Lost in New Brunswick’s roiling energy debates over shale gas (will hydrofracking transform us into mutant mole people?) and wind power (will the turning of turbines send us to the loony bin?) is one alternative about which you almost never hear.
You won’t find it easily in the official literature dutifully compiled by the province’s energy and environment departments or by NB Power, now gamely justifying is disastrous investments in the Point Lepreau nuclear plant.
But it is the ubiquitous feature of every hot summer morning, every frigid winter afternoon and all the days between: the sun.
While much of Canada has been consumed, in recent years, by the thankless task of weighing the virtues and vices of its plentiful supply of fossil fuel, other nations of the world have been moving ahead with plans to increase their solar energy capacities. The reasons are as mundane and familiar as they come: improving technology and falling costs are making a solid business case for manufacturers and operators, alike.
Writing, recently, in the Huffington Post, reporter James Gerken observed, “A dramatic drop in the price of solar power technology last year helped the continued growth of renewable energy, according to a U.N.-backed report. . .Global energy-generating capacity from renewable sources rose by 115 gigawatts in 2012, compared with 105 gigawatts the previous year, the report by the Paris-based think tank REN21 showed.”
Specifically, he reported, “The drop in solar prices – fuelled by Chinese manufacturers – helped bring the overall cost of investment in renewables down 12 per cent to $244 billion from $279 billion in 2011, effectively boosting the amount of generating capacity investors can get for their money.”
Meanwhile, according to a Reuters piece last month, “New solar photovoltaic power installations in the United States totaled 723 megawatts (MW) during the first quarter, up 33 per cent over the same period in 2012. . .GTM Research and Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) forecast that during 2013, the industry will install 4.4 gigawatts (GW) of photovoltaic power facilities – enough to power about 800,000 average American homes.
“That will rise to nearly 9.2 GW annually in 2016. As the cost of solar photovoltaic panels declines, solar power is one of the fastest-growing new energy sources in the United States. ‘Installations will speed up over the next four years as projects become economically preferable to retail power in more locations,’ said Shayle Kann, vice president of research at renewable power information company GTM, a unit of Greentech Media.”
In fact, in a recent letter to the Globe and Mail, a spokesperson for the Canadian Solar Industries Association declared, “Last year, Europe added almost all of Ontario’s current generating capacity in one year and most of it was solar.” Ian MacLellan went on to write, “The world is in the middle of a fundamental transition in our energy-based economy. It started about 20 years ago and it will take about another 20 years to complete. This transition is happening much faster than even most solar experts had predicted.”
That last statement might be a little rose-coloured. The economic forces that now make solar energy viable for many are also eminently reversible. What’s more, the biggest advances in all forms of renewable energy (including solar) appear to be taking place in developing and emerging economies, simply because these are, effectively, “greenfields” without integrated, fossil-fuel-dominated infrastructure.
Then, of course, there’s always the not-in-my-backyard syndrome, of which it is never wise to discount.
“A Devon (U.K.) councillor has branded solar farms as being like concentration camps after the latest plans to install panels in the countryside was revealed,” The Telegraph reported in April. “Julian Brazil, a Lib Dem councillor at Devon County Council, spoke out as another solar energy farm was given the green light by the council’s development management committee. He told the meeting: ‘They look horrible, not dissimilar to concentration camps. But we are told by the Planning Minister to press ahead with these.’”
Still, these problems are by no means unsurmountable. And solving them could happily preoccupy New Brunswick’s innovators (and elected officials), who are always looking for new ways to dispel the clouds that hang over the province’s economy and let in a little sunshine.