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Climate Reformation: The Solar Technology Vision of Zoltan Kiss

02/13/2015 03:58 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

As someone who for much of the past year has studied the global climate crisis as an existential threat to human life, I can't overstate the value brought to Seeking Alpha investment forums by the articles written and published by Zoltan Kiss.

Dr. Kiss is one of the OGs of solar photovoltaic (SPV) technology. As a scientist "present at the creation" of many of the leading advances in semiconduction, photonics, and SPV module design and fabrication, Dr. Kiss possesses unique awareness of the cycles of innovation and invention in these specific technical arenas that give us our best chance as a species to unwind the damage we have done to the global environment. As a Hungarian refugee who escaped from Soviet domination under perilous circumstances after World War II, Dr. Kiss also brings to Seeking Alpha the humane and literate social-democratic, anti-fascist, and anti-communist perspective of central European intellectual and cultural traditions (think Vienna, Budapest, and Prague in 1910) obliterated by 20th century cycles of war and depression.

In other words, Dr. Kiss understands what it means to experience loss, privation, and existential threat. He knows, as a consequence of these experiences, that successful, productive, and humane technology innovation in the 21st century requires a vision deeply informed by political awareness and political solutions. All of Dr. Kiss's articles, but particularly his recently published Seeking Alpha essay presenting a Holistic Approach to Energy, elegantly parse what we might call a grammar of social transformation and an investing emphasis on caritas over cupiditas (an ethic of care over an ethic of greed).

Consider these passages from the Holistic Approach to Energy essay:

"A holistic approach to the grand energy transformation from the age of fossil fuels to the age of renewables considers and optimizes all the interdependent elements of the new energy industry for the common good. In the process, a course is mapped out, where the environment will be protected, the efficiency of SPV generation and photosynthesis will be maximized, and the sharing of the societal benefits in job creation, in wealth creation and the use of the sun's energy will be equally secured for all. Economic transformation of the energy industry will involve a cumulative $100 trillion investment over a 50year period. We want to make sure that this will be a seamless transformation as far as possible, with the minimum cost and fair gain for all."

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Let's call out a few of the large themes in Dr. Kiss's technology road map that elucidate the connection between technical and political transformation of the global energy infrastructure. The breathtaking aspect of his vision derives from his clear and comprehensive understanding of the scope of the problem and the requirements of the solution.

First, Dr. Kiss establishes the basic parameters of this generational, existential challenge we face, both as a species and as stewards, generally, of global environment.

  • We must identify and adopt climate change solutions that can account for a population of 10 billion humans by the end of the 21st century.
  • Institutional and infrastructural components of the SPV revolution must account for central (utility-scale) and distributed (microgrid and user-supplier) energy generators and for stationary (residential, commercial, and industrial) and mobile (vehicular) energy consumers.
  • Within only five years, SPV will pretty much offer the lowest cost for energy generation across the globe.
  • Through the remainder of the century, using SPV to generate non-polluting renewable hydrocarbons from atmospheric CO2 offers the best replacement route for fossil fuels.
Fair enough. However, a larger, darker, and more powerful theme informs the Kiss vision.
  • Canonical assumptions about the timeline and pace of greenhouse gas reductions no longer apply. Given political dysfunction, we have reached a point where even conversion to fully renewable, non-polluting sources of energy would not redeem the planet from catastrophic warming. We must actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
  • Notably, other scientists have recently arrived at the same conclusion as Dr. Kiss, with environmental, energy, and technology news platforms replete with stories about options for atmospheric carbon withdrawal and the merits of this approach in relation to far scarier geoengineering scenarios. Tree-planting remains the option of choice for absorbing atmospheric carbon, but Dr. Kiss and other scientists are dubious that trees alone can save us at this point in time.
  • In the words of Dr. Kiss. Since the half-life of CO2 is approximately 100 years in the atmosphere, the present effects of global warming will not improve with even 100% renewable energy use, unless we start withdrawing the CO2 from the atmosphere. This is the focus where our R&D and politics will have to be centered. This is the basis of the necessity for Renewable Hydrocarbons from Atmospheric CO2. Of course, it does not abate the urgency of drastically reducing the new CO2 we allow into the atmosphere, it just further brings home the need for action on both fronts.
Dr. Kiss nails the crux of the climate challenge humans face.
  • In the span of several hundred years, humans have liberated vast amounts of CO2 sequestered in hydrocarbons (mostly plants) and then buried deep in the earth over the course of hundreds of millions of years!
  • On a cosmic scale, the rapidity and immensity of this process of carbon reversion - which has occurred millions of times more quickly than the initial cycle of sequestration - is almost impossible to fathom.
  • However, our mastery of industrial technologies responsible for carbon's "great escape" also allows us to imagine creative solutions to invert the flow of carbon into the atmosphere and restore a semblance of balance to Earth's respiratory rhythms.
  • Specifically, the accelerating cost advantages of SPV electricity generation lay a technology foundation for the generation of non-polluting renewable hydrocarbons, which should enable us to transition into a clean energy future with minimum waste of the existing infrastructure.
The bottom line?
  • SPV installations will ultimately cover 1 percent of the earth's terrestrial surface (an area roughly the size of Alaska). While "1 percent" might mean many different things in terms of landform impact (particularly in relation to distributions of SPV in utility-scale and distributed environments) there can be no doubt that fantastic amounts of money (perhaps $100 trillion) will flow into the creation of solar infrastructure and support the creation of millions of jobs. Pay attention to wealth disparities, income growth, consumption patterns and trends, labor migration, and capital-labor relationships in evaluating the investing landscape.
  • The holistic approach of Dr. Kiss requires investors to consider the interactive, integrated, systemic elements of the emerging energy landscape. Beyond the efficiency and cost of SPV cells and modules, we must reckon:
    • Impacts of advances in the flexibility and durability ease of installation, maintenance, and replacement of SPV (for example, the promise of building-integrated photovoltaics);
    • Probabilities that that hydrogen will become the transport fuel of choice;
    • Advantages and limitations of battery storage and recharging technologies for both vehicular transportation and for the constant, predictable supply of distributed electricity (see this fascinating Seeking Alpha discussion of storage opportunities);
    • Emergence and significance of smart-grid and data-intensive technologies that support a new generation of modular, scalable electric grid and vehicle recharging environments.
  • Beware the financial engineers. As Dr. Kiss notes, we presently divert billions in SPV funding to financial institutions and to electric utilities that we would be better off spending directly on microgrids and residential installations. The Wall Street leasing model does no homeowner any favors.
  • Beware the geeks. Elon Musk may hold us in thrall, but he is actually NOT Tony Stark, and anyone who would recommend his Mars colonization project by saying (even in jest) Fuck Earth! Who cares about Earth? leaves something to be desired as someone we can trust on matters of ultimate human survival. The strange charisma of awkwardly adolescent Silicon Valley technologists does nothing to obviate the dangers of assuming the bubble they inhabit resembles the reality toward which we should all aspire.
  • Embrace the empty spaces. Travel to the periphery. Invest with your imagination. The emerging economies of the world will adopt most quickly and benefit most fully from SPV and related environmentally sensitive technologies. Interesting and exciting investment opportunities abound in developing regions of the world that exploit this growth - infrastructure plays in India, telecommunication plays in Africa, energy plays in the Middle East. Attend to the creation of distributed, decentralized, self-assembling energy and communications networks.
  • But probably most important. Pay attention to politics. Technical competence or mastery alone will not help us without functioning political institutions that can work together to agree upon, fund, and implement reasonable and appropriate policy solutions.
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What Dr. Kiss knows in his 83-year-old bones is that humans are resilient, inventive creatures with a remarkable capacity to adapt to changing environmental circumstances. However, our most important adaptations are social and political, in the ways we imagine and organize ourselves in our relationships and in our communities. For this reason, technical solutions to environmental challenges, by themselves, and in the absence of a larger social and political vision, are traps, as these technical "short cuts" seduce us into thinking we possess an easy way out - that we can ride to safe harbor upon the wings of our engineering mandarins.

The fullest and most complete message in the articles authored by Dr. Kiss is therefore that no safe harbor exists to receive our mandarins, with their marvelous inventions, and, moreover, that we do not even know which direction these mandarins must travel to locate this harbor that does not exist. The existential challenge we as humans face in the 21st century is therefore not merely or only to innovate and engineer our way to safety, but to create, through acts of political transcendence, a new social environment in which to host our engineered innovations.

In other words, we must locate, imagine, and build that safe harbor, one that can securely shelter all 10 million of the human inhabitants of our planet. We can successfully innovate technical solutions to the proximate causes of our environmental crisis only in the context of this larger social and political vision.

From this spirit of political and social reawakening and commitment, we can best extract the inversive, subversive meaning of Zoltan Kiss's technology road map for Reformation - for extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and for repurposing it as part of a new process of energetic liberation that does not require infernal combustion. If one sees in this cry from the wilderness an analog to Martin Luther's angry challenge to the 16th-Century Roman Church - with its own empire of priestly mandarins, with its own dependence on indulgences as a theological short cut, as a safe way to appease the lay populations and stave off reform - well whom am I to deny this imaginative leap toward a more profound awareness of our current predicament?

Here is another way to capture the deep meaning of the series of articles penned by Zoltan Kiss for Seeking Alpha. In the 21st century, in the fullness of our technical hubris, we newly conceive of Mars as a kind of heaven, an ultimate destination. What Dr. Kiss would tell us, however, is that Mars is not an option. Mars is a seduction. The planet beneath our feet is our only planet, our only home, our only destiny.