What I Learned Writing a Chapter About Solar Energy

22 Sep
On 140 acres of unused land on Nellis Air Forc...

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So I just finished a draft of a chapter on solar energy.  Which is good.  Always good to come to the nominal end of a chunk of the book, even if it still needs polishing.

The process of diving into the world of solar energy and figuring out how to write about it was interesting. Tiring, frightening, overwhelming and sometimes tedious, too.  But always interesting.  Going in, I had a decent understanding of the basics–how solar cells work, that large solar farms were popping up around the world, that advances in solar tech were making daily headlines.  What I didn’t know was how much of what I heard about was substantial, and how much was marketing/PR bluster.  I also knew very little about the long, complicated history of solar energy.  Like most non-experts (and even many solar insiders, probably), I assumed that the solar technologies in vogue today began in the 1970s.  I was only about three or four centuries off.

Now, after 5 months of immersing myself in the history, technology, politics, and economics of solar energy, I think I’ve learned a thing or two about where solar’s been, where it is, and where it’s going.  Here’s how I put it near the end of the chapter …

If the history of solar energy innovation teaches us anything, it’s that even the most ingenious, well-designed schemes for producing cheap, reliable power from the sun face daunting roadblocks on the road to commercial success.  Yet that same history also shows us that a legacy of solar innovation marred by failed plans and dashed dreams has done little to discourage a new generation of 21st century solar pioneers from taking up the mantle and forging ahead.  If anything, new solar technologies (or, more accurately, new variations on old ideas) have mushroomed at an astonishing pace.  While I was researching this book, hardly a day went by without coming across headlines touting a new breakthrough in solar panel efficiency or the construction of “The World’s Largest Solar Farm” (of which, apparently, there are dozens).

Not that headlines tell the whole story.  After all, one goal of this book is to look beyond the headlines to get a clearer sense of what’s happening on the ground and in the lab.  After visiting working solar farms and commercial-scale solar panel factories; having visited pilot concentrating solar plants and meeting with researchers experimenting on the outer edges of solar innovation; after months spent delving into the history of solar engineering—I come away having learned a few things.

First, that the ultimate success of solar energy—the “solar revolution” that so many green activists envision—is no more assured of happening today than it was a century and a half ago when August Mouchot’s solar motor turned heads at the Paris World’s Fair.  In a world where energy consumption—driven by exploding populations and economies in China, India, and elsewhere in the developing world—is growing exponentially, solar energy, for all of its triumphs in recent years, still plays a very, very small role in meeting the planet’s demand for useable power.  And there is very little evidence that even most the astonishing advances in solar cell efficiency and power (or concentrating solar power or any other solar technology) will be able to meet a sizeable percentage of this demand. This reality is important to keep in mind when reading breathless articles in the popular press about the latest breakthrough that will supposedly change the world as we know it.[1] Because we’re in the midst of a breathtaking revolution in information technology, we’ve come to expect (and even gotten accustomed to) new technologies that appear out of nowhere and, like magic, change forever how we communicate, socialize, and even think and see the world around us.  But in the world of energy, there are no equivalents to Google or the iPad.  Unlike software and more like the auto industry, the world of energy is a complex mesh of infrastructure (oil and gas pipelines, railroads for coal transport, electricity transmission lines and so on—the vast majority of which has been built by and is geared toward fossil fuel industries), local and federal government policy, and powerful, multinational energy companies whose influence extends into virtually every sector of the global economy.  In short, solar energy, like all renewable energy technologies, will have to struggle uphill to blossom in a way that everyone I interviewed for this chapter hopes will one day happen.

And yet …

… the story of solar energy doesn’t end there.  Because the second big lesson I learned is that judging a technology or industry based only on what it isn’t, or on what it has yet to accomplish, can lead to some misguided and just plain wrong conclusions.  Compare the energy output of the world’s solar farm to that of the world’s coal-fired power plants and, yes, solar seems puny.  But consider solar technology today in contrast to where it stood only thirty years ago, when Jimmy Carter unveiled his White House solar panels, and a different story takes shape.  We may not yet live in a world where thin-film solar panels shingle every roof, or where vast solar farms have begun to displace coal-fired power plants, but the potential and widespread desire for those high-tech dreams to become reality has never been greater.  Again, in the world of renewable energy, no one technology or idea or grand vision is a sure bet.  But seen through the lens of history, and from the perspective of the dozens of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs I spoke with (and thousands more around the world), solar is on a roll the likes of which would have seemed utterly fantastic only a few decades ago.

[1]For example, I found an article published in Popular Science in 2007 hyperventilating over Nanosolar’s then-groundbreaking “PowerSheet” technology—basically semiconducting nano-ink printed on thin, flexible metal sheets.  Dan Kammen, founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkeley, is quoted as saying that “You’ve talking about printing rolls of the stuff—printing it on the roofs of 18-wheeler trailer, printing it on garages, printing it where you want.”  Several years on, have you ever seen or heard or a solar-powered 18-wheeler?  Neither have I.  And it’s most likely not because PowerSheet solar panels don’t work as advertised.  It’s more a matter of the complexity of integrating solar panels with something like a truck.

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6 Responses to “What I Learned Writing a Chapter About Solar Energy”

  1. Roger October 3, 2010 at 8:21 pm #

    Hi Jeremy. You may be familiar with futurist Ray Kurzweil’s ideas about the exponential growth of technology. The reason I bring this up, you allude to something like this above. Some of this solar technology might have some predictability based on trends that have already been established. For example, is it not true that we have about 24GW of installed PV capacity worldwide right now and 2 yrs ago it was about 12GW and 2yrs before that about 6 and so on? (Feel free to correct my numbers). So we could theoretically predict 48GW 2 yrs from now. Ditto for price deflation, which I’m sure there are numbers over the last 30 yrs for you to look up. Kurzweil observes that this exponential trajectory for technology seems to be remarkably independent of politicians, recessions, etc… So it would be neat to see some trendline graphs like this in your book for various renewable technologies (e,g, time on the x axis, price/kW and installed PV capacity on the y axis), let’s say tracked from 1975 to 2010.

    The caveat I have with this, and you alluded to this, is that we don’t see this with all technologies equally. For something like DNA sequencing, we have a 5 month doubling time right now! In the next 5 months, we’ll sequence as much DNA as was done in all of human history combined. However, other examples aren’t so impressive, especially when there are real physical limits, like the price of oil. (e.g, the airlines don’t seem to be getting better at this breathtaking pace).

    • jnshere October 4, 2010 at 1:41 am #

      Hi Roger. Great comment. Thanks for the suggestion–I will indeed look into including in the book something like you suggest. I will say that, so far at least, I’ve not come across any such trendline projections. Maybe that’s because solar, wind and other renewables have come and gone in fits and starts instead of smoother trajectories. Unlike DNA sequencing, which is, to my limited understanding, driven largely by computer processing power and increasingly sophisticated software, the growth of energy technologies are, or at least almost always have been, tied very closely to tax breaks and other government policy-driven incentives. Renewables have always also competed directly against fossil-fuel related industries, whose lobbyists help initiate and author energy-related tax breaks. This isn’t to say to solar and other renewable energy technologies won’t continue to grow apace–I hope they do. But it’s difficult to predict based on recent history. Still, this may also be because nobody has yet thought to predict the renewable growth. I’ll certainly look into it.

      • Roger October 4, 2010 at 8:23 pm #

        I’m sure the road to computing was pretty bumpy. Some of the 1st computers would fill a house with a billion times less capacity than your current cell phone. Cool huh. Seems like PV has alot of analogies to the computer chip.

        Anyway, the point is, the shape of the PV trajectory from 1975 to let’s say 2050 might actually make a stunningly beautiful exponential curve completely in sync with this naturally occurring mathematical function. Somebody should look at this with wind energy and geothermal capacity. I would hope that we’d see that we’re just tipping upward out of the (statistically noisy)lag phase and into some real capacity concurrent with some desperately needed price deflation.

    • Hamada May 24, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

      Investing into Green Technology would be the most stupid thing to be doing, unsles you know the stock market.The main problem with MOST green Tech is:It costs a lot of money, but it takes a long time before the investment pays off.To the investors this means they get supposedly great business expectations but most likely wont see the dream come true, esp. as todays tech is obsolete tomorrow e.g. you cant even tell if cars will be running on gas, fuel or electricity.

      • jnshere May 25, 2012 at 4:36 am #

        Good point. Renewable tech is often a risky investment, at least for individual investors. That’s why it’s so important for governments to support clean energy research over the long haul–so that individual investors don’t get burned when a given solar or wind company goes bust. It takes a long time to develop viable, cost-effective renewable energy technologies, and it also takes a lot of money. But wind and solar have come a long, long way over the past several decades. So even if there’s more to be done before renewable technologies become rock solid investments for stock investors, they’re still worth supporting in the long term.

  2. 床墊 September 25, 2010 at 10:49 am #

    I couldn’t agree with you more, anyway l love your site layout. Is nice and clean.

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