The Future’s so Bright I Gotta Wear Shades!
by David Arey
“I study nuclear science, I love my classes
I got a crazy teacher who wears dark glasses
Things are going great, and they’re only getting better
I’m doing all right, getting good grades
The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.” 1
If you replace “nuclear science” with “solar energy technology,” the lyrics suffer. But the reality is that the future for solar energy is blindingly bright.
And it has to be if the U.S. and the world are going to kick our addiction to carbon-based fuels. As long as the cost of burning coal to generate electricity and the cost to run planes, trains, and automobile on refined petroleum is less than alternative forms of energy like solar, consumers have no economic incentive to switch.
Economists know that burning fossil fuels (natural gas, coal, and oil) has been and continues today to be far less expensive than it should be.
Don’t blame the oil subsidies which add up to billions of dollars a year in the U.S. Why? Because everyone loves them in one form or another, and they aren’t going away. Sure, big oil receives more than its fair share of subsidies. But, have you ever heard of a Democratic Congressman or Senator who was against providing assistance to low-income families to heat and cool their homes? And, who exactly is against tax exemptions for farm fuel?
“When you buy a head of lettuce, you pay for the costs of producing it, and the farmers and retailers are compensated for their efforts. But when producing the lettuce requires the combustion of fossil fuels—to pump the water that irrigated the lettuce field or to fuel the truck that delivered the lettuce—one important cost is not covered: the damage caused by the CO2 that is emitted. Economists call such costs externalities because they are external to (i.e., not reflected in) the market transaction.” 2
We aren’t paying anywhere near the true cost of burning fossil fuels. Given the economic advantages fossil fuels have, no wonder the world is addicted. And in order to be competitive in a “rigged” game, solar has to be really, really good. It’s getting there . . . quickly!
“A new solar-power system is now installed on an American roof every three or four minutes, often through lease deals that required no money down and lock in lower electric bills for years. Wall Street behemoths like Bank of America and Goldman Sachs are pouring cash into rooftop solar, as are giant corporations like Walmart and Google, while a range of new financing mechanisms are making solar investments even more attractive. The installer SolarCity has begun to bundle customer leases into solar-back securities, which could be transformative (though hopefully not as dangerous) as mortgage-back securities. And while panels are now amazingly cheap—down from more than $75 per watt 40 years ago to less than 75 cents per watt today—the solar industry is just starting to drive dramatic reductions in ‘soft cost’ like permitting, marketing, and installation.” 3
Do you think we’ll get more and more efficient at finding, extracting, transporting, and burning fossil fuels OR that the exponential growth in solar energy technology will continue? Which would result in a brighter future?
Time to break out the shades…we’re gonna need ‘em!
1. From the opening track off their debut album, Greetings from Timbuk3, released as the album’s first single in 1986, it was the band’s only significant mainstream hit (Wikipedia).
2. The Climate Casino: Risk, uncertainty, and economics for a warming world by William Nordhaus, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013, pp. 17-18.
3. Time, June 16, 2014 “The Green Revolution.”