Recently on LinkedIn Professor Phillip asked this question to the group:
“Could solar power energy be the future? Why?
Sunlight is the world’s largest energy source and the amount that can be readily accessed with existing technology greatly exceeds the world’s primary energy consumption. Sunlight is free, clean, endless and technically exploitable in most of the inhabited earth.
Whilst today in the UK, solar power is only economical in high value niche applications, growth is being achieved where subsidies are available. Projections show the potential to achieve economic viability for a significant generation share, particularly in emerging economies.
How do you think solar power will be integrated in the future?”
My answer was the following: Anytime a significant new energy source is proposed for mass consumption, it faces two huge barriers to entry.
The first is resistance from the current power empires (those in power will lose relevance and fight that loss) as well as resistance from much of the population who dislike change – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In this case, “if it ain’t broke” actually means “If it doesn’t directly affect me right at this moment, I don’t want to think about it”.
We need to create a road map so that everyone who is resisting can understand how they will benefit as change rolls out and what they will have to go through to get to the new situation. This means education on many fronts. Until such a plan (a road map) is created, solar power will continue to languish as a major energy source. Who will make this plan? The current power mavins will create the plan as soon as they figure out how to make more money with solar than they currently make. The every day person will begin demanding solar when their petroleum, natural gas, coal pain becomes too huge to ignore. (But we all know about the boiling frog scenario, so the every day person is less likely to be the solar driver.)
The other huge barrier to entry is infrastructure costs. Fossil fuel infrastructure is already in place and works well enough. Natural gas infrastructure is not mature, but is pretty well along it’s path. Solar (and wind, tidal and geothermal…) infrastructure is completely immature.
To make solar a viable and relevant energy source for the masses two things must happen. (1). Create an information road map for “the people” that details the delights of the new energy, the pain of the old energy sources, and a clear step-by-step and comfortable vision into their better future. Get the children involved because they have less stagnant mindsets. Demand is created when the potential change no longer seems threatening in any way. (2). Every step of the infrastructure development needs to be understood and problem-solved. For example, Solar generation will probably be distributed rather than centralized – that is a whole different business model. If banks are going to lend money for solar development at the same rates the petroleum industry receives, lenders must understand how a distributed energy source has more upfront costs but significantly fewer generation and distribution costs, dramatically less transmission investments and maintenance, plus fewer fines, less Superfund issues, etc. What are the costs – all of the costs – the exergy (the cradle to grave to reuse to grave to recycle to grave… cycle) – for every dollar and every joule of energy invested has an ROI. This is not just upfront costs anymore and it is no longer about what is the cheapest energy up front. HP Labs is doing some great work on this subject.
Three good questions to ask are, “How are we going to develop a distributed and integrated energy source when no one person / company / conglomerate will be able to capture the market? What are the social and financial implications and how does this fit in a capitalistic economy? How can we best compare energy side-by-side to figure out what is best for the nation?”
Oh yes, there are a few technical issues to be resolved as well, but we rock in that arena and it is only a matter of will, motivation, and ME prowess.