Thursday, September 28, 2006

Prepare for Solar Domination

"Solar Revolution" Author Travis Bradford and his solar bag

The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow: Rethinking Solar Power
By Paul Rice

Al Gore was the talk of early summer but not for any apparent political reasons. A documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” in which he had a starring role, became the third highest grossing documentary in the U.S. to date.

Dealing with climate change (the politically correct term for global warming), the film featured Al Gore giving a PowerPoint presentation on the ways that current energy collection and use are shortening the lifespan of planet Earth.

Released to rave reviews (Roger Ebert told his readers that if they didn’t see the movie, they would be failing their future grandchildren) as well as the expected conservative condemnation, the film reignited environmental issues under a moral banner, urging citizens to take action or suffer the consequences of an overheated and uninhabitable planet.

Author Travis Bradford, like Al Gore, believes we need to take steps to change our global energy usage. However, his approach is miles away from the former vice president’s.

“There’s a massive amount of equity and debt financing looking for the next ‘dot com,’” Bradford says, sitting in his sun struck Harvard Square office. “From an investment standpoint there’s major institutional money that’s looking for these opportunities.”

He’s talking about the profitability of clean energy.

“Venture capitalists are looking for that next generation technology that can take large market share,” he continues.

Large market share? Venture capitalists? Is this guy still talking about the green energy movement? Why isn’t he pointing out the moral consequences of relying on fossil fuels, or harping on the Middle East conflicts? Why doesn’t he examine the ethics of our current energy policies?

“Most of the people who are advocating renewable energies are doing so from an environmental standpoint, and that’s not what motivates people in the capital markets,” Bradford responds.

You quickly realize he’s making an argument for clean, renewable energy, but unlike Mr. Gore’s mass email-inducing ode to his own political relevance, Bradford’s argument is in the language of commerce instead of the language of environmental morality and doomsday theorizing.

“It was a social interest, with a real-world business solution,” Bradford says. “Those two schools of thought historically have not communicated well with each other.”

And which technology does this former market guru see as the most investment-worthy?

No less than much maligned, seemingly forgotten solar power.

Yes, the same solar power that, back in the 1970s, was predicted to power all of our cars, houses and most everything else; at least until the Carter administration fell to the Reaganites in the 80s, who quickly removed the demonstration solar water heater from the roof of the White House. Investors who had plugged extreme amounts of capital into solar research saw their financial commitments abandoned by the government, pushing solar beneath the radar of important science.

But just because it’s been forgotten by the public at large doesn’t mean developments in solar power weren’t growing steadily in the meantime. And according to Bradford, it is fast approaching its zenith and will soon be set to usher in a new era for clean, renewable energy.

“The belief that a renewable-energy economy will not happen without greater government support – as environmentalists too often argue – is wrong,” Bradford writes in his recently published book, “Solar Revolution” (MIT Press, 2006). “The shift will happen in years rather than decades and will occur because of fundamental economics.”

The argument Bradford uses is composed from years of experience working with volatile markets and speaking the language of business.

“When I talk to [the business world] I talk in a language they understand,” Bradford says. “I say, ‘Over the next twenty or thirty years, this is one of the biggest opportunities that the world will enjoy.’ And when they hear the word opportunities they think returns, which is right.”

Throughout the book Bradford predicts a future of solar millionaires and billionaires, a world where the former redheaded stepchild of clean energy steps forward to become the piano prodigy.

Bradford details the current energy climate and the negative effects it has on the planet, effects that will cause energy markets to cease being as profitable as they once were. Although he debunks the myth that we will someday run out of fossil fuel, he does bring attention to the possibility of waning reserves. He also points out the polluting effects from more than a century’s worth of coal burning. But for the most part, he avoids playing up the predicted energy crises.

“It’s one of those things I like to talk about but have to be careful around when I’m pitching the business economic inevitability [of solar energy], because it gets into some fuzzier issues that capital markets don’t usually like to think about,” he tells me.

The “economic inevitability” of solar power is where Bradford spends most of his time in the book. Simply stated, he believes that energy prices will continue to rise to a point where it is more cost-effective for both businesses and homeowners to spend an extra amount of money on sun gathering equipment and enjoy cheaper energy from an astronomical resource that is not scheduled to burn out for another five billion years.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s website, if solar panels covered nine percent of Nevada, they would be capable of generating enough electricity to power the entire country, for a year.

The question that usually surfaces when faced with this information is one that always makes Bradford chuckle.

“My girlfriend is from Finland, and she’s always asking me, ‘What about the paper mills in Finland?’”

Finland, like many other countries in the upper northern hemisphere, experiences a phenomenon known as polar night, meaning the sun doesn’t come up during certain seasons, often for periods lasting longer than 24 hours.

Not all locations would be prime for solar energy gathering, but that’s no burr in the solar saddle, according to Bradford. He sees the sunnier portions of the globe, such as the Sahara desert, as solutions to the dilemma of solar availability.

The Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC) has developed a plan to place large solar collectors in the Sahara, and then funnel enormous amounts of energy across the Mediterranean Sea. This will create the potential to power nearly the entire European Union, plus the Middle East and parts of North Africa. The amount of desert space required? Less than 0.3 percent, according to TREC.

“It was Buckminster Fuller who said ‘Tie all the grids together,’” remembers Bradford. This connectivity is a major banking point for him in arguing the economical goodness of solar.

The book is very freshly out, and the energy community has yet to really take note of his theories. Currently, promoting his book and the “inevitability” of solar energy is a full-time job for Bradford.

“We’re certainly finding a tremendous of support and appreciation but we haven’t yet translated that into cash,” he says with a grin.

Randall Ellis, professor of economics at Boston University, was unfamiliar with Bradford’s book, but has his doubts about the future prevalence of solar power.

“Whether it will be a dominant force in the future of energy remains to be seen,” Ellis says. “Nuclear power is still a contender,” he adds.

Gary Schmitz, spokesperson for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), had similar apprehension.

“I don’t think anybody [at NREL] is predicting it’s going to be the cheapest form of energy,” Schmitz says. “However, we do believe it will be cost competitive.”

It remains to be seen whether or not the energy community at large will embrace Bradford’s predictions.

“You may buy the thesis or you may not but if you get involved and you’re right, the opportunities are vast. If you don’t believe it and you’re wrong, you will have missed the opportunity of a generation.”

Confident words from Bradford, a former market player, now fully invested in renewable energy. And as he shows me his solar bag, capable of charging his phone and laptop, it is impossible not to imagine a future where a majority of our energy is derived from the oldest fire in our star system.

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