06/20/2011 08:56 am ET Updated Aug 20, 2011

Solar Power and the Future of Fossil Fuels

If we think about the energy future and imagine the energy that will someday power the homes of our children and of their children, we know it will not be fossil fuels. Maybe it will be some high tech variant of nuclear power, but my view is that it will be some form of solar power. Here in New York, our city government is considering placing solar cells over our now closed garbage dumps. Last week, Mireya Navarro reported in the New York Times on a new City University of New York study of the potential for using New York's rooftops for solar collectors. According to that report:

"...66.4 percent of the city's buildings have roof space suitable for solar panels, said the CUNY team, which developed the map in partnership with the city and the federal Department of Energy. The rooftops could generate up to 5,847 megawatts from hundreds of thousands of buildings, the team said, compared with the negligible 6.5 megawatts yielded now from about 400 installations."

The technology of solar power is advancing and beginning to gain momentum. Last week, the Department of Energy provided a $150 million loan guarantee to a Massachusetts-based company that has developed what they term Direct Wafer Solar Cell Manufacturing. This reduces the costs of solar cell wafers by about 50%, therefore reducing the cost of solar energy. According to Energy Secretary Steven Chu:

"This project is a game-changer that could dramatically lower the cost of photovoltaic solar cells. It is exactly the kind of innovation that puts America at the forefront of the global clean energy race," said Secretary Chu. "As global demand for solar cells increases, this kind of technology will help the U.S. increase its market share and be more competitive with other countries such as China, which currently accounts for 60 percent of the world supply of multicrystalline wafers."

Writing in The Huffington Post, reporter Alex Wagner observed that: "If projections regarding cost savings are accurate, solar may be on its way to becoming competitive with traditional fossil-fuels -- though some in the industry remain concerned about barriers still in place." The cost comparison between fossil fuels and solar is not a question of "if" but one of "when." The cost curve is clearly headed down. While fossil fuels are still plentiful and relatively inexpensive, they are finite resources that over time will only become more expensive. In the end, it won't be environmental damage that moves us off of fossil fuels, but price.

I am not minimizing the environmental impacts of our energy use. Fossil fuels get us coming and going. They damage ecosystems when we extract them from the earth. They cause damage to people and the environment when we burn them for their energy. They are a major cause of global warming.

Our hunger for oil distorts our foreign policy, and the energy lobby has long had a major impact on American politics and public policy. Remember that fellah from Texas who used to be president? How much campaign funding did he get from the energy industry? We have many reasons to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but without a reliable and low-cost alternative, the transition to renewable energy will not happen.

This brings me back to solar power -- and the possibility of lower cost solar cells and cheaper, more reliable batteries. Those two technologies are the key. Over time, they will be subject to the same improvements and cost reductions that every consumer has seen in laptop computers and cell phones. If they become low cost and physically small, they could have an even greater transformative effect on our society and economy than the one caused by the Internet, laptops and smart phones. Imagine if the electric grid was your household's back up source of power, and the place you deposited the energy you generated at home but didn't need.

Hard to imagine? How about a stereo and 3000 song record collection you can keep in your shirt pocket? Imagine a portable telephone that makes it unnecessary to maintain a land line. How about a superhighway paved with information? Why is a solar array the size of a window any more far fetched?

There is little question that an improved, lower cost and renewable energy base is a necessity for this nation's future prosperity. There is also little question that the nation's fossil fuel companies and electric utilities will fight to prevent a system of lower cost, decentralized renewable energy. That is why the coming energy battle will be more than technological. It will involve political and economic competition as well. Fortunately for America, we are now part of a global economy. This new technology will be developed by a multi-national public private partnership. The economic forces that dominate America's political process will not be able to prevent this change from taking place.

It is difficult to predict the technologies of the future. No one would have predicted cell phones and iPods. But the switch from fossil fuels is inevitable. Some day people will look back on the 20th and 21st centuries amazed that we burned up these finite, highly useful geologic resources, instead of using them to construct plastics and other building materials. But I can't be bothered with that now, I've got to get in my car, refill my gas tank and get back to the city for the work week...