1m solar roofs no reason for celebration

One million solar rooftop doesn't even scratch the surface of the emissions generated by a few Queensland cowboys in a single year, let alone take a serious bite out of fossil fuels.

In 2004 legislation was passed in Queensland to curtail deforestation. But the changes wouldn't take effect until 2007, so in the following two years, Queensland's cattle industry staged a celebration of deforestation. In those two years the normal business-as-usual cattle driven deforestation, supplemented by the Queensland orgy, released 150 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CRF submission, 2005 and 2006, Table5.C).

We currently have about a million rooftop solar PV systems with each one potentially saving about 800 grams of carbon dioxide for every kilowatt hour of energy generated.

Now, assuming that all potential CO2 savings of those million systems are realised, how many years will it take for them to offset the added CO2 emissions from those two years of land clearing?

While you get your phone out and calculate the answer, it's worth pointing out that, after the orgy, the nation's cowboys released another 65 million tonnes of CO2 (mtCO2) in 2007 by turning more forest into grass; 53 mtCO2 in 2008, 45 mtCO2 in 2009, and 42 mtCO2 in 2010 (the last available year of UNFCCC data).

And the answer to the question?

About 67 years.

So it will be around 2079 before today's solar panels have offset just those 2005 and 2006 cattle-driven deforestation emissions, not to mention the other years.

Assuming that 10 million 2kw PV installations can offset 10 times as much as 1 million (very wrong, but let's pretend), then on average, over the past 20 years, we would have needed 31 million 2kw Solar PV systems just to offset each year's cowboy deforestation emissions. To say nothing of our coal emissions or the cattle methane.

The Copenhagen Diagnosis in 2009 estimated the sustainable annual CO2eq emissions at 1 tonne per person per year for everybody on the planet. Over the past two decades cowboy deforestation has been responsible for about 3 tonnes per capita for each Australian.

Has anybody spotted the sloppy thinking in the above?

It's reasonable to think of a solar panel replacing some coal burning and reducing those emissions. But solar panels don't draw down carbon, so they will do absolutely nothing to offset those deforestation emissions from the cattle industry. It wouldn't matter if we had 100 per cent clean energy, if those cattle emissions continue at the same average rate, then we'd still be emitting triple our per capita budget maximum.

Sweet bugger all multiplication tables

‘Penny wise pound foolish’ rolls off the tongue in a way that fails with its modern literal equivalent. That's a pity because this is one aphorism that we desperately need in our efforts to undo the climate damage of the past 200 or so years.

Growing up, I had a neighbour who recycled milk bottletops. Those little aluminium foil wonders. That was in the days of recycled glass milk bottles and some people really did collect those tops for reuse. The milk industry soon realised that the dollar costs of recycling glass exceeded those of using plastic lined cardboard cartons and the battle was on. The mark of environmental purity was sticking with bottles instead of cartons. Eventually, everybody either realised that the energy costs of recycling bottles exceeded those of using cartons or that resistance was futile and glass milk bottles slowly faded away.

The run up to Earth Hour produced a gem of a tweet that took me back to those halcyon days when picking the caring and sharing from the corporate planet buggering pawns was as easy as checking their fridge: bottles or cartons. It was that simple. Here's the tweet that bought it all back. It was presaging that mighty green achievment of a million caring sharing roofs:

"Just in! There are 987,020 solar PV installations in Aus, help get to 1 mill by pledging to switch for Earth Hour http://earthhour.org.au/"

The tweet came from the Australian Climate Change National Manager with World Wildlife Fund and you can almost smell the heady stench of excitement.

Even ignoring cattle deforestation, did anybody bother to do the energy numbers on this grand achievement?

One million 2kw solar PV systems (which is roughly what we have) would generate about 2.8 terawatt (trillion) hours of electricity per year (TWh/yr). Some might argue I’ve underestimated solar’s likely generation. No matter, double it if it makes you feel better. Twice bugger all is still bugger all.

Because here's the rub. This 2.8 TWh/yr is just above 1 per cent of Australia’s electricity consumption. Furthermore, to avoid the worst that climate change threatens to impose requires that we also deal with the other 804 TWh of fossil fuels used outside of electricity. And promptly. But in addition to the rest of the energy emissions, we also have to deal with the non-energy emissions and in Australia, as you may have guessed from the opening of this article, the non-energy greenhouse impacts of our choices are huge, land clearing being just the tip of the iceberg.

Expecting rooftop solar to make a significant contribution to climate change is like recycling bottle tops and expecting waste dumps to shrink. 

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