COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DANIEL COFFEY

China and direct-conversion energy technologies

The National Aeronautic and Space Administration has a wonderful outreach and information service as part of its highly instructive websites. That service includes periodic emails containing links to photographs taken from space and, in particular, photos of Earth with many spectacular natural and manmade physical features.

A June 17 offering in the Image of the Day series provided by NASA’s Earth Observatory — “where every day is Earth Day” — shows a sample of China’s gigantic advances in deploying solar photovoltaic (PV) power generators in the Gobi Desert.

This fascinating image and the brief summary with it brings home the astoundingly rapid and bold advances the Chinese have made in physically deploying energy technology that requires no fuel or water, and directly converts sunlight into electricity in a single step without any ongoing associated industrial processes or pollution.

Granted, there are one-time environmental costs associated with producing solar PV panels, but when combined with the prompt benefits and avoided environmental harm associated with fuel-based systems, it’s an entirely reasonable approach.

China is rapidly building the framework for a super-inexpensive power source that will soon utterly eclipse anything based on steam cycles and fuels.

The text explains the NASA photo of solar panels in the Gobi Desert: “According to China Daily, Gansu Province’s total installed solar capacity in 2014 reached 5.2 gigawatts. Clean Technica reported that China’s National Energy Administration had set the goal of increasing the province’s capacity by an additional 0.5 gigawatts [500 megawatts] in 2015.”

“Across the entire country [of China], total installed capacity in 2014 was 28.05 gigawatts, according to PV Magazine. Of that, more than 10 gigawatts were newly added capacity in 2014, which led to a 200 percent increase in the kilowatt-hours of electricity produced via solar over the year before. And already in the first quarter of 2015, China is reported to have installed more than 5 gigawatts of new capacity.”

It’s worth noting that the additional 10 gigawatts added in 2014 is 10,000 megawatts of generating capacity, more than three times the maximum capacity of the former San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. While these systems differ in important ways, the numbers are highly instructive.

By comparison, the United States is barely plodding along at an incremental pace that is both painful to watch and portends a nation whose comparative production costs will continue to rise as fuel-based energy costs are increasingly undercut by direct-conversion energy technologies such as wind and solar PV. Cheaper and abundant electrical energy will reduce the cost of goods, creating another competitive advantage for China.

Along with lower labor costs, China has embraced direct-conversion wind and solar PV and is positioning itself to reduce its energy costs, even as it also massively reduces its environmental pollution.

The combination of progressively lower energy costs and elimination of energy-related pollution is a genuine marvel, one the U.S. has barely engaged as we seek to indulge and sustain outdated, even primitive energy technologies.

This protective pattern has recurred historically during the 20th century with significant consequences. For example, at one point the U.S. steel industry, which had substantially failed to invest in updated production technology, faced competition from foreign companies that had embraced and invested in electric furnace steel production that provided higher quality and cheaper steel to the world markets. That technology shift had a profound deleterious effect on the U.S. steel industry.

On another front, China is sometimes smugly ridiculed for its air pollution due to, inter alia, coal-fired power plants. Some joke that the astounding skylines of certain Chinese cities cannot be seen through the air pollution. That can change, and rapidly.

Recall that not too many decades ago Los Angeles, especially when leaded gasoline was used, experienced gray, hazy air at ground level that limited visibility to a few blocks. That condition exists no longer, due primarily to regulated shifts in technology and changes in the locations of manufacturing.

While the United States has many times brought to fruition technologies of astounding importance, the urge of regressive factions and those who have invested heavily in prior technologies tend to hold our nation in stasis.

Add to that an environmental community comforted by the notion that just saying “no” is far more important than doing something new, and we have reached a peculiar point of stagnation.

The bold and decisive approach adopted by China with respect to massively deploying direct-conversion energy technology has a powerful political appeal, especially for the youthful global community that must otherwise live with the emissions and adverse consequences created by transformational delays in our transportation and electricity generating systems.

We should match and exceed China’s bold example and embrace a positive future. We can do it and live better through it!


Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at daniel.coffey@sddt.com.

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