It is obvious that the U.S. federal government is struggling to perform basic governance functions and, as I wrote earlier this summer, it is incapable of leading the transition to a renewable economy. Nevertheless, one of the key elements of that transition, the adoption of solar power, is well underway in the U.S. According to a new report by John Rogers and Laura Wisland, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists:
Solar is undergoing widespread and rapid growth in the U.S. ... The amount of solar PV installed in the U.S. grew by 485 percent from 2010 to 2013 ... Solar accounted for an average of 16 percent of electricity capacity installed annually in the United States from 2011 to 2013, and almost 30 percent in 2013.
They note that the price of solar systems has dropped by more than 50 percent since 2007, and that as local government permitting processes become streamlined and as financing options grow, household solar installations are becoming more feasible.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
There are a variety of obstacles to more rapid adoption of solar power. Federal, state and local tax treatment of solar varies by jurisdiction. Incentives are unpredictably phased in and phased out. The absence of smart grid technology and feed-in tariffs makes it difficult to integrate home excess solar power into the grid; utilities know how to send you energy, but they don't know how to take it back.
What is needed is a well thought through, comprehensive renewable energy program with national standards, serious funding for research and development, and clear, predictable incentives for adoption of solar power and other renewable energy technologies. This is far from realistic under the Obama White House and the Tea Party-influenced congress. The president is pursuing a meaningless "all-of-the-above" energy non-strategy and will not push renewables too hard, and the congress does not believe that government has a role to play in promoting renewable energy development and use.
One good piece of news about declining solar energy costs is that the time it will take to amortize a solar installation is coming down. If energy savings fund the cost of a solar array and the amount being saved is growing, the risk of investment is being reduced. Solar installations will pay off faster, even under current conditions. Fortunately, if you invest in today's technology and the payback period is ten years or so, you run little risk of wasting your money.
While the overall contribution of solar energy to national energy use is quite low, the potential of solar energy is quite high. For a few days this past summer, Germany generated more than 50 percent of its electricity from solar energy. In the U.S., it will take a long time for solar energy to reach Germany's levels. While our pace might be called "slow, but increasing rapidly," Europe and China are moving quickly to add solar energy to their power mix. In this country we see similar movement in California. These examples provide an indication of how rapidly renewable energy can be adopted when government policy provides the push that is needed.
The U.S. presents both enormous potential and persistent problems in pushing solar energy. The potential is in our research universities and creative, entrepreneurial culture. The computer and smart phone industry was built on a partnership between government-funded basic research and creative use of off-the-shelf technology by companies like Apple, IBM, Dell, HP and Microsoft. Research funded by the Defense Department, NOAA, NASA and the National Science Foundation has built enormous capacity in university-based research institutions. When coupled with our government's national laboratories and the applied research undertaken by the private sector, we have benefited from a nearly continuous stream of new technologies and new products generated by new industries. As I often argue, that same drive needs to be applied to renewable energy technology. If mobilized effectively, we have the potential to generate transformative technologies in renewable energy.
Unfortunately, we suffer from the persistent problem of our pay-to-play politics. The fossil fuel industry is not blind to the threat that renewable energy poses to their core business. At risk are billions of dollars invested in the technology and infrastructure of fossil fuel extraction, transport and use. At the very moment we need a determined national policy to promote renewable energy, the elected officials who might lead such an effort are in an endless competition for more and more campaign cash. Instead of investing in new solar technologies, fossil fuel companies are investing in politicians who will vote to inhibit the development of these technologies. So far they are succeeding. The "all-of-the-above" energy non-strategy is an example of the fossil fuel industry's success. It is not yet politically feasible for an American president to take a position to aggressively push for the replacement of fossil fuels. The best we could get is an argument to develop every form of energy possible. Apparently, the hope is that somehow, enough alternative energy will make it through the mix to enable renewables to take hold.
American leadership would surely speed the transition to a renewable economy. But America's absence will not prevent that transition. There will eventually be an Apple-Google-Microsoft-Amazon-like company selling us household solar energy technologies. Note that Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft are all American companies that went global in the world economy. The energy technology companies of the future may be home grown or they may come out of Europe, Latin America or Asia. The need for low-cost and reliable energy is only going to grow. The planet's need for a less destructive form of energy supply is urgent and is also growing. Engineers and businesspeople all over the world see the demand and are working to figure out a way to generate supply. In a global economy, the old line fossil fuel companies will not be able to prevent the diffusion of new technology once it is developed. Ask Kodak what happens to companies that do not change their strategies to reflect emerging technologies.
I should note that I am not in favor of taxing fossil fuels and having government raise the price of energy, but rather support increased funding in the research and development of alternative forms of energy. I also support using the tax and regulatory system to encourage the installation of available renewable energy technology. While of course the government could stop subsidizing fossil fuels, I consider that more of an artifact of a bygone age than a major impediment to the transition to renewable energy. The goal is to lower the price and convenience of renewables and make fossil fuels irrelevant.
In order of priority I think the U.S. Federal government should pursue an energy policy with these elements:
- Massive funding for research on the basic science and applied engineering of solar cells and battery technology. Significant but lesser amounts of funding should be allocated to other safe forms of energy generation and storage.
- Tax credits and regulations to require increased energy efficiency in buildings, appliances and transportation.
- Tax credits and regulations to encourage the installation of solar, wind, geothermal and similar forms of energy. Higher credits should be provided when current levels of fossil fuel use are reduced.
- A federal grant-in-aid program similar to the highway trust fund to help localities build smart grids, integrated into a national system. The funding for the program would come from a new federal tax on electricity. Feed-in tariffs would be required of state utility commissions in order to receive smart-grid grants.
I am certain there are other policies that can be pursued—these are just the ones I think would be most useful. As Rogers and Wisland found, solar power is on the rise in the U.S. even in the face of indifference from the federal government. Their piece reports overwhelming public support for solar energy and highlights the potential for increased adoption of current technology.
I agree that it is a good idea to push the technology we have, but strongly believe that what we have now is not good enough. The original cellphones were the size of a loaf of bread and look a little silly in retrospect. My hope is that the solar cells of the future will make rooftop arrays look quaint. We need to invest money and brainpower in the search for a transformative energy technology. I think the most rapid path to develop that technology requires the U.S. federal government--but it can be done without it. Even a slow boat can eventually reach the shore.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>