What critics of solar energy fail to realize is that growth in capacity is being matched by technology that reduces its necessity.
A generation ago, when Steve Roberts launched his ride across America, even a “portable” PC like my Kaypro had to be plugged into the wall. Today you can get infinitely more computing power in an iPhone, and while thin film solar systems may offer just at trickle of charge, it can be enough.
All sorts of Moore’s Law miracles are also accompanied by lower power requirements. Modern cellular systems ride on the Digital Signal Processors (DSPs) that deliver more-and-more bandwidth with less-and-less power every year. In American cities we see this reflected best in WiFi, which is 10 times faster than it was a decade ago.
Combine these small miracles in the African bush and you get a big one. The trickle of power from a thin film panel is enough to both bring LED light into the darkness, and deliver 21st century communications. Consider that 85% of Kenyans live “off the grid,” along with half of humanity. Solar trickles can double participation in civilized life. (This particular picture was taken in Malawi two years ago for the Global Energy Network Institute.)
Simple advances for poorer countries are leading to solar powered stoves or just conventional stoves that use less wood and reduce pollution, products of science set into overdrive by more computing power being available to more people.
Or look up. Solar-powered planes can now stay aloft indefinitely, and will soon be able to fly around the world. Drones can now maintain constant communications in a disaster zone, or in a war zone. Pretty miraculous.
These are just two small trends I want to pay attention to as 2011 opens. We tend to focus here on “western” units of power, on renewable energy systems capable of scaling to the current grid. We worry too much about the “economic feasibility” of such systems against fossil fuels or nuclear power.
What we should be doing is looking at how these miracles are transforming our world every single day, using what power we can harvest.