In The Perfect Storm, a fisherman tries to escape his economic burdens by shooting through the convergence of three massive storm systems. If he survives, he comes out a better man. We have a perfect storm of energy and economic problems, but I believe that there is a way to navigate through them by pitting one front against another in a novel way.
- There’s way more than enough solar energy hitting the earth to meet our needs, but we have not known how to harness it. In particular, solar cells are not nearly efficient enough to compete with the existing industrial processes for harnessing the stored chemical energy of fossil fuels. Furthermore, we need power all the time, not just when the sun shines, and we have not been able to store electricity efficiently, particularly on the scale of industrial power plants. Chemical fuels, of course, are already in a storable form.
- Hydrogen-based fuel cells are an efficient and clean way to power equipment, producing only heat and clean water as by-products. But we don’t have an infrastructure for distributing hydrogen fuel for cars, homes and factories. The equipment for separating hydrogen from water is expensive and uses highly caustic chemicals.
- The energy industry industry makes an awful lot of money with things as they are. These folks are not interested in changing how power is created or distributed, and they’re not inclined to see the above problems solved.
The solution is to redefine the problem so that none of the above snags are relevant. Instead of trying make solar cells scale up to powerplant sizes and efficiencies, we instead have to make them cheap enough to be ubiquitous. There are several groups. of researchers working on electricity-producing paint. It isn’t terribly efficient, but the idea is to make it cheap enough to cover your roof and siding. The electric current is then used to fuel a home hydrogen-fuel generator using the new safe and cheap catalysts. This would allow you to store sunlight-produced energy for a cloudy day and for use in your fuel-cell car. Neither the solar cell paint nor the electrically-driven hydrogen fuel generators need to be terribly efficient compared with industrial plants – they just need to be safe and cheap enough for homeowners, and efficient enough to cover household needs. The electric companies, oil companies, and Enrons – and their caustic effects on democracy – are obsolete.
The trick in all of this is in NOT even trying to make the new technology work within the existing system. (No need to scale the hydrogen-generation to industrial scales because it’s in the home. No need to drive the efficiency of solar paint to industrial scales for the same reason. No need to make it work for the existing energy industry.) The home-based systems represent an entirely new value-chain in the energy economy. There’s plenty of money to be made, but it will not be made in the same way, or with the same margins, as by the current established energy-industry players. This means that we cannot count on the existing industry to make this happen. Indeed, we can count on them doing everything they can to stop it. It will happen eventually, but it may well happen in any part of the world. We’re all starting from zero, but countries without the entrenched infrastructure and industries have an edge here. The leaders will dominate the solar-energy world just as the Dutch dominated the wind-and-water economy, the English dominated the coal-driven world, and the US has dominated the age of oil. Of all the moon-shot infrastructure programs with which we can stimulate our economies, I believe home solar-fuel-cell technology would have the greatest and longest benefit.