Cause for Optimism

Just one of many recent changes---practical electric vehicles for ordinary people.

Practical electric vehicles for ordinary people—just one of many changes in recent years.

If you haven’t noticed, things are changing out there.

I titled the letter to the editor that I wrote last month “A Call for Perspective“, and in it I argued that we all need to take a wider view on issues such as renewable energy, so that as we go forward we can head in directions that make long-term sense for the planet.  Well, the other week I was working with a student on renewable energy topics, and it occurred to me that we also need to keep things in perspective as we look backwards. When we do, we notice that there has been a tremendous amount of change in the last four or five years, and much of it is positive.

So, without turning this into a huge long post, let me just point out some changes, in no particular order. In the last few years, solar and wind generation have each more than doubled, both in the U.S. and worldwide. Solar prices have dropped by half, (and will likely continue to drop), PV cell efficiencies have gone up, and wind power is now one of the cheapest ways for utilities in many parts of the country to add capacity. In fact, in parts of the country the current argument is that too much solar and wind are being installed, a situation that would have been almost unthinkable five years ago. Battery technology has improved dramatically, even as prices have dropped. Electric vehicles, unavailable just five years ago, are now common and affordable, with capabilities that are growing by leaps and bounds (by the end of this year, at least two affordable EVs should have ranges in the 200-mile range– the Chevy Bolt and the Nissan Leaf)(and, perhaps, the Tesla Model 3). Networks of electric vehicle charging stations have blossomed nationwide, including huge numbers of fast-chargers. Electric city buses, garbage trucks, tractor-trailer trucks, and even airplanes are being built. Batteries are now powering grid-scale storage, as well as being available as self-contained whole-house backup systems. Large-scale thermal solar plants have been built with molten-salt storage, and some will soon be able to produce power 24/7, as baseload power for the grid. States are rapidly adopting Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs), and ramping up the proportions of renewable energy required by those RPSs. Home efficiency standards have gone up, and the technology to build highly-efficient buildings continues to improve. Net-zero houses are now quite common, whereas a few years ago it was often difficult to even get to net-zero, let alone to do it economically. Cold-climate heat pumps have been perfected, and are flooding into the market, as are heat-pump hot water heaters. Electric transmission lines and grids are undergoing constant and evolutionary improvements, much of it to enable more efficient use of renewable power. Smart meters are more common, as are high-voltage DC transmission lines, which can carry huge amounts of power over incredibly long distances, even while underwater or buried. The world seems to have finally begun to react to the threat of climate change, and the Paris agreement, while not perfect, is a huge, huge step in the right direction. Huge marine sanctuaries have been put into place, and people are taking action across the planet to better protect our wildlife and natural areas.

Video of an e-Genius electric plane crossing the Alps this summer–

All of this is new. Now, compare this to even a bit farther back, to 2004, when I put together the first solar and wind system for our house. At the time, it was the only solar system, anywhere, that I saw in Vermont (though I know there were some out there that I just hadn’t seen or known about). Today—solar is everywhere, in arrays large and small, and just about every time I go down the highway I see a new one. Wind turbines have been installed as well, and in Vermont we have gone from near-zero solar and wind input into the grid, to over 15% in some areas, and the city of Burlington is powered entirely by renewable power.

In fact, if you had told me five years ago that we would be at this place today, I’m not sure I would have believed you. So, this is all pretty good news. I know that mankind still faces huge problems, but I am more optimistic now than think I ever have been. Years ago I wrote that our task was a bit like pushing on the Titanic with our hands and getting it to move. Well, guess what? Due to millions of individual actions and efforts out there—it’s moving.


Top image credit: Michael Hicks, “img_5486”, Flickr Creative Commons. Image has been cropped.