07/16/2014 10:00 am ET Updated Sep 15, 2014

Peripheral Vision: Climate Change and Global Development in the 21st Century (Pt. III: The Future of Solar Power)

Peter Schwartz
  • Global warming poses an existential threat to life on Earth. This existential threat challenges our capabilities and calls into question the viability and effectiveness of mechanically conceived grid maintenance options.
  • Solar Roadways' smashing crowdfunding campaign success provides a terrific opportunity to assess the current state of business crowdfunding in relation to the future of solar power.
  • Distributed investing and distributed electricity are part of a "grid revolution" that may structurally shift financial and political power globally from the 1 Percent to the 99 Percent and from the Core to the Periphery.
  • The distributed grid paradigm echoes current philosophical, engineering, and economic models grounded in an ecological metaphor that values species diversity, small-scale experimentation, and distributed risk and parcelized decision-making.
Part II of this essay extracted some broader lessons from the shockingly successful Solar Roadways crowdfunding campaign and used these lessons to develop a new lens for understanding global development in the 21st century, premised on the concepts of acceleration ecology, hive mind, and peripheral vision. Peering through this lens can attune us to the pivotal impact of radically decentralized mobile technologies in providing access to money and power (electric and otherwise) to millions of people whom the 20th-century industrial grid could never reach.
The Future of Solar Power
Many moons ago, environmental philosopher, physicist, and entrepreneur Amory Lovins teased out the radically divergent social paths associated with nuclear power and solar energy. Even then, the political and social implications of nuclear - with its capital-intensive, highly regulated, densely centralized, military-industrial utility model - were pretty obvious, and the vectors all pointed in the same direction - toward an authoritarian, militarized, paranoid, lumbering, half-blind, declining great power. Pretty much what we see today, even without nuclear at the center of the grid.

Of course, Lovins' radicalism emerged from this general insight about the grid, not his particularly pointed analysis of nuclear power. The organization of the grid itself is what matters, not necessarily any particular energy source. Scale, modularity, portability, redundancy, efficiency, sustainability, and affordability are presumably the key elements of a grid revolution, and the global political implications of this path could not differ more from the direction we take with the traditional utility model. For this reason, the acceleration ecology model also manifests a clear tension between solar energy and power storage companies tied to the centralized electric and financial grids (via utility-scale installations and both project and residential finance) - and those companies at least cognizant of the distributed grid beginning to arise both in developed and (perhaps more significantly) in emerging and frontier economies.

In late May of 2014, Barclays Bank downgraded the high-grade bond market for electric utility companies, a move analysts have declared as a watershed moment in the epic struggle for grid mastery between old-school carbon-based power companies and upstart renewable technology companies. In a nutshell, the problem confronting electric utilities is that the existing grid model depends on capital-intensive plant and infrastructure investments that only recoup slowly over time, with significant economic risk accruing to the ratepayer.

Leaving aside for the moment the irrelevance of the utility grid model for much of the developing world, even within advanced industrial nations this model is faltering rapidly, and it would be a mistake to assume utilities can simply incorporate solar into existing infrastructure in the same way that it would be a mistake to assume financial institutions can simply incorporate crowdfunding into their lending and investment practices. For utilities, the major issue will remain the capital costs of grid maintenance and the rapidly increasing benefits of point-of-use installations. And as with crowdfunding, the emergence of an acceleration ecology for distributed solar power and storage technologies indicates the approach of a tipping point that begins to spawn an independent global power "hive" that operates largely beyond the purview of the regulated electric power grid.

In a number of thoughtful essays published by Seeking Alpha in the last year, Zoltan Kiss has:
  • Exposed the deep structure of the solar future.
  • Explained how the shape that future takes depends on the interactions between an array of technology, economic, financial, political, and environmental factors, including distributed energy, power storage, rare earth materials extraction, environmental risk, and SPV financing & securitization.
Kiss's deep knowledge of and commitment to multi-junction thin-film technologies firmly aligns him with point of use technology advocates. Kiss's sunowner paradigm, as with the concept of sunfunding, also reinforces the idea of crowdfunding. The slippery duality of sunownership and sunfunding - which is that both terms can refer to solar installation financing or, more radically, to the sun itself "funding" our energy needs (instead of the banks) - resembles how the "crowd" can now fund our business capital needs (instead of the banks). Sunownership, sunfunding, and crowdfunding all evoke the unstable "quantum" dialectic (supporting 2 opposing realities simultaneously) that informs the accelerated ecology model.

Taking the long view that often deepens the wisdom of those who have lived a lot of life, Kiss (perhaps more than anyone else in the industry) appreciates the high stakes of the battle for the sun.

While technology is the basic determinant of future energy, the real battle for the sun is more a political and economic battle for the very nature of our existence.

Peripheral Vision

As crowdfunding and sunfunding claim the contemporary public stage, pundits pondering the meaning of global warming and the future of the centralized service grid reliably unspool a didactic narrative about the civilizing history of grid infrastructure, fossil fuels, and Oxford University (see, for example, George F. Will and Charles Krauthammer). Supported by their Don-like commitment to the past as primer, the 20th century history of grid infrastructure becomes a telescoping lens on the future of the grid everywhere else in the world.

But perhaps we are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Pavement Engineer Peshkin recently returned from a week-long visit to India that included meetings with contractors, consultants, and transportation agencies. While skeptical about the viability of solar roadways in the United States, at least in the near term, Peshkin's visit heightened his awareness of the opportunity for solar roads in developing countries such as India. Just as these countries currently bypass hard-wired communications infrastructure, Peshkin (echoing Alexander Gershenkron) now wonders whether they might also use solar technology, including solar roads, to overleap less innovative and less future-oriented infrastructure development options, and whether seizing this opportunity in the developing world might be a wiser allocation of resources than installation of solar surfaces on top of existing driveways and parking lots in the United States.

Peshkin's insight is that we might best understand 21st-century global development path potentialities by starting from the grid periphery - from the nations and regions of the earth presently least tapped into grid matrices. Posted at the periphery, we can most easily track the adoption rates, effectiveness, and future prospects of emerging options for the provisioning of basic human needs. We can then travel inward toward the economically developed core, and evaluate businesses and technologies with fresh eyes as advanced industrial societies navigate both grid realities and hive possibilities.

Much like a New Yorker map of the world, peripheral vision allows us to see through the eyes of the billions of people with only a tenuous grasp on, or no connection whatsoever to, centralized grid services. When we peer through the far end of the telescope, we suddenly see the pivotal impact of radically decentralized mobile technologies in providing access to money and power (electric and otherwise) to millions of people whom the 20th-century industrial grid could never reach.
In Part IV of this essay, we will visit Kenya, where mobile telecommunications have birthed new ways to access money and power that touch millions of locals who live entirely or partially off the grid. We also will close by attending to the Longplayer project, which reminds us of the importance of enduring solutions to global problems that can stretch far into the future and benefit the lives of those who follow us for generations to come.