A Bright Solar Future

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Issue 287
November/December 2014
The Future We Want and the One We Can't Afford

Reviews

A Bright Solar Future
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Cover: Illustration by Dennis Wunsch www.denniswunsch.com

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Jonathon Porritt hails a hope-filled guide to energy policy. The Burning Answer: A User’s Guide to the Solar Revolution by Keith Barnham. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014. ISBN: 9780297869634

Sun over Waterfall by Stuart Daly www.springoncemore.com

Sun over Waterfall by Stuart Daly www.springoncemore.com

I had a stroke of luck with Keith Barnham’s The Burning Answer. I found myself on a long weekend in Wales (sunny spells, punctuated by quite a lot of the wet stuff), which meant I could read it cover to cover. Even so, I nearly didn’t. I nearly gave up by around page 150, beaten into submission by this eminent physicist’s account of the semi-conductor revolution, the nature of light, Einstein’s legacy, electromagnetism, the Manhattan Project and quantum mechanics, with a good dose of cosmology thrown in for good measure.

All of which is, of course, directly or indirectly relevant to Barnham’s real story: the solar revolution, which is already in the process of transforming our entire global energy economy. But it was just too much to cope with for a non-scientist like me – a barrier rather than a helpful introduction to the brilliant second half of the book that follows. So my advice to other scientifically illiterate readers is this: start on page 145!

And what a solar feast awaits you! Forget the idea of solar energy as a nice little niche on the margins of conventional energy systems; a giddying and glorious plethora of solar technologies lie at the heart of the all-renewable energy system that awaits us.

Barnham’s no solar fruitcake. After an extremely successful career in experimental particle physics, he switched to researching solar energy before getting stuck in as a solar entrepreneur – inventing a solar cell that is three times as efficient as the most efficient solar cells on the market today. He’s hugely knowledgeable about the industry, and about the barriers to success, and uncomplicatedly, joyfully passionate about its transformative potential – for the money-poor (but ‘sun-rich’) world as much as for the money-rich world.

He’s also very clear why nuclear energy will play no part in this transformation. The nexus between the military, nuclear weapons and nuclear power is still a critical factor in the choices that nations make about different energy technologies. His hypothesis that all nuclear weapons countries lag behind the field on solar and renewables precisely because of that nexus of relationships and money is compelling.

For the same reason, he has little time for the ‘all of the above’ brigade – as in the idea that we need renewables, efficiency and nuclear to get the task of decarbonisation completed in a timely manner. People like James Lovelock and George Monbiot have simply got it wrong: everything they hope new nuclear will do for a low-carbon world can be done far more cost-effectively (and safely) with a 100% renewables strategy.

Barnham also takes on David (‘Hot Air’) MacKay, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, one of today’s most influential and problematic solar-sceptics. He gently demolishes some of MacKay’s more erroneous assertions, simultaneously demonstrating that DECC’s much admired ‘Pathways to 2050’ are pretty much rigged to ‘prove’ the need for nuclear.

Both technologically and economically, Barnham argues that the solar revolution is doable right now. But that’s just the start: digging deep into the solar innovation pipeline, he reveals the extraordinary wealth of breakthroughs (on materials, costs, efficiencies, integration, storage and so on) that are now bearing down on bemused politicians and shell-shocked diehards in the fossil-fuel and nuclear industries.

As someone who still bears the scars of endless battles trying to get some of these breakthroughs deployed in the market, Barnham knows as well as anyone the scale of the challenge ahead. If politicians really understood the incomparably serious threat of accelerating climate change (the burning platform for which solar is indeed the burning answer), we would be witnessing a dramatically different response from leaders today.

Why is it, he asks, that politicians are only too happy to commit tens of billions of euros to the international collaboration on nuclear fusion at Cadarache in France, knowing full well that nothing useful will come of this investment for at least another 30 years, but can’t even stump up a few million to establish a proper international solar laboratory? (Back to that military nexus, I’m afraid!)

But the overwhelming impression I take away from The Burning Answer is one of a slowly building but completely unstoppable momentum behind this solar revolution. This makes it one of the most exciting and genuinely hopeful books I’ve read in a long time – notwithstanding the impenetrability of some of the accompanying science!

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future and is the author of The World We Made. www.forumforthefuture.org

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