The Consequences of Change The US is changing the tides as we switch from coal to solar, but what’s the catch?

The ground is our holy grail. It holds our most prized possession, the thing that humans have been after since the beginning of time, the thing that most of us can’t live without these days, the thing that is in danger of disappearing, energy. For the past hundred years or so the energy industry has boomed. People from all over the world are diving into the ground of our precious earth to hunt for coal, oil, and natural gases. Millions of people have dedicated their lives to serving in this modern day gold rush, earning good pay in the meantime. Now billions of lights shine through darkness in our homes, with leftover energy to spare. It’s great. This rich lifestyle is incredible compared to what our ancestors had to live with, so what’s the problem? Destruction of habitats, melting ice, overflooding oceans, polluted air, sickness, extinction, disruption of the food chain, crashing of the food supply, the downfall of the human race, death. That's the problem.

How did we get on this path? And how do we get out?

Dirty Strength

Well this all started with our not-so-distant ancestors beginning to rely on what we like to call, the “grid”. The grid was and is our regular supplier of energy. It takes non-renewable resources and distributes whatever they produce (electricity, heat, etc.) into homes and buildings all over the country. This was a great system for around a hundred years, until we found out its affects on the world around us. And after these affects were released to the public, things started to change. Environmental regulations began pouring out, people were protesting, hundreds of coal factories shut down under direct pressure from the government. The population thought that they were winning, they thought that they were saving the earth, but they never thought to process the other side of the argument.

People were and are losing jobs. Shocker? It shouldn’t be. As was said previously, coal mines and factories have been shutting down, innocent families have been forced to move, to leave their homes, and find a completely new profession. This movement has ruined people’s lives. How can we fix this? Well, some have already started to take action within the miner community. Miners from all around the country have created a heated debate over this issue of “saving the earth”. Their side of the debate jeers out to this country’s citizens to halt their beliefs in climate change and support the miners of America, such as themselves. There is now even a coal miners union, formally entitled United Mine Workers of America (UMW), meant to boost coal miner’s salaries, as well give them healthcare and pension. This union is pleasing most, but it looks like it might not have enough strength to win the battle. For, there is another enemy on the horizon besides from environmental regulations and the spirit of the people. That enemy is solar.

Sanctimonious Sunlight

Solar power is a new way to harness and produce energy that doesn’t rely on any sort of natural gas, oil, or ore (coal). Basically, solar power is one hundred percent ‘dirt-free’. Solar power actually comes from the clean sky sun, which is completely isolated from any dirt. This sunlight is then put through a solar panel to be converted into energy or electricity. There are three main types of solar panels, the most popular one being the photovoltaic system. These are the systems that you will typically see laying on top of residential homes or large office buildings. They are different from other types of solar systems because they directly convert solar energy into electricity, as opposed to putting it through another step first.

This is a rooftop photovoltaic system

When photovoltaic systems were first introduced they were expensive. However their costs have been plummeting ever since. Just about ten years ago, in 2006, the average cost of an “installed watt” - what you pay for a solar panel capable of generating a watt of electricity - was around $9.00. Now, due to the rise of their popularity, the average cost of an “installed watt” is around $3.00. That means that in just around ten years, the cost of an unit of electricity from photovoltaic systems has decreased by over 65%. This also means that now, rooftop solar, or photovoltaic systems, are around the same price as relying on previous “grid” systems.

Now, let’s talk a little bit more about this popularity. Just as the costs for photovoltaic systems have plummeted over the past ten years, the demand for these systems have skyrocketed. Last spring, this number of solar installations in the US hit a whopping one million. That’s compared to 2006 where the number of solar installations was only at 30,000. Consumer interest is rising, and it hasn’t stopped. It is said that around six million Americans are now considering solar for their homes, and more than 300,000 of them will go through with it. In fact, every three or four minutes a new solar power system is installed on an American roof. Going solar is becoming a new trend, and that’s no surprise. With the number of people who are now beginning to care for our environment, and the case that you are able to produce twice as much electricity with solar than with reliance on “the grid” for the same amount of money, the tides are going to change.

Washington’s Part

All the same, solar couldn’t have gotten to this point without some serious help from the all knowing, all powerful body in our country, the US government.

At the beginning of the Obama Administration, our previous president proposed a series of new carbon regulations that aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 30% of what their levels were in 2005, he also vowed to double the use of renewables in his first term. To do this he issued ninety billion dollars into clean energy, giving the push needed to advance innovative industries - such as the tech industry - in the states while reducing carbon emissions. That might seem crazy, but for the most part, it actually worked. Emissions have dropped 17% from what they were in 2005, and major industrial energy plants in the states have announced that they will incorporate renewable energy into their future plans. Nevada Energy, in fact, has recently released that it will be replacing its Reid Gardner coal-fired plant with solar and gas. And Nevada isn’t alone in planning to reduce the amount of coal-fired plants in their state. Other states are also planning to close down non-renewable energy plants and replace them with solar, wind, or water. In addition, some coal plants may be shutting down because Obama has also limited the amount of soot, mercury and other substances, that are being released into the atmosphere.

Many Democrats are pleased with these regulations within Washington, but Republicans have taken the side of the miners and have been speaking up against Obama. Paul Ryan - Republican speaker of the house - recently made a comment on a major US solar-thermal plant called Crescent Dunes. He stated that Crescent Dunes was an “ill-fated venture”. His party is also now on the verge of suspending a mandate in Ohio, where there happens to be an abundance of coal. It has also helped their party that the man who now sits in the oval office sides with them. In fact, his mere presence in Washington may alter all the data you are learning about now. But let us cross that bridge when we come to it. Bottom line is, Obama has pushed the renewable energy and solar industry and set up a greener future for us, despite what the opposition party has said.

Converting the Country

Okay, so it’s quite obvious that there are two opposing sides to this transition right now. Some are making it happen, and others want to halt it in its tracks. So who will win? The result has to come at some point, whether it is a compromise or not. However, I think both sides are hoping for a compromise, and as a matter of a fact, some progress has been made towards getting one.

Recently, a compromise called Just Transition was introduced. Just Transition promises that in bringing down our reliance on the coal industry, society as a whole will feel the cost, not just the coal workers. There are different versions of this plan out there though. For example, Obama introduced a fund for fifty-five million dollars to his Power Plus plan in order to invest in economic development, job creation, and job training as his form of Just Transition. On the other hand, the UK has proposed a plan that promises that anyone in a non-renewable energy job will be guaranteed a permanent job in renewable energy with the same salary. But no matter what form of Just Transition we end up with, the public will be paying, for this would be no small investment. And in order for it to work, everyone would need to be on board.

Be that as it may, coal workers still have a grudge against Just Transition. “You go through a plant and talk about environmentalists, you don’t get a good response.” says Phil Wilcox “The anxiety is high because the generators are not running when you go to work.” Wilcox is a representative for IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) - another union for non- renewable energy sources. Others believe that this feeling could be fixed if it were better addressed by the opposite side of the spectrum. Either way- “The environmental movement has done a really crappy job addressing these issues” - Erin Heaney (CAC industries) And we need to repair that.

In the end, we will never know what the future will bring to us in the world of energy and solar until we come to it. All we can really hope for is that our country will make it through this argument before it’s too late.


Created with images by blueeve - "the sun way street" • Allagash Brewing - "Brewery Solar Array" • 271277 - "obama barack obama president"

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