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Solar Showdown

“It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Change or impermanence is the essential characteristic of all existence.

On the day I was born, I began to die. Whatever blooms will wither. Thoughts, feelings, perceptions and knowledge are temporary. These are universal laws which we cannot defy.

The past is gone, the future is not here, and only the present is in touch with reality.

Yet, like Thich Nhat Hanh implies in the quote above, we cling to cherished beliefs and in the process deny ourselves the chance to be surprised and awakened to new ideas.

By being intransigent, we prevent ourselves from bringing about that which has not yet come about or bringing into existence that which does not yet exist.

Life is constant change and it can be exhilarating when we embrace it.

“Life is fragile, like the dew hanging delicately on the grass, crystal drops that will be carried away on the first morning breeze.” – Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Much of the joy that I get from writing these columns comes from sharing new-found information with readers.  When we can see what is true, we have a better idea of what would be a wise next step in our continuous evolution.

I write this piece to counter some readers’ comments regarding recent columns. One reader said that in his vast experience solar energy is not feasible while another said it was totally dependent on subsidies and this financial assistance was a waste of taxpayers’ money and amounted to greenwashing.

Humans have exploited the power of the sun for at least 5,000 years. Ancient Egyptians used solar energy to heat their homes. They designed and built their houses so that the buildings stored up the sun’s heat during the day and then released it at night. Romans and Native Americans both used similar technologies to heat their homes.

To say that solar is not practicable denies both history and reality. Today solar is the fastest growing energy source in China, Japan, India, and the United States.

India launched the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission about four years ago to reduce its fossil fuel dependence. India expects to install 10 GW (gigawatts) of solar by 2017 and hopes to raise its solar capacity to 20 GW by 2022.

New Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi says he wants to bring solar energy to every home in the country by 2019. A solar panel on every home would provide enough energy for two bulbs, a solar cooker and a television. 

Major Indian solar manufacturer and developer Tata Power Solar has announced plans for a new nationwide initiative that will help prospective residential solar users acquire interest-free loans for up to $4,000 for their products. Partnering with Bajaj Finance, Tata will offer a new monthly installment payment plan to solar customers in an effort to make solar a more attractive and affordable option as well as a possibility for the approximately 400 million Indians without reliable power in the country.

“The case for solar in India will remain strong as long as the relevant policy goals address power shortages that affect millions of Indians, businesses, industries, and agriculture,” said Raj Prabhu, CEO and Co-Founder of Mercom Capital Group, a global clean energy communications and consulting firm.

Indian solar installations are forecast to be approximately 1,000 MW (megawatts) in 2014, according to Mercom. The country is planning to install the world’s largest floating solar power project. India’s leading hydro power generator National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) will set up a 50 MW solar photovoltaic project over water bodies in the southern state of Kerala.

“Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality.”     – Pema Chodron

Mercom expects China to be the number-one market in 2014 with installations of 13 GW. The government’s target is for 6 GW of utility-scale solar power plants and 8 GW of distributed generation systems. China astonished the world in 2013 by installing more solar than the U.S. has in its whole history.

In March, Mercom announced a revised forecast of 46 GW for global solar capacity additions in 2014, up from an earlier estimate of 43 GW. (One gigawatt can power between 225,000 and 300,000 average Canadian homes annually.)  Japan is to add 7 to 7.5 GW of solar capacity in 2014, Mercom calculates, while the U.S. will install around 6.4 GW.

Though solar power is still far from surpassing coal as America’s primary energy source, the number of people employed by the U.S. solar industry has surpassed the number of coal miners, automobile/light truck employees and steel workers. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy established the SunShot Initiative to decrease the total installed price of solar energy by 75% by 2020.

National Geographic reported in March that more solar panels have been installed in the last 18 months than in the previous 30 years combined. Solar power produced as much power in 2013 as 10 nuclear power plants. A new solar project was installed every four minutes in 2013.

Mike Shurtleff has been tracking the growth of solar photovoltaic production and installation since 2007 when he read an article stating that solar PV production had “jumped to 3,800 megawatts worldwide in 2007” and was “world’s fastest-growing energy source”.

As both Shurtleff (in the CleanTechnica article) and Amory Lovins (in a Rocky Mountain Institute YouTube video) explain, the growth of renewables like solar PV are exponential – as they scale up, they get cheaper which makes them grow faster which makes them cheaper yet, which makes them grow faster and so on.

In his article, Shurtleff states: “At this point in time, it [solar PV] has been growing faster 41% per year since that original article in 2007. A growth rate of 41% per year is the same as a doubling of production/installation every two years.”

He goes on to say: “If a growth rate of over 41% continues until 2022, then the world will be producing/installing over 0.5 terawatts of solar PV panels per year and maybe as much as 1.0 terawatt per year. At this rate, solar PV will become THE major source of power throughout the world.”

Richard Keiser published a landmark analysis of the U.S. solar marketin 2012 using rigorous economic analysis to quantify its potential. He claims that large cost declines in solar photovoltaic equipment and installations will radically increase demand for solar PV over the next five years. In a 2011 article, Keiser also pointed to the exponential growth of solar once it reached competitive price points with utility supplied electricity.

At the time, he led Keiser Analytics, a solar PV investment and consulting firm. He was so confident in the market for solar he started Level Solar which designs and installs residential solar panels at no charge and claims to generate solar electricity at a cost below utility prices.

“There is nothing permanent except change.”  – Heraclitus

In the 1960s the first commercially available solar cells cost $400 per watt. By the end of 2010, prices for the state-of-the-art installed PV systems were about $3 per watt at the utility scale. And today, bids for large-scale plants are below $1 per watt. Spot prices for solar modules around the world hit a record low 63 cents per watt in 2014′s second quarter and San Jose, CA based solar company Siva Power announced at the beginning of July the intention to follow a technology road map leading to thin-film solar modules costing 28 cents per watt.

Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has a prediction about solar energy: “By 2014 humanity will reach a ‘tipping point’ where the cost-per-watt from solar energy is cheaper than from coal and oil.”

“The First thing to understand about the universe is that no condition is “good” or “bad.” It just is. So stop making value judgments. The second thing to know is that all conditions are temporary. Nothing stays the same, nothing remains static. Which way a thing changes depends on you.”    – Neale Donald Walsch

So think about what Mike Shurtleff predicts: “Solar PV is going to become the single largest source of global power. It's going to happen fast.”

It is an established fact that harnessing solar energy results in a substantially reduced environmental threat compared with other energy forms such as oil, gas and nuclear. This is good.

The use of solar as a major source of energy on a global scale avoids the release into the atmosphere of large amounts of carbon dioxide, one of the major causes of global warming. This is also good.

Solar is unlike any other generation technology. It can be installed large scale, small scale or tiny scale. Solar cells are becoming more and more efficient.  New materials and methods are continually producing solar cells that perform better than their early crystalline silicon antecedents; meanwhile, cheaper thin-film cells are also improving.  This is a heap of good.

“Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely.”– Karen Kaiser Clark

When the two most populous countries in the world – China and India – are pursuing solar energy with lightning speed, this will have profound effects on the global energy system.

Canada is among the top 10 countries of the world when it comes to the amount of solar installed but large solar projects are only happening in Ontario where pro-renewable-energy government policies essentially subsidize solar installations. Dazzling bitumen and LNG export pipedreams are blinding many politicians from perceiving the changing global energy landscape. Canada should be training solar construction employees, not pipeline workers.

Solar PV has been transitioning from a largely subsidy driven market to a cost driven market in many areas: Chile, Australia, Hawaii, other sunny islands, the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and Italy.

Minnesota, despite being blanketed in Arctic conditions for a good chunk of every winter, is nevertheless the past year’s utility solar champion, as it became the first state to introduce a comprehensive and transparent value of solar policy. This policy, based on transmission and distribution value, among other factors, will set a price for solar every year – which means utilities can no longer bluster about how useless solar power is.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan (who was born in Minnesota): I see the sun come shining, from the west unto the east. Any day now, any day now, we shall be released from the grip of fossil fuels.

That’s the reality of now; stick around and see what happens. When we comprehend impermanence, we understand that everything is in transition.

We’re moving on a life-changing track to inner happiness with our energy supply, a sunlit pathway that can prevent ecosystem destruction.  We shouldn’t feel we are renouncing fossil fuels; we just need to accept that they are going away.

“We are not disturbed by change when we see the interconnectedness and continuity of all things.”    – Thich Nhat Hanh

Michael Jessen is a Nelson-based sustainability consultant who has written about environmental issues for more than two decades. He is a member of his local Citizens’ Climate Lobby chapter and can be reached by email at zerowaste@shaw.ca