There was a subthread on a friend's Facebook post today about solar energy. It started out reasonable, in that some dude was skeptical of the economics of solar, and renewable in general. I played along, because I figured there are a lot of people who just aren't aware of what's going on in that industry. I've had people tell me for years that electrical cars aren't practical either, and we've been driving those for two years without compromise, so you expect that some people just have questions and don't know.
Then the guy referred to solar as "liberal energy," and it went down hill from there.
Renewable energy has a pretty clear future for many different reasons, not the least of which is the limited volume of fossil fuels and the environmental impact of burning them. Even BP is pretty straight on that, predicting the end of crude oil in 2066 or so, assuming constants in extraction and consumption. The harm from carbon emissions is scientific consensus at its most basic. Heck, we're now seeing the kind of crazy economic inversion that makes renewables more viable than ever. Last year's overall investment in the technology and infrastructure was down 26% but the new capacity coming online grew 9% for the year. It's also encouraging that the US military has declared climate change and the related energy issues as a top priority for national security, and global stability, and where there are military contracts there are companies ready to step in to make a buck.
The fascinating thing about renewables is that it's not a single topic about one simple thing. A lot of people think about it in terms of throwing some solar panels on your roof, and that's the solution. The reality is far more nuanced than that. I'm frequently surprised myself about the new things that hit the headlines. Solar is already turning into a combination of private, public and commercial generation, and now there is storage (mostly batteries) thrown in the mix to offset excess daytime generation for use at night. Wind is in a similar boat, since it's not constant either. The when and where isn't cut and dry either, and we're seeing the generation and storage evolve into a more distributed model that includes domestic rooftops, neighborhood "farms" and substations and the usual purchased generation from afar.
Regulation and legislation is the real hurdle at this point, because the utilities want and need to defend their business. Individual consumers, scientists and researchers don't have lobbyists, though there are non-profits stepping in to fill that need. In the US, the regulatory climate varies greatly by state. While the annual aggregate amount of new capacity is split almost evenly between solar, wind and natural gas, some states are better than others. California is growing solar, in part by necessity because they can't even purchase enough power, but then you have unlikely places like Georgia, which prohibits power purchase agreements (a strange but no-money-down practice where you buy the power you generate on your own roof). In Florida now, after a vote last fall, we have certain property tax exemptions for solar equipment which provide incentives for private and commercial generation. On the flip side, places like Nevada have become hostile toward generation because the utilities are writing protectionist legislation and influencing the rules of their utility commission.
In any case, the bigger point is that electrons are not partisan. The future is renewable, and the economics are moving in that direction at a surprising pace. The biggest danger we have in the US is that we're already falling behind China in manufacturing renewable products, which is a byproduct of politicizing renewable energy. Some mistakes are made over and over again.