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Tags: armstrong | heinlein | moon

Yes, Solar Energy Can Beat Hydrocarbon Fuels

renewable energies for a solar powered home

(Alberto Masnovo/Dreamstime)

Paul F. deLespinasse By Tuesday, 26 February 2019 03:28 PM EST Current | Bio | Archive

Thirteen years ago I bought Travis Bradford's "Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry," published by the MIT Press.

The book predicted that solar energy would be brought in on a large scale, not so much by idealists and environmentalists as by purely economic factors.

Research and economies of scale would make photovoltaic cells cheaper while conventional sources became more expensive. Consumers would move to solar because it was cheaper.

"Solar Revolution" predicted that by 2020 the world's installed photovoltaic capacity would amount to 237 gigawatts. In 2006 total installed capacity was only 5 gigawatts, and a knowledgeable engineer to whom I loaned this book considered its prediction far too optimistic.

Actually, the prediction was too pessimistic.

By 2016, four years before the author had predicted world capacity would be 237 gigawatts, actual world capacity had already risen to 300 gigawatts! By last year, with two years still to go before 2020, world PV capacity was over 400 gigawatts.

This trend is visible locally. One year ago our next door neighbors installed solar panels, and as I write workers are installing them on our own roof. There goes the neighborhood!

This reminds me of how science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein's wall chart of "future history" — his framework for many early short stories — originally placed the first moon landing in 1978. This date seemed outrageously optimistic when he created the chart around 1940.

But Neil Armstrong stepped on to the Moon nine years sooner, in 1969.

Apparently technological progress sometimes does not move at a constant speed but actually accelerates, spurred on by new developments that no one anticipated.

When I was born in 1939, for example, there were no electronic computers, no commercial television, no jet planes, no transistors, and no antibiotics. Radar, without which modern air travel would be impossible, was just beginning to be developed.

When I graduated from college in 1961 we had no Internet, no personal computers, no cell phones, and direct distance dialing of landline phone calls — without having to go through an operator — was just beginning to be introduced.

Long distance telephone calls were incredibly expensive by today's standards.

No one could have predicted that in 2018 Skype would enable me to talk for free with my wife, off on a hiking trip in Spain, with video both directions, using $100 smart phones on both ends.

Of course the accelerating conversion to solar energy will hurt some interests. A recent report suggests that a sharp fall in orders for General Electric's gas turbine power plants may be because "renewable sources like solar and wind have both expanded and dropped in price faster than anticipated."

Predictions of future technology are not always borne out. We don't have flying cars yet and are just beginning to see things like Dick Tracy's famous wrist radios. But the future does seem to be getting here sooner than we thought it would.

This is not necessarily an entirely good thing. A colleague used to joke that when the world ends he wanted to be in Adrian, Michigan, because everything there always happens twenty years late.

And one hopes that one of Heinlein's wall chart events — a religious dictatorship in the U.S. — will never happen. In the early 1940s Heinlein explained why his downbeat story about a future U.S. dictatorship was not impossible: "Promise a material heaven here on Earth, add a dash of anti-semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negroism, and a good large dose of anti-"furriners" in general and anti-intellectuals here at home and the result might be something quite frightening — particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington."

One would like to think that this can't happen here.

Another thing we would like to think can't happen is is the massive flow of refugees that will take place if oceans rise as much as the scientific consensus now predicts. If cities now inhabited by hundreds of millions of people go under water, problems caused by Europe's influx of refugees from Syria's civil war will seem trivial by comparison.

And like technical progress, our recent upswing in extreme weather events suggests that this part of the future may be coming faster than originally predicted.

The current progress in solar energy is good news, since the acceleration of global warming is largely thanks to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The faster solar energy joins hydropower and atomic energy in displacing coal, oil and natural gas, the better off we will be in a world whose climate may be wrecked if we continue to burn hydrocarbon fuels on any large scale.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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Research and economies of scale would make photovoltaic cells cheaper while conventional sources became more expensive. Consumers would move to solar because it was cheaper.
armstrong, heinlein, moon
Tuesday, 26 February 2019 03:28 PM
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