The staggering potential of solar power.

Perhaps you think climate change is a grand scientific hoax. Perhaps you don't. Either way, solar power just makes sense. 

The potential

As an energy source,  the Sun is distinctly unrivaled. It blatantly out-powers anything we have ever or could ever produce.  

The biggest of the 3 red squares below is all the land area we'd need to power the entire world with solar power. It's not a lot is it?

We get this energy transmitted to us for 'free'. Its supply is essentially infinite (the sun is expected to 'die' in 5 billion years). No one country will own solar power the way oil wealthy nations dominate oil markets. And environmentally, it is much cleaner than fossil fuels. Not bad right?

The long-term potential for solar is staggering. This report by Environment America argues that the US could power itself 100 times over with solar power.  In theory of course, but impressive nonetheless. The total solar installed capacity in the US is 21.3 Gigawatts - enough to power 4.3 million homes - but that's just over a tenth of the 35 million residential and commercial rooftops that could have solar panels. (SEIA 2015 Q1 Report)

The U.S. solar industry is growing rapidly. In the 18 months leading up to December 2013, more solar systems were installed than in the preceding 30 years.  Talk about progress. (SEIA 2014 Year review)

 

Radically improving solar power - is that a moonshot?

Astro Teller, the head of Google [x] defines moonshots as projects that have all 3 elements that this image displays: 

Achieving cheap 24 hour solar power is not a moonshot simply because it's a difficult technical problem.

 

The huge problem

It's 2015 and 1.1 billion people still live in the dark - without electricity, without the Internet, without the basics of this marvelous digital age. Further, it's not right that our beloved fossil fuels undeniably damage our most precious and most important resource - the environment.

 

The not so radical solution

The obvious problem with solar power is that the Sun does not shine at night.

Hence, we need to store the energy for later use. Batteries are one way of storing the energy. Perhaps one day, someone will invent an energy storage system that is better than batteries. Until then, we'd need battery systems that are cheap, high-performance, reliable, long-lasting and scalable. 

An exponential improvement in current battery performance and price reduction would catalyze solar (and wind) power adoption. And it's not a secret. Tesla Energy, Ambri,  Oxis Energy and a ton of startups have sprung up into this $50 billion global market to try to solve this problem. Some hope to improve on current lithium-ion technologies, others are tinkering and hoping to create new kinds of batteries. But the underlying concept is the same: solving energy storage holds the key to tomorrow's clean energy revolution.

 

Breakthrough technology

Oxis Energy and Ambri are pioneering novel battery chemistries that could change the game here. Oxis claims that their lithium sulphur technology has a theoretical energy density that is 5 times that of ubiquitous lithium-ion batteries. Ambri expects their unique liquid metal batteries to last over 15 years- very impressive for a battery-  as their electrodes are restored with each charge. Lots is being done, but expect even more in this space.

 

The challenge

Achieving 24 hour solar that's cheap and reliable is a moonshot. It's a moonshot because the marriage of cheap, reliable, high-performance energy storage and affordable renewable energy could power the powerless and redefine the grid of the future for the powered.

At times, solar power feels like that distant cousin that you’ve vaguely heard about but never seen. You silently wonder if the person actually exists. But I assure you that solar power is real, live and growing very quickly.

Based on potential, it's our best bet for solving one of the grandest challenges facing man: transitioning to a sustainable energy source. 

 

Closing notes

Even with the recent oil price slump, collectively, oil and gas exploration and production budgets are of the order of $500 billion.

For good reason. Oil and gas have served us well - they are more energy dense and they propelled us into this digital age.

But what if we invested just 10% of the $500 billion in solar power? What if we invested 10% of the tremendous intellectual capital we've expended on oil and gas?

What would solar power begin to look like?

 

Energy mix in 2050

35 years from now, our energy mix is bound to be different from today's mix.

Will we have an energy portfolio - some combination of nuclear, natural gas, hydro, solar, oil and wind?  Or will we be more firmly on the way to 100% renewable energy?

No one knows for certain. Analysts may differ. But even they can not predict the breakthrough technologies that are yet to occur. For their inventors may not even be born today. 

Perhaps solar power will become our dominant energy source. Perhaps it won't. Either way, it will be important.   The challenge of achieving 24 hour solar power that's cheap and reliable is simply too important to ignore.


Until next time, 

Have a healthy disregard for the word 'impossible'