The future is bright

March 10 2008 / by Eriks Brolis / In association with Future
Category: Energy   Year: General   Rating: 18

‘I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.’ Thomas Edison made that strong proclamation to Henry Ford in 1931. Edison’s confidence most likely stemmed from the fact that our sun is responsible for the propagation of life in addition to the vast majority of available energy on earth. (The most notable sub-surface exceptions being the energy potential of nuclear and geothermal which each come with their slew of challenges)

Wind is a “by-product” of the sun, created by the diurnal (day & night) effect of warming and cooling. Fossil fuels are simply what their name suggests – the fossilized remains of living organisms. Coal was the flora that photosynthesized the sun’s power; oil, natural gas, tar sands (collectively petrochemicals) the fauna. In short, the sun is responsible for the life and lifestyles here on earth both directly and indirectly.

If you believe that humans will be most effective by mimicking universal biological patterns and are already “regressing” in that direction (as I strongly do) this begs the question…What is the most direct way to sustainably harness the power of the sun? I assert that the two means that are most effective are (i) passive solar design and (ii) photovoltaic electricity production.

“Passive solar” is a relatively new term for the way that humans have traditionally built shelters, before large cities, for thousands of years. Basically, passive solar design consists of orienting homes to benefit from the heat gain of the sun. The modern incarnation of this design principle is all about the appropriate south-facing windows that allow the sun to warm an architecturally integrated thermal mass (adobe, river rocks, etc.) and then reradiate that heat at night. Awnings above the windows are carefully designed so that the unwanted summer sun (higher in the sky) is blocked but the winter sun (lower in the sky) is able to effectively warm the thermal mass. A properly built, energy-efficient, passive solar home can eliminate the need for any supplemental heating or cooling.

“Solar photovoltaic” (PV) refers to a class of technologies that are able to convert the rays of the sun into electricity. This is human’s best attempt at mimicking plants by photosynthesizing the energy of sun directly into a form that is practical for our modern, electrically-powered lifestyles. PV systems are quickly gaining popularity as many governments around the world are providing incentives to kick-start markets and gain the economies of scale to continue the rapidly decreasing price trend. Beyond being able to install solar PV in remote places where other power-generation is unavailable, locations such as Hawaii are already at “grid-parity,” where the cost of purchasing electricity from the utility equals that of producing one’s own from an unsubsidized solar PV system. Most PV manufacturers anticipate grid-parity within 5 years in most places around the world. Even George W. Bush proclaimed the goal of grid-parity by 2015!

“Distributed” or “on-site” PV (as opposed to “centralized or “industrial-scale”) is the preferred method of propagation, becoming more popular and widespread as it is one of the most effective ways for individuals to take action. In summation, building well-designed, energy-efficient, passive solar homes with an on-site solar PV system is one of the most effective ways to sustainably address some of the greatest challenges of the 21st century: climate change, diminishing fossil fuels, energy security, and the corporate stranglehold on what should be our means of production.

Comment Thread (2 Responses)

  1. Nice point about biomimicry. (For those who haven’t read it, the Benyus book of the same name is a great read.) It does seem that we’re converging on a lot of the same solutions that nature has already cracked, probably at an accelerating rate, so that is helpful to the argument that the solution lies primarily in solar.

    Also, I tend to agree with the idea that on-site systems will be critical to addressing widespread energy needs due to both the increasing hard $ and social costs of transporting power over distances, as ts1937 also points out in his post.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   March 10, 2008
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  2. Cool story related to solar cells came out today, here.

    Posted by: Marisa Vitols   March 13, 2008
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Trackbacks (1 Response)

  1. “We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Natures inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind and tide. … I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of p...

    Posted by: The Future is Awesome    March 10, 2008