One voice: Paul Krugman, fracking and solar energy

At best, when an individual such as Paul Krugman (International Trade Economist, Nobel Prize winner in economics and columnist for the New York Times) opine in a public forum, it’s an insightful piece of analysis, a useful expression of sentiment, or an effective way of providing sorely needed background on important issues. Occasionally, however, important things gain momentum because the times were right and a single voice forcefully articulates what is happening. This may be one of those occasions: Paul Krugman has published his belief that solar energy’s time has come.

In his New York Times column [06 November 2011, Here Comes the Sun] Krugman takes on three interrelated and explosive issues:

One: Taking the crown of most important new technology from computers, solar power is on the verge of becoming the technology the world not only desperately needs, but is “on the cusp of an energy transformation” because the cost of solar power is dropping so fast. The rate of price decrease is now at 7% a year and accelerating, which means that within a few years energy from solar panels will be cheaper than from burning coal.

Two: The ascendency of solar energy, which is already well underway in many parts of the world (e.g. China, India, Europe) scares the absolute living daylights out of an entrenched energy industry dominated by fossil fuels. There is nothing, truly nothing, that won’t be tried to delay, obscure, obstruct and deflect energy transformation. Nothing short of the richest and most powerful industry in the world is at stake, so in the battle against alternative forms of energy, money is no object. Politics and the media will follow thereafter.

Three: As an example of the dynamics created by the fossil fuel industry and the competition with solar power, the United States and other places in the world are suddenly in the rush to develop natural gas extraction from deep layers of shale. The extraction process, already notoriously known as “fracking,” has set off alarm bells because of its potential threat to the environment. Krugman outlines the threat and emphasizes that it represents a concerted attempt by the fossil fuel industry to reap profits while avoiding the cost of environmentally responsible development. In short, industry wants a massive delayed subsidy for any messes it creates, while simultaneously attempting to short-change subsidy for alternative energies, especially solar.

Those people who follow the world energy crisis and the development of alternative energies will nod their head and say, “Nothing new here.” This is not quite accurate. What is new is that an extraordinarily influential economist, working in his academic wheelhouse, can see lines of supply, demand, and price converging on solar energy. He’s also willing to stick his neck out and make a statement:

So what you need to know is that nothing you hear from these people is true. Fracking is not a dream come true; solar is now cost-effective. Here comes the sun, if we’re willing to let it in.

Given the political atmosphere in his native United States, it is worth emphasizing that Krugman’s column is courageous. The pack of baying hounds has been at his heels for years, now the dogs of war will be let slip against him. Less poetically, he becomes the highly visible target for the obscuring, obstructing and, of course, ad hominem attacks that are sure to follow.

The SQUELCH button will be pressed. Let’s see how the world’s media reacts. Perhaps more importantly, for those whose intelligence tells them that Krugman is right and solar energy can be in ascendency, this is not only a test but an opportunity to do their part. -nk

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