Political Will Prevents the Dawning of the Long-Predicted Solar Age

"Eventually industry will no longer find in Europe the resources to satisfy its prodigious expansion… Coal will undoubtedly be used up. What will industry do then?"

Well, it was a man named Augustin Bernard Mouchot, speaking in Paris after he had successfully demonstrated an early industrial application of solar thermal energy – as long ago as 1880.

Two years earlier, this pioneer of solar energy had demonstrated the use of solar power for cooling, by making a block of ice. He employed a parabolic dish that focussed the sun’s rays onto an 80-litre boiler and made the ice by use of what is now a standard compressor-evaporator process.

His audience at the Paris Exhibition of 1878 must have been astounded. But so are people today when I tell them that it is perfectly possible to cool homes using solar energy; it just seems counter-intuitive.

This month, the American southern state of Texas has been sweltering under record-breaking high temperatures and its electricity supply system has almost collapsed due to the demands of the state’s air conditioners working overtime.

Yet of course, because it is so hot it has abundant solar power. If only the state were using this to keep cool they would not need to burn so much oil and close schools!

It’s almost as if the potential of solar cooling is being deliberately kept secret. And this is despite the efforts of the International Energy Agency to propagate the information with best practice case studies and R&D.

The solar age is undoubtedly coming – it’s just having a very slow dawn. The fact that after 130 years we’re still amazed by Mouchot’s demonstration is testimony to the fact that solar power’s cause has been continually frustrated by the aggressive marketing of cheap fossil energy.

I cover all of this topic and much more in my latest book, which is published this week, The Earthscan Expert Guide to Solar Technology for Power, Heating, and Cooling.

In writing it, I have discovered many more astonishing facts about just how long some solar technologies have been around… and how different the twentieth century would have been if we had been forced to rely on solar and other renewable sources of power instead of fossil fuels; if we hadn’t been cursed – as well as blessed – with nature’s bequest of such huge quantities of oil, gas and coal.

If, in fact, peak oil had been reached in 1890.

Because from the time of the First World War – which was partly fought over access by European nations to the newly discovered oilfields of Iraq, a country that was itself created as a result of that war – through Israel’s Six Day War and the recent Iraq wars, not to mention hundreds of other conflicts, access to fossil fuels has been the cause of millions of casualties.

Yet fossil fuels’ apparent relative cheapness and high energy density have made them seem more favourable and convenient than solar and other renewable sources of energy, and held back their development.

This topic is documented, at least from an American perspective, in Alexis Madrigal’s excellent book Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.

But with growing awareness of the impact of climate change, the negative impacts of fossil fuels on a global scale have become increasingly apparent.

Frank Schuman, who designed the world’s first solar power station – used in Egypt in 1913 – dreamt of a completely solar powered world. It was theoretically possible then, as indeed it is today.

Nowadays, the phrase “energy security" is being used by those who want to see sustainable sources of clean energy replace dirty fossil fuels.

This is because the sun, wind, tidal and other renewable sources of energy are available abundantly, everywhere on the planet, with no need for conflict over their use.

Humanity – or its leaders – are now faced with a clear choice: whether to stick with the status quo and vested interests; or whether to accelerate the deployment, research and development into solar and other renewable, sustainable technologies and practices.

My new book makes the case for the latter, looking at all the available solar technologies in a way that is hopefully easy to understand and inspiring to read.

Many people think only of solar electric modules when considering solar energy. But the sun’s heat and light can be deployed to generate power in many more ways, such as passive solar architecture, water heating and solar thermal electricity generation for a great many applications.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of the technologies included among ‘solar power’ from the point of view of their end use:

•Heating and cooling space: passive solar design, urban planning, passive stack ventilation, phase change materials, unglazed transpired collectors, solar-powered chillers and coolers
Lighting: glazing, special glass coatings; sun pipes

•Heating water: solar water heating systems; evacuated tubes; swimming pool heating; active solar cooling; applications for large buildings and districts
Cooking, food drying, desalination and water treatment

•Electricity: thermoelectric devices, photovoltaic modules, system design, process heat, concentrating solar power

•Transport: solar vehicles, hydrogen production.

The potential of these technologies is completely clear and proven, and many more exciting ones are in development. The scientific case for the likelihood with business-as-usual of a runaway greenhouse effect has been conclusively established.

What is still lacking is the political will to implement solar technologies on a wide scale, in the face of continuing lobbying by fossil fuel companies to determine energy policy in many places – like Texas – to the detriment of its wider economy and the comfort of its inhabitants, and against simple common sense.

The Earthscan Expert Guide to Solar Technology for Power, Heating, and Cooling is aimed at a professional audience, and can be bought here.

David ThorpeNews Editor of Energy and Environmental Management Magazine, the author of Solar Technology, The Earthscan Expert Guide to Using Solar Energy for Heating, Cooling and Electricity, and Sustainable Home Refurbishment: The Earthscan Expert Guide to Retrofitting Homes for Efficiency, and blogger at The Low Carbon Kid