Bill Briggs: Beyond climate changePublished on: Saturday, September 16, 2017
Climate change is usually offered as the first reason for increasing the use of renewable sources for electric power. It also drives Boulder’s effort to establish its own municipal electric utility. But suppose you are not persuaded by the climate change argument. Further suppose that you are an enterprising business person looking for investment opportunities in a rapidly evolving industry with a skyrocketing demand curve. Where is the future? It would be utter blindness to overlook the opportunities afforded by the renewable energy industry. And it would be equally short-sighted to overlook the role that Boulder and its goal of municipalization could play in accelerating the renewable transformation. Here are two revealing snapshots.
Between 2008 and 2013, China’s investment in its solar industry dropped the price of solar panels by 80 percent. Fueled by federal assistance of nearly $50 billion plus tax credits, Chinese solar manufacturers now command about two-thirds of the U.S. market at a time when the worldwide market for solar panels is increasing by about 13 percent per year. By contrast, U.S.-owned solar companies have less than 20 percent of the U.S. market and the manufacturing for those companies takes place primarily offshore. China supplies the world with solar panels and its massive production of solar panels will fill the 120-gigawatt gap created when the Chinese government canceled plans to build 100 coal-fired power plants.
In a relatively short period of time, China has overtaken the United States in an industry in which the United States invented and patented the basic technology.
A similarly astonishing renewable transformation has taken place in India. According to India’s energy minister, the 2015 Paris climate agreement “changed everything” (differently than it did in this country). India is well on its way to fulfilling plans to increase its energy mix from about 15 percent renewable in 2016 (comparable to the United States today) to 40 percent in 2022. Not surprisingly, 75-85 percent of the solar infrastructure will be purchased from China. That renewable energy campaign includes replacing 770 million household and street lights. In a country of 1.3 billion people, 300 million without electric power, India anticipates giving everyone electric power by 2020. A similar transformation — a leapfrog of central distribution, pole-and-wire technology — powered by renewable energy, will occur in many developing countries.
An estimated 1.2 billion people, primarily in Africa and primarily in rural areas, have no electric power. Renewable energy technology (for example, local energy generation and micro-grids) is the only feasible solution for such environments. At a time of exploding international markets and plummeting prices in solar, wind, and other technologies, this is truly a time for enterprising business people and countries to make a move. Why shouldn’t the United States once again lead the world in the renewable energy industry and reap the economic benefits both at home and abroad? It will happen only if a united, committed nation takes swift, decisive action.
Unfortunately, unlike in some countries, the national leadership required to make the renewable energy transformation in this country is scarce. The change will occur only if local communities such as Boulder lead the way. Boulder’s campaign to create a municipal electric utility is an important piece of this transformation. If successful, it will lead the way out of the darkness of an industry that still operates with century-old conventions (sympathetic regulation of coal-based companies and guaranteed profits). It will help alleviate the increasing health risks of continued use of fossil fuels. It will curb the devastating environmental risks and damage produced by extraction industries. It will free Boulder from the state’s regulatory grip and allow it to innovate and implement urgently needed plans. And it will enable Boulder to seize the tremendous economic opportunities offered by the renewable energy industry and to produce benefits both locally and beyond.
This Letter to the Editor was published in the Daily Camera.