Friday, June 3, 2011

Solar could unlock path to clean energy; the sooner the better

The man with gnarled hands was a legend in Skagit County.

Many in the Washington state farming region said he could find water in a desert. The man's name eludes me and I'm sure he passed from this world, but he developed a reputation for finding the shortest route to tap fresh ground water. He charged nothing, and people from all walks swore by his skills.

I feel like asking that old water witcher for his advice now. But rather than water, I'd ask him to work his magic on the clean energy industry. Maybe take that fresh-cut Y-shaped branch and point to the shortest route for unlocking thousands of jobs in the promising sector.

Kind of a wise man (or woman) on the mountain thing.

After several years of hype, the clean energy industry appears on the verge. Solar's finally looking like it's got the chops to compete. Biofuel breakthroughs may propel relatively cheap new sources of U.S.-made fuel into the domestic pipeline. And wind continues to kick up dust, not to mention a bubbly hillbilly cousin, geothermal.

Nuclear's Fukushima shuffle appears to have added shine to the green sector. Nuclear power's reliance on huge government subsidies don't help it much either. And Germany's backing off nuclear further burnishes renewables's image.

Clint Wilder, senior editor of Portland, Ore.-based consultant Clean Edge Inc., offers an explanation for the recent spate of news. "Follow the money," he writes in a post.

Businesses from a variety of sectors and borders are looking to cleantech for opportunity, Wilder says. Among the examples he mentions is a $1 billion investment by European oil giant Total in SunPower.

Adam Browning of reports that the global solar photovoltaic market went from $2.5 billion in 2000 to $71.2 billion in 2010. Browning also writes about how the New York Solar Jobs Act, which seeks to build 5 gigawatts of solar in the state by 2025, has attracted the promotional efforts of "The Bachelorette's" Ryan Park and spots on the CBS Super Screen in Times Square.

A number of sources predict solar will reach parity with fossil fuels, most recently General Electric's Mark Little, global research director, who in a recent interview with Bloomberg estimates five years.

The U.S. Department of Energy also has contributed to the effort, most recently allocating $27 million to standardize regulatory procedures, reduce fees and "reduce the overall costs associated with permitting and installation," officials say. DOE also has established a $12.5 million challenge to encourage cities and counties to compete to streamline and digitize permitting processes.

In California, my employer, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, which largely administers clean energy grants for local governments, has uncovered a list of 93 solar projects in our valley that are either in the regulatory process or being proposed, and, according to California Department of Fish and Game, have little or no environmental impact to wildlife resources.

The projects represent about 8,600 megawatts and would cover about 64,000 acres. That's real progress and furthers the University of California, Merced's declaration of this as Solar Valley.

And I came across a juicy statistic in a piece by Michael Moynihan on Huffington Post about the new guy President Obama wants as Secretary of Commerce. Nominee John Bryson, former CEO of Edison International. Southern California Edison, looks like a good pick for cleantech. His legacy? A subsidiary of Edison International, writes Moynihan, buys 65 percent of all solar power generated in the United States.

The San Joaquin Valley contributes a big portion of that sun-harvested energy and will provide more, soon. My colleague and I have been saying for the past year that our region is a Petri dish for clean energy, with all its attributes. I hope we're right. With jobless rates in rural parts of this region pushing 40 percent and national rates climbing, we could use the economic activity.

The need couldn't be greater. The International Energy Agency says that after a dip in 2009 because of the global financial crisis, "energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions in 2010 were the highest in history."

The IEA says it estimates that 80 percent of projected energy-related emissions in 2020 are "already locked in, as they will come from power plants that are currently in place or under construction today."

But recognition of coming trouble is starting to dawn. While the topic remains ultra-controversial and mostly off limits in Congress, others in the international arena are less afraid to address the symptoms of climate change. The Associated Press reports that in Sao Paulo, Brazil at the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit officials from the World Bank and 40 cities from around the world pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is optimistic. "This unique partnership with the World Bank will help solve many of the problems that cities face in obtaining financing for climate-related projects," he tells the AP.

Sounds good, but it's likely just a drop in the bucket. Change, the saying goes, doesn't happen overnight.

We could use that old water witcher right about now. Maybe he's already here. Bill McKibben and his offer some pretty good directions on how to get there.

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