Sunny Colorado was one of the first states in the nation to embrace solar energy. The solar industry trade group COSEIA, Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association, is a leading advocate for solar energy. John Bringenberg is COSEIA’s current President.
“Back in 2004, Colorado was the first state to require utilities to incorporate renewable energy sources into their power mix. The original mandate was 20% of utility power from renewables by 2020; that percentage has been increased to 30%.” Thirty-five states now require some percentage of renewable energy in their power grid.
Several years ago Colorado provided incentives for homeowners to install solar systems on their homes and the solar industry boomed. Those incentives have been reduced and the industry has slowed down. Meanwhile, other states offered generous incentives that triggered growth. The economics of installing solar are not favorable for most homeowners without subsidies. “In 2008 the Federal government set a 30% tax credit for solar installations. This has been a boon to our industry, but the credits are set to end in 2016. They may be extended; they may not. This is creating uncertainty.”
John explained that all of our energy sources are subsidized in some way. “Subsidies for fossil fuel are hidden: ethanol support is in farm subsidies; BP’s cleanup has been financed in large part by insurance claims; nuclear plants are all insured by the government. Subsidies for renewables are transparent. That 30% tax credit is an easy target in variable political winds.
“The costs of installing solar are stable across the United States, while other energy sources have more variable costs.” In Colorado, as in most of the country, conventional electricity is 10 to 15 cents a kilowatt-hour, in California it is closer to 20 cents, and as high as 30 cents in Hawaii.
The solar industry seeks grid parity – creating a marketplace where the cost of solar is equal to or less than its conventional counterparts. “We are backwards about how we approach this. For most of history, wood was our primary fuel source. Then we added coal, gas, and oil. In each case we established costs based on extraction, ignoring the external costs on our health and environment.”
There are many ways to work toward grid parity. COSEIA is pushing for CO2 reductions as a positive environmental move that will also enhance grid parity. “A carbon tax, or cap and trade mechanism will raise fossil fuel costs. People in Colorado embrace renewable energy. We have the will of the public here to create CO2 reductions.”
John clarified that all renewables are not created equal. Hydroelectric is cost effective if the right water conditions exist. Public utility companies like wind energy because it is easier to align with their mission to generate, transmit, and distribute. They buy wind for 4 cents a kwH, mark that up in transmission and distribution and still make money. However, solar is so decentralized, utilities don’t have a clear way to benefit. “If you are a public utility, solar works like the enemy. However, battery systems are going to be the disruptive technology that will change everything.” They will make solar a more consistent energy source, easier to transport and distribute. Right now, solar peaks (midday) don’t correspond with peak loads (early evening). Batteries can adjust that disconnect.
How will we live tomorrow?
“When you think about energy, you have to think years, generations. Climate change happens so slowly and diffusely. We cannot say that the increased rainfall we are experiencing in Colorado this season is due to one particular factor.
“Reactions to climate change fall into three major categories: Technology will save us. We are already cooked; it is too late to do anything. We can affect it with technological help.
“The United States recently agreed to eliminate CO2 emissions in electricity generation by 2100. Many say that is too late, others say it cannot be done. I believe we have to discontinue generating electricity that creates CO2 by 2050, that it’s possible, and could help turn us around.
“We are making progress in reducing our CO2 output, but we are still going to see a lot more warming. We should outlaw coal plants, but we are far from doing that. We have to get off coal now, use oil as a bridge for the next 25 years, and then rely on renewables to supplement whatever the next major energy source will be. I would like to say that we can meet our energy needs through renewables, but that is not realistic.
Even with conservation, there simply isn’t enough land to create an energy system based on solar and wind without drastic changes in the way we live. Self-contained, neighborhood-scale nuclear reactors that are permanently planted where they provide energy and eventually decay are not a viable technology yet, but they are our best bet for the core of our long term energy needs.
“If we can’t do this by 2070 we will be living in a Mad Max world. That is only two generations away.
“There is so much to do in that period. Wealthy nations will spend trillions on weather-related protections as the planet changes. None of that will forestall warming. We should be focusing on how to compensate developing nations to preserve their rain forests. There is evidence that CO2 at 350 ppm is dangerous for humans. We have been above 380 ppm for three years. The CO2 level reached 400 ppm every day in March of 2015. Our CO2 emissions have not stabilized. They have to stabilize before they can come down.”