Hayes: It’s Within Our Grasp to Transition Quickly

By, Seth Masia

“I believe that humanity is three to five years away from having solar power available more cheaply than coal.”

Denis Hayes, the man who promoted and administered the first Earth Day (1970), became director of the Solar Energy Research Institute in 1979 but resigned two years later when the Reagan administration slashed solar research funding. In 1992, shortly after becoming president of the Bullitt Foundation, Hayes gave a speech on climate change action in Portland, Ore., and turned the text into his first article for SOLAR TODAY. It ran in the November/December issue that year. Titled “A Wakeup Call,” the article recalled Jimmy Carter’s effort to cast a clean energy revolution as “the moral equivalent of war” and set out the urgency of action against climate change.

“Clinton had just been elected,” Hayes recalled. “He and Al Gore divided up their policy responsibilities, and Gore was going to cover environmental and energy issues. So we allowed ourselves a couple of months of robust optimism. Then Clinton was sworn in as president and placed all his bets on health care reform, and everything else went by the wayside. Clinton was the most skillful politician of our generation and I regard those eight years as largely wasted. I did get good response to the article, but not from the White House. Mostly it came from friends in the [nongovernmental organization] community.”

Hayes is optimistic again. “The next 25 years in solar will be strong,” he predicted. “As a planet, we’re now moving the way we would have if we’d gotten Carter re-elected. The tragedy is that the United States dropped the torch. The flame was kept alive by Japan and then Germany with their feed-in tariffs. A dozen other countries now have worked to achieve the volume we needed to drive us down the cost curves. The basic technology of what we do now was all within our grasp in the Carter years.

Five years ago the Chinese were barely on the horizon, but now that the Chinese government has made the investment to distribute solar throughout the world, China will this year make 60 percent of the world’s solar modules. It’s appalling to me that the United States is not leading the industry, when the dominant technologies were developed here, and with taxpayer dollars. Given the political climate in the United States, it’s hard to see how we can regain the manufacturing lead. Our best shot now is a new generation of technologies to produce superefficient nanowire cells, multiple-junction cells, that sort of thing.

I believe that humanity is three to five years away from having solar power available more cheaply than coal, even without carbon capture. We’re edging toward an era where the consequences of carbon emissions are so dire that we will have to stop burning coal. I’m guessing that the answer to global warming will be solar technologies around the world and in the United States. We can make that transition very rapidly, except for aviation. And we can get by with less aviation. High-speed electrified rail is now making leaps and bounds in every industrial society except North America.

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