Rachel's Democracy & Health News #940, January 3, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: Solar power has come of age and is now competing directly with coal and nuclear for baseload installed capacity -- producing power day and night. The solar revolution is upon us, and not a moment too soon.]

By Peter Montague

In this issue of Rachel's we discuss important new developments in renewable energy with great potential for eliminating the threat of global warming:

** Two kinds of solar energy power plants are being built now to provide baseload power -- meaning power that is available day or night -- at a cost that is competitive with both coal-fired steam-electric plants and nuclear power plants. One is in California, the other in Iowa. This is big.

** The key to providing baseload power is cheap, simple energy storage. The California plant will store solar energy as heat; the Iowa plant will use wind energy to compress air, which will be pumped underground for energy storage. Both kinds of plants have existed for some time -- but now they are being scaled up. The potential is very large. Other firms are commercializing storage of the sun's energy in molten salts.

** In a third development, in mid-December a company in Palo Alto, California began manufacturing solar-electric photovoltaic cells by "printing" then onto aluminum foil, instantly cutting the cost of solar-cells in half. (Photovoltaics convert sunlight directly into electricity.) Their aim is solar panels that cost 99 cents per watt -- a number that has been the holy grail of solar cell manufacturers for 40 years. Unfortunately, their entire first year's production has already been promised to a utility in Germany, where forward-looking industrialists and political leaders have gotten the jump on us by subsidizing solar instead of nuclear and coal. No matter, the Palo Alto firm is building more manufacturing capacity as we speak.

** A new, realistic assessment of wind energy on the U.S. East Coast has shown that offshore wind turbines could power the nine coastal states from Massachusetts to North Carolina. And another study published earlier in 2007 showed that connecting dispersed wind farms into a single grid in the midwestern U.S. can create a reliable source of baseload power even without storage. Furthermore, that study showed that linking wind farms into a grid allowed energy to be sent to distant cities with less than 2% losses along the way.

All of these developments are aimed at commercial power stations, not home users. In Texas, Shell and TXU are planning a 3000 megwatt solar plant with compressed air storage. This is a big power plant with 4 to 5 times the capacity of a typical coal plant.

Solar power has come of age and is now competing directly with coal and nuclear for baseload installed capacity. These new solar plants

1. Are far simpler in design than coal or nuclear plants;

2. Produce far less pollution and toxic waste than coal or nuclear;

3. Have no potential for catastrophic failure of the nuclear kind, and can never become part of a weapons program;

4. Can be built more quickly than either "clean coal" or nuclear plants;

5. Require less water than either coal or nuclear plants, which is important in an era of scarce water; and

6. Are competitively priced.

What is standing in the way of this solar revolution? Only the combined political clout of the coal, oil, mining, railroad and automobile industries -- and their dutiful dinosaur representatives in Congress -- plus assorted university professors and house environmentalists who seem to have lost their way and are supporting one aspect or another of "clean coal."

In sum, as with almost anything worth having these days, it boils down to a citizen fight. We can celebrate and promote these new solar developments. But if that's all we do, we'll lose. We also must redouble our efforts to stop the nuclear "renaissance" and stop the "clean coal" juggernaut -- vigorously oppose all new coal plants (whether pulverized coal or integrated gasification combined cycle [IGCC]), all carbon capture and storage projects, all coal-to-liquids proposals, and the $38.5 billion in subsidies for nuclear power and fossil fuels Congress has approved for 2008.

Fossil fuels made sense in the 19th and early 20th centuries but this is the 21st -- and these dinosaurs are killing us, destroying the planet, and standing in the way of America's industrial rebirth. Their day is over. Every dollar spent on these dinosaur technologies is a dollar that cannot be spent on revitalizing America's global industrial leadership through renewable energy.