Bright Solar Future

by William W. Behrens

William W. Behrens (American, born 1949) coauthored The Limits to Growth while completing a PhD at MIT. He taught at Dartmouth College before changing careers to work hands-on to create sustainable communities. His company, ReVision Energy LLC, installs solar equipment throughout New England.

Between now and 2052, the world of energy will evolve more positively than many other aspects of human culture. And in that world, electrical energy will stand out, not just for replacing fuel energy in all sectors of the United States and the world, but also for doing it much more quickly than expected. The reason for this is simple: electrical energy will be produced with much less capital intensity than fuel energy.

Already, all fossil-based energy production requires heavy capital infrastructure. As the quality and quantity of fuel resources decline, the capital required to extract a gallon of fuel will increase dramatically (witness the intensity of capital required to develop the tar sands reserves). Yet, eventually, suppliers worldwide will be able to produce electricity with relatively small and modular hardware. As this trend develops, both transportation and space conditioning will turn toward increasingly efficient electricity-based hardware. By 2040, in the United States, electricity-supported transportation systems will be common in densely populated areas, and many homes and businesses will have been converted to air- and water-sourced heat pumps that operate on electricity from renewable sources, and will no longer rely on fuel-based boilers. The primary renewable electrical energy source will be solar.

The Rise of PV and Decentralized Energy

From 2012 to 2022, centralized utilities and corporations will still control the means of electricity production and will develop large-scale renewable energy plants to meet an increasing fraction of the electricity load. These plants will utilize all forms of renewable energy—whether produced by large-scale wind farms, photovoltaic (PV) farms, very large solar-thermal turbines, or even ocean energy.

But as the second decade dawns, three influences will combine to create a rapid shift away from centralized electricity production and toward distributed production by micro-grids.

One driver will be political. In the United States, democratic political institutions will finally recognize the stranglehold that fossil energy companies exert on public decision making. After public and governmental backlash, lawmakers will enact legislation that levels the playing field, removing the financial and regulatory advantages currently extended to these huge players. The government will require fossil fuels to carry their full cost of production, including their waste stream, and will redirect the resulting revenues into balancing the government budgets (a necessary response to the economic collapses of the United States in the 2010s).

The second driver will be the solar industry itself, as China and other manufacturing powerhouses flood the world market with solar panels at prices far below current forecasts. As photovoltaic electricity becomes cheaper than fossil-based energy throughout all latitudes between 50° north and south, investment from all sectors will flow into PV.

The third and final driver will be in novel energy-storage technology. By 2020, we will begin to see on-site storage technologies that provide cost-effective, multiday reserves using low-grade silicon and other plentiful materials in battery-based, chemical, and mechanical storage contraptions.

Thus the decade 2022–32 will see experiments in all forms of solar power production, at a wide variety of implementation levels from the residential to the continental. By 2025, sights will be set on the first orbiting power station, with 1 MW capacity, and able to transmit power back to earth via wireless energy transfer. Such innovation will likely be the domain of a commercial-educational consortium. Just five years later, we could see a new prototype emerge: a 2,000-squaremeter array that will deploy by robotics and beam over 4 TWh of electricity per year to a base receiver. The first will likely be located at a major university, powering the campus.

The distributed deployment of the new storage technologies in the early 2030s will form the backbone of micro-grids that will power campuses and cities and other localized networks. In 2038 the United States will follow the initiative of the European Union and will nationalize control of the electricity grid by placing operation of the increasingly “smart” grid into the hands of an independent public agency. While commercial entities will continue to own the transmission assets and will receive revenues for their deployment, this agency will make all supply-and-demand management choices.

The smart-grid operators will welcome (and pay for) excess power fed back into their transmission lines from customers with extra production capacity, for temporary storage or for the use of other customers.

The New Solar Economy

Against this backdrop, the transition to a sun-based energy economy will be well under way—in the United States and in the world as a whole—with the United States and other countries reaching their solar targets (Thailand for example will reach its 20% solar goal by 2021). Developing nations will make electricity available through state-run networks powered by PV. Micro-grids will take hold in the old OECD world as an efficient means of generating power within a locality. And local grids will interface with the larger grid.

Centralized power-producing corporations will attempt to control solar with the concentrating solar arrays of the 2012–22 decade. But those will come to be seen as cumbersome and expensive, albeit effective.

By 2052, the control of the energy economy by a very few large megacorporations, a characteristic of the fossil-fuel age, will be over.

Solar power generation will be as close to the consumers as possible, sustainable, and stable for decades, freely exchanged at real-time market prices through the interconnection of micro-grids and national grids.

Although in 2052 much of southern Europe will continue to rely on power generated by large centralized plants in North Africa, individual European communities will create their own local solar farms, implement their own micro-grids, and further erode the control of the utility corporations. Elsewhere, many municipalities, schools, regions, and even individuals—rather than a few large utilities—will be in control of their own energy generation. PV is literally the only form of renewable energy with which this is possible, because the units of energy production are so small and so infinitely scalable.

In forty years, PV will provide 40% of the electricity consumed worldwide. Surprisingly, the fraction will be the same both in the old OECD countries and in the nations that will industrialize in the 2010s and 2020s. China will lead the transition to solar through very large-scale, centralized, government-owned and government-operated plants using Chinese hardware. In the United States, micro-grids with private ownership will interface through the publicly managed smart grid infrastructure. In 2052 it will be abundantly clear that the old utility assertion that “renewables would never contribute more than a small percentage, because after all the sun doesn’t shine at night” was a deliberate hoax. Renewables are indeed sufficient; in fact PV alone is enough to power the planet, not only today, but also in 2052, when total energy demand will already have peaked. Increasing energy efficiency and declining populations will allow sustainable increases in per capita use of energy and hence in the material standard of living.

PV infrastructure will be everywhere. Communities will use capped landfills and other commonly owned areas to implement solar “community gardens”; individual residents will each own enough PV in these common gardens or on rooftops to provide the electricity needs of their dwelling; their solar plot will be an asset of the dwelling that is purchased by a new owner, just like the garage.

Building-integrated PV strategies, most notably PV-enabled curtain wall assemblies on urban high-rises, will turn most commercial structures into net-energy sources.

The evolution in PV between 2012 and 2052 will be nothing short of remarkable, even as the world’s population will struggle with major environmental limitations, like freshwater shortage and global climate change. As the world looks forward to the second half of the twenty-first century, there will at last be widespread confidence that incoming sunlight is the most stable and reliable source of energy— the source with the most positive impact on our social structures and the lowest embodied waste stream.