Bright Futures

Aug 28

Back in early 2011, futurist, inventor and all-around mad genius, Ray Kurzweil, posited that solar power will satisfy the entire world’s energy needs in 16 years thanks to exponential increases in technology. Kurzweil explained that it’s very easy for people to forget about the value of rapidly developing nanotech. Computer processing speed doubles every year and a half, so why wouldn’t other micro-technology develop at the same rate or faster?
Currently, the solar industry provides less than 1 percent of those renewable energy needs. Think the futurist’s statement sounds a bit outlandish? Or, perhaps it’s just out-of-date in light of China’s still-sizable cost advantages. Well, consider this: Following his law of accelerating returns, the man’s been early about everything from the rise of the Internet, to the fall of the U.S.S.R., to the defeat of chess master Garry Kasparov by the Deep Blue computer. If solar power gets cheap enough, efficient enough and accepted by a new generation as viable, the takeover just might be feasible. Then, that energy source could even help eradicate food and water crises by using nano-solar films to power and regulate greenhouses for year round organic food production.

In his lofty prediction, Kurzweil went on to say, “After we double eight more times and we’re meeting all of the world’s energy needs through solar, we’ll be using 1 part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on the earth. And we could put efficient solar farms on a few percent of the unused deserts of the world and meet all of our energy needs.”
So, does this mean that when people raise their champagne glasses and toast to all things old and new on the first night of 2027, that they’ll also be saying goodbye to oil, coal and nuclear power for all their modern luxuries and operations? It may be more than a decade down the road, but it’s undeniably good news for the planet, and good news for aspiring solar companies in the West…where innovation and pragmatic reform not only used to stimulate economic growth, but combined to define the brave New World’s cultural ambitions once upon a time. Here are three signs of major solar progress that could prove Kurzweil right yet again.

1) Now that the tariff imposed by the U.S. Commerce Department has China’s imports taxed at 31 percent or higher, the Chinese solar monopoly is under control and the door for hungry solar companies in the Westis wide open. Sure, Chinese juggernauts like Yingli and LDK still cast a big shadow, but without the constant subsidized padding from the Chinese Development Bank…LDK, for one, is virtually bankrupt. Despite appearances, things are changing. And now, smaller companies like Real Goods Solar Inc. (RSOL), Magnolia Solar Inc. (MGLT) or even the privately owned SoloPower, Inc. can actually put their technological edge towards becoming competitive. Perhaps this gradual tectonic shift in the industry is the first major step in making solar power the keystone of our energy future.The remaining obstacles are primarily scientific as only 300 to 2400 nanometers of the light spectrum (including ultraviolet, visible and infrared) are actually usable and standard crystalline silicon solar cells only capture visible light – a third of that potential energy. So far, solutions to this problem include nanotech solar panels with flexible substrates to capture wider ranges.

2) The Obama Administration’s recent call for federal approval of 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy as well as the President’s controversial address on climate change earlier this year, if nothing else, has brought these issues mainstream. In order to save resources, save the planet and stay competitive, Obama said, "I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

3) After six years of planning and a $1.6 billion federal load guarantee, the Ivanpah solar power plant of California’s Mojave Desert is just about ready to go online. Designed by BrightSource Energy, Ivanpah will be the largest solar thermal energy plant in the world – using more than 170,000 mirrors to focus sunlight onto boilers. According to National Geographic, “Ivanpah's capacity is more than double that of the Andusol, Solnava, or Extresol power stations in southern Spain, which previously were the largest in the world (150 Megawatts each).”


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