by Geoff Olson
a 2000 interview on CBC Radios 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 books 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.
Isnt that enough?
Whatever the merit of the slab of compressed pulp that so annoyed
the two ethnobotanists, theres no denying that light-eating
is a very impressive trick. In fact, its evolutions
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.
Thats real magic. Lets 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
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,
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 Energys 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 suns electromagnetic
energy is the prime driver of the atmospheres thermal engine.)
The pace of research is tracking the pace of production. It seems
that a week cant 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 arent 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, its 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 doesnt work when the sun goes down and storing power is
expensive. This is why solar still supplies only a small percentage
of the worlds 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 OCarroll
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. Noceras 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 suns 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
batterys replication of photosynthesis. Once you put
a photovoltaic on it, youve got an inorganic leaf, he
says. The chem prof figures hes managed to match wits with
Gaia. For six months now, Ive 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 (greencongress.com) 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 Kurzweils prognostications
too sunny? Is Noceras leaf-mimicry a revolutionary turn for
alternative technology or just a minor riff on natures grand
banquet of light? Besides, the MIT battery still has a long way
to go before market testing. And werent 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 isnt
limited to journalists and public relations flacks. Its 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. Its
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 planets
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 isnt troubled by concerns of a shortage of wild
spaces given over to solar power collectors. He believes the main
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 Earths 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 Kurzwells exponential growth
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
worlds freshwater devoted to agriculture, while also radically
reducing the amount of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and associated
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 Souths pent-up,
desperate need for electricity will be able to be addressed quite
Some of the sunniest places on Earth, including Africa for example,
are also the places with the greatest need for electricity. Bellensons
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 peoples
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
Solar and wind have long been the bastard children of energy production,
dismissed as bit players in petroleum and coals rich pageant.
Theres 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
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
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.
Were doing it by following the evolutionary example of the