for home gardening: make the eco look glamorous.

Rooftop solar is one of the most promising avenues for creating a clean energy infrastructure. If Americans rushed to put photovoltaic (PV) arrays on their houses, it would mark an important step toward weaning ourselves off of the fossil fuels driving global climate change. The strategy is already working in Germany (not exactly known for its sunny skies), where government incentives have created the largest PV market in the world.

But there's one crucial hitch. Rooftop solar is unlikely to meet the growing global demand for energy as billions of people clamor for electricity. Nor will it be sufficient to close the energy gap in the United States as we seek to transition away from coal while also feeding the huge electricity appetite of the Internet. To do that, energy experts say, we'll need something much grander: utility-size renewable energy plants capable of providing megawatts worth of electricity at peak times.

"When I look at the scale of what we need to do to de-carbonize the world, we need to be building a gigawatt a day [of renewable energy] across the world, or the equivalent of one nuclear plant," John Woolard, CEO of BrightSource Energy, a company building a 370-megawatt solar plant on the California-Nevada border, said during an October appearance at the Commonwealth Club of California.

Woolard and other ecoentrepreneurs are doing their best to make up the difference. During the same week that the White House announced the West Wing PV system, the Interior Department began approving a slew of utility-scale solar energy plants on public lands in the Mojave Desert. The installations will use a variety of cutting edge technologies to capture energy from the sun and get it to homes and businesses in California. Tessera Solar's Imperial Valley plant, for example, will employ some 30,000 "suncatchers"--forty-foot-wide mirrored dishes--to heat hydrogen gas pistons that will generate 709 megawatts of electricity. In Riverside County, the 250-megawatt Genesis Solar Energy Project will use rows of mirrored parabolic troughs to create steam that drives a turbine. A 1,000-megawatt installation planned for the California-Arizona border will, once completed, be the biggest solar plant in the world. Together, these facilities and others will power more than one million homes and put the Golden State firmly at the center of the solar industry.

A combination of market forces and government incentives drives the solar energy gold rush. The smart money in Silicon Valley is betting that renewables will eventually dominate the market. …

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