At the end of the PBS documentary Power Surge, there is a poignant moment when the camera crew visits the solar energy museum in Dezhou, a former crumbling transport hub that is now known as China’s “Solar City”.

One of the more popular displays at the museum is a solar panel that had been installed by President Jimmy Carter on the roof of the White House in 1979, just after he promised that the US would source 20% of its energy needs from renewables by the end of the century.

The panels were torn down a few years later, along with the rest of Carter’s renewables vision, by his successor Ronald Reagan, with the vocal approval of the new president’s oil and coal industry backers. The panel, along with a $100 billion solar PV industry that the US had once hoped would be its own, ended up in Dezhou, at the heart of China’s Solar Valley, the local clean tech equivalent of California’s Silicon Valley.

The Chinese can’t quite believe their luck — and the display appears to be designed to be a potent symbol of lost opportunity from its biggest economic rival, and one that Carter himself had foreshadowed. “This solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people: harnessing the power from the sun,” he said at the time.

The Obama administration, and particularly Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, is fighting another rear-guard action to save a new generation of clean technologies — such as thin-film solar PV and new forms of solar thermal technologies such as solar towers, along with a host of other emerging clean tech options — from a similar fate.

Having lost the fight to introduce a carbon price to the Republicans and its fossil fuel backers, the government is trying to support those technologies with other mechanisms, such as loan guarantees and tax credits. But these, too, are now under attack from the Tea Party-controlled Congress and newly elected Republican governors.

It’s curious to see how left-wing and right-wing politics have fallen on either side of the clean tech divide, particularly in the US and Australia. In NSW, the Premier Barry O’Farrell has renewed his distaste for wind farms. There has been virtually no new investment in electricity generation in the state for years, but there is possibly $10 billion of wind turbines in the pipeline. O’Farrell, who has also managed to bring the local rooftop solar PV market to a crashing halt, said he hoped the wind farms would never be built.

“None of this would be necessary if the federal government hadn’t signed up to a 20% renewable energy target,” he told Macquarie Radio, before trying to pass off the comments as his “personal views”. It even made the daily global wrap of France broking house Mirabaud Securities, which among its headlines of solar, wind, fuel cell and other clean tech investments across the globe, noted: “Australia’s NSW premier Barry O’Farrell states he hopes the state does not give approval for any more wind farms.” That must be what marketing people call positioning.

The fear of clean tech seems to have several origins. Part of it is from the belief that there is no problem to solve in the first place — no climate change, no limit on natural resources. Part of it comes from the belief that, if there is a problem, then it is either too hard or too costly to overcome. Part of it comes simply from the fear of change.

The Power Surge documentary that was broadcast on SBS TV on Tuesday night had an interesting approach to the “too hard, too costly” fear, and how to break down the energy task — to arrest the emissions growth from soaring energy needs.

“It is easy to say, ‘Oh, the energy problem is so big that we can’t possibly build enough wind turbines to solve it, we can’t possibly do enough conservation to solve it’,” says Princeton University’s Stephen Pacala. “So you break the problem into pieces and say, ‘What are the technological options across the board that we have to throw at it’?”

Pacala has addressed the problem by creating a triangle formed by the gap between what the world was going to do in terms of emissions (business as usual) and what we must do, and split the challenge — the carbon emissions that must be kept out of the atmosphere — into a series of wedges. Instead of relying on one technology to avoid, say, seven billion tonnes of emissions per year, maybe it could develop seven that could each account for one billion.

Pacala estimates there are actually 15 technologies already in the marketplace at an industrial scale that could meet the billion-tonne target, grouped around efficiency, renewables, carbon capture and nuclear. Which of those were deployed, and to what extent, would be the subject of individual country choice and opportunity: some may go more for solar, some more for efficiency. The likelihood is that if one of the options emerges as the “killer solution”, then it will dominate the other technologies, as coal has done for the past century on the simple metric of cost.

Dan Kammen, from the University of California, Berkeley, tells the program that the carbon problem is actually easily solvable. “What’s hard is that we need to make a lot of change in a hurry,” he says. “We, more or less, have the coming four decades to recreate a green version of the industrial revolution that’s taken us 150 years.” But as Paul Alivisatos, the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory says: “Technology save us from climate change?  I’m very convinced that it can. And, in fact, beyond that, what I would say is that it’s an incredible opportunity for us to create all kinds of new things.”

*This first appeared on Climate Spectator.

Peter Fray

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