Charles Skelley: The US can generate 69% of its electricity from solar by 2050, generate 3 million new domestic jobs, switch to plug-in hybrid cars, reduce imported petroleum costs by $300 billion per year (referenced to 2007 dollars) and reduce CO2 emissions by 92% in 2100.

Quoting from Scientific American magazine:

It is paramount that major market incentives [for photovoltaic energy] remain in effect through 2020, to set the stage for self-sustained growth thereafter. In extending our model to 2050, we have been conservative. We do not include any technological or cost improvements beyond 2020. We also assume that energy demand will grow nationally by 1 percent a year. In this scenario, by 2050 solar power plants will supply 69 percent of U.S. electricity and 35 percent of total U.S. energy. This quantity includes enough to supply all the electricity consumed by 344 million plug-in hybrid vehicles, which would displace their gasoline counterparts, key to reducing dependence on foreign oil and to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Some three million new domestic jobs-notably in manufacturing solar components-would be created, which is several times the number of U.S. jobs that would be lost in the then dwindling fossil-fuel industries.

The huge reduction in imported oil would lower trade balance payments by $300 billion a year, assuming a crude oil price of $60 a barrel (average prices were higher in 2007). Once solar power plants are installed, they must be maintained and repaired, but the price of sunlight is forever free, duplicating those fuel savings year after year. Moreover, the solar investment would enhance national energy security, reduce financial burdens on the military, and greatly decrease the societal costs of pollution and global warming, from human health problems to the ruining of coastlines and farmlands.

Ironically, the solar grand plan would lower energy consumption. Even with 1 percent annual growth in demand, the 100 quadrillion Btu consumed in 2006 would fall to 93 quadrillion Btu by 2050. This unusual offset arises because a good deal of energy is consumed to extract and process fossil fuels, and more is wasted in burning them and controlling their emissions.

To meet the 2050 projection, 46,000 square miles of land [NEAR ARIZONA] would be needed for photovoltaic and concentrated solar power installations. That area is large, and yet it covers just 19 percent of the suitable Southwest land. Most of that land is barren; there is no competing use value. And the land will not be polluted. We have assumed that only 10 percent of the solar capacity in 2050 will come from distributed photovoltaic installations-those on rooftops or commercial lots throughout the country. But as prices drop, these applications could play a bigger role.

2050 and Beyond
Although it is not possible to project with any exactitude 50 or more years into the future, as an exercise to demonstrate the full potential of solar energy we constructed a scenario for 2100. By that time, based on our plan, total energy demand (including transportation) is projected to be 140 quadrillion Btu, with seven times today’s electric generating capacity.

To be conservative, again, we estimated how much solar plant capacity would be needed under the historical worst-case solar radiation conditions for the Southwest, which occurred during the winter of 1982-1983 and in 1992 and 1993 following the Mount Pinatubo eruption, according to National Solar Radiation Data Base records from 1961 to 2005. And again, we did not assume any further technological and cost improvements beyond 2020, even though it is nearly certain that in 80 years ongoing research would improve solar efficiency, cost and storage.

Under these assumptions, U.S. energy demand could be fulfilled with the following capacities: 2.9 terawatts (TW) of photovoltaic power going directly to the grid and another 7.5 TW dedicated to compressed-air storage; 2.3 TW of concentrated solar power plants; and 1.3 TW of distributed photovoltaic installations. Supply would be rounded out with 1 TW of wind farms, 0.2 TW of geothermal power plants and 0.25 TW of biomass-based production for fuels. The model includes 0.5 TW of geothermal heat pumps for direct building heating and cooling. The solar systems would require 165,000 square miles of land, still less than the suitable available area in the Southwest.

In 2100 this renewable portfolio could generate 100 percent of all U.S. electricity and more than 90 percent of total U.S. energy. In the spring and summer, the solar infrastructure would produce enough hydrogen to meet more than 90 percent of all transportation fuel demand and would replace the small natural gas supply used to aid compressed-air turbines. Adding 48 billion gallons of biofuel would cover the rest of transportation energy. Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced 92 percent below 2005 levels.

Who Pays?
Our model is not an austerity plan, because it includes a 1 percent annual increase in demand, which would sustain lifestyles similar to those today with expected efficiency improvements in energy generation and use. Perhaps the biggest question is how to pay for a $420-billion overhaul of the nation’s energy infrastructure. One of the most common ideas is a carbon tax. The International Energy Agency suggests that a carbon tax of $40 to $90 per ton of coal will be required to induce electricity generators to adopt carbon capture and storage systems to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This tax is equivalent to raising the price of electricity by one to two cents per kWh. But our plan is less expensive. The $420 billion could be generated with a carbon tax of 0.5 cent per kWh. Given that electricity today generally sells for six to 10 cents per kWh, adding 0.5 cent per kWh seems reasonable.

Congress could establish the financial incentives by adopting a national renewable energy plan…

…Although $420 billion is substantial, the annual expense would be less than the current U.S. Farm Price Support program. It is also less than the tax subsidies that have been levied to build the country’s high-speed telecommunications infrastructure over the past 35 years. And it frees the U.S. from policy and budget issues driven by international energy conflicts.

Without subsidies, the solar grand plan is impossible. Other countries have reached similar conclusions: Japan is already building a large, subsidized solar infrastructure, and Germany has embarked on a nationwide program. Although the investment is high, it is important to remember that the energy source, sunlight, is free. There are no annual fuel or pollution-control costs like those for coal, oil or nuclear power, and only a slight cost for natural gas in compressed-air systems, although hydrogen or biofuels could displace that, too. When fuel savings are factored in, the cost of solar would be a bargain in coming decades. But we cannot wait until then to begin scaling up.

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