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Context of 'October 2-11, 2013: Rise in Fuel Efficiency, Drop in Usage Totaling Improvement in Carbon Emissions'

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The Center for American Progress releases a study that shows how economically viable a transition from the US’s current dependence on carbon-intensive and fossil fuels to a clean energy economy can be. Making this transition is a necessity, the study says, due to “global climate change due to rising carbon emissions” forcing the US to “dramatically cut its consumption of traditional fossil fuels, the primary source of carbon dioxide (CO2) delivered into our atmosphere by human activity.” The transition must achieve three interrelated goals:
bullet Dramatically increasing energy efficiency;
bullet Dramatically lowering the cost of supplying energy from such renewable sources of energy as solar, wind, and biomass; and
bullet Mandating limits and then establishing a price on pollution from the burning of oil, coal, and natural gas.
According to the study, a dramatic decrease in CO2 emissions can be achieved alongside an increase in employment opportunities, individual incomes, and economic growth. The authors of the study say their work is done within the parameters of two government initiatives: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA—see February 2009) and the proposed American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA), which remains to be passed by Congress. Taken together, the authors claim, the two measures can generate roughly $150 billion per year in new clean-energy investments in the United States over the next decade. Most of this new spending will be undertaken by the private sector, the authors say, triggered by the ARRA and the yet-to-be-passed ACESA, and will, they predict, create some 1.7 million new jobs that will be sustained if the spending continues year after year. That job gain would drop the unemployment rate about one percent, “even after taking into full account the inevitable job losses in conventional fossil fuel sectors of the US economy as they contract.” The authors say the clean energy program would do a great deal to combat the recession. The program would rely on three elements:
bullet Regulations aimed at promoting clean energy;
bullet A mandated cap on carbon emissions that will be phased in through 2050; and
bullet Measures designed to help businesses, communities, and individuals successfully manage the transition to a clean-energy economy.
The authors conclude: “To be sure, any economic modeling effort that estimates changes in employment growth, economic growth, and income growth will result in forecasts that are problematic by nature. We make this clear in our paper wherever we rely on our own economic models and those employed by others. But we also take pains to examine the relative strengths and weaknesses of all the modeling approaches—including our own. This enables us to cross check our own conclusions with those of other researchers to reach the most reliable possible understanding of the overall impact of advancing a clean-energy agenda within the US economy.” [Center for American Progress, 6/18/2009; Robert Pollin, James Heintz, and Heidi Garrett-Peltier, 6/18/2009 pdf file]

Entity Tags: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, American Clean Energy and Security Act, Center for American Progress

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

Author and computer scientist Ramez Naam writes a column for Scientific American explaining how “Moore’s Law” is at work in the dropping cost of solar energy generation. The benefits are obvious, he writes: “If humanity could capture one tenth of one percent of the solar energy striking the earth—one part in one thousand—we would have access to six times as much energy as we consume in all forms today, with almost no greenhouse gas emissions. At the current rate of energy consumption increase—about 1 percent per year—we will not be using that much energy for another 180 years.” Currently, solar energy only makes up 0.2 percent of the world’s energy production, mostly because the systems to capture and use solar energy are, he says, “expensive and inefficient.” But that is changing for the better. Moore’s Law is an observation made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, in which he said that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled each year. Moore predicted that trend would continue. Later observations codified the “law” to say that the number of transistors per square inch would double approximately every 18 months, in essence doubling the amount of computing power available to a given computer every 18 months. Naam is extrapolating the law to apply to the exponential decrease in the cost of generating solar energy. “If similar dynamics worked in solar power technology,” he writes, “then we would eventually have the solar equivalent of an iPhone—incredibly cheap, mass distributed energy technology that was many times more effective than the giant and centralized technologies it was born from.” Naam takes data generated by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL—see 1977) to note that since 1980, the cost of solar energy has dropped from $22 to $3 per watt. It is an almost perfect exponential drop, on average, trending at an average of a 7 percent drop in the dollars per watt cost per year. 2010 data indicates that the drop in price may be accelerating. Two main factors are driving this price drop: solar manufacturers are continually improving their abilities to reduce the costs of developing solar energy systems, and the efficiency of solar cells is rising dramatically. Laboratory results show solar efficiencies as high as 41 percent, and inexpensive thin-film methods (see 1972 and 1988) are achieving up to 20 percent efficiency in the lab, twice as high as most of the solar systems in use today. Moreover, installation costs are dropping as rapidly as technology costs. Naam writes that the trends indicate that the cost of solar will rival that of average retail conventionally generated electricity, about 12 cents per kilowatt hours, by 2020, or sooner. By 2030, solar electricity will cost half of what it will cost to generate electricity with coal. Naam writes: “Solar capacity is being built out at an exponential pace already. When the prices become so much more favorable than those of alternate energy sources, that pace will only accelerate.” Naam concludes: “The exponential trend in solar watts per dollar has been going on for at least 31 years now. If it continues for another 8-10, which looks extremely likely, we’ll have a power source which is as cheap as coal for electricity, with virtually no carbon emissions. If it continues for 20 years, which is also well within the realm of scientific and technical possibility, then we’ll have a green power source which is half the price of coal for electricity. That’s good news for the world.” [Scientific American, 3/16/2011; Investopedia, 2013]

Entity Tags: Ramez Naam, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Gordon Moore

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

Grist reports new data that shows America is using substantially less energy than in previous years, because of gains in energy efficiency as well as shifting market conditions and pollution regulations. CO2 emissions have dropped from 1.6 billion tons in 2007 (a record peak) to 1.4 billion tons in 2011, an 11 percent drop. Emily E. Adams of Earth Policy writes that both vehicle fuel efficiency and the number of miles driven by vehicles are improving, adding: “Average fuel efficiency, which had been deteriorating for years in the United States, started to increase in 2005 and keeps getting better. Americans are traveling farther on each gallon of gas than ever before. Furthermore, people are driving less. For many years Americans as a group drove billions more miles each year than the previous one. But in 2007 this changed. Now more cars stay parked because more people live in urban areas, opt for public transit, work remotely, or retire and thus no longer commute to work.” Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is shrinking in usage, though it continues to dominate conventional energy generation structures. Utilities are steadily shifting from coal to natural gas, and some are retiring old, inefficient coal plants instead of paying for expensive retrofits to bring them in line with current pollution regulations. US carbon emissions from coal have fallen 20 percent from their peak in 2005. Natural gas usage has risen sharply, and even though it produces only half the CO2 emissions that coal produces, natural gas added 373 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere in 2012. Solar and wind energy have no carbon emissions whatsoever; solar usage has increased 1,400 percent since 2007, and wind usage over 300 percent. Adams writes, “This is just the beginning of reductions in carbon dioxide emissions as the explosive growth of wind and solar power cuts down the use of dirty fossil fuels.” President Obama has set a goal for the nation to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020, and the decrease in energy usage and improvements in fuel efficiency are helping to reach that goal. [Grist Magazine, 10/2/2013; Grist Magazine, 10/11/2013]

Entity Tags: Grist, Obama administration, Emily E. Adams

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry


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