“Their predictions range from near-term to long-term, from the mundane to the fantastic, but many futurists, regardless of their focus, see solar power in our future.”
In the realm of science fiction, solar has long played a role as a primary energy source in imaginary futures. Ever since Dr. Hans Zeigler outfitted satellite Vanguard 1 with photovoltaic panels back in 1958, solar energy has sparked writers imaginations. From the solar space-yachts of Aurthur C. Clarke’s Sunjammer to the horrific solar-powered swarms of killer “nano-bots” in Michael Crichton’s Prey, solar energy production is a technology that speculative fiction writers have always seen as part of our future. But what about the people who’s job it is to PREDICT the future, rather than imagine it? What do “Futurists” think about the role solar energy will play in the coming century?
Vanguard 1 photo: Tommy Estrom
Futurists, sometimes called “Futurologists” are those social scientists, economists and others analysts who spend their time examining current trends and studying future scenarios. They may work for governments, corporations and other organizations. They may be academics, business consultants, journalists or bloggers, and their focus may vary from economics to technology to human relationships, but most take an interdisciplinary approach to predicting the future. Their predictions range from near-term to long-term, from the mundane to the fantastic, but many futurists, regardless of their focus, see solar power in our future.
Ray Kurzweil is one of the world’s best known futurists. Kurzweil currently serves as director of engineering for Google, but is probably best known for his writings on life extension, artificial intelligence and transhumanism in books like The Singularity is Near and The Age of Spiritual Machines. Kurzweil is optimistic about solar as part of a sustainable future. He points out that solar power has been doubling every two years for the past 30 years. According to Kurzweil, within 14 more years, solar could be providing 100% of the world’s energy needs.
A more conservative near-term outlook on solar comes from Robin Hanson, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University. He wrote in 2011: “The cost of solar, in the average location in the U.S., will cross the current average retail electricity price of 12 cents per kilowatt hour in around 2020, or 9 years from now. In fact, given that retail electricity prices are currently rising by a few percent per year, prices will probably cross earlier, around 2018 for the country as a whole, and as early as 2015 for the sunniest parts of America. 10 years later, in 2030, solar electricity is likely to cost half what coal electricity does today.”
“We are not going to stop using oil and coal before we use them up no matter how much solar, wind and bio-fuel energies are available.”
Futurist consultant and podcaster Heather Schlegel is downright pessimistic about the future of solar energy. Not so much about solar technology, but more about changing human habits. She wrote: “It hit me this week. Energy conservation and the development of solar and wind energies is akin to caloric restriction. Sure, it has been scientifically proven to help you live longer, but you certainly can’t be a body builder on it. Nor can you express your human potential on it. (Unless that is living long enough for the Singularity – a noble cause in it’s own, but one I care not to achieve.) Sure solar and wind will give us some energy, but they just help us put off dealing with peak oil. The amount of energy in oil is so highly concentrated and it is so easily chemically manipulated. We are not going to stop using oil and coal before we use them up no matter how much solar, wind and bio-fuel energies are available.”
Others are taking a longer view. Stewart Brand is a technologist, internet pioneer and founder of The Long Now Foundation. In a Mother Jones interview, Brand was asked: “What’s the most promising new energy source?” Brand replied: “It might well be space solar. Because the main problem with solar on the Earth’s surface is that it is so intermittent, and we don’t have decent storage yet. The advantage of having something out at synchronous distance is that it’s in the sun all the time. You can beam down, via microwave, significant juice, about nine times greater than you’d get on the Earth’s surface.”
The idea of getting outside of the earth’s atmosphere to collect energy goes back to the work of another famous futurist, physicist Freeman Dyson. Dyson first explored this idea back in 1960, in a Science Magazine article, The Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation. With the advent of private space flight, Dyson’s solar power-collecting megastructure, now known as a “Dyson Sphere,” might actually be quite literally on the horizon.
In 2012, Canadian futurist and io9 contributing editor George Dvorsky wrote an article entitled How to build a Dyson Sphere in 10 (relatively) easy steps. He states: “We are closer to being able to build a Dyson Sphere than we think. In fact, we could conceivably get going on the project in about 25 to 50 years, with completion of the first phase requiring only a few decades. Yes, really.” Of course, Dvorsky’s “relatively” easy steps include mining materials on the planet Mercury…
Regardless of their personal favorite scenario, futurists seem to agree that sooner or later, we will be harvesting the majority of our power directly from the sun. With solar panel sales increasing exponentially, Kurzweil’s 14 year scenario may not be such a big stretch, and with individuals increasingly taking control of their own energy production, they gain increased independence.
“Solar may well be the proof and the underpinning of an economy where no one is limited by the high cost of energy.”
Futurist Brian Sovryn is an entrepreneur, game designer and the host of the popular technology podcast Sovryn Tech. Sovryn is a strong proponent of online privacy, digital freedom and transforming society thorough decentralizing technology. He sees solar as playing a role in increasing personal freedom. “To merely call solar power ‘cheap power’ is a mistake. It is diversified, abundant power. Solar may well be the proof and the underpinning of an economy where no one is limited by the high cost of energy.”
Hopefully, Sovryn is right about the future of solar energy. If we risk living in a world of Crichton’s solar nano-bots, We will need Clarke’s Sunjammers to carry us to the brighter solar future.