Readers Write: The Power of the Sun

Editor's Note: Author Travis Bradford gave his response to our readers' questions and comments.

Basically everyone except Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., knows global warming is a serious problem. But what to do about it is not so clear-cut.

We recently published an interview that David Roberts did with Travis Bradford, author of "Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry," and it stirred a lot of comments from our readers.

Bradford advocates for a solar-powered future. Not only is solar a clean energy alternative, but, he argues, it will be the first ever competitor for utility companies.

Solar, in combination with wind and geothermal, Bradford predicts, will make the need for coal obsolete.

Many AlterNet readers agreed that solar energy is an important renewable to consider. But not all thought the technology was the sure thing that Bradford insists and most comments debated him on the issue of decentralizing power and where biofuels stand in the equation.

Bradford boldly states that "coal is the enemy of the human race," which many readers supported. Thoughtcriminal wrote:
The most polluting and disastrous industry in the United States is the coal business -- the evidence is obvious, from the actions of Massey coal in mountaintop removal in the Appalachians to the damaged water on Hopi and Navajo reservations in the Southwest, to the open-pit mines of Montana. Billions of tons of CO2 are injected every year into the atmosphere from coal-fired electricity generation in the United States and China, along with sulfur, nitrogen oxides, mercury and arsenic.
Another reader from West Virginia (where Massey Energy does their dirty work) agreed that those who live close to coal extraction and processing areas bear a heftier burden for our energy needs.

"It's very rare for a discussion of these issues to take into account all of the costs of coal -- the subsidies are enormous, and hidden and unjust," the West Virginian writes. But also adds, "I'd love to believe that a solar revolution is inevitable, but is there enough silicon? What about the problem of intermittency? Major steps toward conservation and efficiency will no doubt be critical."

Indeed, the interview doesn't delve much at all into the potential problems that solar will have to overcome in order to be a true contender.

As HeroesAll writes, "The problem most often mentioned with regard to renewables is reliability: wind doesn't always blow, sun doesn't always shine ... Another issue, especially if you've got diverse plants, whether solar or wind, is the loss of power over distance."

Part of that problem can be solved with "a high-voltage DC line that doesn't have the same problems as the high-voltage AC line, so it can carry the power over great distances," the reader concludes.

This is one of the more paramount points with all renewables. Our grid currently isn't structured to handle disparate power sources and carry them over long distances (as would be necessary to get wind energy to less windy areas), but instead is built to funnel energy from one large centralized unit, such as a coal-burning plant.

So do we need a new grid or should we go grid-less? Bradford says that "solar's going to change the electricity infrastructure" but the interview doesn't get to how exactly that will happen.

Readers instead theorized about whether or not decentralizing power would be a good thing.

"The only question regarding solar and wind is this," greentime poses:
Should each of us operate our own private power sources or should we band together and operate them as publicly owned central power generating plants? The answer is pretty obvious: There is no question that they should not be privately owned. Oil and coal should have taught us that. Do you want someone like Bush and Co. to own the rights to the sun? How ridiculous does that sound? The sun -- should we pay some rich family for the right to use it? Uh, no."
Decentralizing power sounds nice, but how feasible is it really?

Monkeywrench writes:
Don't get me wrong; I am in agreement that decentralized solar power would be a marvelous thing. I worry, though, that there is still a bottleneck: production of the panels and systems by centralized corporations. We cannot build our own; we are still dependent on rapacious companies for the technology, and with the corporate zeitgeist of collusion and price-fixing that has the blessing of our supposed "leaders," expect to be screwed by this technology as well. Without regulation from a benevolent government, corporations -- including those producing solar power technology -- will do what they always do: rip off the consumer.
While readers had a lot to say about decentralizing power, Bradford ignited the most feedback with his mention of biofuels. "I'm not a big fan of biofuels -- on close examination their environmental impact is wretched," he said.

Douglas agreed, "The rest of us need to see the biofuel 'dream' for the fantasy that it is and press forward with solar power. If we must drive cars, they too need to be powered by the sun!"

But many other readers disagreed with this point. As thoughtcriminal said:
For regions that produce agricultural waste, biofuels are a great idea -- just look at what Germany and Brazil have done with cellulose and sugarcane crops, for example. Using algae is also an incredibly promising approach to biofuel production. Biofuels, when properly produced using sustainable agriculture and clean technology, result in no net increase of greenhouse gases."
Biofuels and solar are both hotly contested energy sources with many passionate advocates. But if we are to move away from conventional power sources such as coal or nuclear, it will likely take a combination of renewables, including solar, wind, geothermal, and alternative fuels. As the debate on renewable energy continues, so does our coverage, so stay tuned.

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