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The Solar Singularity Is Nigh

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“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” quipped Yogi Berra. I keep his wise admonition in mind as I make predictions about our energy future, but we have many reasons for optimism when it comes to the future growth of solar power.

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Here’s the summary: solar is taking over. We can now see many years into the future when it comes to energy, and that future is primarily solar-powered. Why my optimism? Well, let me explain.

The “solar singularity” will, by my definition, occur when solar prices become so cheap that solar becomes the default power source based on cost alone and without subsidies. We aren’t there yet but we’re probably just a few years away from that point, particularly since we’re seeing energy storage costs declining significantly already. (I’m not going to address storage in this article further but, of course, a grid can’t run on variable solar power alone so we’ll need storage and other backup technologies to ensure reliable grids as solar power penetration grows).

Swanson’s Law, named after the founder of SunPower, a large American manufacturer of solar panels, states that the price of solar panels generally drops by 20 percent with every doubling of shipped panels. This has been the general trend since solar became a viable technology — hence its designation as a “law,” even though there are times when some deviations from the trend take place. For example, from the mid-1990s until 2008 solar costs declined by relatively small amounts, primarily due to stubbornly high silicon prices in a backdrop of increasing commodity prices across many markets, until the crash of 2008. Since 2008, however, panel cost declines have accelerated and the general trend is now back and then some.

When we compare recent cost declines for solar to other energy prices we get a pretty picture indeed and this is why solar is now getting very serious attention by investors and pundits alike.

REN21, a nonprofit organization, releases an annual report on the global status of renewable energy. Their 2014 report showed a phenomenal 39 percent growth in solar power, with 39 gigawatts added. REN21 haven’t released their figures for 2014 yet but we can expect similar figures for 2014 to those we saw in 2013. It must be satisfying for Swanson to see his predictions come true in spades. When he wrote his 2006 paper, global solar installations were only about 5 gigawatts. We are now, in early 2015, at almost 200 gigawatts, about forty times the installations in 2006, with prices declining much as he predicted.

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Figure 1. Global solar power growth through 2013 (source: REN21).

REN21 global solar growth through 2013

Total U.S. installations now stand at about 20 gigawatts, or 10 percent of the total and enough power for about four million U.S. homes. The U.S. was a latecomer to the global solar party, but with 2014 installations at about six gigawatts the U.S. is now back at the top of the heap in terms of largest markets for solar.

What About Subsidies?

Subsidies have been a big part of getting solar to where it is today but subsidies are becoming increasingly unnecessary as solar prices plummet. This is additional good news. California’s residential and commercial solar rebate program (the California Solar Initiative or CSI) is all but gone as the rebates have been used up, and yet California’s retail solar market is still growing strongly.

On the wholesale side, the federal 30 percent investment tax credit (ITC) is set to decline to 10 percent at the beginning of 2017. The conventional wisdom is that we’ll see a big drop in installations when this happens. However, a silver lining to the Republican-controlled Congress and their antipathy to green power is that there is little hope at this point that the 30 percent ITC will be extended.

tambookThis means, contrary to the similar discussion with respect to wind power’s tax credits over the last decade (they’ve expired a number of times, leading to a slowdown in installations for a year and then a rebound when the credit is renewed), there won’t be a slowdown in anticipation of an eventual renewal of the tax credit. We should see solar companies simply adjust to the lower tax benefit and keep on trucking.

SunPower, a major player in today’s markets, is already predicting little impact from the reduced ITC, based on the ability to develop profitable projects even with the reduced ITC of 10 percent.

James Smith, an investment analyst at Catapult Research, recently issued a very bullish report on solar, providing some good corroboration of my predictions here. He stated in his report, excerpted here: “I’m saying that if the cost of solar drops 20% in price every time the installed base doubles, it is only a matter of time before solar takes over from fossil fuels. My best guess is that it starts to really happen from 2017 onwards.”

Is The Past A Reliable Guide To The Future?

Making predictions (especially about the future) is difficult because there is no guarantee, of course, that the past is a reliable guide to the future. However, when it comes to solar power we see the very clear trend of price reductions continuing for some time because there are no inherent limits to further reductions. Jeremy Rifkin has made the case that solar panels will become practically free with zero marginal cost for production, in his book The Zero Marginal Cost Society. As we’ll see below, this is a reasonable prediction.

Solar panels are not the only cost component for solar systems and they are increasingly becoming a minor cost because of ongoing panel cost reductions. The main components of overall costs are now soft costs like labor and the “balance of system” costs for equipment like inverters, racks and wiring. However, these other costs are also declining substantially and groups like GTM Research predict further major cost reductions.

The basis for my predictions is, however, quite simple: we have reached the point where low costs are driving installations higher, which in turn drives costs lower, which in turn drives installations higher… The virtuous circle seems to be locked in and based on history we can expect further 20 percent cost reductions with each doubling of capacity, with no inherent limit to cost reductions over time.

Under this trend, we can expect by 2020, under a 30 percent global rate of growth, to see total solar costs for utility-scale systems at around $0.84/watt, based on GTM Research’s projected $1.10/watt for 2017. By 2025, the cost drops to about $0.54/watt and by 2030 it will be a practically free cost of $0.34/watt. By 2040, we can expect under these trends to see costs at about 14 cents per watt. A five kilowatt home-size system costs at this price only $700.

That counts as free in my book because that system will provide power for about 25 years at almost no cost above that of the initial installation. 25 years of production for $700 equates to about 2.8 cents per kilowatt-hour. For comparison, the average retail cost of power in California today is about 15 cents per kilowatt hour, so this future cost of solar power will be less than 1/5th the cost of today’s power. And this analysis leaves out inflation. If we include inflation the comparison is even more favorable.

What Could Derail The Solar Singularity?

While I’m fairly confident in the coming solar singularity I’d be foolish not to recognize some inherent uncertainties about making such predictions. I’ll discuss a couple of the biggest uncertainties here.

The biggest source of uncertainty is the rate of growth in installations. In my calculations above I assumed a 30 percent rate of growth, which is reasonable given the far higher rates of growth we’ve seen in recent years (this results in approximately a 2.3-year doubling time). However, it is likely that we’ll see growth rates decline for a variety of reasons. If installations increase at only 20 percent per year we see about $0.54/watt by 2030 and $0.28/watt by 2040. At only 10 percent growth we see about $0.75/watt by 2030 and $0.56/watt by 2040. At these price and installation levels the singularity still arrives but it’s delayed.

The second biggest source of uncertainty is the degree to which there are fundamental limitations in how fast power generation fleets can turn over. Most power generation assets are financed (amortized) over the course of many years and these investments often require long power sales contracts to justify such investments. This means that a lot of the fleet is locked in contractually at any given time. If a ton of solar is installed in any particular grid system the threat of “stranded costs” — costs that are at risk of not being recovered due to under-utilization or an early shut down — becomes high.

We’ll see how the stranded cost issue shakes out in each country but there is good reason to believe that even if some grids see a slow-down in solar installations because of concerns about stranded costs, or other problems, that other countries will take up the slack and the general global trend of ever-increasing solar will continue apace.

One issue that I don’t think will be a real problem in the next couple of decades is lack of space for new solar. For all practical purposes, the space for installing solar around the world is infinite. We’ll run out of power demand long before we’ll run out of space for solar. As costs plummet for solar, more and more countries will see it become economically viable and more and more locations, such as roadways, areas over metro rail lines, etc., will be covered by panels.

In sum, we have some very good reasons to believe that the solar singularity is indeed nigh. What does a world of free or practically free energy look like? That is a topic for another column.

Tam Hunt’s new book, The Solar Singularity: Why Our Energy Future Is So Bright, will be released later this year. 

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If You Could Power Your Entire Home With 60 Minutes Of Cycling, Would You Do It?

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Mechanical energy, converted into kinetic energy can provide the energy that we use on a regular basis to power our homes and electronic devices.

  • Reflect On:

    Rather than focusing on the current problems in our world it is great to change gears and have a look at all of the solutions that are popping up all over the world.

Imagine if your morning workout could power your home for the entire day, all the way until your next morning workout. Well, you may not have to imagine, as this technology exists now. Manoj Bhargava has invented a new exercise bike that can power some homes for 24 hours after use for only sixty minutes per day.

This invention was a part of a new initiative to bring electricity to places that undergo frequent power outages or may only have access to power for a few hours during the day. In our modern age, going without electricity can really separate a person from the rest of the world. Bhargava’s mission is to bridge the gap for those who suffer from poverty and make it easier for them to access the same information as the rest of the world, potentially giving them more opportunities in life.

The Free Electric

The above heading is also the name of this awesome and innovative bike serving as a solution to a pretty significant issue in the underdeveloped nations of the world.

According to Bhargava, the Free Electric is meant to lead to “better health, more leisure time, better access to education and opportunities for entrepreneurship.” He also feels that it could, “literally change the world.”

Power to change the world? Bold statement, but if this is able to be implemented worldwide, I would absolutely have to agree with him. This technology not only has the capacity to assist those in poverty, but can also be used by the rest of the world as well as more and more people around the world who are aiming to reduce their usee of fossil fuels. I have a feeling that Millennials (such as myself) and younger generations would be all over this if its made available! Not only is it a great way to get your cardio in, but it provides FREE electricity that produces no other pollution.

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As mentioned in the video, it is also a great solution in the face of natural, or even man made disasters because this type of electricity would not rely on that generated and sold by power companies. Perhaps even one day a way to stock up and store this energy will be possible — then, the opportunities here will be much more plentiful and could be a huge factor in reducing the amount of pollution our current methods of energy production are creating.

The Future Is Friendly

As much as there is sometimes destruction all around us, there is also innovation and ingenuity. Human beings have tremendous potential. Even though there are many problems that we as a society are facing, solutions are popping up and fast, and in most cases they already exist. Finding solutions doesn’t seem to be the problem, so ask yourself, what is?  It’s so great to see ideas such as these being conceptualized and then created and put into use so efficiently, it shows how our species is capable of stopping and potentially reversing some of the destruction that we have caused over the years.

This is absolutely a double win! We are constantly bombarded with news stories and articles that are telling us to be more active, stop sitting so much, and now with the Free Electric, we will have to be active before we can relax and enjoy the use of our precious technology.

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Physicists ‘Grow’ A Man Made Diamond From Nuclear Waste That’s Able To Generate Electricity

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Scientists have developed a technology that can convert leftover radioactive materials into diamond batteries to power a wide range of electronics.

  • Reflect On:

    Could this be the solution to use op all the radioactive materials on the planet and shut down nuclear power plants worldwide?

Currently there is more than 2 billion tons of nuclear waste across the globe. This nuclear waste is a hazardous threat to the environment if not disposed of correctly. Scientists have recently begun attempting to transform nuclear waste into batteries that could last for thousands of years. If they are successful with this conversion project it would be a double win, less nuclear waste contaminating our environment, and a way to reuse energy that was generated to give power to whatever requires it.

Diamond batteries that use the energy from leftover radioactive materials have been developed and tested by researchers at the University of Bristol. They are now hoping to be able to recycle the waste leftover from decommissioned nuclear power plants in the UK. According to the University, “New technology has been developed that uses nuclear waste to generate electricity in a nuclear-powered battery….A team of physicists and chemists from the University of Bristol have grown a man-made diamond that, when placed in a radioactive field, is able to generate a small electrical current.” (source)

How Does This Work?

According to The Independent,

Carbon-14 isotopes extracted from graphite blocks produced by the plant are infused with wafer-thin diamonds to create the batteries, which researchers say are capable of providing power on a “near-infinite basis”.

Potential applications range from powering hearing aids and pacemakers, to extending the range of spacecraft to distances much further than are currently possible.

“Eventually, a highly powerful version of a diamond battery could power a mobile phone,” James Barker, from the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering, told The Independent.

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“Primarily though, they are best for devices requiring long lifetime, low power and where it is difficult to replace energy sources.”

In order to make these diamond batteries safe for medical and consumer use they are encased in a non-radioactive diamond layer, which will absorb any radiation given off by the C14 source.

According to the University,

Unlike the majority of electricity-generation technologies, which use energy to move a magnet through a coil of wire to generate a current, the man-made diamond is able to produce a charge simply by being placed in close proximity to a radioactive source.

Tom Scott, Professor in Materials in the University’s Interface Analysis Centre and a member of the Cabot Institute, said: “There are no moving parts involved, no emissions generated and no maintenance required, just direct electricity generation.  By encapsulating radioactive material inside diamonds, we turn a long-term problem of nuclear waste into a nuclear-powered battery and a long-term supply of clean energy.”

Could This Be The Solution We’ve Been Searching For?

“The ultimate aim is to have a factory based at one of the former power stations in the South West that takes Carbon-14 isotopes directly from the graphite blocks for use in diamond batteries. This would significantly reduce the radioactivity of the remaining material, making it easier and safer to manage,” said Professor Tom Scott, director of the South West Nuclear Hub.

“With the majority of the UK’s nuclear power plants set to go offline in the next 10-15 years this presents a huge opportunity to recycle a large amount of material to generate power for so many great uses.”

Time will tell how effective this method that scientists have come up with will be able to be implemented worldwide, but if it is, just imagine the implications of what this technology could represent.

Is It Time To Move Away From Nuclear Energy?

You’d think since the Fukushima disaster there would be a worldwide agreement for countries to stop generating power from nuclear reactors and to safely shut down these plants. Nuclear disasters have devastating effects on our planet and all of it’s inhabitants, recovery from such accidents can take tens of thousands of years to lose their hazardous radioactivity. Take the Chernobyl disaster that occurred in 1986 and is now contained under a metal shell, this site will likely remain radioactive for up to 20,000 years.

Instead of waiting for these disasters to occur, shouldn’t we be safely dismantling these sites before any more devastating disasters occur? Thankfully many countries are vowing to shut down their nuclear power plants and we can only hope that the rest of the world will follow suit.

The Future Is Here

There are so many amazing technologies that have the capacity to revolutionize the way we use energy on this planet. Of course many of those are hidden from us, especially if they cannot be in some way profited from, and unfortunately as it seems, if they don’t exploit the environment and our resources in some way.

As innovative ideas abound and technology continues to rapidly develop, we have to assume that safer and more innovative means of producing electricity will be uncovered. Hopefully these technologies will also have the capacity to undo some of the damage that we have done to our planet.

At the end of the day, using nuclear energy is not needed anymore, and in reality nuclear waste should not even exist at this point in our development as a collective.

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Galaxies Millions of Light Years Apart Seem To Be Connected By Invisible “Large Scale Structures”

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    A study published in The Astrophysical Journal in October found that hundreds of galaxies were rotating in sync with the motions of galaxies that were tens of millions of light years away. This suggests that an invisible force somehow connects them.

  • Reflect On:

    How much of what we know, and what we think we know, is false? Are our minds open to accepting new concepts of reality that don't fit within the framework of accepted knowledge?

“We are all connected” — a statement that may evoke an eye-roll from someone you express this to. This is common when it comes to such topics, or any topic that dives into the ‘spooky’ world of quantum physics, which seems to be directly intertwined with philosophy and metaphysics in various ways. These subjects are going to really conflict with the belief systems of many, and that’s ok.

“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” This statement was made by Lord Kelvin — a famous Scottish mathematician and physicist who contributed to many branches of physics — in 1900, and shattered only five years later when Einstein published his paper on special relativity. The new theories proposed by Einstein challenged the current framework of understanding, forcing the scientific community to open up to an alternative view of the true nature of our reality. This serves as a great example of how things that are originally taken as truth can suddenly turn out to be fiction.

This type of thing is happening quite often today, and with most of us trying to put food on the table and pay our bills, we don’t really have time to keep up with all that’s being discovered.

When it comes to the connection between all living systems, there are a number of examples one could use from many different fields of study. We see connection in all different forms, including all the way down to smallest bits of matter, the physical ‘stuff’ that our world is made up of. In quantum entanglement, for example, particles remain connected so that if you separate them, regardless of distance, whatever actions are performed on one of them affect the other. This has been seen with photons, for example.

This strange connection is not only seen at the smallest levels of the physical world, but also in large scale. This has been demonstrated by a new study published in the Astrophysical Journal  last October, which found that hundreds of galaxies were rotating in sync with the motions of galaxies that were tens of millions of light years away.

This is a new discovery and a new phenomenon that came from studying 445 galaxies within 400 million light years of our planet. The observed coherence is quite astonishing, and the authors hypothesize that it must have something to do with “large scale structures” that are perhaps connecting them, causing them to move so precisely in sync as they do, especially given the fact that the galaxies observed are separated by approximately 20 million light years. Somehow they “directly interact with each other,” said Joon Hyeop Lee, an astronomer at the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute.

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The paper suggests that the synchronized galaxies are somehow embedded along the same ‘large scale structure,’ which is slowly rotating in a counter-clockwise direction and could be an explanation for the coherence seen between the rotation of these galaxies and their neighbours.

Obviously, a lot is still unknown.

“The dynamical coherence even out to millions of light-years was unexpected and surprising to us, because such distances are obviously too far for neighbor galaxies to directly interact with each other” says Joon Hyeop Lee, first author of the study, from KASI at Daejeon, Korea “Nevertheless, since the observational evidence supports the interaction origin of the dynamical coherence, we could not but think of the possibility that it is the vestige of past interactions.” (source)

These large structures are, as of now, invisible. Astronomers can’t identify what they are, but the discovery hints to the idea that the structures are made predominately of dark matter that links these galaxies in some sort of cosmic web, as galaxies and space in general seem to be dominated by dark matter.

This is where the world of non-material science comes in, as we start to bridge the gap that seems to separate science and metaphysics.

More is unknown than is known. We know how much dark energy there is because we know how it affects the universe’s expansion. Other than that, it is a complete mystery. But it is an important mystery. It turns out that roughly 68% of the universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 27%. The rest – everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter – adds up to less than 5% of the universe. Come to think of it, maybe it shouldn’t be called “normal” matter at all, since it is such a small fraction of the universe.

Non-material, invisible substances dominate our world — they are not perceivable to the senses, but they can be detected.

If you’ve looked into dark matter, you may also know that what scientists refer to as the quantum vacuum is often mistaken for dark matter or ‘dark energy,’ but we don’t hear about this in mainstream channels.

Space is actually not empty and it’s full of energy… The energy in space is not trivial, there’s a lot of it and we can actually calculate how much energy there is in that space and that reality might actually come out of it. Everything we see is actually emerging from this space. – Nasim Haramein

This idea was illustrated decades ago with the “Casimir Effect,” which demonstrates what’s called zero-point energy. Today, we are beginning to see that these concepts are not just theoretical, but instead are very practical. (source)(source) This is why it’s interesting to point out how multiple scientists, over the past little while, have been expressing the idea that what we call “Dark Matter” might actually be mistaken for this ‘zero-point energy.’

Take, for example, this Defense Intelligence Agency unclassified document entitled “Warp Drive, Dark Energy & The Manipulation of Extra-Dimensions,” written and prepared for the agency by senior research physicist Richard K. Obousky, Ph.D. and Eric W. Davis, Ph.D.

When it comes to dark energy, here’s what the paper states:

This is what now is being accepted as the ‘substance’ of space. Space is not empty–if you look at an atom, it’s mostly made up of ’empty space,’ but the space is not actually empty, it’s full of energy.

Nikola Tesla was well aware of this substance/force at the turn of the 20th Century:

All perceptible matter comes from a primary substance, or tenuity beyond conception, filling all space, the akasha, or luminiferous ether, which is acted upon by the life-giving Prana or creative force, calling into existence, in never-ending cycles all things and phenomena.” – Nikola Tesla, Man’s Greatest Achievement, 1907

The late Parahamsa Tewari recently had a paper published in Physics Essays. The paper is titled “Structural Relation Between The Vacuum Space and The Electron.” You can access the full study here. Tewari also points out that dark matter has been mistaken for the ether.

Ether has got to be, once again, established, then there will be the meaningful understanding of physics, meaningful understanding of metaphysics, and meaningful understanding of spiritual processes.” – Tewari (source)

I believe that there is something non-physical connecting these galaxies, connecting space and connecting time in ways that we are just beginning to understand, and I believe that what’s beyond this non-physical ‘substance’ is consciousness.

The Takeaway

Science still has a long way to go with regards to making discoveries about our universe, as there are many more questions than answers, but something seems to be a common theme, and that’s the fact that invisible forces like dark matter, dark energy, and the zero-point energy field are key components with regards to the structure and nature of reality.

What’s even more fascinating? The fact that consciousness itself may play an integral role in shaping how our physical world behaves. You cannot go into quantum physics without diving into consciousness. Max Planck, the theoretical physicist credited with originating quantum theory — a feat that won him the Physics Nobel Prize in 1918 — offers perhaps the best explanation for why understanding consciousness is so essential: “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”(source)

Perhaps the universe itself is conscious?

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