t some level, most forms of renewable, sustainable energy likely to power our future are derived directly, or indirectly, from photons of sunlight. But the discoveries and innovations now could change everything about how we collect, store and distribute energy. Let’s hope we have the courage to give them a chance. The forerunners of the necessary technology are already in our midst: nanoparticles that collect and convert energy; super-efficient and “smart” photovoltaic panels that adjust to shadows self-optimize and self-repair; “organic” solar technology that turns algae into power producers; affordable geothermal systems that replace heavy-handed air conditioning; hydroelectric plants; wind turbines. The list goes on and on. Of course, we first have to survive the potentially apocalyptic threat of runaway CO2 and climate change. Perhaps the biggest obstacles to this goal are not technological. They’re psychological. As Alexis Madrigal points out in his romp through alternative energy history, Powering the Dream.
This isn’t the first time we’ve been offered a new path to cleaner, greener energy. He describes how the solar dreams of the 1970s were underfunded and ultimately abandoned, despite the fact that in one of the rare cases where real money was invested in solar PV technology (ironically by Esso—later Exxon), the price of panels dropped by about 90 percent in just three years. The big decision point now, he says, has to do with scale. At the federal level, politicians like to think in broad strokes, favoring centralized power production on a large scale—market-driven solutions pushed by profit motives and number crunching. But as if in counterpoint to this “bigger is better,” perspective, another current is rising. It’s an idea shared by both Henry David Thoreau and E.F. Schumacher: Small Is Beautiful.
Ultimately, if humanity survives the next few decades, our energy portfolio will change dramatically, becoming ever more fragmented, as technology becomes smaller and more efficient. Producing energy, as you’ll read, is likely to get easier and cheaper. But unless the technological change happens in tandem with behavior change, we won’t live to reap the benefits of the “ecotopia” proposed by The Celestia Project.
Caveat: Cheaper Energy is Only Step One
The cover of Steve Hallet’s book, The Efficiency Trap, shows a planet made of glass that is less than half full of liquid. It’s an apt metaphor for his bleak perspective on our chances of surviving Earth’s tipping point. Hallett’s thesis is simple: Whenever human beings discover new ways to create energy more efficiently, they inevitably ratchet-up consumption to take advantage of the new bounty, resulting in the use of even more resources. This process, he says, happens in every sector of the economy, including homebuilding.
Air Conditioners May Seal Our Fate
Window-sized air conditioners are becoming ever more prolific, causing worldwide environmental damage.
According to The New York Times
, “Leading scientists in the field have just calculated that if all the equipment entering the world market uses the newest gases currently employed in air conditioners, up to 27 percent of all global warming will be attributable to those gases by 2050.”
We need to transition to other methods of cooling our homes and our bodies. Here are a few current and prototype alternatives:
Quiet Whole-House Fans
. These air-moving units are quieter and more efficient than their predecessors. Geothermal Systems
. Although a bit pricier to install upfront, the lifelong costs of these systems are far more reasonable than multiple window air conditioning units, and do less harm to the atmosphere. Wrist-Mounted Sensors
. Why cool a whole room when a wrist-mounted device can make you feel cool? Retractable Awnings
. Low tech and affordable, retractable awnings protect windows from sun when and where you need them. Mini-Split Heat Pumps
. In the greenest homes being built today, ductless mini-split systems are taking the place of inefficient window units. This report
suggests how to improve air conditioner efficiency (a modest 10 percent), but ignores damaging impacts of the proliferation of these devices. This article
addresses some of the environmental impacts of air conditioning and small-scale solutions: (Environmental Impact of Air Conditioners
“In heating your home, you may invest in insulation to reduce heat losses in the winter, a seemingly obvious example of energy conservation, but, even in this benign example, there is likely to be a rebound. People with well-insulated homes and lower heating bills are likely to keep their houses a little warmer. Cheaper and more efficient insulation allows us to build bigger houses with cheaper materials. A more efficient furnace would appear to conserve energy, but here again, efficiency improvements tend to make it more cost efficient to build bigger homes. What efficiency conserves with one hand,”it consumes with both hands.”
If Hallett is right about the human tendency to take advantage of efficiency gains by using them elsewhere, how do we break the cycle? By linking gains in efficiency to changes in behavior. By rewarding real conservation and penalizing overconsumption. With carrots and sticks. And taking a hard look at technologies that are not worth the price of admission.
Using renewable energy as an example, every gain in the efficiency of a solar panel must be accompanied by, at the very least, a freeze in the level of consumption of the end user. Even better would be a “complementary” response. In other words, as solar cells become twice as efficient, refrigerators match them, using half as much electricity. This may require more than a simple market approach. It may mean mandating limits on energy consumption of any appliance, the same way water flow through faucets and showers is now controlled. This will require cooperation from manufacturers and trade groups, but without it, real progress on conservation may be impossible.
Is Solar Up to the Job?
Is Solar up to the Job? As we mentioned above, most sources of planetary power are derived from the sun. Solar cells have their detractors, of course—not because people don’t like the technology, but simply because solar is seen as too costly, too limited in power capacity for large-scale use. These weaknesses, however, are vanishing rapidly in the face of rapid innovation. Steve Hallett argues that “the American economy consumes more energy than is fixed from the sun over the entire landmass of the lower forty-eight states.” Whether or not you agree with his math, the equation is likely to change within a couple of years, if not a few months.
Solar cell efficiency is on a bell curve upward. For example, scientists at the German Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems just created a solar cell that’s 44.7 percent efficient, far above the average 15 percent efficiency of most commercially available panels. It’s not mainstream yet, but it shows where things are going.
Tom Murphy, associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, says criticism of solar photovoltaics tends to be overly strident. Even the most common PV panels, he argues, stand up well to most other energy alternatives. A corn field growing biofuel, for example, has an efficiency of 1.5 percent if you look at the actual wattage likely to be produced per square foot. The average automobile converts gas to energy at about 25 percent—no great bragging rights there. And a coal-fired power plant fueling an electric car operates at about 35 percent efficiency.
Murphy’s analysis includes an assessment of the total square footage of solar needed to power a home. “At 15 percent efficiency, our square meter captures and delivers 0.75 kWh of energy to the house. A typical American home uses 30 kWh of electricity per day, so we’d need 40 square meters of panels. This works out to 430 square feet, or about one-sixth the typical American house’s roof (the roof area of a two-car garage).” (from http://tinyurl.com/ckjfr4x) Much of our national power load, of course, comes from outside the residential housing industry. But his point is a good one. Solar already can easily supply the power needed for most housing.
Forecasting the Energy Mix
Most economists, investors and industry groups don’t foresee rapid change in the world energy portfolio. Instead, they contend that various pressures, including population growth, demand for personal vehicles and the booming economies of China, India and other “rising” nations, will by necessity lead to continued reliance on oil and coal as primary sources of the world’s energy, at least as far as mid-century. We think the pundits are wrong, for three reasons. First, they’re underestimating the impacts of emerging solar technology, as biotech, robotics and micro-engineering converge. Second, they don’t understand the Millennial world view. A culture of environmental awareness will soon become a driving force in the economies of affluent nations, as Millennials come to dominate the work force. And finally, climate change is likely to deliver a succession of paradigm-shattering shocks to the status quo in coming decades.
Any attempt to take a “business-as-usual” approach to the use of polluting energy sources will create tremendous friction between nations and also among generations. An obvious way to avoid such dystopian scenarios will be to through a rapid, orderly shift to clean, renewable energy sources that do not deplete food and water supplies or require oversight from large, centralized governments. The effort will need to be global, however, not nationalistic and isolationist. Efforts to control and dominate access to innovation are likely to backfire.
Here’s where we think things may be headed over the next century:
Loser: Nuclear Power
Barring the remote possibility that the controlled fusion can be harnessed in coming years, it’s likely that the fission-based nuclear power industry will continue to decline into gradual obsolescence. Already marked for decommissioning in Germany, and under siege in Japan, nuclear’s greatest weaknesses may not be (as its advocates protest) the lack of public understanding of the technology, but its scale. Towns don’t build nuclear plants. As David Indiviglio wrote recently in The Atlantic, “One of the big problems with nuclear power is the enormous upfront cost. These reactors are extremely expensive to build. While the returns may be very great, they’re also very slow. It can sometimes take decades to recoup initial costs. Since many investors have a short attention span, they don’t like to wait that long for their investment to pay off.” Add to that cost the ongoing need for monitoring, inspection and even military protection, and it seems that the “nuclear nanny state,” is an idea that may not stand the test of time.
Winner: Hydroelectric Power
Tried and true, small- and medium-scale hydroelectric plants continue to operate in much of the U.S. Hydropower currently accounts for as much as 90 percent of the world’s renewable energy, although that dominance is on the decline, as other sources come online. Newer hydro designs solve some of the problems with fish migration and species diversity, so it’s likely they will remain a viable core energy supply throughout the transition to new solar products. The prospects for future hydro, however, are rather limited, compared with solar PV. According to Unesco’s World Water Assessment, the planet’s total potential hydroelectric potential is only about three times higher than what’s already being harnessed.
The use of crops, such as corn and soy, to create fuel for cars should automatically raise some red flags. Put simply, creating biofuels is a short-term replacement for increasingly costly fossil fuels, but it’s social and environmental costs are unsustainable and unacceptable. Using leftover fryolater fuel from fast food joints is one thing—growing corn to make fuel to run cars is “biofoolish,” as Hallett puts it.
Loser: Wind Power
Although they’re likely to remain part of the transitional energy portfolio for at least 20 years, we foresee a gradual decline in utility-sized wind turbines. Again, the problem is scale. They won’t be able to compete with the fast-moving innovation of solar PV, because of their need for regular maintenance and the unpredictability of winds. These are limitations that can’t be innovated away. Small-scale wind has seen a decline in sales recently, so the writing may be on the wall for them, as well. One possible way forward could come in the form of nearly frictionless vertical turbines that can be operated without vibration and noise. These could open up the market to new regions and end users.
Winner: Central Power Towers
Also known as “heliotopic” power plants, these systems are relatively new to the power generation scene. An array of solar panels heats up the central towers, which are filled with liquid salt. The heated salt then flows to power some steam generators. Several proposed plants were put on hold recently, as solar PV prices dropped, but in urban areas, especially, the technology may survive solar’s success. New plants can operate at about 30 percent efficiency. Keep in mind that this is still solar power, and that is double the efficiency of most solar panels on the market. For a city looking for a fast, clean and reliable power source, a heliotopic system may be just the right investment.
Loser: Tidal Power
Expensive to build and expensive to maintain, only a few tidal electrical generators exist, to date. Most are the “barrage” type that extract power as tides flow in and out of inland basins. They’re known to put strain on local ecosystems, although newer technologies might reduce that damage. While some pundits forecast the growth of this industry, it has some of the same problems that nuclear does—namely, simply building one requires a huge budget. While not yet “dead in the water,” tidal power will need some sharp innovation to keep pace with the rise of solar, if it’s to be considered as a dollar-for-dollar energy alternative.
Winner: Geothermal Heating and Cooling
About 15 percent of total energy use can be attributed to space heating and cooling and water heating for residential and commercial buildings. While the only completely “green” technology for accomplishing this is solar, it’s often difficult to achieve high enough temperatures for space heating with solar alone. Geothermal, on the other hand, can pre-heat or pre-cool spaces significantly, with very low embodied energy, other than manufacture of the initial components. Run it with a solar-powered pump and it becomes a net-zero-energy source for heating or cooling a structure. We’re expecting to see huge growth in demand for this technology, as awareness about its many benefits become common knowledge.
Big Winner: Solar Photovoltaic
Nearly every day, new discoveries are announced. A spray-on coating for windows that turns them into translucent solar power panels. A chemical hurdle crossed that makes possible “paint-on” solar cells. Soon, every building exterior will become a solar collector. Clothing that collects solar power and keeps your personal electronics at full charge. Solar roadways. Solar vehicles. And eventually, all of it will be invisible: molecular level technology that simply captures both the direct and ambient light of the sun (or moon, or street lamp).
As this story goes to press, a new study just hit my desk. Workers at the A*Star Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology added tiny, tubular holes to PV panels. These “light holes” allow much more sunlight to be collected than conventional panels, greatly increasing the efficiency of a solar panel—without increasing its cost. According to PVBuzz.com, solar is already overtaking nuclear power in the U.S. as the renewable energy of choice: “The Renewables Global Status Report (GSR) states that new installations increased by 32 percent (39 MW) during 2013, totaling 139 GW of installed capacity.”
Barring a major breakthrough in energy creation, solar is likely to remain in the ascendant well into our future. A natural progression from wireless charging is to put the actual energy source closer to the chargers—and photovoltaic technology could be a great way to do this.
If PV panels can be built to be durable, replaceable and affordable, they could actually “become” the road. That’s exactly what a company called Solar Roadways is working on. Now into their second prototype, they’re creating a mom and pop version of solar roadways that is clever and cool. One of the things I like best about solar road technology is that it could be built with modular components, with power lines and communications cables underneath or next two it.
Consider the advantages:
Phasing-Out Asphalt. Less use of costly, environmentally polluting asphalt (http://tinyurl.com/ohkj7kv), with potential for use of recycled composites and plastics.
Less Demolition. Need new cables or sewer pipe repairs? No problem, just pop off a few solar road panels and go to work. Pressure on C&D landfills could decrease dramatically.
Durable Grid. Widespread use of the panels would not only power cars, but could be tied into existing grids, creating a massive, resilient new source of power nationwide. GB