Think of this as Volume 15, Number 2 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
The technology is ripe. You can write a 15-year lease on rooftop solar panels and, with current government aid programs, come up with enough to make it seem a good deal all around. It's great for the lessor, not so good for the lessee, but that's the way it goes.
A signable lease is just the first of many crossover points solar is going to go through, as manufacturing ramps up and technology keeps improving. Next comes an industry big enough, and tied in closely enough with banks, to do mortgages. As prices decline cash deals will become commonplace. Millions of new jobs are on tap.
Current panels are about 15% efficient. Thin films are usually just 8% efficient, but their flexibility makes them even more popular. Both those efficiency numbers will climb, and there are a variety of other technologies coming out of labs that will take advantage of ultraviolet light, heat, and do a better job of accounting for the changing angle of the Sun.
Storage technology is also improving. That's a game changer for electrical utilities. You can't turn the Sun on-and-off as you can an oil-fired power plant, and the same is true with the wind. But if you can store that power, either with a better battery, or underground in the form of compressed gas, you make it more reliable. Utilities are also interested in "molten salt" systems that heat a chemical mix while the Sun shines and use that energy to produce electricity after it sets.
That's the kindest thing I can say about Boone Pickens and his Texas wind boondoggle. A few years ago I had many long e-mail conversations with earnest West Texas friends who were real excited about Pickens' plans. They saw wind as saving their region from economic irrelevance, as the oil and gas depleted. Their politics were consonant with Pickens' and they couldn't believe he'd do them wrong.
But he did. He was using the excitement of wind to sell natural gas, which he owns a ton of. He first claimed it was a short term "bridge" to a renewable future, but with the legislature unwilling to give him rights of eminent domain over his neighbors, and utilities unwilling to buy the long-term storage he needed, and having had another look at the costs, he busted his own boom. It was all just hot air to begin with.
That's not to say there's no there there. There is. We just need better power lines, so we don't lose so much to heat as the juice travels to market. And those storage systems.
There are great opportunities across the space. We can make ethanol effectively from algae, and we can learn to burn it more cleanly. We can cut our energy demands without cutting into our lifestyle, and that's going to turn the energy markets around in time. We can make wind work. Geothermal holds enormous promise, especially out West where the heat is close to the surface. Tidal energy can harness the Moon.
But most of these are large-scale projects. They will require scaled capital. They will be bought over a long period of time. Development will be slow as objections are developed and dealt with.
Politically, renewable energy has found the winning argument. Jobs. Opposition to renewables from the political right is dissipating, meaning the whole field should be much less controversial. Everyone likes making money. (Yes, Sarah, even liberals.)
The big halo is held by solar, however. There are good reasons for it. A solar installation can be simple. There are no emissions (except in manufacturing). There are consumer markets people understand -- recharging iPods, for instance.
Best of all the technology is improving rapidly. It's true that right now covering the Earth in solar panels won't replace the energy we get from fossil fuels. But that won't be true for long. That's partly because research scientists are working overtime, visions of fortunes dancing in their heads, to improve the efficiency, cost and durability of panels.
It's also because there is more to harness from the Sun than visible light. There's ultraviolet light and heat. Improvements can be made in angling elements, so efficiency is maintained throughout the day. What happens when efficiency rises from the present 15% ceiling to 60% or more? Revolution.
Best of all you can put this on your house, or any building. In 10 years most homeowners will be able to power themselves. In 20 they will be producing enough excess to power their cars with hydrogen.
As this reality comes into view there will be panic in the oilpatch. Those with oil and gas in the ground will see their asset values falling, and the risk of violence then is enormous. The change won't come gradually -- revolutions seldom do. That will be the crisis of my kids' time.
For our time and our crisis, it's solutions a-plenty and downhill all the way.