Race for the Sun - Competition Week


Photo by ToGa Wonderings.

Carbon emissions rose 5.9 percent in 2010, the largest jump in any year since the Industrial Revolution. President Obama’s grant program for renewable energy, which backed $32.9 billion in projects, will be dropped next year. The U.N. climate conference in Durban, South Africa ends in no binding climate change agreement, despite next year’s expiration of the Kyoto Protocol, which was intended to prevent a 2-degree increase in global temperature by cutting carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, the sun is busy providing enough sunlight in 90 minutes to provide all of Earth’s energy needs for one year.

The environment and politics just do not mix, and the inability to set aside economic motives is sure to result in destructive consequences for our planet’s future. A variety of concerns from different parts of the world are affecting decisions which will impact all of us, from claims of allegedly unfair solar market competition to complaints that the developed world should take responsibility for the emissions problem. In all cases, national concerns seem to trump the overarching threat of global warming.

What will it take to level the global playing field and make solar energy a practical replacement for fossil fuels? For one thing, time. According to the new publication, Solar Energy Perspectives, from the International Energy Agency, a full realization of solar energy’s possibilities is possible to take place by the second part of this century. The report finds that solar technologies are evolving faster than policies about them, and until now, only a small number of countries have been supporting much of the effort to drive solar energy technology to competitiveness. The publication paints a hypothetical picture of solar energy as a competitive energy source within the next twenty years, especially if carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced.

How is competition in the renewable energy market encouraged? Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, where one in every four solar industry jobs is held, believes federal investment in the industry is pivotal to success. Fossil fuels have historically been given more federal support than renewable energies. When oil, gas, and nuclear industries were forming, they had received as much as one percent of federal spending, while renewable energy enterprises today receive only one-tenth of one percent.

However, with the imminent drop of clean-energy funding, it is unlikely that the renewable industry will receive the federal attention Schwarzenegger desires. Next year will mark the expiration of President Obama’s grant program, which provided more than $30 billion to encourage companies like Google Inc. and Citigroup Inc. to invest in wind and solar projects. Director of Citigroup Global Markets Inc., Marshal Salant, told Bloomberg Businessweek that they could not possibly compensate for the removed grants. In addition to the economic turmoil and budget cuts facing the government, the recent failure of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra LLC provides an easy scapegoat for opponents of government spending on renewable energy.

The company, which was given more than $500 million in government loan guarantees from the Department of Energy, announced its bankruptcy in September, leaving taxpayers liable for the financial damage. In defense of the loan, Energy Department spokesman Dan Leistikow told The Washington Post, “We have always recognized that not every one of the innovative companies supported by our loans and loan guarantees would succeed. But we can’t stop investing in game-changing technologies that are key to America’s leadership in the global economy.”

Energy Department officials claim that unfair competition from China was part of the cause of Solyndra’s collapse, and the department is not the only group that is upset by our nation’s number one solar competitor. Two U.S. firms have recently formed in a debate surrounding Chinese solar subsidies. Solar panel manufacturer SolarWorld plus six others form the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing (CASM). They filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Commerce, alleging that Chinese manufacturers are illegally selling panels below cost to put international competitors out of business, which could lead to a Chinese monopoly on the solar industry.

CASM desires a tariff to counter the unfair actions as well as $30 billion in Chinese government subsidies. In rebuttal, 132 companies comprising the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy (CASE) claim competition from China is actually lowering solar costs, and that the CASM lawsuit is “anti-trade” and “protectionist” in ways that would increase prices and set the solar industry back years. China’s Ministry of Commerce shares CASE’s opinion, releasing a statement concerning CASM’s allegations of unfair competition: “China is deeply concerned about the decision, which does not tally with facts and highlights the United States’ strong tendency for trade protectionism.”

To further complicate matters, the current United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place in Durban, South Africa, reveals that a “comprehensive and binding climate change agreement may be beyond our reach for now,” as stated by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. The Kyoto Protocol, a climate treaty negotiated in 1997 to cut back on carbon emissions, expires next year. Many nations including Canada, Japan, Russia, the U.S., and China present little interest in renewing or creating another legally binding agreement. Actually, the two leading carbon emitters in the world, the U.S and China, were never legally bound by the protocol. Specifically, the U.S. had never ratified the treaty, therefore our emissions were not covered by the pact. Since developing countries are not legally bound to the protocol, China had no obligations either.

Indian Environment Minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, speaking on behalf of the world’s four fastest growing economies (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) stated at the Conference that “developing countries should not be asked to make a payment every time an existing obligation becomes due on the part of developed countries.”

It is clear that many disparate feelings from around the world are impacting the solar industry and climate change. Developing nations feel they need the chance to catch up with developed economies, and carbon-cutting agreements would hinder that process. Developed nations cannot come to an agreement about the facts of climate change and are ambivalent about where to put their money. Despite all this, the facts remain that harnessing the sun’s power can become an affordable, clean source of energy for the entire world, if given the proper attention.