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The economics of solar power
Peter Lorenz, Dickon Pinner, and Thomas Seitz; The McKinsey Quarterly
A new era for solar power is approaching. Long derided as uneconomic, it is gaining ground as technologies improve and the cost of traditional energy sources rises. Within three to seven years, unsubsidized solar power could cost no more to end customers in many markets, such as California and Italy, than electricity generated by fossil fuels or by renewable alternatives to solar. By 2020, global installed solar capacity could be 20 to 40 times its level today.
But make no mistake, the sector is still in its infancy. Even if all of the forecast growth occurs, solar energy will represent only about 3 to 6 percent of installed electricity generation capacity, or 1.5 to 3 percent of output in 2020. While solar power can certainly help to satisfy the desire for more electricity and lower carbon emissions, it is just one piece of the puzzle.
What's more, solar power faces challenges that are common in emerging sectors. Several technologies are competing to win the lowest-cost laurels, and it's not yet clear which is going to win....
With competition heating up, the companies building the equipment that generates solar power must relentlessly cut their costs by improving the processes they use to manufacture solar cells, investing in research and development, and moving production to low-cost countries. At the same time, they must secure access to raw materials without tying themselves to the wrong technology or partner.
The evolution of technology looms large for utilities as well. If they hesitate to undertake large long-term investments until the dust clears, they risk losing customers to players such as panel installers willing to put up and finance solar units on the roofs of buildings in return for a share of the savings the owners enjoy.
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How Clean Coal Cooks Your Brain
Jeff Goodell, Coal is Dirty
... The logic is simple: America has lots of coal. We are a technologically advanced society. Ergo, we can clean up coal. What's the problem?
Well, here's one: "clean coal" is not an actual invention, a physical thing - it is an advertising slogan. Like "fat-free donuts" or "interest-free loans," "clean coal" is a phrase that embodies the Bush-era faith that there is an easy answer for every hard question in America today. We can have a war in Iraq without sacrifice. We can borrow more than we can afford without worrying about how we'll pay it back. We can end our dependency on oil by powering our SUVs with ethanol made from corn. And we can keep the lights on without superheating the climate through the magic of "clean coal."
Here's another: mining and burning coal remains one of the most destructive things human beings do on this earth. It destroys mountains, poisons water, pollutes the air, and warms the atmosphere. True, if you look at it strictly from the point of view smog-producing chemicals like sulfur dioxide, new coal plants are cleaner than the old coal burners of yore. But going from four bottles of whiskey a week down to three does not make you clean and sober.
Jeff Goodell is the author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future, (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).
Also at WorldChanging.
Big Bad Boom
Radioactive Déjà Vu in the American West
Chip Ward, TomDispatch
In the American West, we take global warming personally. Like those polar bears desperately hunting for dwindling ice flows, we feel we're on the frontlines of the new weather regime.
... Many desert denizens now view abandoned archaeological ruins like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde in the Southwest as more than the remnants of a collapsed, long-lost Anasazi civilization. They increasingly look like haunting hints of our own possible fate as global warming continues to bake the already arid West.
... Here we go again… Unfortunately, it's not only the heat that's hitting us hard out here. One of the "solutions" to the crisis of climate chaos is about to kick the citizens of the West right in our collective gut before we even have a chance to go down for the count from heat exhaustion. Nuclear power -- once touted as a "solution" to other problems and recently resurrected -- is now being pushed hard as an alternative to carbon-dioxide emitting coal for keeping the lights on. And, unfortunately for us, its raw material, uranium, is right in our backyard.
So we in states like Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Montana are poised for a mining boom reminiscent of the one in the 1950s when the nuclear age began. Then, the West's uranium mines provided the raw material for our metastasizing Cold War nuclear arsenal and the nation's first generation of nuclear reactors. (You remember Three Mile Island, don't you?) Back then, radioactive ore was often dug out by impoverished Navajo miners desperate for jobs. Many of them later sickened and died from exposure to radioactivity.
(19 June 2008)