Philip Warburg: Solar Power Comes of Age

At this weeks Environmental Studies Department Lunch & Learn, Tufts was visited by environmental advocate and author Philip Warburg, whose new book “Harness The Sun” traces the history and current status of solar energy in the United States.

As an example of how far solar has come, Warburg referred to former Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s initiative to prevent utility companies from suppressing support for solar power. The “Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed” (TUSK) invokes concepts of class warfare in order to build a movement against fossil fuels’ monopoly on American energy choice. Since 2012, the cost per watt of solar has gone from $5.86 to $3.46 for residential systems, $4.64 to $2.19 for nonresidential systems, and $2.90 to $1.56 for utility scale solar systems.

Related to this drop in prices, 39% of all newly installed electric generators are solar, with wind making up 36%. That’s 75% of new generators powered by renewable energy! The NFL is increasingly partaking in the solar movement: half a dozen stadiums (including Gillette) are equipped with solar arrays. Washington’s FedEx Field covered portions of their parking lot with a solar roof, careful to build it high enough that tailgaiters could still toss footballs. These parking spots are now in the highest demand.┬áThe EPA has a program for Re-Powering America’s Land by placing solar systems on brownfields.

Outside of the built environment, many regions are experimenting with new approaches and strategies at capturing solar power. The Carrizo Plain, a flat, sunny, natural monument has been equipped with a massive solar field. The solar plan included reserving 12,000 acres of conservation easement, paths for migrating elk and antelope, and temporary homes for fauna during the construction period. The southeast Nevada Paiute tribe, after fighting for the closure of an environmentally damaging coal fired power plant, replaced it with a solar field.

Solar developers are increasingly relying on community solar, where the developer sells shares to community members who may not have the capacity to build their own solar systems. This is an issue relevant to Boston, where 60% of households are rental. Since tenants can’t put installations on their roofs, they have the option of buying into a community solar program.

Community Solar (http://ecotippingpoints.org/our-stories/topic-energy.html)

Community Solar (http://ecotippingpoints.org/our-stories/topic-energy.html)

Warburg also touched on concentrated solar power, in which a central pillar is encircled by mirrors, each focusing sunlight onto molten salt that can hold heat and generate power through turbines day and night.

Concentrated Solar Power (https://papundits.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/solar-thermal-power-concentrating-solar-fail-just-look-at-spain/)

Concentrated Solar Power (https://papundits.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/solar-thermal-power-concentrating-solar-fail-just-look-at-spain/)

This approach tends to be more expensive than others, and also requires huge tracts of flat, unused land. It also creates a deadly heat zone for passing birds. The ecological impacts of concentrated solar, as well as traditional photo-voltaic solar arrays, should be compared with the impact of fossil fuel energy, according to Warburg. Renewable energy is not environmentally neutral, but it tends to be better than the status quo. One issue of particular concern is in dealing with solar panel waste. Most of Europe already has regulations demanding solar panel recycling.