Guide to the Cosmos

Making the Wonders of the Universe Available to Everyone

Solar Power & Carbon Dioxide

US Cuts CO2 Emissions; World Doesn’t



I usually report on astrophysics and cosmology, but I’m also interested in how science impacts society. Not all black holes are in outer space.


The latest official report on energy-related carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 to 2011 roused my attention.


The United States reduced CO2 emissions 8.5%.

But at the same time, worldwide CO2 emissions increased 15.3%.


The decline of U.S. CO2 tonnage equaled the combined reductions by all other nations that did reduce CO2 emissions. It turns out not many nations reduced CO2 emissions.


Other significant emission reducers, by percentage, were Canada (-11%), Europe (-7.8%), and Japan (-4.9%).


The greatest CO2 emission increasers were China (+60%), India (46%), the Middle East (+35%), South Korea (+24%), and Russia (+13%).


China accounted for 75% of the world’s increased CO2 emissions. China now emits 27% of the world’s CO2, and its per capita emissions are 38% above the world average.




The U.S. Department of Energy Information Administration compiled these data in accordance with UNFCCC standards. They say energy-related CO2 emissions account for 98% of our total emissions. The sources are electricity generation (38%), transportation (31%), industrial (14%), residential (6%), commercial (4%), and many smaller categories.


A major factor in emissions reductions in developed countries was the recession, the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Increased energy efficiency and greater use of natural gas instead of coal helped reduce U.S. emissions. Natural gas produced 30% of U.S. power in 2011, up from 19% in 2005.


By contrast, CO2 emissions dramatically increased in developing countries, particularly China and India, due to the rapid expansion of coal-fired power plants; one is shown below. They burn coal because that’s the cheapest way to make electricity.



In 2011, China invested $52 billion in renewable energy, much of that to support its own solar panel manufacturers. Solar is an industry China is determined to dominate on a worldwide basis.


The U.S. spent $51 billion that same year on renewable energy, much of that subsidized the purchase of solar panels made in China. Thus, both nations’ large investments are fostering Chinese dominance of this growth industry.


With their government and our government’s support, the Chinese have undercut all other solar panel makers. They have the additional benefits of cheaper labor, cheaper electricity (from burning coal), and far less environmental regulation.


My wife and I just put solar panels on our roof, shortly after our neighbor removed a huge tree that shaded our house. We didn’t buy the panels; we bought the power they will generate over the next 20 years. After government subsidies, we’ll pay 7.8¢ per kilowatt-hour, which is less than half of the 18.0¢ we paid before. But, there’s one key difference: our 7.8¢ is fixed for 20 years, while everyone else’s rates will go up each year.  Our rate may one day be only 10% of what our neighboring will be paying. Plus, the 7.8¢ is our guaranteed maximum rate; if our panels generate more power than guaranteed, we’ll get the excess power for free.


I expect to pay only 25% of the cost of all the electricity that we’ll use for the rest of our lives. Who’s picking up the other 75% of the tab? Three guesses — every other American who buys electricity or pays taxes.


Part of this money comes from federal taxes, part from state taxes, and part from everyone’s utility bills. On last year’s bills, I noticed a charge called “conservation incentives allowance” that amounted to 1/6 of our total bill.


Frankly, I’m embarrassed that you’ll be paying our bills. This is welfare for people who can afford a roof. But that’s our government’s policy. We’d be crazy not to accept the windfall.


Instead of subsidizing China and roof owners, our government could have spent the same funds to build large solar facilities with American-made components, and sold the power at favorable prices to our utility companies. That way every consumer would have benefited, and there’d be more American jobs.


We got our system from a “U.S.” company. When the panels arrived, I checked the labels; the solar wafers were made in Taiwan and the panels were assembled in China. Only the salesman and the installers were American.


Is this what you want your taxes and electric bills used for?


Best Regards,
May 7, 2013


P.S. The Los Angeles Times just reported that electric car maker Telsa Motors will receive tax credits of $250 million this year from the State of California; that's $35,000 per car.  California voters approved tax increases in the last election. I wonder if they knew they were paying $35,000 for each Telsa customer who could afford an $80,000 car? Surely there are better ways to serve the public good.

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Author of
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Guide to the Cosmos