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In the News: Time to Act

Paul Kando

Solar energy arrives on Earth as electromagnetic radiation. As molecules of matter absorb it, the radiation is converted to heat. The heat interacts with air and water, giving us weather and climate. For millennia Earth has managed a delicate, life-sustaining balance between incoming radiation trapped by its atmosphere and the amount radiated back into space. The secret: just the right amount of greenhouse gases, as produced by Mother Nature. Alas, emissions from fossil fuel use trap an amount of heat roughly equivalent to 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs dropped on the planet every day, more than enough to upset Earth’s climate-sustaining balance. The National Oceanics & Atmospherics Administration projects that 2015 will be the hottest global year on record, beating the record set in 2014. The warming is greater over land than sea, and greater still in the polar regions. Consequently land ice is starting to melt and sea level rise is accelerating. Scientists say that probably all the warming since 1950 was caused by human greenhouse gas releases. Their first effects are already evident and we are stuck with whatever damage those emissions (and their potential feedback effects) have already caused. For a very limited time we can still prevent catastrophic climate outcomes. But if emissions continue unchecked, global warming could exceed 8ºF, undermining Earth’s life supporting capacity.

photo credit: Archinect.com

OK, so, world leaders and thousands of diplomats are meeting in Paris to negotiate an accord to avert the most devastating effects of global warming. No matter what they might agree on, they cannot make their agreed-upon promises come through unless we all do our part.

What can we do? Stop burning of fossil fuels. We can fly less. We can drive an electric or hybrid car instead of a gas guzzler and drive fewer miles by consolidating trips. We can plug leaks in our houses, add more insulation, install a smart thermostat, switch to LED light bulbs, turn off lights in unoccupied rooms, waste less food, and eat less meat. Each climate-saving step we take also saves us money.

Take solar power. According to a Maine Public Utilities Commission study, beyond personal savings solar systems offer, avoided market costs (costs of generating capacity, power and transmission) add 13.8¢ to the value of each solar-produced kWh. An additional 19.9¢ comes from environmental and social benefits. That's a total value of 33.7¢ per kWh, compared with centrally generated power at around 15¢/kWh retail.

Add community scale wind, hydro and tidal power; methane generated from organic wastes; and the added efficiency of smart micro-grids. No wonder Stamford/UC-Berkeley scientists are bullish on Maine’s 100% renewable energy conversion prospects. They calculate that the investment required will pay back in a scant 7 years, from social and environmental benefits alone.

We can’t do it all by ourselves. The needed transformation also needs strong state and national policies. We must speak up and exercise our citizen rights, including defeating obstructionist politicians at the ballot box. The future of our grandchildren depends on it.