Eat the light – the fourth age of solar is on the way…

by Geoff Olson

In a 2000 interview on CBC Radio’s Ideas, ethnobotanist Wade Davis recalled a “horrific book that came out called The Secret Life of Plants.” One of Davis’ plant-gathering colleagues, Tim Ploughman, was “infuriated” with the book’s thesis that houseplants respond emotionally to human voices and the music of Mozart. “I remember Tim saying to me, ‘Why would a plant give a shit about Mozart?’ And then he said, ‘And even if it did, why should that impress us? They can eat light. Isn’t that enough?’”

Whatever the merit of the slab of compressed pulp that so annoyed the two ethnobotanists, there’s no denying that light-eating is a very impressive trick. In fact, it’s evolution’s greatest routine, the foundation for the pyramid of life. Every cell of algae and every humble weed chows down on photons, as a matter of course.

That’s real magic. Let’s see David Copperfield and Kris Angel sit down for a tray of rays.

Human beings may not be able to “eat light” as directly as plants do, but our fossil-fuel addicted civilization is beginning to taste the possibility of reducing its steady diet of dirty energy sources like coal, oil and nuclear. With the explosive growth of renewable energy, we are now on the cusp of the fourth age of solar (see sidebar).

Tavis Bradford, an industry analyst for The Prometheus Institute, predicts that within a short time, production of solar panels will double each year. The price per volume savings will inevitably follow, as production scales-up and becomes more efficient. The price of solar panels could drop as much as 50 percent from 2006 to 2010, Bradford adds.

According to futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, solar power will be the dominant form of energy source within the next 20 years. With the use of solar power doubling every two years, it is following the exponential growth of previous technologies, Kurzweil says. The futurist has seen similar kinds of patterns in the past and has correctly predicted the outcomes. He foresaw the explosive growth of the Internet and wireless systems and also predicted the downfall of the Soviet Union.

With wind factored in, the possibilities are even sunnier. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington – one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s 10 national laboratories – estimates that, as wind power drops to competitive levels, it could quickly supply 20 percent of the US’ electrical needs. With the proper infrastructure implemented, some researchers put the figure at 30 percent. (For the purposes of this article, I include wind power as a subset of solar power because the sun’s electromagnetic energy is the prime driver of the atmosphere’s thermal engine.)

The pace of research is tracking the pace of production. It seems that a week can’t pass without another technical or market breakthrough. Passive solar heating, solar ovens, solar-powered trash compactors, solar-powered UV water treatment, hyper-efficient LED lights and building-integrated photovoltaics – the present state of the art has dizzying possibilities for social change, even without the projected technical advances and plunging costs.

The entry of big players like Wal-Mart into solar power indicates energy security is as much of an issue as good business practice. Corporations aren’t going to wait to take their cue from the Jurassic oil dynasty counting out its last few months in the White House. Geneticist and entrepreneur Joel Bellenson points out that the founder of Wal-Mart has invested $250M in First Solar, which now has a market capitalization larger than GM and Ford combined. The founders of Google funded NanoSolar, which just shipped solar panels at $1/W, making it cheaper than coal. And while General Electric is losing its appliance division, it’s going big time into renewable energy via wind and LED lighting.

Other big players include Phillips, Sharp Electronics, Boeing, Peterbilt, Intel, Hewlitt-Packard and IBM.

“Silicon Valley/Stanford on one coast and MIT on the other coast are driving solar advancements at breakneck speed,” Bellenson notes in an email exchange. “Clearly, the principal countries and their industrial capitalists in the EU are hell bent to switch to renewables. The United Kingdom plans to get all of their residential electricity from wind by 2020.”

The game has gone global and North America is playing catch-up. Germany and Denmark are far ahead of us in working renewable technology into their infrastructure. One of the largest wind companies, India-based Suzlon, is going gangbusters; China-based SunTech, one of the largest solar panel companies, is doing the same. At current rates of production, the solar industry worldwide will be producing enough solar panels in 2009 to power nine Vancouvers, Bellenson claims.

Nonetheless, there have been two persistent bugaboos of solar power: it doesn’t work when the sun goes down and storing power is expensive. This is why solar still supplies only a small percentage of the world’s electricity. Off-the-shelf batteries are still too big and expensive to compete with other options. In comparison, fossil or renewable fuels act as their own storage, making for ease of use and transport.

That nut may finally have been cracked, however. In August, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claimed to have found a radically inexpensive way to store solar power. Eoin O’Carroll described the feat in an article published in the Christian Science Monitor: “Daniel Nocera, a chemistry professor at MIT, and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Mr. Nocera’s lab, have developed a catalyst made from cobalt and phosphate that can split water into oxygen and hydrogen gas. When used in conjunction with a photovoltaic solar panel, their system can use water to store the sun’s energy.”

Cobalt replaces electrodes made of platinum, which is more expensive than gold, thereby reducing costs by a huge margin. Nocera describes his catalyst discovery as a solar power “Nirvana,” with the inference that we can now “seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon.”

In a Forbes magazine interview, Nocera enthuses about his battery’s replication of photosynthesis. “Once you put a photovoltaic on it, you’ve got an inorganic leaf,” he says. The chem prof figures he’s managed to match wits with Gaia. “For six months now, I’ve been looking at the leaves and saying, ‘I own you guys!’”

The MIT press release includes a sanguine estimate from James Barber, a biochemist at the Imperial College London in the UK. “This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind,” Barber says. (That was so last month! As this magazine goes to press, Green Car Congress ( announces that Australia researchers have developed a “bio-inspired, photo-oxidizing catalyst for solar water-splitting to produce hydrogen.” The researchers use manganese, as plants do – and thereby may have gone a step further in replicating photosynthesis.)

This all may sound too good to be true. Are Kurzweil’s prognostications too sunny? Is Nocera’s leaf-mimicry a revolutionary turn for alternative technology or just a minor riff on nature’s grand banquet of light? Besides, the MIT battery still has a long way to go before market testing. And weren’t there promises in the past from the press about some new technology that would liberate us all, from the rotary telephone to the Internet?

The difference this time around is that the enthusiasm isn’t limited to journalists and public relations flacks. It’s rare for scientists to speak in superlatives, but solar seems to have lit a fire under the thinking class.

Joel Bellenson is convinced solar will introduce massive changes into society, on a global scale. A typical conversation with the 43-year-old polymath ranges from the genetics of human scent to Big Bang cosmology to the politics of sub-Saharan Africa. It’s like talking to a bipedal Library of Congress or a jovial Wikipedia. The Vancouver resident describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur at the intersection of life sciences and information technology.”

Bellenson co-founded Pangea Systems/DoubleTwist, which in 1999 was the first to annotate the human genome and make it available to academics for free to prevent it from being patented by Celera. He is currently the CEO of Upstream Biosciences, which investigates new drugs for Global South infectious diseases, such as Malaria, Black Fever, Sleeping Sickness, Chagas and TB, utilizing artificial intelligence and chemical data.

The Stanford graduate relates the current thinking among solar power researchers: “Based on a mid range of 25 percent efficiency, solar panels generating 90 Terawatts of power – ~6X the planet’s current energy consumption of all types: electricity, heat, transportation – would require no more than 360,000 square kilometers.”

The whole planet, including the projected population growth by 2050, could be powered at North American levels for electricity, heat and transportation by sunny land smaller than the state of Montana, he says. “One hectare of sunlit land surface area, covered with a 15 level, LED-lit, hydroponic greenhouse with solar panels on top, will produce the equivalent of 150 outdoor, arable hectares of food, assuming LED and solar panel efficiencies expected within the next five to 10 years. Costs of sufficient solar panels and, most importantly, LED lights will cross over with the price of arable farm land in five years.”

Bellenson isn’t troubled by concerns of a shortage of wild spaces given over to solar power collectors. He believes the main impact “…will be on enabling more rational economic organization,” which includes rational use of the landbase and freshwater.

Who will be the big losers in this? The big oil companies, for sure. “In general, we are already entering a period where the King CONG – coal, oil, nukes, gas – companies are nervous about investing in any step in the process, since the payback is over 20 to 30 years. They are not stupid, and see that the complete triumph of renewables will occur in about 10 to 15 years, with almost 100 percent of all electricity converted over and probably 50 percent of transport to plug in hybrids by then. Even oil rich Middle East countries from Algeria to United Arab Emirates are jumping on the solar bandwagon,” Bellenson states.

The geneticist notes that the primary material that goes into producing solar panels is silicon. The Earth’s crust is one-quarter silicon, the seventh most abundant element in the universe. You could say the cosmos is just about screaming at the clever monkey to crank out solar panels.

It all makes for a wonderful vision of civilization turning its face to the sun. Anyone who can work an Excel spreadsheet can drag the simple formula of 45 percent compound annual growth rate for solar down 20 years of rows and see what happens, Bellenson insists. Last year, worldwide solar investment grew 92 percent. A mix of lower solar prices, higher oil prices and geopolitical tension will drive solar power further up Kurzwell’s exponential growth curve.

Bellenson foresees a time when solar generates enough power that all agriculture can be brought indoors into “multilevel urban greenhouses,” thus saving 90 percent of the 70 percent of the world’s freshwater devoted to agriculture, while also radically reducing the amount of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and associated runoff.

Solar is already being produced at $1 to $1.25 a watt, and in the past few months there have been announcements noting solar panel production prices dropping to $0.40 a watt. Coal plants cost $1 to $2 a watt to build. Engineers working on quantum dots are claiming that it will cost on the order of $0.05 a watt by 2017. “In other words, it would cost $200 to build solar capacity – roof or on large solar farms – for a big single family home (4kW),” Bellenson says. “At that price, the Global South’s pent-up, desperate need for electricity will be able to be addressed quite easily.”

Some of the sunniest places on Earth, including Africa for example, are also the places with the greatest need for electricity. Bellenson’s interest in Africa and the Global South is more than academic. He recently founded the AfricaFreeMAN project to set up free wireless broadband intranets with free local telephony in metropolitan area networks. He is also involved with the Presidential Investment Roundtable of the President of Uganda, an initiative focused on biotechnology, forestry, agriculture, IT/telecom and renewable energy.

Solar power is truly empowering for the Global South, the geneticist insists: “The power source, the Sun, is plentiful and democratically distributed. No geopolitical games. No need to sell cheap labour intensive agro products on unfair global markets to purchase expensive petroleum. No ability for the oil curse to corrupt social, economic, political and military life…For those motivated to improve the environment to prevent horrors from climate change, subsidizing solar panels in Africa and other places in the Global South not only makes for a better future, but radically improves people’s lives right now, far, far more than adding renewable power sources in rich countries. Affordable electricity is the core necessity of modern civilization. Without it, life is a needless nightmare of suffering.”

Solar and wind have long been the bastard children of energy production, dismissed as bit players in petroleum and coal’s rich pageant. There’s little doubt that the oil lobby has kept alternative energy research and development on the fringe for years. But with the horses out, there is little point in trying to shut the barn door. The question is not how widespread renewable power will be in our future. The question is will its reign arrive in time? With resource wars raging in the Near East, and the planet in the midst of its sixth great extinction period, one expression comes to mind: the power of now.

Bellenson believes a transformation is already in the works, as humanity moves away from its obsessive dependency on non-renewables: “This shift will occur over the next 15 – 20 years and will be more massive than the development of agriculture itself 10,000 years ago.”

The fourth age of solar

The story of life on Earth is ultimately about a long-term relationship between light and matter. In the first age of solar, plants evolved the capacity to transfer the electromagnetic energy of sunlight into the high-energy chemical bonds of sugars and carbohydrates.

In the second age of solar, a few hundred million years later, the monochrome, brownish-green world of the late Jurassic gave way to an explosion of colour with the emergence of the angiosperms – the flowering plants. The plants directed some of the photosynthetic energies of their green-coloured tissues into the production of lurid landing pads, alerting insects through their brilliant hues. With the symbiosis of insect pollination, evolution took a whole new direction, giving the wilderness a coat of many colours in the process. (Charles Darwin called flowers an “abominable mystery” because they appeared so suddenly, and spread so quickly, in geological time.)

The third age of solar began 10 thousand years ago, when several populations in the Near East abandoned their nomadic way of life for year-round settlements. These small settlements, the seeds of future city-states, were made possible through the use of domesticated animals and seasonal stockpiles of grain. The energy of the sun, bound up in the chemical bonds of plant carbohydrates, was deposited in silos and granaries like money in a bank. A cascade of cultural consequences followed, with institutional mechanisms for measuring, allocating and protecting the stockpiles: cuneiform script, local governance, taxation and standing armies. We are still in the third age of light, but now the vast bulk of our energy comes from fossil fuels. These fuels also began as organic material and they hold the energy of ancient sunlight in their chemical bonds.

Civilization is now on the cusp of the fourth age of solar. We now have the opportunity to abandon the unsustainable, finite resources of fossil fuels for a truly abundant, freely available form of energy. We’re doing it by following the evolutionary example of the plants.

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