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Solar power, not 'dirty coal,' is the future

Jennie Young • Jul 29, 2014 at 9:20 AM

One electronic advertising panel bordering the field at the World Cup stadium in Brazil grabbed my family’s attention. Its huge letters spelled out YINGLI SOLAR, as bold as the usual ones like VISA, COCA COLA, NIKE, MACDONALD’S, POWERADE, FLY EMIRATES and KIA MOTORS. I discovered the company is headquartered in Baoding, China, with offices in 30 countries and the foremost manufacturer of solar panels.

America’s progress is more hidden, but it’s robust to a surprising degree. The June 16 issue of Time magazine included an article by Michael Grunwald headlined “The Green Revolution.” It included this astounding fact: “There are now as many jobs in the solar (150,000) and wind (50,000) industries as there are in the coal industry (200,000).” Green renewables started slowly but have exploded in the last five years, becoming one of America’s fastest growing industries.

Wind tripled capacity and solar capacity is sixteen times greater. Grunwald reports that a new solar-power system is installed on an American roof every three or four minutes, and more solar was installed in the past 18 months than in the previous 30 years. An analysis by Citigroup reported that “the age of renewables has begun” and with costs dropping and storage issues being solved by very innovative research, renewable energy has become mainstream and desirable.

Grunwald describes a global movement, growing in unlikely places like oil-rich Saudi Arabia where a $100 billion solar initiative has begun. China, at present both fueled and polluted by coal, intends to be the world’s largest market for renewable energy, with 250 gigawatts of wind and solar planned by 2020 — only six years away.

In Grunwald’s sentence about renewable jobs numbers compared to coal jobs in the paragraph above, you’ll see “….” after the quote because the sentence continues and explains why Yingli Solar sadly has no corresponding American competitor. The sentence continues: “but clean energy can’t match fossil energy’s clout.” Same old, same old — that sorry state of affairs in our country where the biggest threat to problem solving, ever and always, is the corrupting, stifling influence of money in politics.

Since 2005, reports Grunwald, carbon emissions have fallen by 17 percent. Natural gas and renewables, not regulations, have caused coal-fired plants to close in droves and nuclear is hardly a player because of exorbitant costs. Yet almost all congressional Republicans and a handful of Democrats keep beating the drum for dirty coal.

I’m embarrassed by the outspoken, unqualified support of the industry by U.S. Rep. Phil Roe. He and like-minded politicians are on the losing side here and I’ve little doubt even they’ll regret allowing an industry, unused to change and desperate for whatever profits are left, to render them ineffectual while the country moves on without them.

The new Environmental Protection Agency proposals are expected to increase the drop in emissions to at least 30 percent by 2030 or before. That’s 730 million metric tons or the equivalent of carbon emissions from two-thirds of U.S. passenger cars and half of U.S. homes. That should impress and inspire a congressman who cares about such things, particularly when it’s about saving money with the added bonus of saving the earth.

Coal will be made to pay for its pollution while costs of renewables keep falling. Grunwald says it’s about dollars and cents. The Energy Information Administration predicted in 2009 that it would take 20 years for wind to produce 40 gigawatts of power but it’s already past 60. Last year’s carbon reductions from clean wind was the equivalent of taking 20 million cars off the road. And solar costs are falling faster than wind’s costs. Very Republican Georgia is the nation’s fastest growing solar state — because it has learned it saves money and prevents rate increases.

Grunwald writes of Brian Painter, one of the country’s foremost leaders in solar production. He spent his life building coal-fired plants all over the world. He looked at the last ones he built in South Korea and experienced an awakening. “It’s like, holy cow, look at the size of those stacks. You think what they’re pumping into the atmosphere, and you start to question what you’re doing with your life.”

Congressman Roe, our representative and our employee, wants to continue as a Washington insider and maybe chair a congressional committee. I suggest he consider all those Republican-chaired, non-functioning committees in the same way Painter looked at his Korean smokestacks and maybe start to question what he’s doing with his life and the real impact it has on ours.

Here are a couple of mind-blowing facts from Grunwald’s arsenal to take with him to Washington: All the fossil fuel energy stored within the Earth is matched by the energy of just 20 days of sunshine, and covering only 4 percent of desert areas with solar panels could supply the equivalent of the entire world’s electricity. But then, Congress is a hard case. Our energy heroes know it well and move on without them.

Jennie Young of Elizabethton is a retired language arts teacher.

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