24 March 2011

Bullish on solar power

Excerpts from an article at Big Think:
Currently, solar power supplies less than 1% of the world's energy needs, which has led many to disregard its future significance. Where they're wrong is that they fail to understand the exponential nature of technology, says eminent inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. Just like computer processing speed—which doubles every 18 months in accordance with Moore's law—the nanotechnology that drives innovations in solar power progresses exponentially, he says.

During his latest Big Think interview, Kurweil explained:
"Solar panels are coming down dramatically in cost per watt. And as a result of that, the total amount of solar energy is growing, not linearly, but exponentially. It’s doubling every 2 years and has been for 20 years. And again, it’s a very smooth curve. There’s all these arguments, subsidies and political battles and companies going bankrupt, they’re raising billions of dollars, but behind all that chaos is this very smooth progression."
So how far away is solar from meeting 100% of the world's energy needs? Eight doublings, says Kurzweil, which will take just 16 years. And supply is not an issue either, he adds: "After we double eight more times and we’re meeting all of the world’s energy needs through solar, we’ll be using 1 part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on the earth. And we could put efficient solar farms on a few percent of the unused deserts of the world and meet all of our energy needs."
I would be delighted if this comes true, but I'll believe it when I see it.  I remember purchasing shares in two solar energy companies in the 1970s, and both went bankrupt.  But technology has changed, as have the financial incentives.  I now notice solar panels on highway signs here in Wisconsin, and now one neighbor has a roof covered with panels. Fingers crossed for the future...


  1. The issue of getting it from the desert to where its needed is still a big one. While it could easily meet half the demand in areas close by (Vegas, Southern California, Phoenix) until we have the means to store it, it would still need to be supplemented by some other technology (probably nukes)

    Of course, at 2^8 more efficient, site-based solar would be far more economical, presuming costs remain in line with current costs. A distributed grid with thousands of producers would then be able to significantly reduce demands on traditional power plants during peak summer hours.

    But again, storage becomes the issue. We don't turn the lights on until the sun is pretty much closed for business. :)

  2. I hope this is accurate. I'll believe it when I see it. I recently did a cost-benefit analysis on installing solar panels on my house and found that it would take about 16 years to pay for itself. Considering I'm in a starter home, it doesn't make sense for me to risk recouping the costs in resale. I plan on installing panels on my next home which I will likely live in for 10+ years. I gives me a chance to recoup more of the costs. If everyone did a little bit to wean themselves off of unsustainable practices it would make a world of difference and we wouldn't need large, relatively inefficient government projects to achieve the same end.

  3. If Ray Kurzweil predicted it then I am ready to place bets against it.

  4. The house we are currently living in is part of a solar community. We have partial solar with everything in place to convert to full solar.

    Like Legal Eagle wrote, one has to calculate the costs and the rate of return.

    Two sets of friends have gone to full solar and one had a party on the roof celebrating the actual day of the switchover.

    In the desert, one of the problems is that the intense heat of the southwest is hard on the panels. Germany is really going forward in solar use, as well as passive houses that do not need heating/cooling systems.

  5. I think some bright kids from my alma mater, Rice University, are well on their way to making solar more efficient and cheaper (note: I was a history major, so I can claim no connection to this). As a favor to solar energy enthusiasts and goth teenagers everywhere, they developed the blackest material ever:


    By the way, they're also experimenting with nanotubes as an efficient way to bring electricity great distances. It isn't cheap at this point, but theoretically we could set up enormous solar fields in Nevada and Arizona and send the electricity generated to the East Coast without losing any juice. That's amazing to me.

  6. Kurzweil always cherry-picks information to back is assertions. Solar cells may get more efficient and less expensive, but storage systems to fix their peak-power limitations aren't following Moore's Law (which isn't a physical law but too often gets treated as one). One thing that damn sure isn't advancing along Moore's Law trends is our ability to govern ourselves in general and to make rational, effective energy policy in particular.

  7. I'd be ecstatic if we could wean ourselves off coal and oil and shift to solar - however, the mere fact that we have people living out in Vegas and Phoenix shows a large part of the problem - we're not willing to adapt to the earth. Seriously, living in the desert? And then you find you need AC? And water needs to be diverted from the Colorado River? What did people seriously expect?

  8. Jack of All Trades, take away A/C and 90% of the people who moved to the South and SW would move back north. As to the Colorado River water, that water previously had been going to California, until a LOOOONG drawn out federal court case ruled CA had to share it. So, the water was taken, long before AZ and NV and UT got theirs - which birthed their building booms.

    To all, yes I'd LOVE to see this, too, but they've been promising solar this and solar that since forever. T'ain't gonna happen. Kurzweil is an idiot - a hero of sorts, but it is all pipe dreams.

    Future energy will come from pebble-bed and Thorium MSR nuclear reactors, which are much MUCH safer than the existing U.S.-designed ones, and breeder reactors, which recycle 99%+ of the nuclear fuel. I'd love to say otherwise, but green technology is a lost loser.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...