Solar power to play dominant role

Solar power to play dominant role

Solar energy has emerged as the wave of the present for replacing dwindling fossil fuels as the primary source of the world’s energy needs, writes fund manager and former corporate buyout expert Travis Bradford.

That is happening, Bradford says in his new book, “Solar Revolution,” not so much because solar is the clean, renewable fountain of energy craved by environmentalists but because it has proved to be cost-effective.

The president and founder of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development says we are on the doorstep of the solar era. He’s not forecasting something that will occur in the next century. Bradford offers the evidence of a trend that is well under way and that will gain relentless momentum within the next two decades.

“Solar millionaires and billionaires will emerge, and markets may even experience a bubble or two of speculative excitement. However, in the end — undoubtedly within our lifetime — we will arrive at a world that is safer, cleaner, and wealthier for industrialized economies and developing ones and in which solar energy will play a dominant role in meeting our collective energy needs,” Bradford writes.

Although that process could be expedited by more government incentives for the promotion of solar energy use and disincentives for investment in fossil fuels and nuclear power, the inevitable dominance of solar will not depend on government assistance, Bradford writes.

“Many people both inside and outside government are promoting renewable energy, but the belief that a renewable-energy economy will not happen without greater government support — as environmentalists too often argue — is wrong.

“The shift will happen in years rather than decades and will occur because of fundamental economics,” Bradford writes.

The primary reasons for the inevitable dominance of solar energy in the “energy portfolio” of the world, Bradford says, is the demonstrated cost-effectiveness of photoelectric cells (PV) to generate and distribute electricity.

Bradford notes particularly the extent to which PV electricity is proving cost-effective in Japan and Germany.

“Never before has solar energy been cost-effective in an industrialized market like Japan with sufficient financing, size, and industrial capability to drive steady cost improvements. … This market development primes the PV industry in such a way that global rollout becomes a question of when — a matter of time, volume, and learning,” Bradford says.

Despite his argument for the inevitable dominance of solar energy, Bradford acknowledges the world’s energy needs will continue to be met by a variety of energy sources, including fossil fuels, nuclear and such renewable alternatives as hydroelectric, geothermal, fusion, wind and biomass.

He points out benefits, negatives and limitations of each.

He cites the growing scarcity of, rising costs of and pollution attached to fossil fuels; the potential catastrophic perils of nuclear, its unsolved hazardous-waste problem, the long time frame of plant construction and the monumental hidden costs of decommissioning nuclear-power plants; the aesthetic problems of windmill farms and the intermittent nature of wind; the deforestation and agricultural land-use problems of biomass; and the as yet unproven promise of fusion.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Bradford says, the oil companies were the largest manufacturers of PV but declined to promote it, because it conflicted with their traditional energy interests. But today, he points out, the growth in the PV industry is being generated by Japanese and German microelectronics manufacturers.

“In the United States, General Electric has entered the market by acquiring AstroPower, currently the largest U.S. solar-cell manufacturer and is creating multimillion-dollar research centers in New York and Munich for further development of renewable-energy technologies.

“These companies do not share the internal conflicts of the existing energy industry players and wield substantial wealth and political clout,” Bradford writes.

“Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry,” by Travis Bradford (MIT Press $24.95)

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