Solar panels in the city Photo © tdelpiano \ Fotolia

Recent gains in solar and wind energy are tremendously encouraging. In 2013 there were 40 gigawatts of new solar installed globally and for 2014 the estimate is for 52 gigawatts and the rate of expansion is rising fast. To put these numbers in perspective, Canada, a highly electrified nation, has 130 gigawatts of electrical capacity from all sources.  

RELATED: The Incredible Breakthrough that Could Boost Solar Power Efficiency to Almost 100%

Crucially, in some locations – and not just super-sunny ones – the price of electricity from new solar is now competitive with fossil fuel energy even without including health and other savings from pollution avoidance. With such things factored in, wind and solar are an obvious bargain.

Today’s new locations for solar and wind are no longer limited to rich countries or to jurisdictions with a long history of green-oriented governments like Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. The leader in solar equipment production and new domestic installations is now China. As well, post-Fukushima Japan has quickly made major strides. Another wind energy leader is Texas, where the state government could hardly be accused of being innovative regarding anything other than keeping the poor from accessing health insurance.

Meet multiple needs

Saudi Arabia has made a major commitment to large solar energy arrays and micro-scale solar provides lighting and opportunities to recharge cellphones in African and Asian off-grid locations. There cellphones are often the only means of communication-at-a-distance. Solar lamps are also increasingly available where solar panels are unaffordable. After a day in the sun, these lamps provide low cost indoor lighting after dark. This offers a huge life improvement, can be cheaper than buying kerosene, and is an excellent way to reduce indoor pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. (See, for example, Solar Sister and No Kero.)

Wind turbines can be politically controversial, but the appeal of solar is universal. Even among hard core conservatives – the cleverly named Green Tea Coalition is a pro-solar undertaking supported by both Tea Party members and the Sierra Club in rural Georgia. Together they campaign to get school boards to install solar panels on schools. Tea partiers like the initiative because it is entrepreneurial, helps local businesses and because the revenue from foregone utility bills reduces everyone’s property taxes.

The appeal of wind energy can improve considerably when local investment increases and financial benefits flow primarily to the local economy. It is also improved by keeping each array of wind turbines small. In Denmark the wind turbines are mostly limited to clusters of three or five in any one place. Canada also has the possibility of placing arrays away from heavily populated areas (we have vast sparsely populated locations that are very windy).

Given that wind and solar are now price-competitive with all dirtier options, further increasing the number of small installations should be doable. One key is finding new locations for solar where installations add benefits over and above cleaner electricity. In India, solar panels now cover long concrete irrigation canals, providing the added service of reducing evaporation. New solar installations elsewhere shelter parking lots from sun and snow and offer solar powered plug-ins for electric cars. A similar strategy (less the plug-ins) could be used to shelter heavily traveled bike lanes.

Keep it cool

The appeal of renewables can also be enhanced by conveying a sense of hi-tech coolness, giving renewables something of the geek appeal of new cell phones. Sure, it’s a slick, tacky approach, but it beats the hell out of frying the planet in an altered climate. Tesla seems to have this approach down pat for electric cars and battery storage and BMW is moving in this direction by throwing in discount coupons for solar panels with electric car purchases.

We should avoid letting those who oppose such a shift get in the way with continued subsidies to fossil fuels or the addition of steep charges for connecting small renewable producers to the grid. We also need positive measures like complete streets that make active transportation safer and more pleasant and locally sourced, less meat-oriented diets. Whatever fossil energy we don’t use is oil and coal we do not have to replace. Even famed French chef Alain Ducasse is now on-side with a more climate friendly diet.

Be prepared for the pinch

More creative, less granola-style image-building combined with the wider adoption of feed-in tariffs like Ontario’s means it is not too soon to think about whether (and when) we could get to 100 per cent renewable electricity. It is certainly not too soon to think about what we might have to do without if we do.

Ultimately a world of 100 per cent renewables may require a few shifts that may pinch a bit. First and foremost is extensive travel (especially daily travel) and frequent long distance shipping. It may make marginal economic sense to ship our cement and garlic from China, but it is still stupid. You can grow garlic in your back yard almost anywhere in Canada and cement is really heavy. Extensive air travel is especially problematic, but my sense is that the airlines seem determined to make it so irritating that soon few will have the emotional energy to fly all that often.

Mostly we can do the things we already do – eating, drinking and being merry are still on the agenda and there really will still be hot water for showers. There will also be plenty of work available: being a bureaucrat may be boring but it is not fossil energy intensive and local, organic food and renewable energy are more, not less, labour intensive. Besides you won’t need to work as much once you pay off the solar panels and stop buying gas. 

More on solar: The Incredible Breakthrough that Could Boost Solar Power Efficiency to Almost 100%

Robert Paehlke is a professor emeritus at Trent University where he taught environmental policy and politics for 35 years. About 40 years ago, he envisioned a magazine that was both scientifically sound and journalistically interesting, and Alternatives was born. “Bob P,” as we call him, sits on the magazine’s editorial board and he contributes articles and blog posts as often as we can trick him into it.

He is the author of Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics (1989), Democracy's Dilemma: Environment, Social Equity and the Global Economy (2004), Some Like It Cold: The Politics of Climate Change in Canada (2008) and Hegemony and Global Citizenship (2014).  

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