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In My Words: Sun rises to take on climate change

In the lead up to Earth Day 2015, Associate Professor Dave Gammon writes for regional newspapers about the falling costs of solar energy and the bright news ahead for both the environment and industry.

The following column appeared recently in the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Greenville (S.C.) News, the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record, the Gaston Gazette, the Shelby (N.C.) Star and the Fayetteville Observer via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.

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Associate Professor Dave Gammon
Sun rises to take on climate change
By Dave Gammon - dgammon@elon.edu

On Earth Day our thoughts are pulled toward the daunting challenge of climate change, often viewed as one of the defining problems of our generation. But have you heard the climate news no one talks about – the dramatically falling price of carbon-free solar electricity?

Cheaper solar is the main reason why photovoltaic installations in the United States last year were 100 times higher than a decade earlier. Consumption of solar energy still constitutes less than 1 percent of the global energy pie, but 100-fold growth per decade does not take long to add up to an economic force that could put permanent brakes on the main driver of climate change – the burning of dirty fossil fuels.

Too many people think solving climate change first requires widespread acknowledgement of the scientific consensus on global warming, followed by massive government intervention that ultimately affects our personal lives in a deep and lasting manner. What if this thinking is flawed?

A kilowatt of solar electricity now costs less than a tenth of what it did a generation ago. Technological improvements have made the production of photovoltaic cells cheaper and more efficient than ever at converting sunlight energy into electricity.

Tax credits introduced by President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama also played a role, but government cannot claim all the credit. The price of solar electricity had been dropping for years.

As any economist knows, price shifts affect virtually everyone’s behavior. They affect diehard Republicans like Sen. James Inhofe from Oklahoma, who will probably denounce human-induced climate change to his grave. They affect tree-hugging Eco-socialists who refuse to acknowledge that “No Impact Man” is an oxymoron. Affordable solar electricity will benefit everyone on this planet, plus the planet itself.

Lest you think I cherry-picked my sources, go online for yourself. Check prices and the growth of the solar industry. Investment management sources, economic sources and scientific sources all document a dramatic drop in the price of solar. And it’s still falling.

The price for coal-based electricity is still relatively cheap, though it has held mostly constant over the last few decades. Oil and gas prices have dropped dramatically in recent years because of fracking, but this is a short-term boon. A typical fracking well drops production by over half in the first year alone. A decade later and the well dries up almost entirely.

Thus the age of fracking will set long before our sun expires in roughly 5 billion A.D. Because the sun delivers as much energy to Earth in 90 minutes as all humanity consumes in one year, solar is undoubtedly the future; the only question is how quickly we get there.

Many economic forecasters and business investment firms predict that within the next decade solar electricity will outcompete fossil fuel-based electricity based on price alone. Price parity, along with ongoing improvements in battery technology, will then make clean energy decisions a no-brainer for everyone. Assuming current economic trends continue, coal-fired power plants will go the way of the dinosaur, and solar will be crowned king.

Cheap solar electricity by itself will not fix everything about climate change. We still need to respond to climate threats already materializing like droughts and sea level rise – particularly in the developing world. We also need to seek and promote alternatives for the use of fossil fuels in other sectors, such as transportation and plastics.

But does not the dramatic trend toward affordable solar electricity give everyone cause to celebrate this Earth Day? Wealthy capitalists can celebrate by investing in solar, with an eye on both a healthier planet and their own long-term profits. Ordinary citizens can celebrate by anticipating future home renovations facilitated by cheap solar electricity. Environmentalists can celebrate by revisiting the ways in which technology and capitalism often lead to wonderful outcomes for society.

And so, in the spirit of the late musician John Denver, let’s all sing “sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy!”

Dave Gammon is an associate professor of biology at Elon University.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
4/21/2015 11:45 AM