Solar Energy Creates Quite a Firestorm


Wow, my comments on solar energy really upset some people.

They thought I entirely bypassed the largest single issue related to the viability of solar power as a significant contributor to our “power portfolio”, which was:

“how much energy per square meter is even available?”… the flux density of solar radiation at Earth’s orbit around the sun is a FIXED VALUE… people need to accept it… And no degree of engineering prowess can alter that fact. No technological leaps can change that. Nothing, short of altering the sun itself, or relocating the orbit of Earth… can alter that… You’re treating this like a PSYCHOLOGY ISSUE. It’s not. It’s a “cost/benefit analysis” issue, plain and simple… It will never become anything more than a “marginal” addition to the overall power generation pool…

The rest of the conversation got nasty, condescending, and increasingly irate. LinkedIn is usually more professional than that, but I had to respond even though I knew it would upset folks further because there were some glaring mistakes and I couldn’t let them be marginalized or dismissed as unrealistic, uneducated, or stupid.

90% of the time that clients tell us their problem is “impossible to solve because it is against the laws of physics” they are using the wrong physics for that particular problem. A good example of this is Galileo. He looked at the situation differently – used science differently – and he realized different results. After Galileo’s breakthroughs, generations of other scientists went even farther than he did. Thus, we have made even more advances – ones that Galileo might not have imagined.

When you get stuck, it is better to innovate than give up. We have solved many problems that “were against the laws of physics”. Here is a common example: There have been many predictions over the decades that Moore’s Law will fail due to heat and/or leakage. But as regular as clockwork someone discovers a new resource or looks at the physics from a different point of view and we achieve a breakthrough in chip technology and Moore’s Law stays alive for another round of success and future doubt.

When someone says, “There is only a limited amount of ‘energy per square meter available’ is predicated on looking at the science from only one paradigm. [And here is the real value of an innovative mindset]  If the science behind a claim supports that claim, then you will always achieve the results you have achieved. If, however, you look at the problem differently, you will achieve different results. In order to find a better scientific view point, it is important to treat this issue like a PSYCHOLOGY ISSUE. You must think outside of the box to create breakthroughs.

The brain goes through a step-by-step process when it innovates. This process is largely known. If the problem seems impossible, you need to look outside of the box you have thought your way into. Learn the psychology and science of innovative thinking and vistas of possibility open up.

The great thinker, Thomas Kuhn, writes about revolutionary scientific advances and how it is resisted by the “dominate scientific community” until the benefits can no longer be ignored.

Let’s say we want to constrain ourselves to a typical situation. We calculate the surface area of efficient solar cells and factor in all the other mitigating factors (weather and incidence angle) and we come up with a fixed value. Will that fixed value ever allow solar to be anything more than a marginalized power source? Well, within the constraints of that fixed viewpoint, that fixed value may be problematic. But what will a different viewpoint yield?

Let’s look at the super-system. Right now it is pretty centralized. Solar can be a distributed energy source. It can provide energy as needed – demand driven locally. If there is no local demand at a point in time, the energy goes back into the grid. Looking at the super-system point-of-view, less energy would be needed to be generated because we would not have to compensate for generation and transmission losses. This is part of the new exergy model of energy and sustainability. HP Labs is doing exciting work on this subject.

They look at the total energy cost/footprint not just the total available fixed values of a energy source. They compare the amount of available energy after the total costs of collection (drilling, mining, etc.) and refining and transportation, and transmission, and decommissioning plants, mines, and etc. When you look at the problem in terms of joules from start through use and beyond (decommissioning and clean-up, etc.) then solar’s fixed value in relation to coal’s fixed value starts to look better. Do you see what I mean about looking at the problem differently. When you see if from a different point of view, you have different problems to solve and some of those are easier to solve than the current issues.

In short, the answer is “Yes, of course solar power will be a major future energy source. To achieve this vision we need entrepreneurs, great problem-solvers, and inventive teams working on all aspects of the problems now inhibiting it’s deployment.  Some of these issues will be scientific and some will be social issues. When there is a large shift to a culture’s infrastructure, there will be resistance to the science, even if the science predicts reality better than the old science. Once again, read Thomas Kuhn’s great work.  If you need more information on the inventive mindset to create breakthroughs, look up TRIZ or Structured Innovation.