Solar Dissenters

Quite often, an energy doomer will turn up commenting that I am overlooking the fact that the expansion of the last century has been oil-fuelled and that this century’s new oil scarcity means that the party is over.

These people are wrong — for the same reason that Malthus (and all Malthusians) have always been wrong about everything — they have ignored the hard-to-measure variable of human ingenuity.

Back in September I remarked:

The solar energy hitting the earth exceeds the total energy consumed by humanity by a factor of over 20,000 times. More solar energy hits the world in a day, than we use in fifty years, at current rates.

Nuclear fission has massive unquantifiable tail risk. Solar power has almost zero tail risk.

Goodbye, Fukushima.

The dissenters soon appeared, screaming unintelligibly about solar panels not working at night. Not so.

A new high efficiency solar cell design that can use almost the entire solar spectrum has been announced by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

What this means is that the resulting solar panels will be able to generate power while it’s dark! What’s more, the new solar technology can be made using existing low cost methods already in operation.

A conventional solar cell captures light from one part of the spectrum. This new solar technology uses different materials stacked in layers, which use different wavelengths. Significantly, these include low and mid-energy wavelengths.

Human ingenuity triumphs again. The beauty of solar is that nothing can compete with its ubiquity, its reliability and its decentralisation. The growth of solar energy melds with nature: solar energy is by far the most abundant source of energy on our planet, far more so than hydrocarbons. Oil and gas are a necessary stepping stone to the solar revolution, nothing more. They are, ultimately, solar energy from aeons ago locked away beneath the earth.

Directly harnessing the power of the stars is an obvious step in the development of any sustainable terrestrial species.

None of this excuses the excesses of Solyndra, though. Solar will deploy as it becomes economically viable for it to do so, not via the assent of politicians.

With conventional energy prices continuing their century-long march upward, that will not be long.

15 thoughts on “Solar Dissenters

  1. John,
    I respectfully disagree with your opinion on how solar energy will replace oil etc. There are two problems in assuming human ingenuity will come up with some technology to replace oil:
    1. That the new technology will be ramped up rapidly enough to fill the energy void left by the decline of cheap oil. That is a BIG assumption because that means it not only fills up the energy gap left by cheap oil, but is able to satisfy future demand increases. Expecting some miraculous new technology (which, by the way, requires oil to manufacture) is overly optimistic. Sure, human needs drive innovation but to expect a conversion within 10-20 years to a new energy model…that’s stretching things.
    2. The only part of the demands of the oil based economy that may be met (to some degree) by an ‘ingenious’ energy source is the demand for cheap energy, nothing else. Oil is not just a source of energy, but a resource in itself. Having solar energy does not mean we can go back to manufacturing automobiles that require paint, plastics, rubber, electronics and countless other hydrocarbons to make, and even more to pave roads. And this is to say nothing about nearly every item in our life that uses hydrocarbons including food (through fertilizers etc), furniture, medical supplies, transportation…you name it.

    I am not citing sources as hopefully they can be found on other places, and I write this just as a comment and not a thesis. There is no RESOURCE (not energy source) that is in ANY state to take over from oil. Even IF massive and cheap solar energy utilization becomes ubiquitous, it has to offset the cost of drilling for ever more expensive oil that WILL be needed to make stuff using energy. Solar energy will not give us the plastics we are so addicted to!

    How many solar cells are we going to need to somehow make up for the oil shortage? Where is the energy to make those solar cells going to come from? How many houses are we going to cover up with solar cells to gather the energy? Just in Arizona, Texas etc? How do you maintain the infrastructure required to transport energy from the sunshine states to the North? Sure, these solar cells could manufacture at night. However, solar cells decline in efficiency with time. Where are the resources & energy to constantly manufacture all this solar cells going to come from? How do you maintain food production rates to satisfy our population when fertilizers are based off increasingly expensive oil?

    These are just a few of the logistical questions that I feel are overlooked resulting in an energy/resource model which belies reality.

    • Well, I actually agree with John. If solar energy is utilized successfully and if we can use like, just 1% of the energy we receive from the sun, I think our biological and chemical engineers folks would come up with a solution to produce hydrocarbons from plants, planktons, bacteria, or other organisms using that energy. After all, all the fossil fuel we use are ultimately from the solar energy and bacterial activities – why wouldn’t we be able to do it ourselves?

      • Unji,
        The reasoning you use is similar to what I mentioned when I said “Even IF massive and cheap solar energy utilization becomes ubiquitous, it has to offset the cost of drilling for ever more expensive oil that WILL be needed to make stuff using energy.”
        How does this apply to the solution you suggest? Making oil from bacteria, plankton sounds deceptively simple & straightforward, but:
        a.) The chemicals in each organism/compound have to be rearranged/broken down to make oil. From chemistry & atomic bond energies etc, you have to make oil by inserting nearly all the energy oil would give us into the process of making oil. Otherwise where would the energy in the oil come from?
        b.) So basically you transfer the energy FROM solar INTO the artificial oil. How bad is that? I leave it to you calculate the growth of our oil consumption, the efficiency of such a conversion process, and the fall in actual solar energy available for ENERGY needs. Of course, this is all assuming this conversion process comes about.
        c.) We do have something similar to this technology in biofuel (corn based) oil, where corn is grown in excess using oil based products and then harvested to make oil. The ROI on this is very low compared to oil (I believe around 2, as compared to oil which is ~20). This is without accounting for the ecological mess it creates.

        • The economics of Joule Unlimited suggests that this is very much a cost-efficient self-perpetuating process. You need pre-existing hydrocarbon infrastructure to set it up, but once it is in place it is self-perpetuating (and can keep large-scale solar functioning long-term, too). Do you honestly believe that out of all our hydrocarbon reserves, that we are stupid enough to NOT set aside enough to roll out a self-perpetuating hydrocarbon synthesis infrastructure (with carbon/methane scrubbing to prevent CO2 levels from rising too much)?

          Again, all of this technology exists today it’s just a matter of rolling it out. Ultimately, while I dislike Al Gore and most of the green lobby, they have pushed the meme that sustainability matters, and now the mass population is aware of sustainability. More importantly, sustainable technology can be highly profitable. (Solyndra, for example, went bankrupt because they couldn’t compete in a highly competitive, fast-changing marketplace not because “solar sucks” as a number of dullards have put it).

    • Zee, I think a rollout of this this addresses all of your concerns:

      Joule Unlimited, a Massachusetts based biotech company, says that they have developed genetically engineered bacteria that uses sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to create and secrete diesel fuel. The company is claiming that their bioreactors will be able to produce fuel on demand at a cost of about $30 per barrel of oil at a rate of about 15,000 gallons/acre/year.

      We only need a minimum of pre-existing hydrocarbons to build a self-perpetuating diesel-manufacturing/ solar/ carbon capture steady-state infrastructure. It’s a question of how quickly/slowly the market will roll such a thing out. I hope very quickly.

      Note that none of the “ingenuity” I refer to is not some future imagined ingenuity or technology: it is technology that exists today, but just has to be rolled out.

  2. Between 2001 and 2005, energy use increased 2.7% per annum.
    If that rate continues, in 184 years, we will use 1% of the energy we receive from the sun.
    In 356 years, we will use ALL of the energy of the sun.
    In about 1500 years, we will use the entire energy output of the galaxy.

  3. We live in an electric universe. Time to move beyond Einstein gravity universe and go back to Tesla. Energy is like the air we breath

  4. My opinion is that a robust view of the world should not take for granted the idea that human ingenuity will always save the world (we’re simply dealing with unknowns – reality works as it wants to work not as we want it to work). That’s all I wanted to say – nothing related to the specific technologies discussed here.

    • The key is that human ingenuity’s global failure would be a big black swan. Anyway, as regards this specific discussion all the ingenuity is done and accounted for, it’s just the nuts and bolts that are required.

  5. I don’t think this discussion can be complete unless you mention thorium reactors. Uranium reactors are a joke, really. They are useful for making nuclear bombs, of course. But if you really just want cheap electricity, then you need to be looking at thorium, and ditching uranium reactors.

    • About thorium — I have been thinking a lot about this lately. Yes — without cold fusion, or exotics I think it is very important to have a reliable backup for solar. The problem is Fukushimas. Thorium in a traditional cold water reactor is just as bad as uranium. In a molten salt reactor it appears to be much, much safer — but there isn’t enough empirical data to say for sure. Certainly deserves more research, and I am probably quite hopeful.

  6. Pingback: The New Cold War « azizonomics

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