Sunny Year for Solar

Since I was a kid people talked excitedly about the promise of solar power. This enthusiasm seemed to waver and wane over time, a bit like talk of conversion to the metric system. Most people thought that solar power would be a curiosity, even as energy prices kept rising over the the last decades of the 20th century.

Lately there’s been a big and positive change in solar. You know something is viable when people in developing countries adopt it enthusiastically…i.e., it’s not just the futuristic plaything of enviro-elites in idealistic (and rich) countries.

Last summer I saw this change in action when I visited Kisima Child Care Academy, the school and orphanage in Kenya that I support through my church. Solar cells were installed atop several buildings at Kisima, which is currently off the grid. The first big benefit was that the administrators, faculty and staff could charge their mobile phones. As you probably know, the mobile phone has become the indispensable personal item throughout the developing world, providing communication, banking and data management tools for nearly anyone who needs them. Solar power has improved the quality of life and work of the adults at Kisima, but it also means laptop computers can be charged and used in the classrooms.

Solar power at Kisima is a small example of “distributed generation,” producing energy on site or close to where it’s being used. By adopting distributed generation, countries can spend less on transmission infrastructure, and energy doesn’t have to be trucked or pushed through a pipeline. People can create power where the BIG utilities infrastructure has not been able to reach.

Most importantly to me, the more the world moves away from mineral energy, the more we disempower Russia, Sudan, Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Angola, Kazakhstan and other countries who mistreat their citizens because they dominate their country with their petrobillions. Would Putin have been able to host the Sochi Olympics and bully his way into Ukraine without his Gazprom war chest? I doubt it.

This post was inspired by the Solar Energy Industries Association, who released a report with numbers showing that “Photovoltaic (PV) installations continued to proliferate, increasing 41% over 2012 to reach 4,751 MW.” Ten years ago, when I was a younger (and more idealistic) environmentalist, I bought a hybrid even though it did not make economic sense for me. The premium I paid for having a hybrid was not recouped from gas savings. I did it as a statement. Now I’m a much more hard nosed environmentalist: “Will a product or energy source make sense from an economic perspective? Will it save or raise money?”

The developing world has prospered its way out of poverty more because of market forces and incentives than big aid programs. As solar becomes a moneymaker, I believe that it will proliferate, making life better for people and putting less carbon in the air. As solar drives down energy costs, I hope it also steals some oxygen from petrodictators like Putin and Bashir.

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