The solar industry is growing drastically every year, while fossil fuels continue to be phased out. This is why it is frustrating to hear commenters still say that renewable energy is not ready to compete with fossil fuels as a means to power our country. This is no longer true. Here are five reasons why solar is already winning.
There are more people in the U.S. employed to create solar energy than to mine coal. The banal argument that transitioning to a clean energy economy will cost us jobs is simply false. Solar is growing over 10 times faster than the American economy.
Solar already employs more than coal, and that gap is widening. In 2012, solar added 14,000 new jobs, up 36% from 2010 and the industry will add another 20,000 jobs this year.The fossil fuels industry cut 4,000 jobs last year. So when it comes to employing Americans, solar is winning.
Solar panels have a seen a consistent drop in prices over the last three decades, and in the last few years that drop has been meteoric. In the last 35 years prices have gone from $75/ watt to around $.75/ watt. Since 2008, the cost of coal has risen 13%. In some parts of the market, solar has already reached parity with coal!
I’m sure you’ve heard the argument that solar is economically effective only by relying on government subsidies. Currently this may be true, but if solar prices reach Citigroup’s prediction of $.25/ watt by 2020, subsidies may not even be needed.
And then there’s the glaring fact that oil, gas and coal receive subsidies that dwarf those for renewables ($409 billion v. $60 billion globally).
And that’s ignoring the extra costs that burning fossil fuels impose on the rest of society, that aren’t paid by fossil fuel companies (called “externalities” by economists). The Harvard Medical School estimates that burning coal in the U.S. costs $500 billion in environmental and health damage (and then there’s, you know, the whole climate change thing.) If those costs were taxed back onto coal plants, the price of coal would more than double.
With the cost of solar dropping rapidly, installations are escalating at an exciting rate.
Earlier this year, the U.S. became the fourth country to have 10 GW of solar energy capacity, with installations increasing at a rate of 50% annually for the last five years, that rate is expected to increase to 80% this year.
⅔ of global solar capacity has been installed over the last two years. In contrast, 175 coal fired power plants in the U.S. are expected to be shut down over the next five years (over 10% of total capacity). This reflects the rising costs of coal and the implementation of stricter environmental regulations.
(Photo courtesy GTM Research)
While fossil fuels have been an omnipresent part of investment portfolios for decades, their reign may be coming to an end.
Recently a number of reports have shed light on an impending “carbon bubble.” Fossil fuel companies are valued in the market based on their reserves of unburned fuel still in the ground. If international regulations are put in place to prevent atmospheric CO2 from rising above 450 ppm (the estimated cap to avoid irreversible climate change), much of the listed reserves couldn’t be used.
This means that many fossil fuel companies are overvalued as they potentially have huge unburnable reserves of fuel. British bank HSBC estimates that once stricter climate regulations are put in place, the value of fossil fuel companies may fall drastically. Already, coal companies have dropped in value 75% over the last 5 years.
Firms like Mercer and WHEB are advising investors to move their investments out of coal and oil and into renewables. Major investors are already making this move. Warren Buffett has invested in one of the largest solar farms in the world and has predicted the end of coal as an American power source.
5. Environmental Impact
This one should be pretty clear, but here are some interesting impacts of coal extraction and burning that you may not be aware of (sourcewatch):
- Acid mine drainage and coal sludge pollutes rivers and streams.
- Air pollution which causes acid rain, smog, numerous respiratory illnesses and cancers, and toxins in the environment that are harmful to ecosystems.
- Coal dust from mining causes respiratory illness.
- Coal fires in abandoned mines put tons of mercury into the atmosphere every year and account for 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions.
- Coal combustion waste is the second largest contributer to land fills after solid waste
- Mountaintop removal for mining causes flooding, destruction of entire ecosystems, and release of greenhouse gases.
- Emission of 381,740,601 lbs of toxic carbon dioxide, methane, sulfur dioxide, mercury, radiocative materials, and particulate matter annually.
- Enormous contribution to global climate change.
(Photos courtesy ASU News, dosomething.org, treehugger.org, midwestenergynews.org)