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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

All Energy From Solar in 20 Years?

Ray Kurzweil is arguably the world's most famous futurist. He laid out the law of accelerating returns, which states that technology improves at exponential rates, and made a string of dead-on predictions about computing in the 80s -- that a computer would beat a man at chess by 1998, and that the world would link networks into some crazy globally connected system sometime in the mid-90s. Now, Kurzweil is talking solar. In an interview with Grist, he explains why he's not worried about climate change, and how renewable energy sources will become dominant much, much sooner than we think.

He explains his techno-optimism to Grist:

One of my primary theses is that information technologies grow exponentially in capability and power and bandwidth and so on. If you buy an iPhone today, it's twice as good as two years ago for half the cost. That is happening with solar energy -- it is doubling every two years. And it didn't start two years ago, it started 20 years ago. Every two years, we have twice as much solar energy in the world. Today, solar is still more expensive than fossil fuels, and in most situations it still needs subsidies or special circumstances, but the costs are coming down rapidly ... we are only a few years away from parity.

So right now it's at half a percent of the world's energy. People tend to dismiss technologies when they are half a percent of the solution. But doubling every two years means it's only eight more doublings before it meets a 100 percent of the world's energy needs. So that's 16 years. We will increase our use of electricity during that period, so add another couple of doublings: In 20 years we'll be meeting all of our energy needs with solar, based on this trend which has already been underway for 20 years.

That's some major optimism indeed -- unfortunately, even if the technology itself got good enough that quickly, it in no way accounts for the massive task of deploying enough solar farms fast enough to render coal and natural gas plants obsolete. Many scientists say, after all, that we're going to need to drastically scale down emissions in 10 years time before we irrevocably alter our climate.

Furthermore, breakthroughs in clean energy technology have not occurred at an analogous rate to information tech -- they're much rarer, for a variety of reasons.

Finally, the most glaring miscalculation I think Kurzweil makes is that unlike the computing industry, there's an entrenched, powerful industrial opposition to clean energy that will actively work to stymie its advances whenever feasible in the political arena. Computers were developing into a wide open space in the market, with no comparable oppositional industry ready to compete with them -- the typewriter industry doesn't exactly have the same clout as the coal and oil industries. Perhaps if there wasn't a preexisting, artificially cheap energy source that was widely relied upon, and whose operators had access to major power levers, Kurzweil's time line could come true -- but since there is, we won't see the same kind of investment, excitement, and innovations in clean tech until use of dirty fuels is formally discouraged.

Kurzeil is right that we could power the world with clean energy in 20 years. But relying on technology alone isn't likely to get us there.

By Brian Merchant | Sourced from Treehugger

Comment By Jonathan Cole
For most of the past 30 years I have been living on solar and developing practical solar energy systems that provide energy for all of the modern amenities, are durable, low-maintenance and user-friendly. I never had a power outage or burned out even a light bulb.

This technology, properly designed and installed already competes with the grid even without any subsidy. Why? Because once the equipment is installed, the fuel is free. Since a properly made system can last from 25 to 40 years, you save a lot of money on avoided fuel costs. I don't pay any electrical bill and am totally independent of the grid. I have all modern amenities.

The reason Kurzweil is correct and the author of the article is dubious, is because the author has his facts wrong. Computers and the internet have had huge resistance from entrenched change-averse interests in the publishing, entertainment, telecommunications and other industries whose bottom lines are being destroyed by the new technologies.

There is a way to do a complete end-run around the utility monopolies/oligarchies who are certainly dragging their feet in many instances. That is to create an integrated solar energy appliance that is mass-producible, just like the computer is a mass-producible integrated information processing appliance.

That has yet to be done because the world is currently in a frenzy of speculation instead of productive investment. While a certain amount of speculation may play a healthy role in an economy, an absolutely uncontrolled speculative frenzy, destroys wealth and reduces the productivity required for progress.

We need visionary investors who realize the importance of productive investment to support the development of these integrated solar appliances. Once a UL approved solar energy appliance is developed that can be plugged into the home with a minimum of red-tape, the power industry will be forced to join in or be rendered obsolete.

And by the way, to do this requires nothing to be invented, only adapted and refined. So based on experience, knowledge and facts, Kuzweil's prediction is totally on track. Jonathan Cole, MBA http://lightontheearth.blogspo.../