Climate change news is mostly negative, in fact, downright depressing, as glaciers melt away, torrential storms hit coastlines, and embedded droughts scorch countrysides.
But, behind all of the gloom and doom, an upsurge of solar energy is quietly flourishing from California to Queensland to Pretoria. Here’s why: Solar energy is experiencing remarkable technological breakthroughs that will likely lead to a world powered by solar energy at the expense of fossil fuels. And, it could be happening sooner rather than later.
The biggest question is whether it comes soon enough to avoid the risks of abrupt climate change events, like cascading glaciers in Antarctica, as referenced just recently by the National Research Council: “The history of climate on the planet — as read in archives such as tree rings, ocean sediments, and ice cores— is punctuated with large changes that occurred rapidly, over the course of decades to as little as a few years.”1
Solar brightens the planet
Fact: Enough sunlight hits the earth’s surface in one hour to power humanity for one year.2
As such, over the upcoming years, and because of the quantum leaps in technological development, solar will disrupt traditional electricity generation throughout the world. The old ways of doing business are on the way out.
According to Ramez Naam, “Solar capacity is being built out at an exponential pace already… If it continues… which looks extremely likely, we’ll have a power source… with virtually no carbon emissions.”2
Because of these rapid advancements, solar will be produced in individual buildings and homes, giving businesses and people the option of generating their own power, and of selling excess power back to a distribution utility. Of course, to a limited extent this is already available, but it will become universal, as solar spreads all across the planet, spreading like wildfire, similar to how the Internet proliferated in the short timeframe of only a couple of decades. This is the likely future for the world as solar power generation turns into a cottage industry and as the behemoth power plants of the world splinter apart into distribution networks.
Over the past five years, solar costs, i.e., the price of photovoltaic modules, fell 60%, which for the first time puts solar power on a Levelised Cost of Energy (LCOE) competitive basis with conventional energy. This remarkable achievement over such a short period of time brings solar to the forefront of an expanding list of locations around the world.
Lower solar costs are propagative, but what if it were also possible to put photovoltaic efficiencies on steroids? Meaning, goose ‘em up a bit.
The good news is: Photovoltaics can be put on steroids and goosed up a lot!
Scientists know that 40% of solar energy lies (unused) in the near-infrared region of the spectrum, and thus, conventional silicon-based solar cells cannot harness it, thereby missing 40% of the sun’s energy. However, MIT researchers are working on new carbon solar cells that will capture the whole enchilada of sunlight’s energy.
As such, it is the equivalence of putting solar cells on steroids, according to research at MIT.3 “It’s a fundamentally new kind of photovoltaic cell,” says Michael Strano, professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT.
That new photovoltaic cell is a game changer, and it alone will rocket solar power to new heights very quickly.
The potential behind these revolutionary developments is the kind of stuff that environmentalist’s dreams are made of. As the solar industry seriously takes hold, growing by leaps and bounds, this enormous new industry will provide jobs galore as the world interconnects via solar power, similar to the nearly exponential growth of the Internet.
By way of contrasting and comparing the passage of time, when the Beatles originally sang “Here Comes the Sun,” nobody knew of the word Internet. But, within a couple of decades it sprang forth and now Internet powers worldwide commerce. Solar power can accomplish as much, but faster.
Worldwide Growth in Solar
Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) claims installations of new solar PV capacity will hit 36.7 GW in 2013, or up over 20% from 2012.
“The dramatic cost reductions in photovoltaics, combined with new incentive regimes in Japan and China, are making possible further, strong growth in volumes,” Jenny Chase, BNEF, head of solar analysis.
And, worldwide installations are taking off. For example, India recently announced they surpassed their 2013 goal by adding one gigawatt (GW) of solar to the grid. Thus, the total amount of solar energy connected to India’s grid is now 2.18 GW, which is an astonishing increase of 85% in one year.
It was only four years ago when India launched the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission to reduce fossil fuel dependence. The country hopes to raise solar to 20 GW by 2022 and plans for a massive solar substation at Sambhar Lake to deliver those results. The project will cover 20,000 acres and require 5,000 workers to build.
Meanwhile, other countries are coming on fast, like Germany, the world’s largest solar player, with 32 GW installed, and the U.S., which doubled capacity in 2013, Italy, China, and Japan are all part of the exclusive ‘ten’ club, each with more than 10 GW. Meanwhile, China has set a goal of 35 GW by 2016.
Moreover, conventional oil & gas companies are getting in on the act. Total Petroleum (Fr.) purchased a majority interest in SunPower in 2011. SunPower (est. in 1985) is the outfit that sent solar panels into outer space on the NASA Pathfinder in 1997. Last year, SunPower was selected to build a $200 million solar plant (86 megawatt power for 45,000 households) in Prieska, South Africa.
It is highly probable that oil & gas companies will get increasingly involved in ever-bigger ways over the coming years. They have deep pockets and have been known to “buy a good thing” when they see it. Plus, they have no choice in the matter. Otherwise, scores of smaller companies, as well as powerful high techs, will take up the charge of this mushrooming industry, leaving the ole, archaic fossil fuel companies “holding the bag,” i.e., rusting refineries and corroding drill rigs and pipelines.
Auxiliary Power: Boosting Solar Beyond Previous Limitations
Solar’s biggest obstacle has always been: “What if the sun’s not shining?”
Similar to the lithium ion batteries offered for Tesla automobiles, a number of companies, like Tesla, BYD, and Bosch, are offering a new generation of storage systems to capture the power generated by home solar systems. Thus, a home with solar turns into an all-in energy source, night and day, rain or shine.
At the same time, a home solar system with battery storage is good for the utility grid. Here’s why: Solar produces power intermittently, surging in and out of the system; however, with lots of battery storage in the overall system, the surging is leveled off by a substantial degree.
And, on an industrial scale, in Seville, Spain, as of a few months ago, 27,000 homes started receiving electricity 24/7 from a remarkable new Concentrated Solar Power facility, Gemasolar, which utilizes molten salt to store heat to run the plant when the sun does not shine.
Now, therefore, so forth, and so on: If only scientists could come up with an easy-access delivery system of electricity, for example, something magical, the outlook would be extraordinarily bright.
Well, it just so happens that magic is in the air as scientists are already working on wireless electricity. It is truly David Copperfield Magical kind of stuff.
Your electric toothbrush is charged via a magnetic field, wirelessly, as power is transmitted through the magnetic field from the charger to your toothbrush. Now, apply that same principle to electricity transmission for everything – Voilà!
Wireless delivery of electricity may be coming in the near future. Electricity exists as a magnetic field. If it can be properly channeled, it can be sent wirelessly.
Based upon research at MIT, a company in Watertown, Massachusetts named WiTricity uses magnetic resonance on an experimental basis to move power wirelessly. Other companies like Intel and Samsung are putting money into research of the technology. And, reportedly, Toyota plans to test a wireless charging station for plug-in cars.
Accordingly, the worldwide potential is endless as solar interconnects, providing wireless electricity, and the world hums, whilst carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are dramatically cut back to reasonable levels.
Hopefully, this best of all worlds scenario comes to fruition in the near future because climate change is on a precipice of unsustainability and instability that risks abrupt climatic disasters, overhanging the entire planet, e.g., an abrupt crash of the Pine Island Glacier (raising sea level one-half inch) in West Antarctica, which, in turn, could ripple-effect a major destabilization of the entire Western Antarctic Ice Sheet, equivalent to 10-13 feet of sea level rise.4
The Holy Grail of Energy
But, the magic does not stop with wireless electricity beaming around the planet.
Here’s the showstopper: Plans have already been laid out to seamlessly provide the entire world with unlimited clean energy directly from the moon.
Shimizu Corporation in Japan has laid out its plans for the world’s energy solution.
Shimizu’s plan will be the Holy Grail for the planet’s energy requirements, as it intends to build a giant belt of solar panels around the moon’s equator, using solar cells at power-generation facilities built on the lunar surface. In turn, the electricity is converted into microwave and laser power for beaming to earth. (“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” — Albert Einstein.)
Tele-operated robots from earth will conduct construction of the lunar power station, dubbed LUNA RING, expecting to start construction by 2035.
All of which goes to show that watching Star Trek, which debuted in 1966, over these past decades has been an experience in reality TV.
- Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change, Anticipating Surprises, (Prepublication Version), National Research Council of the National Academies, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., December 2013. [↩]
- Ramez Naam, “The Exponential Gains in Solar Power per Dollar.” [↩] [↩]
- David Chandler, MIT News Office, “All-Carbon Solar Cell Harnesses Infrared Light,” MIT news, June 20, 2012. [↩]
- G. Durand, et al., “Retreat of Pine Island Glacier Controlled by Marine Ice-Sheet Instability,” Nature Climate Change, doi: 10.1038/nclimagte2094, Jan. 12, 2014. [↩]