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Solar Energy Could Power America 100 Times Over

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"America could meet its energy needs by capturing just a sliver of the virtually limitless and pollution-free energy that strikes the nation every day in the form of sunlight." That's the assertion of a new report Star Power: The Growing Role of Solar Energy in America, released today by Environment America.

Enough sunlight strikes the U.S. every year to power the country 100 times over, say the report's authors, and 35 million homes and businesses could potentially host solar panels.

And with solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity in the U.S. tripling just in the last two years, more than half of all new electricity generating capacity in the first half of 2014 coming from solar installations and enough installed capacity now in existence to power 3.2 million homes, the report authors suggest that the U.S. should set a goal of generating 10 percent of its electricity from solar by 2030. Solar capacity increased by 77 percent per year from 2010 through 2013; if it increased only 22 percent annually going forward, that would be enough to reach that goal.

Star Power points to numerous benefits to increasing solar power's share of energy generation including addressing climate change, making our air cleaner, saving water and creating  jobs, enumerating the benefits that would occur if the U.S. reached the goal of 10 percent solar by 2030.

  •  Producing 10 percent of our electricity from solar power would reduce America’s global warming pollution by 280 million metric tons in 2030, the equivalent of taking 59 million cars off the road. Solar energy at that scale would help the United States comply with the goals of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Power Plan to reduce U.S. global warming pollution from the power sector by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. If the EPA decides that distributed generation can help states achieve their goals under the plan, producing 10 percent of our electricity from clean, solar power would enable the United States to achieve half of its emission reductions goal.
  •  Expanding solar energy will reduce emissions of pollutants that contribute to smog and soot and threaten public health, especially in vulnerable populations like children, the elderly and those with respiratory diseases.
  •  Sourcing 10 percent of U.S. electricity from solar energy would reduce water consumption from power plants dramatically. The lifecycle water consumption of solar photovoltaics is 1/500th of the lifecycle water consumption of coal power plants and 1/80th of that of natural gas plants, per unit of electricity produced.
  •  Solar energy creates local clean energy jobs that cannot be outsourced. Growth in the solar industry from November 2012 to November 2013 was 10 times faster than the national average for employment, and more than 140,000 Americans worked in the solar energy industry in 2013.

Tens of millions of homes and businesses could install solar panels on their roofs within a few years. Image credit: Environment America

What's the hold-up then? Politics, the report says.

"Powerful interests that benefit from our current, largely fossil fuel-fired electricity grid are already fighting to slow the growth of solar energy. Many cities and states continue to make the process of 'going solar' unnecessarily inconvenient and costly. And the integration of large amounts of solar energy into the grid will require concerted effort—effort that will only happen with a clear signal from policymakers and the public."

It urges state and local governments, as well as the federal government, to set solar energy goals, to install solar panels as much as possible on public buildings and to set policies that make it easier and more affordable for homes and businesses to "go solar."

"A future in which America gets at least 10 percent of its electricity from the sun is within reach," the report concludes. "The tools to build this vision are available and the momentum exists—now federal, state and local governments should adopt aggressive goals for solar integration and implement policies that encourage the adoption of solar power."

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Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.

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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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