Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Invent Chlorophyllic Paint or Just Grow Grass?

This post is about the choices we face trying to bring down our carbon footprint.

Invent Chlorophyllic Paint or Just Grow Grass?

Survivability and sustainability both demand that human civilization be compatible with nature, or mimic it as closely as possible. How we capture sunshine may determine whether or not mother earth will continue to stay a hospitable place for homo sapiens erectus.

Humans have successfully evolved, yet we seem intent to take full dominion of the planet. What most strategists of world domination forget is that the planet is a living system. With that fact in mind, humans are working around the earth’s natural laws, by modifying enough natural environments to now feed and care for six billion people. At least half of them depend on energy derived from long-decayed plants (or plant eating organisms), now in the form of coal, oil, peat, methane, etc., buried in the earth. All that vegetation grew from the sunshine of another day, eons long past.

When that legacy sunshine runs out someday, some say sooner, some hope later, what will the industrialized half of our planet use for energy? This is a question concerning the survival of 3 billion people. Many experts are bringing attention to this limitation and recommending varied programs to shift technologies toward renewable and carbon-less sources of energy. The impacts of global climate change, from burning fossil fuel, adds additional motivation to shift away from fossil fuels (stored sunshine) to increasing our use of solar and wind technologies. Wind generated electricity competes economically with coal and gas fired generating plants.

Solar voltaics (photo voltaics or PV’s), a technology developed in the 60’s and 70’s, are, at present, unable to produce electricity at less cost than coal and gas. Lax regulations regarding the emissions from fossil fuel plants, including lack of a carbon tax, is partly responsible for the cost gap between solar and gas- or coal-fired power plants.

San Jose, California is home to Silicon Valley, a “natural” place one would expect silicon-based solar voltaic technology to grow. Could this new “green industry” follow the amazing cost-cutting experience that followed Gordon Moore’s law for cheaper, faster semiconductors etched onto silicon wafers? Could PV manufacturers learn new techniques from information storage device manufacturers that perfected doping technologies? Can the success story of the electronic information industry be repeated for solar voltaic industry? Can it revolutionize where and how our electricity is made and used?

Recently, TJ Rogers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor, invested some of his company assets in a solar voltaic company. This company places great hope in a cheaper and more efficient continuous ribbon solar technology invented at MIT and going into mass production in Germany.

Like anywhere in America, San Jose is also home to a car culture. One day an exceptionally colorful car with bright green metallic paint rolled by when we were out of for a walk. I told my son, “There goes a car that’s powered by chlorophyllic paint.” We laughed, but also agreed that the idea wasn’t totally a joke. Several months later, the search for a way to make cheaper energy from sunlight has actually seen real money from venture capitalists invested in a new Silicon Valley companies called Nanosolar Technology and Innovalight. Innovalight developed a proprietary coating, “solar ink,” that can be applied to a surface and act as a solar voltaic thin panel. This sounds like modern day alchemy at its best.

There is a down side to the yet unproven and unknown costs of the “solar ink” or thin film technology. The president of Nanosolar Technology recently was telling audiences that his panels would be much less expensive than silicon-based PV’s. This can and will delay many individuals and businesses that are ready to make the investment for installing silicon-based solar panels. The existing technology has a proven track record of reliability, performance and good return on investment, after considering currently available subsidies and tax credits. Buyers of a new technology must make a leap of faith that the cheaper process will perform as well and as long as silicon-based solar panels.

In Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I was impressed with his description of a farmer who raised cows, chickens and rabbits only on the grass he grew from sunshine, soil and water for local sales only. I began to wonder if chasing the high tech approach to producing energy was really the answer to our future survival on planet earth. Another of America’s recent passion seems to be biofuels; with major political support from the corn/soybean conglomerates growing these heavily subsidized crops on the great plains of the USA. For more information on biofuels read:

It was certainly technology that allowed for urban planners and engineers to successfully create mega-cities where the great majority of us live. Each of these geographical regions have greatly increased populations beyond natural carrying capacity through engineering systems that import food, energy and water to dense housing developments. Are we willing to risk that technology can give us salvation from overpopulation as our fossil fuel economy literally runs out of gas?

Shifting our focus back to locally based food, fuel and fiber to sustain us will require that urban living refocus on renewable, closed-loop systems that operate much like natural systems. Using solar voltaic and other renewable energies to power the grid will have to replace the limited fossil fuels, which we have relied on over the last century. Yet, growing simple food and biofuels locally via sunlight may reawaken the awareness that we are of the earth, rather than temporary masters of her through technology.

October 29, 2007.

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