A three part prescription for what we as individuals can do to move toward a renewable energy future without fossil fuels and carbon emissions:
Sun: “The first — joining in work pioneered by groups like the Sierra Club — is to persuade towns, cities, counties, and states to pledge to make the transition to 100% renewable energy. This is now easy and affordable enough that it doesn’t scare politicians. Cities from San Diego to Atlanta have joined in, and they will help maintain the momentum towards clean energy that the Trump administration is trying so hard to blunt.”
Sit: “Job two is to block new fossil fuel infrastructure. In some places, that will be by law. Portland, Oregon, recently passed a bill banning new pipes and such, over the strenuous objections of the industry. In other places it will take bodies — tens of thousands have already pledged to journey to the upper Midwest if and when TransCanada decides to build out the Keystone XL pipeline that Trump has permitted.”
Sell/Sue: “Third is to cut off the money that fuels this industry — by divestment, which has now begun to take a real and telling toll ($6 trillion worth of endowments and portfolios have joined the fight, and studies show it is cutting the capital companies need to keep exploring for oil we don’t), and by the kinds of lawsuits that New York, San Francisco and a host of other cities have already filed.”
McKibben concludes his argument with these words: “Those actions keep the industry off balance, affecting its future plans and weakening its balance sheet even as solar and wind get cheaper all the time. If you want a shorthand version: Sun, Sit (in) and Sell/Sue. Yes, it would be easier if the country, and the planet, were acting together — if Washington were leading the fight the way the planet’s superpower obviously should. But since it isn’t, the pressure will find other outlets. This fight is going aggressively local, and fast.”
The PERI Research Study
Robert Pollin is a researcher at the Political Economy Research Institute located at the University of Massachusetts — Amherst. He and his colleagues have been commissioned by groups in the states of New York and Washington to chart a course that would allow both states to move forward with their plans to create a green economy without assistance from the federal government. PERI has worked for governments and organizations in China, India, sub-Saharan Africa, Spain, Brazil, South Korea, South Africa, Germany, Indonesia, and Puerto Rico.
“It is obvious that nothing good on climate change is going to be coming out of the federal government under Trump,” Pollin tells TruthOut. It is equally obvious that we can’t wait around on climate issues (and many other matters) until somebody less awful gets into the White House. We therefore have to take the most forceful possible actions at the level of state politics. This is what the coalitions are doing in both New York and Washington states.”
It should be noted that both studies are intended to find ways for labor advocates and environmental advocates to work together rather than opposing each other. “Trump and others on the right have feasted on the divides between labor and environmentalists, claiming that if you are for the environment, then you have to be against working people and their communities. These studies show in great detail (some might even say excruciating detail) that these Trump claims are flat-out wrong.” Both studies can be accessed at this link if you wish to delve deeper into this topic.
Both states have set aggressive targets to lower their carbon emissions — 40% by 2035 in Washington and to zero in New York by 2050. Pollin and his colleagues predict that the green energy investments they propose — which amount to about 1.5% of each state’s GDP — will result in significant job growth. Washington could create 40,000 new jobs a year under the PERI plan. For New York, that number is 100,000 per year.
“We develop specific proposals for supporting both the workers and communities that are currently dependent on the fossil fuel industry, to minimize the negative impact on these workers and communities from the year-by-year contraction, leading to the total shutdown of the fossil fuel industry in New York state.” The same consideration for workers applies to the Washington state proposals as well.
“I should emphasize that through investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy, neither businesses nor households should ever have to pay more for energy as the economy transitions out of fossil fuels,” Pollin says. “This is because energy efficiency investments, by definition, save money for consumers. Meanwhile, the average costs of wind, geothermal, small-scale hydro and clean bio-energy are already at rough cost parity with fossil fuels. Solar energy is still a bit more expensive, but its costs are coming down rapidly.”
The task, as Bill McKibben suggests, will be hard and the road is long. But a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, according to a Chinese proverb. Both McKibben and Pollin have no illusions about what it will take to succeed at converting to a green economy, keeping fossil fuels in the ground, and keeping carbon emissions from overwhelming the earth’s ability to cope.
Pollin says, “We simply have to defeat these people and their interests — both the outright opponents among the fossil fuel giants and liberal policymakers who talk a good game, but are unwilling to commit to policies that will deliver on their promises. Getting victories against both sets of forces will require huge amounts of very effective organizing.” Activism is equal parts love and anger. Let the organizing begin!
Myth: solar energy has low, even counterproductive, energy return on energy investment (ERoEI)
Short answer: Actually, solar energy has superb energy return on energy investment (ERoEI) — 1 to 4 years, according to the US National Renewable Energy Lab, or 1 to 2.5 years in Europe, according to the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany.
The terms “energy payback” and “energy payback period” when used to discuss solar power might be kind of confusing at first glance, but when you dig a little deeper, you get much more clarity. Energy payback refers to the amount of energy a solar power system has to make in order to equal the energy which was used to produce it. Most solar panels are made up of solar cells which are manufactured from silicon. This non-metal element must be processed in order to be usable in solar cells. The processing consumes some energy, as does the assembly of solar cells into solar panels.
Solar Energy Return On Investment — Energy Payback Period
Some critics and skeptics incorrectly say too much energy is consumed in the production of solar panels and that the panels don’t generate enough electricity during their lifetimes to make up for it.
This criticism has been proven to be false, and may be nothing more than a deliberate form of misinformation intended to persuade people who are interested in solar power to lose that interest. Too often, the critics turn out to be people who are directly or indirectly connected to fossil fuel industries like oil and gas, nuclear, or coal. They also may be politically conservative — certain highly politicized members of that group have historically opposed renewable energy to some degree.
Let’s look at what a neutral scientifically focused source, the US National Renewable Energy Lab, says about solar power and the energy payback situation: “Energy payback estimates for rooftop PV systems are 4, 3, 2, and 1 years: 4 years for systems using current multicrystalline-silicon PV modules, 3 years for current thin-film modules, 2 years for anticipated multicrystalline modules, and 1 year for anticipated thin-film modules (see Figure 1). With energy paybacks of 1 to 4 years and assumed life expectancies of 30 years, 87% to 97% of the energy that PV systems generate won’t be plagued by pollution, greenhouse gases, and depletion of resources.”
The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany published a document containing similar figures: “The Energy Payback Time of PV systems is dependent on the geographical location: PV systems in Northern Europe need around 2.5 years to balance the input energy, while PV systems in the South equal their energy input after 1.5 years and less, depending on the technology installed.” Its report also noted there was a PV system in Sicily with a payback time of about one year.
In other words, PV solar systems today easily generate enough electricity to equal the amount of energy consumed to produce them. They then go on for many years to produce clean electricity.
Financial Solar PV Payback Period
When people talk about “energy payback” or “energy payback period,” they may also be thinking about the time a solar PV power system needs to operate in order to pay for itself financially through savings on utility bills. On average, that period is about 6–8 years in the US, according to Energy Sage.
It is only logical that a home or business owner who is considering getting such a system would want to know if it would be a sound investment. If you have a home solar power system that pays for itself in 8 years, and it produces electricity for 25, then you could say the free electricity period would be 17 years, which sounds pretty good.
Currently, no one asks, “But how long will I have free electricity?” because there is no such term “free electricity period.” However, the term “energy payback period” suggests a logic wherein one could derive this term. To be more precise, one could pose the question, “How long will I have free, clean, renewable electricity?” In the case of a 6–8 year payback period, the buyer then just needs to consider how long beyond that they will be using the solar panels. The period of free, clean electricity would be a little more than twice the payback period if they expect to use them for 25 years.
Another factor that can influence the payback time for a home solar power system is a potential increase in the home’s value. A research study found that installing a home solar system could increase the value of a home by about $15,000.
For homeowners who sold their homes after having new home solar power added, the result could be getting an extra $15,000. That money would help pay for the system, or if it had been paid off, it would be income.
A different study found that homes with solar power systems tend to sell faster, which can be more convenient depending on one’s life circumstances. (In some situations, people need to sell their homes as quickly as possible to pay for medical bills, to relocate for a new job, or for other reasons.)