New paths to sustainable energy

The US and other countries will be making ambitious commitments to cut carbon emissions. But at the same time new ways to do it keep bubbling up.

Solar Impulse 2, a solar powered airplane attempting a round-the-world flight, fiew over Nagoya Airport near Tokyo June 29 after taking off. It landed safely in Hawaii five days later.

An airplane just flew across the Pacific Ocean on solar power alone. Self-driving “robocabs” powered by emissions-free electric motors could soon cut the emissions from a cab ride by 90 percent. Solar-powered homes, thought to be a luxury only for the wealthy, are now coming to middle- and even low-income families.

Nations around the world, including the United States, are preparing to meet in Paris in December to commit to new goals on reducing climate-harming emissions for 2030. President Obama pledged June 30 that the US would receive 20 percent of its electricity by 2030 from renewable sources such as solar and wind.

That’s an aggressive goal, but hardly impossible.

“There’s nobody here that would have projected the technology innovation of the past two or three decades,” noted Gina McCarthy, the US Environmental Protection Agency administrator, at a Christian Science Monitor-hosted conversation in Washington July 7. “The world has changed. Our kids don’t even know what the world looks like without cellphones and laptops.... So for anybody to say that in 2030 I can’t project the exact ways for getting to the future that I think I need ... and to use that as an excuse for inaction is pretty shortsighted, and is not looking at the history of this country.”

Waiting to figure out exactly how you will finish before setting out delays progress, she suggested. “If you don’t actually move off of the starting gate when you’re in a marathon, you clearly will not win.”

With the price of solar panels dropping, and their efficiency in turning sunlight into electricity increasing, solar is already beginning to appeal to middle-class homeowners. Now the Obama administration says it will help extend the benefits of solar power even further.

So-called community solar projects across the US would bring some 300 megawatts of solar and other renewable electricity by 2020 to housing developments that already receive federal subsidies, extending the benefits of solar to low-income families and renters who don’t own their own roofs.

The five-day flight by Solar Impulse 2, a single-seat solar-powered airplane, from Japan to Hawaii was part of a planned round-the-world trip. The record-setting feat is a far cry from being able to ferry planeloads of passengers between distant cities on a regular basis. But the plane’s ability to stay aloft on solar power alone for five days while making the crossing may begin to revise thinking on whether solar and other sustainable energy sources have a future in aviation.

A robocab, an electric vehicle that would save energy in part by driving itself in an energy-efficient manner, would generate carbon emissions 90 percent lower than an average gasoline-powered car, say researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Much of the savings would come from sending a taxi that fits people’s needs – one or two passengers would travel in a smaller cab than would a larger group.

Intriguing new ideas and cost efficiencies continue to bubble up. Leaps in employing sustainable energy sources and reducing emissions will continue to be made as thought opens up to the possibilities.

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