I am a solar energy enthusiast. The energetic parts of the universe are clustered around stars. We sit here on this dusty ball of rock and water, heated continually by the Sun. The difference between when we face toward our local star and when we face away from it is — in the most literal sense — day and night. Our lives on Earth are already solar-powered; the plants (and plant-eating animals) we eat get their energy from photosynthesis. The trees and other biomass we have used for energy for much of our history, as well as the fossil fuel reserves we use today are forms of stored solar energy from earlier organisms that died and were trapped under the Earth. Wind energy and tidal energy are perturbations of dynamical systems heated by solar energy. Even the nuclear energy we use extracted from fissionable uranium and plutonium is stored from supernovae in early stars that exploded and pushed the complex elements — including the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen in our bodies — out across the universe.
It is not so much a question of whether we use solar energy, but whether we use direct solar energy, or some derivative form. As our civilisation has advanced and grown, we have had to tap into larger sources to meet the demand for cheap and easily-accessible energy. Our technological sophistication and understanding of basic physics and chemistry has had to grow with our energy hunger to take advantage of different forms of energy; windmills, steam engines, oil refineries, cold water reactors and photovoltaic panels, and so on. In the long run, it is a mathematical certainty that to sustain our civilisation at present levels, or to grow and increase energy consumption we must transition to renewable energy both because quantities of fossil fuels and star fuels like uranium and plutonium on Earth are finite.
The availability of direct solar energy on Earth dwarfs other energy sources, including renewable energy:
All that is necessary in the long run for renewable energy sustainability is that the level of output exceeds the level of input enough to provide a reliable energy source. Even at current solar efficiencies — and thus assuming that the technology won’t improve — photovoltaic solar generates seven times more energy than it takes to generate:
While this is not currently as good as oil or natural gas or coal, it already beats shale oil and biofuels. The beautiful thing about solar energy is that there is so much of it that the technology does not have to be greatly efficient. And prices are falling and efficiencies are improving. While some renewables like wind and hydroelectric are more efficient, they are not abundant enough to even cover the bulk of our energy needs today. In the short run, combined with hydroelectric and wind and nuclear there is a real basis for long-term renewable energy sustainability. To smooth the transition, renewable technology needs investment and development.
In the long run, while obviously renewables still cost a lot more than non-renewables in the marketplace, but we have already established that that cannot last forever. Even the supply of uranium is limited. While we may discover superior technologies like cold fusion, we should be completely prepared for the eventuality that we don’t discover a better technology. While photovoltaic solar remains the largest and most long-term source of available energy — and thus the best hope for the continuation and expansion of sustainable human civilisation — it should receive a bulk of funding and development, and we should assume that in the very long run it should meet the bulk of our energy needs. There are still challenges like solar energy storage, but these challenges are being surmounted with improved battery technologies, and improved distribution technologies such as microgrids.
Of course, if the photovoltaic solar price trend known as the Swanson Effect that has seen solar fall over 99% in cost since the 1970s continues, then solar will reach and exceed parity with other energy sources and be crowned the winner by the market based simply on low cost. After all, solar energy is superabundant compared to the alternatives, so it would not be at all surprising for it to become the cheapest. But even if the Swanson Effect does not play out and solar does not become super-cheap, direct photovoltaic solar is extremely likely to play a major role in continued human civilisation on this planet and elsewhere.
Another great post, John. You’re kicking ass, which is an inspiration to me.
At Arizona State University (where I work as an engineering professor) we’ve created a center for PV research called QESST that is intended to push on that Swanson Effect.
My own specialty is sustainable engineering, which integrates economic, social and environmental concerns. I’ve asked our grad students to build out a new site called the QESST interactive online network (QESSTion). You can find it at qesstion.wordpress.com, although it’s barely filling out so far.
May I have your permission to repost your article on the QESSTion site (with credit to you, of course and links back to this site)?
Also, I want to know if you have an interest in contributing to QESST scholarship as some sort of affiliated scholar. It would be groundbreaking for us to bring in a blogger from the UK into a DOE/NSF funded center in the USA and i want to figure out how to do that.
The first step would likely be inviting you to deliver a short seminar via live video feed.
Are you interested?
Yes you can republish my article. I am interested in your proposal.
Solar is the future [and the past, for that matter]. I designed and built an earth-sheltered passive solar home in Colorado in the early eighties. Although the pay-back on this particular house was [is] about 300 years!, it was a wild home [and worked incredible well].
People used to design buildings with sun/shade/ventilation in mind until air conditioning brought forth an era of architectural mass stupidity. Hopefully, people will return to good functional/fundamental design.
Even beyond solar, people will eventually be able to tap into all other mass sources [as we all know that E=mc^2]. That’s a shitload of energy considering the amount of mass floating about the Universe.
Sounds extremely interesting. I imagine the payback time could be vastly decreased today. But even at 300 years, if the house is serviced properly and upgraded it is possible to hit payback. Here in England there are many houses over 300 years old.
The payback period had a great deal to do with my personal naivety, being a young man in my 20’s. Just the same, solar is a concept that can work really well when implemented on a scale commensurate with specific micro-environmental/climatic factors.
I would encourage anybody out there considering building/modifying a home to look into the various way you can tap into the sun. Even in a country like the UK, you can use solar perhaps to warm your tea :].
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Your timescale is – lethally! – wrong. We are short of resources, which include land and water. And when a critical one is running out, humans fight. Humans WAR! Which wastes what is left of the resource we’re fighting for. IF we have a few decades we don’t have many to find a fix.
Solar farms IN SPACE solve every problem except affording them; Even this is possible, if we were prepared to work together in a global endeavour. History does not bode well.
War and violence is decreasing all around the world according to the data Steven Pinker used to write Better Angels. So your thesis that violence will rise due to resource shortages may be very wrong.
You went from being an interesting blogger to a full libtard. What happened?
How will new solar ever be better than condensed solar over millions of years (coal, oil, gas, etc.) I’m with you that once we exhaust these, we can do some solar nonsense. But without subsidies its decades off. Why tax people TODAY to develop some garbage they will never benefit from in their life times? If you like solar so much, YOU FUND IT!
Look at the diagram. There’s much more solar energy hitting the Earth each year than there are fossil fuels from the whole of history. That’s why it has the potential to be better.
Go and read about the Swanson effect. It appears to work very similarly to Moore’s Law. You sound like a guy in the mid 80s saying that mass computing is decades away.
I am personally funding some solar development. Moreover, in the medium term private business will flock to solar energy. There’s a hell of lot of profit to be made.
If you want to talk about subsidies, fossil fuels get vastly more dollars of subsidies than renewables… http://rwer.wordpress.com/2012/10/10/775-billion-fossil-fuels-subsidies-in-2012-thats-more-than-100-per-human/
Libertarians should love solar energy. http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/solar-is-libertarian-nuclear-is-statist.html
Moore’s Law is a technological phenomenon. Swanson’s Effect sounds more like a production phenomenon, i.e. being a function of industrial capacity and similar to the production life cycle of almost any product.
You don’t get a 99% drop in costs as a production effect. It’s technological — http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/03/16/smaller-cheaper-faster-does-moores-law-apply-to-solar-cells/
You went from being an interesting blogger to a full libtard. What happened?
Maybe he took a good hard look at the evidence.
But without subsidies its decades off.
More like half a decade. Also depends heavily on the location. In desert locations it’s already economical.
I have to agree with you on the use of fossil fuels while we have the resources, as I am a carbon induced climate change skeptic.
We should be using them as much as possible and funding research into other means. I run solar power on my offsite cabin, and the big problem everybody forgets is battery storage. This is the cost. For example. For the cost of the battery, the fuel equivalent will last longer than the battery life before replacing.
So libertarians can’t talk about energy? To be cool with you, one has to show proper ignorance of EROI? AFter WW2, oil was $1.60 a barrel, now its like $109/barrel. What do you propose to do when fracking and tar sands is the only game in town and the price is $250/barrel? What’s wrong with trying to diversify energy sources?
At our IB research house, we forecast that the cost of solar energy will reach par with the cost of non-renewables by the 2015~16 time frame. Then an explosive uptake of solar should take place, driving down the price of solar further. Only problem with solar as far as l can gather is that you need non-renewables as a back up for when the ‘sun don’t shine’. So you need massive standby capacity, which is expensive to maintain.
Or better batteries….
To be honest, in the medium term I see nuclear covering the base load, and other sources scaling. But in the long run with batteries…
There is not enough lithium to do this, and lead will become as expensive as gold if used in mass storage systems.
If solar worked, it wouldnt need subsidy, and remember, the subsidy aint going to designing newer and better panels, its going to mass produce the crap we have now.
Battery backup is a complete none starter, but hydro, pumped or otherwise could pickup a lot of the slack.
The problem is of course, we have played fantasy too long, failing to replace old plant and relying on “green solutions” that solve nothing.
The UK is now reliant on backup diesel generators, and our energy costs are going to explode.
“All that is necessary in the long run for renewable energy sustainability is that the level of output exceeds the level of input enough to provide a reliable energy source.”
Did no one ever explain the time value of money to you?
Or in this case the time value of energy?
In 5 billion years the sun will die…
If you want to talk about subsidies, nonrenewables receive vastly more subsidies than renewables in total — http://rwer.wordpress.com/2012/10/10/775-billion-fossil-fuels-subsidies-in-2012-thats-more-than-100-per-human/
Swanson’s Law works very, very, very much like Moore’s Law. The effects so far are real — a 99% drop in costs since the 1970s. Most people with a computer in their home never saw the coming of mass computing. Same thing is true with mass photovoltaics.
And how about the internet? The internet works, and that started with a lot of subsidies.
Batteries and microgrids and multi-sourced energy make this complaint totally irrelevant.
Or the sun is dying now and that’s while we are like a frog in a warming pot.
They just tell us lies, like they do in other matters!
ALL energy is subsidized. What’s the military, if not a trillion dollar subsidy for the oil companies?
Subsidies aren’t the point. The question is what are you going to use the rest of the affordable oil to get done? Drive to go buy plastic shit at the store or use it to jumpstart some kind of new energy paradigm?
Nothing lasts forever, so five billion years would be a pretty damned good run.
Batteries are lagging massively – my LTE smartphone battery last only 12 hrs with limited usage. That being said, ESS (http://www.samsungsdi.com/storage/energy-storage-system.jsp) looks like part of the answer along with smart grids. Korea has recently mandated that large corporations install ESSs. Also, we have two pilot smart grids underway (http://smartgrid.jeju.go.kr/eng/). I wish that the UK was leading and not lagging the such next-generation domains.
I wonder what the EROI for photovoltaic looks like after you factor in storage and regulation so that it is as useable/dependable as gas, oil or coal.
Climate change scientists tend to conveniently forget about that when they are developing their models. I have a scientist friends and he says any scientist facing a budget cut can rework the numbers back to a desired paper.
The problem isn’t energy, it is balance.
People only look at the financial atrocity that has taken place over the past half century or so instead of what the multiple effects of bringing all this income forward has created [what debt is].
One of the things it has created is a human world completely out of balance. Using the U.S. as an example, debt has allowed the proliferation of every damn thing. As an example, take housing.
Debt allowed the average home size in the U.S. to more than double in a short time span.** [1400sf to 2700sf from 1970 to 2009] This doubling in size means an increase in everything associated, materials, energy, etc.
The amount of economic progress must remain in balance with the available savings to invest in such. This is what keeps everything working in proper balance. If you all of a sudden bring decades of income forward [debt], the natural feedback mechanism and pricing stops are dislocated, and the things go f******* crazy.
THIS is the primary reason that I say that DEBT IS EVIL. But, there are several thousands of other reasons, as well.
What the sages of the past have taught is that one must stay in balance [in all things]. If you do not, then balance will be imposed upon you from without. It’s as simple as that.
Right on, Imp old friend. Houses too big. Autos and engines too big. Overused space-heating/cooling in both instead of clothing.
And “balance will be imposed” on our descendents as well –what a legacy!
DG, what’s with people? The think there’s not enough energy, when the real problem is there’s not enough common sense!
I too am excited about solar.
May I say that in these discussions it is important to recognize that there is currently NO substitute that remotely compares to oil right now (e.g, cars, planes, heavy machines). So when you say “it should receive a bulk of funding and development”, one should note that this means let’s use a bigger portion of the remaining (affordable) oil to jump start renewables rather than driving back and forth to the big box store, endless strip malls and work cubicles.
Storage systems are the weak link. Do we use huge lead acid batteries as a storage system. Whilst possible, can you imagine the cost of recycling and refurbishing these batteries.
I can survive on 12 volt, light TV, radio, video, DVD stereo, small fan, but when we need to do vacuuming, washing, microwaving or heating, the backup is not there. You need grid power.
People need access to peak power for short spurts. How do we solve this at night?
Storage is the holy grail. Smart grids help, but only so much.
Again, the problem is not energy, as EVERYTHING is energy.
The price of currently available energy sources should determine its usage, so being the highly intelligent creatures we purport to be, each one of us can simply USE LESS ENERGY.
There are no laws [yet] that state that you have to consume so much. Consume less, much less.
Although herein lies most people’s salvation, most want their cake and eat it too, just like the morons I see tooling down the 101 in their “Hybrid” monster SUV’s brought to us by Fraud, Government Motors, and Toyota-san.
Playing catch-up here.
@ Aziz: (1) government (politically controlled) subsidies are, at best, dumb choices; at worst, Obama’s crony capitalism — quid pro quo bribery. (2) I continue to ask, “What/where the hell is all this billions of fossil fuels subsidy? Your “wordpress” reference merely acknowledges disagreement on the definition, while posting unsubstantiated numbers. (3) Bravo for not playing the fraudulent anthropomorphic carbon card.
@ Thos. P. Seager: “DOE”, the US government’s Dept. of Energy, has been compromised on carbon and other matters, and is not to be trusted. “NSF”, the US government’s National Science Foundation, may be also under the Obama administration.
My own overview: BUYER-choice and and SELLER-competition works; nothing else does. Privately-funded research, both corporate and philanthropic, and even patent law, help if not kidnapped by politics or ideology. The Manhattan Project and NASA’s space programs were/are rare exceptions, but let’s remember that the government was the customer/user. Similarly, military research and purchasing lead aircraft advancement; commercial advances (“technology transfer”) were paced by the market — passenger, airline, manufacturer.
Science is discovering nature’s potential — understanding photons (black magic for sure to this humble engineer!) and recovering seismic data under thick salt layers) are recent game changers. Technology is applying science for human benefit. But economics/choice/competition must determine who gets what, when and where.
“Technology is applying science for human benefit.”
Yeah, that’s what they want you to believe.
If this was truly the case, then human life would be completely absurd, as the present would always pale in comparison to the future.
Human reality is whole and complete in each moment, our potential to be content unaffected by technology or other time-sensitive measure.
Golly — is consumption really price-sensitive, or “elastic” in economist-speak? As transportation fuel becomes more expensive, will we confer, meet, shop, associate more by internet? Probably so, if left to individual choice/free markets, not government.
Don — try this:
What are “Energy Consumption Subsidies”?
Consumption subsidies; not subsidies on technology or development, but subsidies on extraction, transportation and consumption.
Via the IEA:
(See Aziz’s later post below quoting the IEA — which is NOT the Bureau of Standards, National Academy of Sciences, American Petroleum Institute, or other legitimate source of standards). The only fossil fuel subsidy I can recall is low motor fuel prices (below cost, or merely tax-free?) in Saudi Arabia, Mexico, etc. Has the IEA disclosed its criteria?
This is how you do solar in Australia!
Stuff the neighbours, they don’t pay your bills.
Sounds as though the gentleman is selling power into the grid. I say “power to him!” — or is it from?
When you think about it, our entire existence is courtesy of the sun. One might believe there would be a prescient lesson here [somewhere].
And it seems as if previous versions of our species kind of figured that out before all of this intelligence made us believe that we could do it better than Nature.
I say, “Bring back the Sun gods!!”
Next step is Deism
Solar is much cheaper than any form of fossil fuel. If fossil fuels are perceived to be cheaper, then only because of dishonest accounting.
Anybody driving a car is not being charged the cost of oxygen drawn
From the atmosphere. He or she is also not charged for dumping tons
Of emmissions into the atmosphere. If every car equipped with a
Combustion engine would be required to carry a tank of oxygen aboard as
Well as a tank to absorb emmissions, nobody would be driving ICE cars.
All cars would be electric. Electric cars running on a battery do not need
Any other input from the environment. The flow of electricity from and back
Into the battery is circular. No dumping of pollutants.
The discussion of solar energy can be honest only if the cost of pollution
Is properly taken into account.
It’s honest to consider pollution from sulfur, nitrogen, etc. compounds (the stuff that causes acid rain, asthma, etc.), but not carbon dioxide. This is the first I’ve heard of a tax/fine for oxygen consumption. How did the public* and private swindlers overlook this opportunity for profit and power*?!? When politicians and Mr. Happek figure out a way to stop inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, flora lovers and consumers will no doubt launch another fraud.
* Former Obama EPA Administrator declared carbon dioxide a “Toxic Gas”!
P.S. Awaiting improved solar efficiency and nuclear power rationality, most electricity is generated by burning fossil fuel.
John, take a look at this energy analysis. Consider the source, but still very interesting. Especially the graph on page 48 “Global fuel mix by decade”
Attaboys for Chris! Waaaay back in the late 1970s, I was DOE’s representative on the Marine Board of the National Academies of Science/Engineering. At that time, most of the Board’s discussions and publications focused on present and future technological problems in finding and producing OFFSHORE OIL & GAS, with government setting the agenda based on rising oil imports and inflation following the early 1970s Arab oil embargo, and with talent from major oil companies (including the president of Exxon Production Research Co. and Shell’s top E&P engineer), and from academia, consultancies, the API, and various related professions and industries.
Exxon’s and Shell’s annual “Outlook” publications were absolutely essential and absolutely trusted. And, to the best of my knowledge and belief, absolutely unbiased.
Thanks Don. Also, for those who don’t want to flip through the whole thing, page 42 is also really interesting and relevant to this discussion of energy sources. Even with rapid growth, renewable energy like solar will only make up a small fraction of the energy mix for years to come. It took oil 100+ years to grow to the level it has today. It is obvious that renewables like solar are growing in use, but I suspect it will take more than 100 years for them to rise to equal footing with fossil fuels.
I don’t agree with Exxon;s findings. The wealthy in the Third world are having fewer children in an attempt to disassociate themselves with the poorer masses. It is now a status symbol to have fewer children and devote huge resources to them “Princelings”
As a result the lower classes are catching the trend, and now the poorer people forced by economic need are doing so too.
Watch this demographic shift.
I wonder if Exxon’s fine print or future correspondence would reveal what demographic assumptions were used.
Humor me for a moment and consider the following:
Let’s say that there was no debt, that is, no bringing forward of future income, no consuming commodities to be paid for in the future [plus interest], no consuming energy to produce/power the commodities to be paid for in the future, that is, people actually living within their means.
Let’s say that people had to pay cash for whatever commodities/services/energy they wished to consume. Imagine how this might affect the size and scope of EVERYTHING in the marketplace, including energy.
THIS is the solution, THIS is the balance needed to bring consumption in equilibrium with available energy.
The idea that you can successfully bring anything forward from the future is fallacious. It is causing massive imbalances in EVERY facet of human life, including available energy sources.
Think about it.
Reblogged this on QESSTion.
The deal [truth] is quite elementary. It’s simply a matter of aligning one’s reality with such.
I know you people likely believe that I beat the debt thing to death, but once you begin to see the various [and insidious] ways that debt destroys individuals [and societies], you too, will think differently about this truly evil ruse.
And this has been known since the beginning of human history when [reportedly**] Org lent Glock three skexz at 10% interest resulting in Org repossessing Delia [Glock’s wife].
Reportedly, pandemonium broke-out and mankind took another major step down the short path to Hell.
Another Right-On!, Imp. Shakespeare: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be. A loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry”.
Your link honors family, the arch enemy of Jefferson’s “every form of tyranny over the mind of man”, including Communism, Nazism, theocracy, Orwell’s Big Brother, Marx-Obama socialism, and all governments who impose total state-rule over individuals and families.
impermanence – I waited to see what answers you got to your above proposition, but there were no takers. No need to humor you – you are absolutely correct. Irving Fisher calls it time preference (he really preferred the word “impatience”).
“The personal differences are caused by differences in at least six personal characteristics: (1) foresight, (2) self-control, (3) habit, (4) expectation of life, (5) concern for the lives of other persons, (6) fashion.
(1) Generally speaking, the greater the foresight, the less the impatience, and vice versa. In the case of primitive races, children, and other uninstructed groups in society, the future is seldom considered in its true proportions. This is illustrated by the story of the farmer who would never mend his leaky roof. When it rained he could not stop the leak, and when it did not rain there was no leak to be stopped! Among such persons, the preference for present gratification is powerful because their anticipation of the future is weak.”
Aziz said it before: people don’t want to wait and, according to Fisher, the poorer the person, the more impatient they are. They want (fill in the blank) and they want it now. And especially with housing and stocks, the first ones in are the ones who have made the money. Have they really taken a risk? Not at all – they had nothing to lose as you can’t bleed a stone when it all falls apart. They just walk away.
The poorer you are (generally, not all), the less you think of the future. It makes sense – your life depends on you focusing on the present.
Of course you’re right – people should be living within their means, not going into debt. This whole crisis was caused by excessive credit being doled out to people who should not have gotten it, and would have been better off in the long run not ever having gotten it.
Everything is thrown out of balance by this ridiculous behaviour.
Hope I’m not interrupting too often with applause, but backwardsevolution’s simple explanation [“This whole crisis was caused by excessive credit being doled out to people who should not have gotten it, and would have been better off in the long run not ever having gotten it.”] is right up there with Shakespeare’s, and is better than any I’ve used to decry the counterproductive features of the War on Poverty, public housing, Fannie & Freddie, welfare, food stamps, Obamacare, etc., etc.
The correction/solution is, of course, to return to old fashioned CHARITY (using our enormously increased resources to provide sufficient food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and job-training) to help THE NEEDY with “a hand-up not a permanent hand-out”. Even if we act timely to prevent bankruptcy/violent revolution, it will not be quick or easy for our Republic to accomplish this — not because of cost or doubtful payoff, but because of all the powerful vested interests! It must be done, like mobilizing for WW 2, by “grass roots” unity. Along the way, we must amend the Constitution for legality and clarity to allow TEMPORARY/TAPERING federal funding. The goal must be charity IN KIND — mess halls, basic groceries, thrift-shop clothing, dormitories and clinics — ultimately supported entirely by private voluntary contributions. Users must see themselves as beneficiaries of others’ generosity, as with current Salvation Army, United Fund agencies, food banks, religious and civic club charities, etc. Outside of courts of law, no one must be rewarded for demanding revenge, retribution, redistribution, etc. Gaming government “entitlement” programs, for income & benefits greater than available from working, must stop!
Preaching hate and disunity and practicing unconstitutional “Rob Peter to Pay Paul” redistribution, incitement to violence, vote fraud, family destruction, and apartheid, the power and profit gravy train of “Civil Rights” poseurs, along with their political, financial, and media enablers, must be derailed. We must return to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s preaching and practicing brotherly love and non-violence. He fought for and largely won CIVIL rights and equal OPPORTUNITY.
The bottom-line is that debt-creation is the most efficient paradigm in securing something for nothing [stealing others’ labor-value earned].
Simply observe what the wealthiest people are doing, and their your answers lie.
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