Solar joins the right-price energy club

Solar parity is here.

Honest. That's what a new study from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario says.

"Given the state of the art in the technology and favourable financing terms it is clear that PV has already obtained grid parity in specific locations," say K. Brawker, M.J.M. Pathak and J.M. Pearce in the report, "A Review of Solar Photovoltaic Levelized Cost of Electricity."

That and technological innovation, which is driving up solar system efficiencies, could open new markets and spur significant development of projects focused on harvesting the sun's energy. In California's San Joaquin Valley, we're already seeing the results with about 40 projects in the works in Fresno County and at least as many in nearby counties.

Ferocious cost reductions

Sami Grover, from, put it this way: "With the solar industry delivering ferocious cost reductions, falling as much as 11 percent in just six months, it's little wonder that some predict that solar will be cheaper than coal in the very near future."

A editor says the findings by Queen's University don't even take into account health, energy security and environmental costs of fossil fuels "and it STILL finds that solar has reached grid parity in many places."

The recent Durban Climate Summit clarified the dangers of allowing pollution to continue without restraint. The cost and potential damage of unparalleled production of greenhouse gases is impossible to determine. But one thing's for certain, it will be huge.

The rapid innovation of solar technology offers a way to cut into reliance on fossil fuels. Whether it will make a difference is anybody's guess.

Solar interest high

A solar research symposium at the University of California, Merced, Dec. 9, 2011, draws students and researchers from UC Merced's program, which is fast becoming a leader in solar research, and University of California campuses of Berkeley, Davis, Santa Barbara and San Diego as well as other universities. All report that their programs are working hard to improve the efficiency of solar cells.

At the symposium, Sarah Kurtz, interim director of the National Center for Photovoltaics and principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, tells my co-worker Sandy Nax that costs are dropping "spectacularly."

Nax also reports in a recent post that the industry is expanding at a robust rate with photovoltaic shipments doubling every two years.

Gaining efficiency

While many photovoltaic cells on the market range between 12 and 20 percent efficient, moves are being made to increase that number significantly. However, those technologies also cost more. "The challenge is to make high efficiency with low cost and high reliability," Kurtz says.

Some in our sun-drenched valley are concerned about seeing solar panels everywhere, especially on prime farmland. Nax tells me that efficiencies reduce solar's footprint and likely will improve its image, especially amongst concerned farmers.

That and estimated $1 per watt equipment costs will go a long way toward influencing standards that include photovoltaic panels as part of nearly every newly constructed building or major retrofit and remodel. Toss in escalating electricity rates, and solar may become as common as flat-screen television sets in American households.

But rather than offering entertainment, this electronic device will create a new era of distributed energy.

Nothing's easy

There will be challenges. For instance, what happens when the sun falls below the horizon? Cheap solar provides options that weren't otherwise available. Perhaps production of hydrogen will become more widespread that either can be used in fuel cells or in other applications.

Political leaders also will have to knuckle under and institute more laws like California's Global Warming Solutions Act, which seeks to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, and the requirement that utilities get a third of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. Otherwise, the incentive by the private sector to start figuring out cleaner alternatives might not great enough to foster widespread change.

It can be done. Even at Durban, which drew representatives from 190 countries, leaders in the final hours of the Climate Summit put together what some media sources call a road map to a legally binding climate treaty by 2020.

We'll see.

Climate change? Imagine what a penguin thinks

I sent a penguin to Durban, South Africa. Not a real one, just a cartoon.

It's part of an effort launched by four Belgians to drum up international interest in the largely ignored Climate Summit.

Why? Here's what the site says, "Penguins are very peaceful animals. They want to be in Durban in a peaceful way. That’s why the penguins organize parties, parties against global warming."

Grassroots pollution control

The penguins are the latest of a barrage of efforts to rein in pollution. And since little materialized from the 190 nation summit, expect more like it by increasingly disillusioned groups and individuals.

Of course, many are already quite active. There's the sophisticated activism of groups like and Bill McKibben targeting efforts to pipe tar sands oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. There are authors like Naomi Klein electrifying audiences with her talks on reckless risk taking with the future of the planet. But possibly the most important development is the evolution (think of the transformation in "Altered States") of American corporate thinking -- that going green might not be so bad.

More on that in a bit.

Durban deadlock

Little was expected of the Durban talks. World leaders talked but took little action. Analysts weren't impressed and believed talks will achieve far less than the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, which set targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations.

Global warming got lip service. China's not into setting limits while in expansionist mode, and the United States doesn't want to jeopardize whatever economic recovery this may be.

Durban did show some progress. Negotiators tackled the concept of forming a Green Climate Fund, which Reuters reporters Nina Chestney and Barbara Lewis say is "designed to help poor nations tackle global warming and nudge them towards a new global effort to fight climate change." Rich countries would capitalize the fund with up to $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor countries deal with the effects.

Sinking under rising waters

Just imagine island nations with very little elevation, disappearing under water like the final scene of "Son of Kong." In the movie, an earthquake causes Skull Island to sink. Kiko, the ape, dies saving filmmaker Carl Denham, an image etched into my brain when I watched it as a kid.

The situation is so overwhelmingly dire, that most of us would rather not think of it. That fits with U.S. policy, which is all about kicking payment down the road.

But events have a way of making themselves known. Call it massive foreshadowing for the epic movie of all time.

Political sea change?

My coworker Sandy Nax points out that even though anything environmental or climate-related has become a dirty word in the nation's capital, a groundswell is moving under their planted feet. Sandy, a veteran reporter with a great sense of forecasting trends, says this movement, which is coming from corporate America no less, could force a renewed focus on clean energy and the environment.

Honest. It's happening. Companies have seen the light when it comes to energy efficiency and are jumping on the renewable band wagon in increasing numbers. The fact that solar's gone down to near parity with fossil fuels is a big deal that will play out in the next few years.

But author and environmental activist McKibben believes we have maybe five years before the earth hits the point of no return and carbon dioxide levels push the climate change button. It's hard to believe Wall Street will go green that fast and shove projects like the Keystone XL pipeline into the dust bin.

Many say we should try. What would Montgomery Scott do? Seriously? He'd pull a miracle from somewhere. It won't be easy, "The star drive is junk, Captain."

Taking a big dirty risk

In a speech for the nonprofit idea-generator TED (for Talks, Entertainment, Design), Naomi Klein paints a clear picture of where we're headed environmentally. She says the push for dirty fuel isn't diminishing a bit. Big oil is "slamming its foot on the accelerator at the exact moment they should put on the brakes." She says we need a new narrative one that isn't about growth for growth's sake but one that says what goes around comes around.

Klein says we simply have our priorities reversed, that many nations' climate policies are based on a cost-benefit analysis and that politicians are waiting until the last possible minute to deal with the issues. "Why do we take these crazy risks?" she asks.

Klein calls our foray for fossil fuels today a quest for extreme energy, mentioning mountain-top removal for coal mining, fracking and deep-water drilling as increasing the stakes. She says the worst appears to be the tar sands, which requires a tremendous amount of water to unlock the crude oil. That leftover slurry is stored in massive contaminated ponds that Klein calls the "biggest black hole in the planet."

Solar friends in corporate places

But the news from corporations isn't all bad. Sure, Keystone XL developer TransCanada doesn't plan to install solar panels along its proposed pipeline. But plenty of other companies have seen the benefits to installing a clean energy source that some say is already as cheap as fossil-fuel generated power.

New Jersey-based Royal Wine Corp., which operates Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard, Calif., has installed a 1.15-megawatt solar system at its headquarters to provide 65 percent of the company's electrical power needs. The roof-top solar adds to the company's sustainability practices and energy efficiency efforts -- much like those of fellow New Jersey companies Fed Ex, McGraw Hill, M&M Mars and Johnson & Johnson, Royal says in a statement.

Other companies are also seeing the light. Sure, some of the motivation is image related. But many companies that launch sustainability efforts realize the dollar-for-dollar cost savings and expand the programs. Beats continual layoffs to trim costs.

Recycling less CO2

A move is afoot by one of my favorite Stockton, Calif. energy efficiency activists to keep the majority of recycled content in the state of California, thereby avoiding all the greenhouse gas production that goes into shipping it over seas to Asia and back again as product. He's working with politicians and entrepreneurs to create incentives to boost domestic manufacturing. "Anything can be made of recycled content," he says.

As I write this, I realize all my examples of progress to a green future hardly scratch the surface of the realities of climate change. I can see the smog in Fresno, but I can hardly imagine the impact of a rising Pacific Ocean on some of the most beautiful island beaches in the world.

My solution? Do what you can, even if it is simply sending a penguin.
Penguin economics

The idea engages your social media muscle. Those interested sign up and send a social media message to as many people as you can via facebook, twitter or whatever else. The penguins are cute and can be customized to taste. Currently, most participation on Pissed Off Penguins is coming from Germany.

The site keeps the statistics: Little flags on an Olympic style podium down in the corner on the home page show first, second and third place. The United States isn't in the top three. By the end of the Climate Summit, about 4,200 sent a penguin.

Clearly that won't clear the air or drop CO2 levels. Still, every little bit helps. And when Wall Street thinks green is viable, watch out.