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My Senators Claim We Aren't in the Right Part of the County to Benefit from Solar Energy; What Does Science Say?

Ask a Scientist - January 2011

D. Schomer from Warner Robins, GA, asks "My senators claim that solar energy won't work in Georgia implying we are not in the right part of the county to get its benefit. Sounds fishy to me but what does science say? They also support "clean coal." Is there such a thing?"  and is answered by Energy Analyst Laura Wisland.

Solar energy is an appealing renewable energy source because the amount of energy from the sun that falls on Earth's surface is enormous. Just 20 days of sunshine contains more energy than if you add up all the energy stored in Earth's reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas together!

When looking at Georgia’s ability to benefit from this vast renewable resource, the important thing is to be clear about what you mean when you say “solar energy.” Concentrated solar thermal systems use mirrors and lenses to concentrate the rays of the sun to produce very high temperatures—as high as 3,000 degrees Celsius—in order to make steam, which can be used in industrial applications or to produce electricity. These kinds of systems are better suited for desert climates that have wide open spaces and intense solar radiation, so they would indeed not be a good fit for Georgia.

But you don’t have to be in the Mojave Desert to harvest solar energy with photovoltaic (PV) cells, which are used in the rooftop panels most people envision when discussing solar power. PV cells work across all kinds of climates. In fact, Germany has one of the highest rates of PV installation in the world, and, closer to home, New Jersey is one of the fastest growing PV markets in the United States—not exactly the sunniest places on Earth. Georgia actually has the technical potential to produce nearly 30 percent of the electricity the state used in 2008 from solar energy using PV cells.

And solar is only one of many renewable energy choices that can deliver cleaner, more local sources of power to Georgia and beyond. There's wind, biomass, small hydropower, and more. Not to mention that the cheapest and easiest way to transition away from dirty energy sources like coal is to use less energy by implementing smart, energy efficiency measures. Yet, according to recent UCS analysis, Georgia spent just 50 cents per person on ratepayer-funded electricity efficiency programs in 2007—about 540 times less than it spent to import coal!

Now let’s talk about this term “clean coal.” This can mean different things to different people. Frequently people building coal plants will say “clean coal” when referring to pollution controls installed to capture sulfur dioxide and particulate emissions. These controls are required by law and, while very helpful for reducing some dangerous air pollutants, they don’t do anything to reduce global warming emissions. So that’s not really “clean coal.”

The alternative definition of “clean coal,” which would reduce coal’s massive contribution to climate change, refers to a technology called carbon capture and storage (CCS). This technology could someday allow coal-fired power plants to capture their emissions of carbon dioxide—the main contributor to global warming—and inject and store it underground. Coal plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide in the nation, emitting more than all our cars, trucks, and other forms of surface transportation combined.

But CCS is still untested at the scale that’s needed to find out whether it can really help us protect the climate. The costs of CCS are also unclear, and the assumption that it would be cheaper to get power from so-called “clean coal” using CCS rather than cleaner, renewable sources has yet to be established. This is why UCS supports construction of a few full-scale demonstration projects that would help determine whether the cost, technology, and other challenges faced by CCS can be overcome.

But even with CCS, coal couldn’t be considered truly “clean” given the inherent environmental destruction from mining and transporting it and contamination threats from byproducts such as coal ash. Plus CCS would entail pumping millions of tons of carbon dioxide annually into the earth—and that’s just from a single power plant! While storing all of that carbon underground is certainly better than pumping it into the atmosphere (presuming it's properly sited), it’s hardly the same thing as transitioning off dirty energy and to a truly sustainable, clean electricity system using renewable sources like the sun and wind. 

Laura Wisland is an energy analyst with the UCS Climate and Energy Program. She has a master's degree from UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, and a bachelor's degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill honors program in public policy. Her work focuses on developing state policies that will effectively increase the amount of renewable energy used in California.  She provides technical and policy analysis to legislative and regulatory agencies to successfully guide implementation of the state's renewables electricity standard and designs effective electricity sector climate change policies in accordance with the state's landmark global warming bill.

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