A June 1st article at CNN Money profiled large-scale solar technology projects. Public schools in central New York are adding solar panels to reduce their expenses, with the assistance of a state program. And according to The Discovery Channel, even the Vatican is adding photovoltaic cells to the Paul VI auditorium! Is there a solar revolution occurring?
According to Travis Bradford, there is. The author of Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry, is the president and founder of the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development. The book was published by The MIT Press.
Bradford traces the history of energy generation and its ties to economic development. He points out that historically, natural resource depletion led to the collapse of civilizations, beginning with deforestation and its attendant soil depletion. Currently, our world is at "peak oil": we've reached the maximum amount of oil that we can extract from the earth and now rates of production will decline.
Conventional energy generation is at risk because of peak oil, potential supply disruptions (i.e., the current war), and the aging infrastructure of the electrical grid. He cites the environmental problems of "stored sunlight" alternatives such as coal, oil, and natural gas. He also analyzes current alternative technologies such hydroelectric dams; nuclear, wind, biomass, geothermal, and ocean power; and hydrogen fuel cells. He points out that these alternatives each need to be deployed on a large scale.
Additionally, the problem of intermittency – i.e., spikes in demand, whether expected or unexpected — is not solved with large-scale alternatives. Demand spikes can lead to problems such as rolling brownouts, and currently is dealt with by expanding the grid. The problem with expanding energy production to meet intermittent demand is that energy is underutilized during the remaining low-demand times. This, of course, is a wasteful use of limited resources.
Three key continua exist in analyzing methods of creating power from the sun: passive-active, thermal-photovoltaic, and concentrating-nonconcentrating. Passive solar energy is usually created usually through building design, such as in the design of a greenhouse. Active solar energy, on the other hand, is stored or converted to other applications. These applications are thermal or photovoltaic, the second key continuum. Thermal solar energy applications use derived heat in, for example, rooftop solar water heating systems. Photovoltaic applications, or PV, capture light energy onto a specific material which creates a direct electric current. Finally, concentrating systems focus sunlight using mirrors or lenses. Nonconcentrating systems are simpler and easier to maintain.
The author reiterates that PV is cost-effective at any scale. A home or business may simply add solar panels as energy needs increase. And, according to the author, improvements in technology have reduced the cost of PV from $25/watt to now less than $3.50/kW. Additionally, excess energy created by the system in homes during the day — a time of more sunlight and lowered usage for most homes — excess energy can be "sold back" to the grid.
Bradford uses the adoption of cell phones as an example of how he sees the United States adopting solar energy. Cell phones are an example of distributed economics: each phone user generates his own communication system. Distributed solar systems would be the same: each building or home would generate the majority of its own power. This is in contrast to, in the case of cell phones, the Ma Bell monopolies or, as in the case of modern utilities, the large quasi-governmental organizations that generate and distribute energy to the people.
Currently, Germany and Japan lead the world in adoption of smaller scale solar technologies. They have surpassed the US in solar adoption, generally due to the impetus of government policy. Consider that each of these countries has little sunshine and even fewer natural resources for energy. They each have relatively high energy costs, as well. In the United States, California is in the forefront of encouraging adoption of PV panels and other small scale solutions to energy shortages.
A weakness of the book is the author's cursory discussion of political realities that can block the adoption of small-scale solar energy projects such as he favors. If we have a government willing to approve expenditures of, according to one source, over $400 billion to protect its access to oil reserves, how likely is it that energy companies will simply roll over and allow solar to take over? I suspect it will be like the early days of satellite TV, when cable companies used federal legislation to block satellite companies from showing local channels, and then advertises their superiority to satellite because cable had local channels. One can hope, as with telecom, that the field will eventually be deregulated. That policy will favor the populace, not the energy companies.
Overall, this book is an excellent introduction to an established and reliable source of energy. Though Bradford discusses technical and economic issues, he clearly elucidates electrical utility economics and his vision of emerging distributed economics. The author also discusses industrial uses of solar technologies.