By on March 1, 2008

520594_83703259-748499.jpg Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil is smart enough to have predicted the ascendancy of the Internet, the common availability of wireless (at a time when the great Bill Gates was busy hard-wiring his $40m mansion so that it could be "run by a computer") and the fall of the Soviet Union. Livescience.com reports that the inventor and futurist now predicts that solar power will be a viable crude oil alternative within the next five years. And then… "[Use] is doubling now every two years. Doubling every two years means multiplying by 1,000 in 20 years. At that rate we'll meet 100 percent of our energy needs in 20 years." Kurzweil  says you can thank nanotechnology, which will make solar panels light, inexpensive and more efficient. This could be a big deal. The sunlight falling on earth contains 10k times more energy than we use annually. If Kurzweil is right, we'll soon be energy-rich. (Rich, I tell you, rich!) Automotively speaking, a large source of cheap energy would immediately put zero emissions hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars back on the front burner. 

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30 Comments on “Solar Panel Tipping Point?...”


  • avatar
    jthorner

    It is not possible to double the efficiency of solar collection panels once per two years forever. The math and physics don’t work. At first I thought Kurzweil must have suddenly lost his mind. Then, I read the original article where he says that the USE of solar energy is presently doubling every two years. Now that I believe and it makes sense.

    Tipping points really do happen. Remember when in a matter of months it seemed like every kid in America got a Razor style scooter? Solar power isn’t going to roll out instantly like that, but it is coming on strong. Five to ten years from now it is quite likely that a homeowner faced with replacing the roofing on their home will have the choice of spending $5-10k more to get solar power collecting tiles installed instead of the regular asphalt composites.

    Traditional oil companies may one day face a quandary similar to paper magazines and newspapers do today.

  • avatar
    miked

    Solar is real close. I give it about 10 years until you can go down to the hardware store and buy a couple kilowatt solar panel for your house. I’ve seen some neat talks on the new research being done in increasing solar efficiency and lifespan.

    The “only” problem is that they’re a nightmare environmentally to make. But we won’t worry about that until later (just like E85).

  • avatar

    Check out nanosolar.com

    The lightweight film panels will put traditional panels out of business, and can be applied in a variety of ways. We’ll have clothing that recharges our tech goodies from solar. I’ve seen prototype roofing tiles with nanofilm on them …

  • avatar
    jaje

    Don’t forget about roofing membranes that you can literally roll onto the roof and secure rather than have to affix hard panels and mount. In fact this technology is getting so far along that there are now ways to literally “print” solar panels on to flexible medium (from a special printer of course).

    http://www.powerfilmsolar.com/products/building_integrated/membrane-roofing.html

    A lot of people think Fuel Cells will not gain traction but as soon as solar energy reaches that “tipping point” or critical mass it will make a huge difference. That’s when the price point and technology gets to such a level that it will be standard construction. Honda sees this as their hydrogen fueling stations in CA that create hydrogen for their FCX cars use mainly solar power. How long before these experimental units make it to home use that can also power the house?

  • avatar
    Jordan Tenenbaum

    miked:

    The “only” problem is that they’re a nightmare environmentally to make. But we won’t worry about that until later (just like E85).

    Mike, would you care to indulge the process? If not, a link would work.

    It would probably make more sense right now for the focus to shift to just solar, even if it’s environmentally disastrous. E85 however is a cash cow that hasn’t dried up, yet.

    One more thing: Where’s wind power?

  • avatar
    frontline

    I hope this is not an off color question but does anyone see a particular solar company who is on the leading edge of this development. A microsoft-to-be type of company that would make a worthy investment?

  • avatar
    bucksnort

    There is another flaw in this solar love fest. The energy density usage of large metropolitan areas cannot be met by panels on rooftops. Large areas of land will be required to provide power for high density areas. In NYC’s case, it could require an area the size of Connecticut.

    Solar panel generated electricity will become a significant contributor but will never be able to provide all of our electricity.

  • avatar
    Jordan Tenenbaum

    Well, there’s always nuclear.

  • avatar
    veefiddy

    I have had PV solar panels for 4 years, they provide 50% of my electricity/year. It cost me about $10K to install with about $10K in subsidies. Will pay for itself in 10(ish) years. The only point I’m making is that solar is here now if you want it.

  • avatar
    Brendino

    Not to be a hater, but obviously if he predicts something and it comes true he gets the attention and recognition. Has this guy predicted anything that hasn’t come to pass? Those comments tend to be forgotten about.

  • avatar

    Kurzweil takes about 250 pills a day (don’t quote me on the number, but it is something extraordinary) in an effort to stop the aging process. I haven’t heard of his providing relevant data on his physiology to see if this is working. Not exactly a prediction that hasn’t come to pass, but the closest thing I know of. Anyway, excellent question.

  • avatar
    chuckR

    bucksnort sez:

    The energy density usage of large metropolitan areas cannot be met by panels on rooftops.

    The solution to human pollution is dilution. Yay, suburbs and 1 to 2 story low density housing. Some of the greenies will treat this observation like the environmentalist Teddy K treated the news that Cape Cod’s energy needs could largely be met in his favorite yachting grounds.

  • avatar
    Adonis

    Imagine the geopolitical ramifications of cheap, easy solar power. In one fell swoop, OPEC and many middle eastern countries would fall from power players with huge clout, to poor and destitute populations. Not that the vast majority of the people in the Middle East aren’t poor or anything, but anyways.. The middle east would become Africa, part 2.

    As far as automobiles, they’d probably be battery-powered. The gearheads of our children’s generation will be popping the hood to look at quite a different engine, I wager.

    Interesting stuff. I wouldn’t be too surprised if it took a little longer than that, though.

  • avatar
    mjjacobs

    While I agree that it would be amazing to see the Middle East oil dictatorships collapse, solar is still way too far from being viable as a practical energy source to get all excited about.
    In terms of actual energy production, solar is considered relatively inefficient, and it doesn’t capture a fraction of the solar energy waves directed at it. What the industry is waiting for is a huge breakthrough that will allow panels to capture more energy. But that simply hasn’t happened yet. Even countries in the hot and sunny Mid-East like Israel only use home solar panels to heat water because the energy is difficult to transmit over distances. There is also the problem of dirt accumulation on the panels that reduces their efficiency.
    Its kind of the same thing with wind. It just doesn’t produce that much power and they are hard to transmit.
    Usually the kind of solutions that seem too good to be true, like abundant, unlimited energy sources, or a good domestic small car, are simply that: too good to be true.
    If my post isn’t convincing, read any old Popular Science issue and you’ll realize just how many inventions and energy sources that were going to change our lives never happened.

  • avatar

    My understanding is that we could supply the entire country’s electricity with a 100 mile by 100 mile solar farm in the Arizona desert.

    Realistic? Maybe not. But 100 square miles of solar panels set up more regionally, according to demand, IS realistic. And becoming more and more affordable and efficient every day.

    Evergreen Solar (NASDAQ: ESLR; USA) claims they are within a couple years of grid parity (pricing same as the grid), and will have a ~gigawatt of production capacity by 2011. FWIW.

  • avatar

    # frontline :
    March 1st, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    I hope this is not an off color question but does anyone see a particular solar company who is on the leading edge of this development. A microsoft-to-be type of company that would make a worthy investment?

    @frontline

    My suggestion above was very brief, but where the google founders have gone with their investment money is a fair bet.

    http://www.nanosolar.com

  • avatar
    TexasAg03

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Kurzweil#Accuracy_of_predictions

    I don’t care to do the math, but that link lists many of his predictions. One could calculate the accuracy of the predictions whose time has passed…

  • avatar
    frontline

    Thanks Stein X and Mgo BLUE for those companies. Solar will be a link in the chain of the future.

    How many billions have gone to Iraq ? I would have loved to have seen a modern day , goverment subsidized ” Manhattan Project” that tackled
    alternative fuels with all our best brains and dollars.

  • avatar

    mjjacobs :

    Mid-East like Israel only use home solar panels to heat water because the energy is difficult to transmit over distances.

    Not because it’s difficult to transmit. Solar water heating is popular because it’s effective, i.e. a reasonably sized/priced panel can heat a decent chunk of the hot water. It’s a naturally efficient process and the energy is stored in the hotwater cylinder. Solar power generation is both less efficient (i.e. you’ll need large panels to power a house) and less useful as the energy isn’t naturally stored as with hot water.

    mjjacobs :

    Its kind of the same thing with wind. It just doesn’t produce that much power and they are hard to transmit.

    It’s not hard to transmit. Once you turn it into electrical energy it travels exactly the same as that from any other source.

    Wind power is modular and a small farm can be connected to the local 6.6 kV, 11 kV, 33 kV or whatever network. Conventional power generation needs to be much larger to cost effective and therefore takes longer to plan and build and they can only be connected to the high voltage transmission network.

  • avatar
    El Norte

    It is not possible to double the efficiency of solar collection panels once per two years forever.

    True: this doubling of efficiency every other year isn’t possible forever. Of course, this isn’t what he said. The qualifier “forever” was tacked on by you. We are at the very cusp of solar technology (as well as battery technology) and there’s quite a bit of room for growth. The proposition that we’ll be within the that window of improvement over the next twenty years is very real from a materials engineering perspective.

  • avatar
    thx_zetec

    There is one huge problem: the energy is not portable.

    We already have comestic energy much cheaper than oil, coal. Electricity from domestic fuel is much cheaper energy source. Making solar cost competitive with coal would be amazing news, and would greatly cut carbon – BUT – would have zilch effect on OPEC.

    Aside from a little heating oil petro is used for transportation, plastics etc. Solar electricity – or any electricity – can’t work without huge advances in EV technology.

    Liquid fossil fuel is unique: energy dense, and easy to carry (how’d you like to carry a huge methane tank or have to shovel coal in your SUV?)

    The break through needed to give OPEC the boot is *not* solar electricity, we already have electricity (esp off peak). The break through is vastly improved energy storage (battery, fly-wheels, rubber bands).

  • avatar
    autoacct628

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the tree-huggers would meet the rest of us halfway? Now that the majority of Americans realize that fossil fuels are not sustainable, and are searching for alternatives, it would be nice if those ubergreenies would “let” our government get on nuclear power parity with Japan and Europe. Not only would this have a major downward impact on oil prices, as oil generators would be phased out, but the resulting savings for our economny would allow for more r&d into permanent solutions.

  • avatar
    thx_zetec

    autoacct628

    Solar or Nuclear, don’t matter. Neither wil affect OPEC much.

    The US uses very little oil for electrical generation. Nuclear replaces cheap coal, and natural gas. Might help global warming, but again – no affect on OPEC.

    UNLESS – there is another break through in storing energy for transportation.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    But we do use SOME oil for power and if a steady supply of electricity is assured, even short-range electric cars are in our strategic and environmental interest and that could supplant a fair amount of oil-based fuel.

    Of course, even at good prices, solar power will only phase in slowly, so the impact on OPEC will be minimal.

    The greens aren’t preventing nukes, it’s the financing that prevents nukes.

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    Kix,

    The thing about finances preventing nukes is somewhat true, but also misleading. One of the large costs of putting in a nuke site is legal bills from every green and NIMBY. I don’t know the actual cost of nuclear generation per kW, and I doubt anyone else does. At some price point or desire to eliminate carbon production nuclear WILL make sense.

    I also wonder about solar panels being cost efficient WITHOUT subsidy. Perhaps the subsidy should require a certain efficiency level?

    Overall, I am a supporter of the many solutions approach. Also, I haven’t seen any discussion about what happens if you subsidize alternates to the point that you are actually reducing the cost of gasoline (through reduced demand), thus raising the necessary subsidy.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Why, Landcrusher, I’m surprised at you… the solution to decreased demand reducing the cost of gas is obvious…

    We tax the bejeezus out of it!

    You didn’t realize that? Did you learn nothing during the Clinton years? :-)

    My experience with a power company and my understanding of nukes was that the legal bills were not the major problem. However, uncertainty, and the impact of greens is a part of that, is.

    For the most part, power companies have been able to manage to meet load with smaller-scale projects, plant rebuilds (the Allen S. King just got overhauled near me and now produces more with less) and conservation initiatives.

    In the ’80’s, power companies said this was impossible… turned out not to be so.

    This greenie is not entirely adverse to new nukes but I’d like to see better technology implemented (there appear to be some available) and a way of manaaging them that puts safety first. We also have to find a way to store the waste and get on the stick about safe transport of same. And I’d like to see breeders as part of the system, so as to ensure fuel indefinitely. Another risk to be managed. I’d put the Navy in charge. Their record, under adverse circumstances, is very good.

    Nuclear power from a fully depreciated plant (usually operating beyond its initial estimated life) is about the cheapest power there is. I think we can still get inexpenstive electricity from new nukes but we also need new ways to use that electricity to enable a CO2 emissions-free energy infrastructure or I won’t think it’s worthwhile to support those new nukes. Well… ways exist but it could be that they must be subsidized.

    Oh… and we do use a fair amount of oil in an important non-transportation use; as home heating oil. Shifting that to clean-sourced electric or solar would have a major impact on both CO2 and the price of oil.

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    Well, we could tax gas, but that would be bad for poor people. So, we will not.

    I know they are now planning two more reactors at the South Texas Nuclear Project. The locals there are all for it. The no nukes have a lot less ammo since there already is a reactor there. The regulatory environment here is better than average, so it’s just the Fed’s and the economics that have to work out. We have lots of natural gas here, and, unless I am mistaken, diesel generators as well.

    All of that tells me that it may indeed be the marginal costs of legal/PR hassles that are the real enemy to nuke plants.

    Lastly, there is much more talk around town that the oil bubble may burst. Good for the rest of the economy, bad for us. Yours truly will likely lose money in lost business and falling real estate. My loss, ya’lls gain. Don’t cancel your Viper order just yet.

  • avatar
    shaker

    Nukes are an “OK” temporary partial solution, but the future “decommissioning” costs and a reserved area to dispose of the contaminated reactor (and the parts of its containment that need disposal) have to be figured into the true cost of operation. A good start would be to have the gov’t or power producers to subsidize solar panels for individual home owners to augment their home’s consumption, and to add to the power grid on sunny days. (This could start in the sunny South, and spread North over time, as new tech makes solar more efficient). Meanwhile, the North could utilize more wind power to add to the grid; with farmers being paid to utilize some of their land for the turbines. The idea is that the electrical grid could “blend” (as it does now) various sources; and the more we add, the less effect that regional variances in wind and solar flux will have on the entire grid; if we could somehow develop an overcapacity using wind and solar, power plants could assume a “back-up” role in some cases.
    It’s a “sea-change” that will no doubt cause much pain in our fossil-fuel economy, but it will have to happen.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Shaker, the wind turbines are already on the way, just as you describe. There is some concern over siting them on major flyways but this should still leave lots of acreage for development. Wind produces electricity at competitive cost today.

    The problem becomes, what do you do at night and when the wind drops below a few mph? We need new storage technologies in order to rely on inconsistent power sources. We want to store up the juice when it’s available and release it again when needed.

    I’d like to see an additional emphasis on solar space and water heating. Increased emphasis on that should cut fuel oil use (although, at current Natural Gas prices, it’s just as useful to reduce NG use) and there should be reasonably low barriers to entry for new suppliers/contractors, creating a fair amount of good, reasonably skilled jobs. Very little new construction gets any solar consideration at all (although new construction is generally more energy efficient than my 1963 house, even though I added insulation).

    It’s a pity we don’t move more aggressively on these things… 75% of the homes in my town are new since 1985, perhaps 50% new since about 1995. If they had been engineered and built for the best combination of passive solar gain, active solar space and water heating, the reduction in NG use would be very impressive. As it is, higher energy efficiency standards just started to phase in at that time and there’s almost zero use of solar power in any form. And plenty of these are half million dollar homes. Diverting 10% of the purchase price of one of those into advanced solar tech would probably yield a house with amazing solar potential.

    Landcrusher, what factors do you think would cause the oil bubble to burst?

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    Talk is that the price right now is over reacting to every little threat to production. This is a psychological thing in the market. The supply is presently large enough to deal with most threats and still meet demand. Once the traders really catch on to that, they will have more fear of paying too much and the market will likely over react in the opposite direction. We have seen it before. At least this time no one thinks the price can sink to low because the demand is still really high and growing.


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