Greenpeace’sPhotovoltaic booster plan

Greenpeace Photovoltaics
At first, I thought Kevin Jardine of Greenpeace waslost in wishfulthinking.

He hopes to revolutionize the wayelectricityisgenerated in Ontario by persuading people to installphotovoltaic (p.v.) panels thatconvert sunlight intoelectricity.

The problemis, anywayyoucalculate the cost, p.v. electricityisa lot more expensivethanwhatyoucanbuyfrom Hydro.

But the more Jardine talked, the more sensehe made.

His argument goeslikethis: (1) photovoltaics are the wave of the future; (2) the onlything holding back the future is the high price tag; (3) but photovoltaics are priceyonlybecauserelatively few are manufactured, and therefore, the cost per unit is high; (4) the solution, therefore, is to marshal a whole lot of new buyers, so the volume manufacturedgoes up, and the price per unit comes down.

So far so good. Jardine wasspeakingelementaleconomics. But how do youget people to buywhen the priceis high?

I expectedhim to starttalking about doing the right thingenvironmentally — what I call the castor oilapproach: swallowitbecauseit’s good for you. However, I can’t imagine many people paying four, six, or eight times as much for electricityjust to help the environment.

But here’swhere Jardine turns out to becanny. People will do it, hesaid, becausethey’llwant to be in on the beginning. They’llwant to betrailblazers.

It happened in television, hesaid. People boughttelevision sets whenyoucouldbarelysee the black and white images through the « snow’’ on the screen, justbecausetelevisionwas the wave of the future. Theybought cars, whentherewasnothing but mud and potholes to drive them on, for exactly the samereason.

So why not photovoltaics, ourcurrentwave of the future?

Why not indeed. Six weeksinto the campaign, the Greenpeace office in Toronto has had 1,500 telephonerequests for brochures explaining the details. That translates to me as a pretty effective campaign.

Histarget for thisyearis 200 people whowillpledge $2,700 for the installation of two 100 watt solar panels, enough to run a television set.

If Greenpeace gets the 200 trailblazers, itwill call for bidsfromsuppliersinterested in installing the panels, and Jardine expectsthathomeownerswillgeta 10 per cent discount (dropping the price to $2,700) because of the volume of business going to the winning supplier.

According to Jardine, the 200 installations coulddisplace 70 tonnes of coal a yearthat are burned in coal-firedgenerating stations. That wouldeliminate about 250 tonnes a year of carbondioxide, the main contributor to global warming.

Looked at anotherway, the 200 installations couldproduceelectricityequivalent to what, with a nucleargenerating station, wouldresult in a tonne of radioactive waste a year, mainly in the form of tailings at uranium mines.

This is more than a local campaign. Greenpeace in Englandisdoing the samething. The objective is to buildenoughmomentumamongbuyers to justify the building of a factorythat, everyyear, couldproducep.v. panels capable of generating 500 megawatts (500 million watts) of electricity.

That wouldbring the price down from about $4 a watt to about $1 a watt, according to studies by British Petroleum. At $1 a watt, says Jardine, p.v. electricitybecomescompetitivewithelectricitygenerated by nuclear and coal-fired stations.

How youcalculate the cost of electricityistrickybecauseitdepends on the number of years over whichyou spread capital costs. If you use 20 years, the length of a normal mortgage, photovoltaics are about 7 1/2 times more expensivethanbuyingelectricityfromanuclear plant. But Ontario Hydro spreads itsnuclearcosts over double thatperiod. If you do the samewithphotovoltaics, theycurrentlybecomeonly about four times as expensive as nuclearelectricity.

If youwant to learn more about the Greenpeace program, youcantelephone (416) 597-8408 . Or youcanvisit the Greenpeace website at www.greenpeacecanada.org.

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