Is Asking When Solar Power Will Reach Grid Parity Addressing the Right Question?


photo: Rodrigo Suriani/Creative Commons

If you want a decent overview of all the issues that go into the pricing of solar power--from technological issues to comparisons with fossil fuels (when will solar power be less expensive than burning fossil fuels?)--a new piece over at National Geographic News shares all the details. Check it out to get up to speed on the conventional thinking. But what I want to ask is a bigger question, which is only briefly mentioned in the original and one that is all to often not addressed in pieces like this: What aren't we pricing when we talk about grid parity and the price of energy generated by fossil fuels?Way down in the original, is the start of the critical question:

It's also important to point out why fossil fuel electricity is relatively cheap in the United States: The behind-the-scenes costs of burning fuel that produces carbon dioxide and noxious pollutants--health care costs, environmental cleanup, and the current and future expenses of adapting to a warmer world--are not included in the US electric bill. Solar would naturally reach grid parity faster under policies that accounted for those costs by putting a tax or price on carbon.

You can also add to those costs, as one of the commenters rightly points out, the costs of war to secure energy supplies. Also, the nearly-incalculable costs of destroying ecosystems for energy--witness the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining, for example. Add all those things to the price of fossil fuels and the economic balance tips towards less socio-environmentally destructive power methods very quickly.

But even then, are we not really owning up to the scale of damage caused by our gargantuan levels of fossil fuel burning? Whenever we talk about renewable energy being comparatively expensive it's always balanced against fossil fuels as if the only thing that mattered was the financing of the thing. And until cost compels us to not destroy the planet, then by golly, we'll keep doing it. It's frankly delusional and immoral.

This is all related to a study recently released and book I just reviewed which will soon be out in the United States.

We Need to Phase Out Fossil Fuels, Quickly & Regardless of Cost - It's the Moral Thing to Do
Slavery wasn't abolished, either in the United States nor in Great Britain, because a more economically efficient way of plowing, planting and picking produce was developed, not a better method of keeping houses clean, or building, or... or anything. Slavery was abolished because passionate people made the compelling case that it was immoral to keep humans in bondage--and especially so just because of the color of their skin. Slavery was abolished because it was the right thing to do, not because it was necessarily cheaper to do so, because non-slave labor reached metaphorical grid parity with slave labor.

So it is with socio-environmentally destructive practices like continued rampant burning of and reliance upon fossil fuels (or industrialized monoculture farming, or industrial fishing, or any number of things)--importantly, it's not the fossil fuels itself which are the problem here, rather it's the scale of the damage. When the scale of damage rises to that of ecocide, there is no amount of stats parsing that makes it allowable, that justifies it.

In such situations continue to argue along economic lines, as if that was the best and final arbiter of right, is futile. It's just not addressing the proper question.

Like this? Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.
More on Solar Power:
Solar Power System in Nevada Desert Reaches Grid Parity
Solar Power Kicks Small-Scale Wind Power's Butt for Residential Usage
Prometheus Institute Study: Solar Power to Reach Grid Parity in US in 2015

Tags: Coal | Ecology | Natural Gas | Oil | Pollution | Renewable Energy | Solar Power