The Sun: Our 5-Billion-Year Battery

By Ernesto Velazquez

We are experiencing an interesting turn of events in how we produce and distribute the golden challis of modern society  ̶energy from the sun. There are strong indicators that we are reaching a tipping point where alternative clean energy is finally economically competitive with fossil fuels. The possibility of ultimately slaying the carbon dragon has never been so bright.

Fossil fuels, namely oil, carbon and natural gas,were formed during the Carboniferous period in the Paleozoic era over 300 million years ago and are the remnants of dead plants and pin head size sea creatures called diatoms. The plants and the diatoms, in effect, captured solar energy during their life cycle, died, and then underwent a transformation into fossil fuels, storing the energy that homo sapiens used in creating modern society.

The main drive in what seems to be a quiet global energy shift is economics. Solar energy cost has dropped significantly worldwide, largely due a Chinese solar panel manufacturing boom. ln the U.S. market, solar energy cost has dropped 70% since 2010. Despite the Trump administrations anti-environment efforts, the U.S. solar industry is growing at an unprecedented pace. In fact, the industry has experienced an annual growth rate of 68% in the past decade and currently employs over 260,000 Americans, three times as many workers as employed by the entire coal mining industry.

The recent advances in energy storage via battery technology such as the Tesla Power Wall, has given the solar energy industry the missing link needed to reach a new level in its evolution. The efficacy of this new technological marriage of solar panels and high-tech batteries is currently being tested in the Caribbean.

Will Puerto Rico Be Transformed into a Model of Sustainable Energy?

Hurricane Maria, a powerful Category 4 storm, destroyed the power grid in Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million inhabitants. After much fumbling and vacillation by the Trump Administration in providing relief to this U.S. territory, Elon Musk moved rapidly to restore electricity to a children’s hospital and has offered to transform Puerto Rico into a model of sustainable energy. And Elon is not alone in his ideas and efforts there, other organizations have stepped forward to push community owned and controlled solar projects that will literally hand the power to the people of Puerto Rico, creating a cooperative model for clean energy production that will do away with the archaic, heavily indebted fossil fuel run utility company of the Island.

So, let us connect the dots. Climatologist predicted that global warming will bring about more powerful storms and one of these storms just destroyed Puerto Rico’s fossil fuel powered energy system, giving way to the possibility of rebuilding the island’s energy supply via clean solar energy that is community controlled. It seems like the planet is fighting back and in the case of Puerto, I hope it scores a victory by transforming the island into a neutral party in the climate change war while creating a more economically just and climate resilient community.

Ernesto Velazquez is an environmental activist residing in Philadelphia with an interest in disruptive green business practices, organic food production and distribution. He is currently pursuing graduate studies in Sustainability and Environmental Management at Harvard University.


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