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Solar Future and Past

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we look at what solar energy could have been.
Julian Moore
Oct 16, 2023 10 min read
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When climate researchers describe incoming data as “gobsmackingly bananas”, it might be time to imagine another world than the one we are headed towards. And maybe that world is already in the past.

Sugandha Srivastav speculated in the Conversation this week about how our climate trajectory would have been different if the world’s first solar panel inventor hadn’t been kidnapped.

In 1909, George Cove was abducted three years after inventing a rudimentary form of the modern solar panel and founding Sun Electric, the United States’ first PV manufacturer. Cove’s captors demanded he give up the patent and shut down Sun Electric in exchange for his release. He refused, and was eventually released but Sun Electric never recovered, and solar energy technology wouldn’t get serious attention until Bell Labs picked up the idea in 1954.

It’s hard not to conclude that Cove would have saved tons of emissions when you consider the historical context of his invention. Cove submitted a patent for his solar energy device in 1905, as the war of the currents between proponents of high-voltage alternating current (team Tesla/Westinghouse) and low-voltage direct current (team Edison) was drawing to its conclusion.

The war of the currents is commonly remembered as a battle of dirty marketing tricks between industry titans that established a cut-throat culture of American entrepreneurship. But the conflict was fundamentally about which power system was preferable for delivering coal-fired electricity from central power plants to fast-growing American cities.

Edison’s vision of low-voltage electricity traveling short distances would have given us a world with coal-fired power plants every two miles. Fortunately, Westinghouse’s technology spared us that outcome, but still led to enough coal emissions to make the United States the world’s largest historical carbon emitter.

Cove’s kidnapping leaves a lot to wonder about what climate impacts could have been saved. But it also makes you wonder what could have happened if solar’s many co-benefits had become mainstream in the 20th century.

For better and for worse, some of those second-order effects Cove imagined are playing out in today’s energy transition this week.

COP Complications

One implication of an early solar industry could have been to undermine the prevailing theory of development that fossil fuels are the only reliable bridge to escape widespread poverty. The United States, Japan and European powers burned vast sums of coal on their way to becoming economic powerhouses in the 20th century and now developing countries expect to do the same in the 21st.

Known in climate policy parlance as decoupling, the idea that today’s populous developing nations should grow without the help of fossil fuels has been a hard sell in countries like India. More than a few developing countries have argued that rich countries asking them not to build new coal, oil and gas capacity is both hypocritical and impossible since utilities in rich countries are falling behind on their own targets.

That conflict looks set to reemerge at this year’s COP negotiations. Last week, the Indian government issued a statement calling on rich countries to meet net zero before 2050, thereby allowing developing nations a longer window to phase out fossil fuels.

The announcement is likely more of a PR move than a serious plan. India is expected to meet net-zero emissions by 2070 anyway, well past the 2050 target set by the United States and Europe. By proposing a separate decarbonization track for developing countries, the Indian government is calling out what it sees as rich countries’ bluff, forcing them to publicly justify how and why they expect the Global South to execute a just transition to renewables.

Given four extra decades to develop at the speed of Wright’s law, solar energy might have saved emissions and given wealthy countries the diplomatic legitimacy to demand the rest of the world do the same.

Community Solar

Part of Cove’s pitch in 1905 was that solar energy would democratize access to electricity and improve quality of life. Solar energy was, in Cove’s view, a vehicle for bringing “cheap light, heat and power, and freeing the multitude from the constant struggle for bread.”

This fact may have contributed to his kidnapping. While Cove’s solar panel was crude by today’s standards, so were the underhanded tactics of energy barons of the day hellbent on centralizing energy systems.

Still, the movement to expand access to cheap solar energy lives on as regulatory and financial support for community solar is growing faster than ever in the United States and Europe.

Community solar is the default option for delivering renewables to communities that otherwise could not afford it. Installing rooftop solar can cost an average household anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000. And even though most rooftop systems pay for themselves roughly 10 years into their 25-year warranty, upfront costs put solar out of reach for most renters and low-income homeowners.

The DOE defines community solar as “any solar project or purchasing program, within a geographic area, in which the benefits flow to multiple customers such as individuals, businesses, nonprofits, and other groups.”

Think of an apartment block sharing the costs and the electricity stemming from a solar system on its rooftop, or residents in a low-income neighborhood sharing a multi-MW system, such as in Fresno, California.

A report from last year found that the number of states adopting policies to encourage community solar has grown to 22, although their approaches vary. In Florida, utilities are allowed to determine the cap on community solar capacity, setting up a possible conflict of interest if prices drop. Meanwhile New York and Massachusetts have set up regimes that allow for ample development irrespective of how much electricity a community solar unit can provide.

Community solar could yet prove to be a victim of its own success, as the main bottleneck in most regions is getting a subscription before they sell out. That is leaving potential users out of community solar’s many co-benefits, such as resilience during blackouts and local job creation.

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The Author

Julian Moore