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What I Learned Writing a Chapter About Solar Energy

22 Sep
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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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