Solar has role to play in powering a green economy
On April 9, The Day published a guest commentary by Lou Palone, formerly of Millstone Nuclear Power Station, titled “A green hobby, solar can’t power economy.”
In this piece, Palone argues that solar power is of “exceedingly limited value” in powering today’s economy. He raises several important and legitimate questions about how much of our power needs we could get from solar, but he sells short the immense potential of this resource.
In the end, he asks the wrong question. No one is suggesting we should get 100 percent of our power from solar. The real question is, what role can solar play in a comprehensive plan to transition our economy to 100 percent renewable energy. And the answer to this question is: a huge one!
Palone raises two criticisms of solar energy. It takes up a significant amount of acreage, and it is intermittent. Let us address each in turn.
Regarding the area taken up by solar, Palone suggests that one 12-mile by 12-mile square could produce enough power for all of New England. But imagine breaking that square up into thousands of smaller areas, each sitting near to where the energy is used. Imagine covering not only residential rooftops with solar panels, but also big-box stores, warehouses, even parking lots. It is not difficult to see that we still have immense potential for expanding solar energy.
His other criticism of solar is that it is intermittent. Obviously, the sun does not shine at night and we could have longer stretches of overcast weather. Palone is right; solar power alone cannot power our entire economy. So the real question becomes, could a combination of solar power and other techniques end our reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power?
People’s Action for Clean Energy (PACE) has been working to develop plans to transition Connecticut to 100 percent renewable energy, one town at a time. Our research makes it clear that the technologies exist today to achieve this. The building blocks of a 100 percent renewable energy economy include:
• Aggressive conservation and efficiency,
• Switching heating, cooling and transportation to electric (i.e., heat pumps and electric vehicles),
• A diverse portfolio of clean renewable energy (e.g., solar, wind, hydro),
• Energy storage (e.g., utility-scale batteries, pumped hydro),
• Demand response (e.g., shifting loads to off-peak hours) and
• A more modern, smart electric grid.
All of these technologies exist; what society lacks is the political will to make it happen. An increasing number of towns, cities and states across the country are committing to achieving 100 percent renewable energy in our lifetime. In the process, they are making their communities more secure, sustainable and resilient to storms, while creating a large number of jobs.
Palone describes solar power as “heavily taxpayer subsidized.” In actual fact, subsidies to solar power have fallen significantly in recent years and solar has reached “grid parity” in many states. Moreover, subsidies to the renewable energy industry pale in comparison to those provided to the nuclear and fossil fuel industries. In an apparent lack of irony, Palone writes at a time that his former employer, Millstone Power Station, is seeking more special treatment from the state to give it a competitive advantage in selling the power it produces. The legislature would be wise to reject this request that would give nuclear power preferential treatment in energy markets.
In the end, Palone is right. Solar alone won’t power our economy. But it is a big part of the solution to achieving an economy no longer dependent on fossil fuels.
Mark Scully is president of People’s Action for Clean Energy (PACE) and Bernie Pelletier is Project Manager for PACE’s 100PercentCT Project. (www.pace-cleanenergy.org/percent100).
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