Continual drop in solar energy prices – grid parity

Solar electricity is moving ever closer to grid parity, meaning the cost is comparable to existing grid supplies (coal, gas, etc).  This is a pretty significant milestone, as politics have failed (and will continue to do so) in substantially reducing CO2 emissions…but if solar becomes less expensive than fossil fuel electricity, market forces will take over where governments have failed.  A project in Spain recently achieved grid parity with a group of fourteen rooftop solar panel arrays, and in the US, a project by First Solar is producing at less cost than coal.  I think we’re moving into a new electricity marketplace, where people are going to start asking why we’re not looking at solar to cut costs, rather than asking why we should pay *more* for solar, as has been the case in past years.  I wouldn’t expect your utility bill to decrease though, as the gradual decommissioning of fossil fuel plants is not going to be cheap.  But, a big win for the environment – if we can move quickly enough on this.

Also in solar energy news, the world’s largest solar thermal plant, being built in California, recently passed a big test proving that it’s ready to enter commercial service.  Solar thermal technology is significant as the thermal energy it collects can be stored to provide energy when there’s a shortage of sunlight (cloudy days, or at night).

Climate Change News

I’ve seen a number of interesting articles regarding climate change in the news lately, so figured I’d just sum them up in a single post.   As always, follow the links for the full stories.

First, the World Bank has issued a report (PDF link) that finds a very high chance of hitting an average warming of 4°C by the end of this century…twice the international ‘goal’ of 2°C.  The report goes into details of why this is bad, but chances are if you’re reading this you already believe it’s bad…what is significant here is that yet another scientific report is showing we’re making too little progress towards combating climate change, and are leaving a pretty messed up world for future generations. (full article at the Washington Post).  It’s also worth noting that while the impacts of a 2°C rise have been studied quite a bit, the same scientific scrutiny has not been applied to a 4°C rise.  They conclude that, “Given that uncertainty remains about the full nature and scale of impacts, there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.”  Think about that.

Our neighbors in Canada are feeling a bit better about global warming, as it’s not expected to impact them as negatively (or other northern countries like Russia).  (link)  The warmer temperatures could even have some benefits…more tourism and increased food production, for example.

In Iowa, more than 130 scientists from Iowa colleges and universities have pointed out the obvious…that the bad drought they experienced this year is a predicted effect of global warming, and that we can and should expect more of the same (or worse) in coming years.  (link)  I wonder if this will lead to a mass exodus of people moving from the Midwest to Canada?

In light of the news that the US is on track to be a net exporter of energy by 2020, no longer dependent on foreign oil, the IEA warns that

No more that one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2°C goal.

By pursuing energy independence via increased domestic fossil fuel production, we’re also sealing the fate of future generations.  (link)

Last, but most certainly not least, is that when you look at global average temperature, October 2012 was above average…but what’s most significant is that this was the 332nd consecutive month where the global average temperature has been at or above average.  Remember, there are local variations – some parts of the world may be cooler, some hotter – but globally, the data indicates that this planet is warming up. (link)

I’d like to wrap up this post with advice for how we can stop this, but that’s a real tough one.  I’m convinced that the only solution is to provide people with a clean energy alternative at a lower cost.  More importantly, we need action fast…which means we need a dramatically lower cost, something that makes everyone rush to adopt this new technology.  I’m not aware of any technologies that fit that requirement…and our country lacks the political will to implement change on a national level.  Any ideas?

Thorium – one great solution to our CO2 problem

Imagine a world with safe, CO2 free energy that’s available 24/7.  Science fiction?  No, science fact.  In the 1950’s and 60’s, scientists explored designs for a Thorium-based nuclear reactor.  Unlike today’s uranium-based reactors, a thorium reactor is unpressurized (can’t explode), has minimal waste, and inherently safe, with the fuel draining into a storage tank if power is lost.  Here’s a quick TED talk video that explains this technology more:

So, why was this promising technology abandoned in the 60’s?  To understand this, you need to understand our society at the time.  We were in the midst of the Cold War, and, well, one byproduct of uranium-based power plants is plutonium, which makes great bombs.  Thorium reactors didn’t.  End of story.

One other great part about thorium, is that it’s currently considered a waste byproduct when mining for rare earth minerals, and is incredibly abundant on this planet.  This is not a difficult fuel to obtain.

More info at Treehugger, Smartplanet’s coverage on Japan’s efforts here, and more discussion of the safety of thorium here.  Lastly, there’s a great website on this topic, appropriately named EnergyFromThorium.com.

The following video is much longer but delves into Thorium reactors in more detail if you’re interested:

Deaths by energy source

Forbes has an interesting article looking at the health effects of different energy sources, more specifically, the number of (human) deaths per unit of energy produced.  For all the publicity nuclear energy accidents get, it’s worth noting that the mortality rate from nuclear energy is about 90 deaths per tkWhr (trillion kilowatt hour of energy produced), while coal is 170,000 deaths per tkWhr!  To be fair, that coal rate is the global average and the US is much better than that (mainly because of existing pollution controls)…but even then, it’s a whopping 15,000 deaths per tkWhr.  The complete list:

Energy Source               Mortality Rate (deaths/trillionkWhr)

Coal – global average         170,000    (50% global electricity)

Coal – China                         280,000   (75% China’s electricity)

Coal – U.S.                               15,000    (44% U.S. electricity)

Oil                                               36,000    (36% of energy, 8% of electricity)

Natural Gas                                4,000    (20% global electricity)

Biofuel/Biomass                    24,000    (21% global energy)

Solar (rooftop)                              440    (< 1% global electricity)

Wind                                                 150    (~ 1% global electricity)

Hydro – global average          1,400    (15% global electricity)

Nuclear – global average            90    (17%  global electricity w/Chern&Fukush)

You can read more over at Forbes.com.

ESL Lightbulbs

Vu1 has developed a new, energy-efficient lightbulb that’s a bit different….not like the LED and CFL bulbs you see on the shelves today.  They’re using a technology known as Electron Stimulated Luminescence, or ESL for short.  ESL bulbs emit electrons which hit a phosphor coating inside the bulb, which then emits light.  Pretty simple in theory, and the result uses around 60% less energy than an incandescent bulb (and contains no mercury, unlike CFLs), at a reasonable price (approaching $10 once production ramps up).  Compared to LED bulbs, it uses more energy and doesn’t last as long, but LED bulbs have had challenges getting good color reproduction, and the ESL bulbs might have an edge there.  You can read more about it over at Vu1’s homepage, or check your local Lowes if you want to buy one to try out.