It will pay to expand diversity in renewables

June 8th, 2014

PV is the most popular form of clean energy these days, not only for residential installation but for solar farm PV installation too. Although our residential PV installations have slowed, our other forms of clean energy are not moving so fast either.

In many ways, we are doing the same thing we have been doing with oil, that is, putting all our eggs in one basket. This should give us some concern. Instead of sending our money away for foreign oil, we’re sending it for foreign PV panels.

Although it takes fossil fuel to make the panels, PV is not fossil fuel, so we prefer PV panels to oil. But there are global energy issues, and these seem more pronounced with China’s most recent energy expansions, including its takeover of Vietnam’s offshore oil and the huge 30-year deal it made to buy gas from Russia.

Our relationship with China is likely to stay civil, but there are tensions that could easily increase. Since China got serious about making panels 4-5 years ago, we have become increasingly dependent on them. That worries some people, like Congress.

We don’t know the exact life or sunset of a given high-tech PV panel. The more dependent we are on Chinese panels, the more dependent we are on Chinese manufacturing and supply, since we seem to have mostly given it up ourselves.

The Chinese understand how important energy is, and they are taking steps to supply themselves well into the 21st century, if not corner the market for some sources. PV technology, expertise and manufacturing is only a part of their initiative, but as time goes by it seems more strategic, and threatening.

At some point, the panels will start failing. Assuming by then we will have little or no capacity to manufacture replacements ourselves, China’s ability could be an effective monopoly, leaving them to raise prices and/or limit supply. Our ability to replace old panels and generate energy will be affected and so will our economy.

This is not a pretty picture. We, as a country, need to hedge our bets on PV, and we as a state need to do the same. We can’t just substitute one foreign dependency for another. If we want to avoid the risk of being held hostage, we need to develop our other renewable sources, just as we originally planned to do.

That means we need to put significantly greater development effort into renewables like wind, geothermal and ocean energy, so they aren’t left behind and we aren’t left behind in the rush for power. In a world headed for predictable shortages in energy, water and food, long-term planning goes directly to sustainability, and survival.

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