THE BAD NEWS
We’re in it now, folks. Scientists are reporting that the permafrost in Russia has weakened so much that huge amounts of methane are bursting through into the atmosphere, creating immense craters. Methane, if you recall, is a greenhouse gas that’s 20 times more powerful than carbon.
At the same time, Arctic scientists note that if we release even a small amount of the carbon and greenhouse gases trapped in the Arctic, then it’s game over for us as a species.
More greenhouse cases will cause more ice melting, which then releases yet more greenhouse gases… You see where this is going. It’s called a feedback loop, and it’s dreaded for a good reason. Climatologists and futurists (among them Alex Steffen, always a good resource) inform us that if we don’t make drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions within the next ten years, then we’re going to be in REAL trouble.
So it seems, inevitably, that the world is about to change, and change drastically. The way the world will look in 50 years will be unlike any other era humans have ever known. We can just assume this is a given – right?
Well, right. But I’m not convinced that climate change will be that change.
Actually, there’s a pretty good chance things might change for the better for a significant amount of people.
Crazy, right? Maybe not.
The human world has made some pretty astounding advances in the past few hundred years. The number of human generations it takes to reach the next technological advancement – from tools, to agriculture, to literacy – has dropped exponentially each time, leading to dispersed benefit and increased abundance.
But people are still restrained by two things: energy and water. Without those two things, you can’t do a lot. Especially be healthy and happy.
For the past 150 years, these two things have been scarcity-oriented: someone has the resource, and someone else doesn’t. This is why the Western world has such a long history of intervening in the Middle East, as well as why Europe is reluctant to take any kind of aggressive actions against Russia, despite its being responsible (how responsible is a matter of opinion) for the deaths of hundreds of its citizens.
In short, scarcity-oriented resources enable people to be real dicks.
But there doesn’t seem to be another option, does there? These guys have all the energy, and there’s no alternate way for everyone to get their own energy, thus freeing themselves from these various yokes.
Well. There is one option that’s only become possible in the past three years:
That near-vertical line at the end? That’s the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) power. Produced by the AllianceBernstein investment group, this chart was part of their April report on the sudden transformation in solar power, and it’s triggered a whole lot of surprise, confusion, and excitement.
As it should. This is probably the first time in human history that the price of an energy source has dropped so much so fast. These are polycrystalline silicon solar cells, and their sudden drop in price is due to a number of reasons. Part of it is the enormous increase in available polycrystalline silicon: per Wikipedia, the number of solar-grade polycrystalline silicon producers has gone from 12 to over 100 from 2008 to 2013.
Another matter is the tremendous scaling-up of production (and, possibly, significant subsidies) being performed in China. And still another is the general improvement in technology: polycrystalline silicon PV is breaking efficiency records every day, and the process of actually producing the cells is getting more streamlined, more automated, and more efficient.
Solar is already price competitive with fossil fuels without subsidies in 15 countries, and in 2013 China installed 12.9 gigawatts of PV, the most ever installed in one year by any country. Germany – having paid the early adopter fee on solar – is now breaking records nearly every day. Forecasts would suggest that solar PV will be cheaper than coal in China and India by 2020 (though others pinpoint 2018 as The Year).
And once that happens, watch out – China doesn’t do anything half-assed. They used more concrete in the past three years than the US has in the entire 20th Century. They turned Shanghai into their version of Chicago in 20 years just to do it. And they’re also suffering from tremendous coal issues, so much so that they want to ban coal use in Beijing by 2020.
India is already hugely embracing solar power, and is actually leapfrogging the developed world in this respect: building a centralized, conventional power plant and grid is too expensive in rural India, but per this article, companies like Simpa Energy have created a
pay-as-you-go model for solar power, allowing even the poorest Indians in the most rural of areas to have access to clean, green solar power. Simpa Energy customers use their cell phones (which even the poorest of the population have) to purchase a pre-paid code from Simpa, which they then type into a box connected to a solar panel array on their house. Instantly, their home lights up, and they have access to clean and green energy for cooking, cleaning, reading and anything else.
Pretty cool stuff, right? Westerners might deride the amount of power being provided – it’s certainly not enough to power our AC, laptops, LCD televisions, refrigerators, and washing machines 24/7 – but to these people, just having a light on in their home is a big deal.
But is this the gamechanger? Are polycrystalline silicon photovoltaics the source that will not only end energy poverty in the developing world, but will also drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world?
Maybe. But increasingly I feel like the gamechanger looks like this:
AND WHAT IN THE HELL IS THAT?
That is a crystalline mineral composed of calcium, titanium, and oxygen that is known as “perovskite,” first found in the Ural Mountains and named after Lev Perovski, founder of the Russian Geographical Society.
I first heard about perovskites in January of this year, and I’ve been following them pretty steadily. Solar is a giant, chaotic race at this point, with new developments and new records being made every week, so I tend to take a handful of ideas I find promising and just check out the latest on them every couple of days or so.
(I am not, as many will note, a hard SF author, so some may wonder why I’d bother with this. Beyond the fact that I care about the climate, an incredible amount of inspiration for fantasy worlds can be derived from understanding how our own world works and changes. Fantasy and SF is the genre of the implausible and impossible as explored within a set of rules. Those that ignore what’s possible in today’s world do so at their own peril.)
Increasingly, I’ve become convinced that pervoskites are The Thing, that this is the development that will genuinely, honestly shake up the world.
The structure of perovskite is likely more interesting than what it is. As this highly informative site explains, “Dependant (sic) on which atoms/molecules are used in the structure, perovskites can have an impressive array of interesting properties including superconductivity, giant magnetoresistane, spin dependent transport (spintronics) and catalytic properties. Perovskites therefore represent an exciting playground for physicists, chemists and material scientists.”
It’s also extremely abundant in the earth’s crust. So, that’s all cool, right? Right.
But it’s the superconductivity that makes it a substitute for polycrystalline silicon in PV. Check out how its efficiencies have improved in comparison to other PV:
Perovskites are the near-vertical blue line on the right. (It feels familiar to the previous graph above, in a way). They’ve gone from less than 5% efficiency to nearly 20% in 5 years. It took silicon five times as long to the same. That’s impressive in its own right.
But what’s more impressive can be summed up in two words:
Silicon takes a huge amount of processing to get to the point to where it’s PV-grade, and that processing takes an enormous amount of energy and resources.
Perovskites do not. As this article states (you’ll have to scroll down to get to Henry Snaith, the guy who’s basically invented this procedure), researches today use “simple techniques such as smearing the readily available ingredients across a coated glass plate.”
That’s right. They just smear it on there. It’s a tabletop, solution-based process that doesn’t require the intense amount of semiconductor processing necessary to make PV-grade silicon. Oxford Photovoltaics, currently the leader in the field (or so it seems), expects to start shipping perovskite solar modules in 2017.
And while it’s not yet perfect – perovskites contain lead, but researchers are working to replace it with tin – the rapid improvements suggest that solutions to this issue aren’t too far away. For example, they just recently figured out a way to create perovksites using a spray-coating technique, achieving 11% efficiency – just a few percentage points off from being commercial-grade.
This is very likely the simplest, cheapest method of producing PV modules ever yet developed. It’s highly scalable, in comparison to nearly all other forms of PV. If someone scales it up, they can start cranking them out like hotcakes.
But it also means not only will solar cell production costs plummet, but you can also theoretically coat anything with the material, creating windows, walls, and the surfaces of vehicles with energy-producing photovoltaic cells.
What this means is that, even though PV prices have plunged in the past few years, the price of perovskite PV will likely be only a fraction of where PV is now.
For example, currently silicon solar cells are priced at around .65 USD per watt. That’s the lowest they’ve ever been, by the way.
At .20 USD per watt, perovskite solar is literally off the chart. The bottom of the chart, that is.
In short – and this might be hyperbole, or it might not – perovskites are to solar as fracking is to fossil fuels.
BUT HOW IS THE GAME CHANGED?
Ray Kurzweil is a name that sometimes inspires a lot of groaning from the SF and science fields, what with The Singularity and all, but either by accident or on purpose, he’s hit the mark on solar power pretty well so far. In 2011, to the derision of many, he and Google’s Larry Page predicted that the prices of solar power were about to plummet. This happened. However, he went on to predict that if solar power continues its historic trend of doubling every two years, then by 2030 we would be completely solar powered.
Yes, that’s right. The whole wide world.
Is that likely? Hell, I don’t know. Probably not. Fifteen years ago I would have also said that tiny computers filled with cameras and games and communication applications would never penetrate the poorest of markets in less than a decade, and yet look where we are.
The whole world solar powered, though… That’s a stretch. Storage is still an issue, in order to provide power when the sun doesn’t shine. But with the prices of PV plummeting, and set to plummet even more when perovskites hit the market, it’s obviously a huge, huge growth industry. Ontario, California, Hawaii, Washington, and New York have all launched storage programs, and anything from compressed air, heat pumps, flywheels, flow batteries, organic batteries, and Gigafactories are in the running. Whoever figures out how to do this on the cheap will make more money than God. (I just assume God is rich.)
What interests me, really, is what Kurzweil said about where we go once we’ve eliminated energy poverty. He predicted that, once we have energy, desalinization will become the next hurdle, tapping the boundless amounts of unpotable water all around the world.
And then this happened, just in the past few weeks: a graphite hockey pock that, when exposed to average sunlight magnified 10 times (a low amount, considering), creates steam.
While some are imagining the power possibilities of this steam – something I’m reluctant to do, since it would require an abundance of water, something a lot of people are hurting for now and will hurt for more in the future – this snippet is most interesting to me:
“Along with its potential power uses, the solar steam system will be able to desalinate and/or decontaminate impure and waste water.”
Desalinization is one of the most expensive technologies out there, so the idea that this chunk of graphite can desalinate water using only the sun is tremendously exciting. It’s obviously still in its infancy – where does the salt and waste go, exactly? – but I immediately start imagining tremendous solar powered water farms all along the coast, using cheap solar energy to pump limitless amounts of potable water… Well. Anywhere.
Imagine living in a world where, if you get the right tech in the right place, energy and potable water is close to limitless. Imagine skyscraper farms, with floors and floors of hydroponics, ending world hunger. Just imagine what we could turn our imaginations to.
This is decades away, if it ever happens. But it’s fun to think about.
WILL THIS REALLY HAPPEN?
Well, here’s what I suspect we’ll see in the next ten or fifteen years:
- We’ll see more energy and technological advancement in the developed world than we’ll have ever seen before. Not only are China and India participating in what some call the “solar revolution,” but Africa has 6 of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world. Much like how the developing world has more iPhones than they do regular phones, or even toilets, solar – especially perovskite solar – is going to be a cheap, cheap option in comparison to creating the infrastructure required to transport fossil fuels to any given location, use them to generate power, and then create a grid to transport that power. This, in turn, will increase the demand for solar, which will then lower the price of solar worldwide.
- As droughts continue, we’re going to see less water from natural resources. This matters in terms of power production – coal and natural gas both require steam to work, and oil requires a whole lot of water to refine – as well as in regards to fracking, which 1. uses a ton of water, and 2. currently has an exemption from most water regulations. (As a personal note, I have less problems with fracking than probably most people writing about solar would. But that’s beside the point.) The lack of water will make conventional power generation more difficult, which will drive up power prices, which will make solar (which only uses water to clean off the panels, though there are fixes for this) more desirable.
- Experts generally agree that fossil fuels are going to get harder to extract. It’s very likely we’ll find a way to extract new reserves fossil fuels, it’ll just be really expensive. Fracking, for example, is a very expensive practice, and the price of natural gas has been hugely variable depending on demand. So the overall prices of fossil fuels will go up. This is a much more longterm effect than 10-15 years, mind.
- While all this is going on, Big Data is going to make energy production and demand for a variety of energy types much easier to predict and account for. Solar modules will continue to get cheaper and more efficient. Energy efficiency will continue to improve. (Don’t forget graphene and carbon nanotubes are floating in the background of all this, threatening to completely upend the way we transmit electricity.) And storage – manifesting like Gozer the Gozerian, in whatever form it chooses to take – will finally begin to penetrate the global market, possibly starting with the developing world yet again.
All things above taking place – a somewhat big “If” – solar, data, and storage will begin to overtake and replace conventional fossil fuel generation in the developed world, very slowly. This is the hardest part, and the biggest difference when it comes to Moore’s Law, which applies to the increasing rate of computer processing power and is often applied to solar: computers came into a relative vacuum. Solar is not. Although solar improves similarly, it has stiff, entrenched competition. For solar and storage to win, they will need to be so much more favorable to conventional fossil fuels that the choice will need to be the equivalent of whether or not you need a smart phone – a tall order, but not an impossible one.
Now, this is not The Singularity, nor is it the dawning of a utopia. What this is are ingredients for significant change, change of a sort that we’ve never seen before. If this all pans out – and it seems somewhat likely, considering – then what happens will dwarf the societal shakeups of the 20th Century, especially in developing countries. There are plenty of ifs, but even if only a handful of these things become true, their consequences can be enormous, causing yet further changes.
One big “if” is if we’re already on the climate feedback loop. That might be possible. And if that’s true, it would really, really suck.
But these changes are going to happen in the next few decades no matter what sort of climate we’re going to have in 2100, I suspect. And after this point, I really don’t know what human technology is going to do, nor what it can withstand, climate-wise. If we unlock abundant energy and water, then the sky’s the limit, as far as what we can do.
Our modern-day definition of “apocalypse” is “the end of the world,” and is usually accompanied by all sorts of divine fury and horrific disasters, skies of fire and seas of blood.
What we often forget is that its original meaning in Ancient Greek was an “un-covering” or “revealing” – a revelation, in other words, the sudden transfer of incredible, transformative knowledge.
I do think an apocalypse is coming, most certainly. It’s just a matter of whether or not it’ll be the modern day interpretation or the Ancient Greek interpretation.