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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.

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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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The Quantum Eraser Experiment: What Happens In The Present Can Change The Past

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CE Staff Writer 7 minute read
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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    At the quantum scale, what we do in the present can impact what happens in the past. This is shown through what's known as the quantum delayed choice choice, or quantum eraser experiment.

  • Reflect On:

    Why are factors associated with consciousness directly intertwined with physical material matter at the quantum scale? What does this mean when it comes to our physical material world in relation to our thoughts, perceptions, feelings and emotions?

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One of the founding fathers of quantum theory, Max Planck, who is often credited with originating quantum theory – a feat that won him the Physics Nobel Prize in 1918 – once stated: “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 exiting, postulates consciousness.”

Fast forward to today and there are a number of experiments in multiple fields showing that Planck was right. Consciousness is fundamental and it is directly intertwined with what we call physical material matter. You cannot explain consciousness in terms of the existing fundamentals like space, time, mass, and charge. As a result, the logical thing to do is postulate whether consciousness itself is something fundamental to the existence of reality.

A classic experiment used to examine the role of consciousness and its relationship to matter is the quantum double slit experiment. In this experiment, tiny bits of matter (photons, electrons, or any atomic-sized object) are shot toward a screen that has two slits in it. When there is no measuring device placed at the screen, the tiny bits of matter act as a “wave” and creates an “interference” pattern on the other side where a wall is placed to catch the pattern. Because there was no measuring or observation device used to see what slit the matter went through, we cannot know what path it took. When the pattern on the wall is examined to see what path it took, it represents a wave of possibilities, meaning the matter (particle) went through both slits, and one slit, and interfered with itself, which should be physically impossible. Welcome to the wacky world of quantum physics – anything and everything is possible.

The kicker is, when an observation device is set up to observe what slit the particles go through, the particle then only goes through one, thus collapsing the wave pattern and forming a pattern that is representative of the particle only going through one slit. In other words, the behaviour of the matter changes when we decide to measure  or observe it, the particles act as they are aware they are being watched. 50 percent of the time the particle will go through one slit, and the other 50 percent of the time it will go through the other and form a two slit pattern, just as if they were balls lobbed through one slit or the other.

Observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it…We compel (the electron) to assume a definite position…We ourselves produce the results of the measurement. (M. Mermin, Boojums All the Way Through: Communicating Science ina Prosaic Age (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1990, referenced by Dr. Dean Radin, From A paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Physics Essays explaining how this experiment has been used multiple times to explore the role of consciousness in shaping the nature of physical reality

If this isn’t already mind-altering enough for you, one physicist, John Archibald Wheeler, pondered what would happen if we don’t interfere with the photons on their way through the slits? What would happen if we didn’t set up a measuring device to observe what slit the matter went through, and instead, what if behind the back wall there were detectors? One detector is focused on each slit, and just before the particle lands on the screen after it has passed through the slit device, the detectors are pulled away. When no one could detect which slit the photon had gone through, there was a wave pattern, but when the detectors were in place, there was no wave pattern. Similar to observing the particles before they went through the slit. No observation produced an interference pattern, and observation formed a one line, one slit pattern.

If they collapse to a state of particles from a wave at the moment of detection, after they have gone past the slit device, this means that even though they went through the slit unobserved and should produce a wave (interference) pattern, the very act of observing, still, instantly transforms them into particles and collapses the wave function.

This begs the question, how could these detectors interfere with something that had already happened? It would mean that what happened in the present changed the past. The very act of detecting the particles after they go through the slit determines how they went through the slit, either as a wave or as particles. How is this possible?

Like the quantum double slit experiment, the delayed choice/quantum eraser has been demonstrated and repeated multiple times. For example, physicists at the Australian National University (ANU) have conducted John Wheeler’s delayed-choice thought experiment, and the findings were recently published in the journal Nature Physics.

In 2007 (Science 315, 966, 2007), scientists in France shot photons into an apparatus and showed that their actions could retroactively change something that had already happened.

“If we attempt to attribute an objective meaning to the quantum state of a single system, curious paradoxes appear: quantum effects mimic not only instantaneous action-at-a-distance, but also, as seen here, influence of future actions on past events, even after these events have been irrevocably recorded.” (source)

To make the experiment easier to understand, Wheeler used a cosmic scale explanation. Imagine a star emitting a photon billions of years ago, heading in the direction of planet Earth. In between, there is a galaxy. As a result of what’s known as “gravitational lensing,” the light will have to bend around the galaxy in order to reach Earth, so it has to take one of two paths, going left or going right. Billions of years later, if one decides to set up an apparatus to “catch” the photon, the resulting pattern would be an interference pattern, as explained above in the double slit experiment. This demonstrates that the photon took one way, and it took the other way. A “wave” of possibilities, but the way it took has not been defined.

One could also choose to “peek” at the incoming photon, setting up a telescope on each side of the galaxy to determine which side the photon passed to reach Earth. The very act of measuring or “watching” which way the photon comes in means it can only come in from one side. The pattern will no longer be an interference pattern representing multiple possibilities, but a single clump pattern showing “one” way.

What does this mean? It means how we choose to measure “now” affects what direction the photon took billions of years ago. Our choice in the present moment affected what had already happened in the past.

Below is a great video of Wheeler explaining.

My mind is blown just writing this article, I can’t stop thinking about it and what it could possibly mean, and how factors associated with consciousness are, in more ways than one, intertwined with what we perceive to be our physical reality. I recently published an article regarding consciousness and how it might be fundamental to the creation of our physical material world. You can read that here if interested.

“The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.” ― Nikola Tesla

Why does all of this matter? Because it’s one of multiple experiments showing a strong connection between consciousness and physical matter. What does this mean at the classic physics scale? What does it mean with regards to the way we think, feel, perceive? What does it mean when we are talking about solutions to problems we are facing on our planet? If human consciousness could be so fundamental with regards to the ‘creation of our reality’, why aren’t we talking about it more? What impact would changing the way we look at our world have on the human experience? What would happen if we started to see things in a different light?

We tend to believe in our culture that we are beings where everything in our world is happening to us, as opposed to us being intimately connected to everything in our world. How might that knowing change the nature of our choices?

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Consciousness

New Study Finds Humans Can Access a Higher Level of Consciousness

Gautam Peddada

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    A new study sheds light on the existence of a higher level of consciousness in humans that is accessible.

  • Reflect On:

    Does consciousness originate in the brain or somewhere else? What does this say about who 'we' are as humans?

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New research has discovered verifiable evidence of a higher level of consciousness. Researchers used brain imaging equipment to analyze the small magnetic fields created in the brain and discovered that, across three psychedelic substances, one measure of conscious level — neural signal diversity — was consistently greater.

Neuroscientists discovered a prolonged increase in neural signal diversity — a measure of the complexity of brain activity — in persons under the influence of psychedelic substances as compared to when they were awake.

The variety of brain impulses gives a mathematical indicator of awareness degree. People who are awake, for example, have more diversified brain activity than those who are asleep, according to this measure.

However, this is the first study to show that brain-signal diversity is more than baseline, that is, greater than in someone who is merely ‘awake and aware.’ Previous research has focused on decreased states of awareness, such as sleep, anesthesia, or the so-called vegetative state. More research utilizing complex and diverse models is required, according to the researchers, who are cautiously hopeful.

Professor Anil Seth, Co-Director of the University of Sussex’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, stated:

“This discovery demonstrates that the brain on psychedelics functions quite differently than usual.”

“As evaluated by ‘global signal diversity,’ the electrical activity of the brain during the psychedelic experience is less predictable and less ‘integrated’ than during regular conscious wakefulness.”

“Since this measure has already shown its value as a measure of ‘conscious level’, we can say that the psychedelic state appears as a higher ‘level’ of consciousness than normal — but only with respect to this specific mathematical measure.”

For the study, Michael Schartner, Adam Barrett, and Professor Seth of the Sackler Centre reanalyzed data that had previously been collected by Imperial College London and the University of Cardiff in which healthy volunteers were given one of three drugs known to induce a psychedelic state: psilocybin, ketamine, and LSD.

Using brain imaging equipment, scientists examined the small magnetic fields created in the brain and discovered that, across all three medicines, this measure of conscious level — neural signal diversity — was consistently greater.

The researchers emphasize that this does not imply that the psychedelic state is a “better” or “more desirable” state of consciousness; rather, it demonstrates that the psychedelic brain state is distinct and can be related to other global changes in conscious level (e.g., sleep, anesthesia) by using a simple mathematical measure of signal diversity.

“That identical improvement in signal diversity was discovered for all three medications, despite their rather distinct pharmacology, are both quite remarkable and also encouraging that the results are robust and reproducible,” said Dr. Muthukumaraswamy, who was involved in all three original research.

The findings might help feed ongoing conversations concerning the strictly supervised medical usage of such medications, such as in the treatment of severe depression.

“Rigorous research into psychedelics is garnering greater interest, not least because of the therapeutic potential that these substances may have when taken wisely and under medical supervision,” said Dr. Robin Cahart-Harris of Imperial College London.

“The current study’s findings assist us to comprehend what happens in people’s brains when they experience psychedelic consciousness expansion. People frequently report having “insight” when using these substances, and when this occurs in a therapeutic setting, it can predict beneficial outcomes. The current discoveries may help us understand how this is possible.”

In addition to informing potential medical applications, the study contributes to developing scientific knowledge of how conscious level (how conscious one is) and conscious content (what one is conscious of) are connected.

According to Professor Seth:

“We discovered links between the intensity of subjects’ psychedelic experiences and variations in signal diversity. This shows that our metric is closely related not just to global brain alterations caused by medicines, but also to features of brain dynamics that underpin specific kinds of conscious experience.”

The study team is currently concentrating their efforts on determining how particular alterations in information flow in the brain underpin certain components of the psychedelic experience, such as hallucinations.

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Discover

Scientists Propose That We Can Travel Faster Than The Speed of Light

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CE Staff Writer 5 minute read

In Brief

  • The Facts:

    A new paper suggest travel faster than the speed of light might be possible given the creation of a new way of looking at propelling a vehicle.

  • Reflect On:

    When considering the advancement of life changing technology, does our current economic model speed up or suppress the collaboration, creation and advancement of ideas?

Before you begin...

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In Star Trek Gene Roddenberry imagined it possible to set a ship into ‘warp drive’ and travel at speeds 6000+ times the speed of light, moving from one galaxy to a distant one very quickly. Imagine having that type of technology here on earth?! It has been said before that if we can think it, we can create it. Well, maybe that’s sometimes true.

What Happened:

The question of whether travel faster than the speed of light is possible was again approached in a new research paper written by an American physicist Erik Lentz. In the paper Lentz proposed a new theory for how faster-than-light travel could be possible. Given their models, Lentz and his team feel that travel to distant stars and planets could be possible in the near future, perhaps with proper research and development they could have something working in as little as 10 years.

The question of whether this is possible does not challenge our current understanding of physics that Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity sets forth that it is not possible to travel faster than light.

Instead of focusing on our current understanding of matter, Lentz’s new paper puts greater importance on a possible engineering solution as opposed to the theoretical physics. The new paper was published in Classical and Quantum Gravity.

The paper proposes a plan to travel faster than light by creating a series of ‘solitons’ to provide the basis for propulsion. A soliton is a compact wave that keeps its speed and shape while moving with little loss of energy.

Interestingly, this technology would allow travel at ANY speed. This brings me back to an article I wrote yesterday discussing the incoming reality within collective consciousness that UFOs and Extraterrestrials are real. In that article I state that the question of ‘how are they getting here’ is of importance as it could give humanity access to technology that would completely change the way we live on this planet.

 [The method] “uses the very structure of space and time arranged in a soliton to provide a solution to faster-than-light travel,” From the press release.

Imagine this, the nearest star beyond our solar system is called Proxima Centauri. We know it to be about 4.25 light years away. (A light year is the distance it takes light to travel in one year.)

Lentz stated that using our current rocket fuel methods fo travel, it would take about 50,000 to 70,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri. If we were to upgrade to nuclear propulsion technology, it would take about 100 years. But if we employed a light speed warp drive, it would take only four years and three months.

This would mean that the average person would be able to travel to distant interstellar planets and complete the trip in a current human lifetime. Think of the vacations!

According to Lentz there are some barriers to making this all work, but they aren’t impossible to surpass. For the tech to work, it would require lowering the energy needed down to the level of modern nuclear power reactors. That is if we don’t take into consideration energy technologies that are currently suppressed. Lentz also stated that what would be needed is a  way to develop and speed up the solitons (waves.)

“This work has moved the problem of faster-than-light travel one step away from theoretical research in fundamental physics and closer to engineering,”

Why Its Matters:

Humans are curious beings who seem to gain a great deal from expanding our curiosity beyond everyday plights of a system and way of life that doesn’t necessarily inspire the deepest use of our creativity. Perhaps a knowing that we can indeed go elsewhere without primitive technology would shift the way we see our role on this earth and how we choose to fight over what we believe are limited resources.

Then again, perhaps if humans carry their current story of separation and competition to other worlds, we’ll produce the same mess there. I guess the question is, would the possibility of being able to leave this earth and go almost anywhere change the underlying nature of how we choose to set up our cultural beliefs and narratives of what it means to be human?

It’s my feeling that humanity does not lack the solutions to live in a thriving world, we lack the worldview and state of being. Both of which we could change with a little effort.

The Takeaway:

When I hear research like this I am fascinated. Then again I also sometimes wonder if all scientists around the world saw the technology I have seen first hand, that completely changes the way we perceive energy generation today, would the way we look at creating technology that requires energy change entirely? Yes, of course it would.

In my mind and heart I see a world of true collaboration and curiosity. One where we aren’t competing to see who’s the greatest scientist with the best copy written tech, but a world where we transparently share what is out there to advance the entire human race. No powerful interests suppressing technology because it’s too threatening to an economy, but instead true open advancement where we can solve problems incredibly fast.

Can you imagine this world?

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