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Why Solar Is Not Going To be The Future of Sustainability

This is in response to Line Leonhard’s proposal for giant solar energy generation plants in Saharan Africa somewhat in line with DESERTEC proposal, my doubts and extended clarification of both Line’s and my position on the issue. I promised her a full blog post on the issue, our differences and a possible convergence of ideas.

First off, I need to appreciate Line’s free thinking and audacity of hope. In my book she scores a perfect 10 for thinking outrageously originally. I am not here for mere reporting, and it’s a privilege to see human mind work creatively and ideas emerge like crystals. My objections and disagreement with Line’s ideas are based on views and not on spirit. In fact I liked her post very much and recommend it to everyone ( Invest in Sahara – Why Don’t Ya ?).

I humbly disagree with Line’s view that reduction of energy consumption is not necessary if we have the viable sustainable energy sources – hence Sun. Let us see what we mean by energy consumption. Since energy consumption is undeniably related to economy, International Energy Outlook 2010 viewed the world as OECD and non-OECD countries. OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries are non-OECD countries are distributed somewhat like this:

International Energy Outlook 2010 estimates world marketed energy consumption increase by 49% between 2007 and 2035, total energy demand increase in non-OECD countries by 84% compared to 14% increase in OECD countries. World marketed energy use by fuel type is seen as:

(Image Coutesy: International Energy Outlook 2010)

Btu is a unit of energy named British Thermal Unit which is approximately the energy needed to heat up 1 pound of water through 1 degree Fahrenheit. When we look at these two pictures as above, we can see who is going to demand the energy and what are the different energy fuels going to meet that demand. It is quite easy to understand that the developed world (OECD blue) have peaked their demands or almost and the developing world (non-OECD grey) is hungry as hell for their share of energy (and pollution). China and India are two emerging energy guzzlers.

What is scary is that this prediction is keeping in mind the present trend of eco-control and current mitigation policies against Climate Change. Fact remains that the atmospheric carbon content now stands at 392 ppm whereas there is a consensus that safe limit of carbon content in atmosphere for humanity is 350 ppm. We are virtually digging the carbon up and putting it in air and choking us to death and yet renewable energy ranks 4th in our projections. Solar is only one option among many like (Wind, Geothermal, Wave, Ocean, Waste, Biogas). It’s sad but it’s true. Fossil fuels are darn cheaper, my friend. They still give you energy at prices leaving a lot in your pocket to buy an iPod, a SUV or a private jet. And the developing world is not going to buy a costlier energy unless they complete the carnage.

So with this reality in mind, what’s the prospect of Solar?

(Image courtesy: International Energy Outlook 2010)

I am not being original at all. It’s a cut and paste job up till now. You can check it here .

The Global demographic distribution and energy consumption have deep paradoxical asymmetry. Perhaps a re-run of my not-much-interesting blog post “ Miracle Needed ” may shed some light. Maybe the same paradox is seen in very modest prospect of ‘Solar’ in renewables despite the fact that Sun is the most abundant source of energy on earth.

Or maybe not. We just don’t have the technology, a viable, affordable and consistent technology to power our world with all its demand. In fact, till now we do not have any universally available sustainable energy source (including solar) that can meet our demand fully. That is why I propose that we need to reduce our energy consumption.

I have no problem to agree with Line that Solar energy has the greatest potential. But I have serious reservations for a desert full of PVs or even a CSP plant like that of Mojave Desert, California in Sahara. Let me explain why.

The present technology of solar power generation is twofold: a direct process using photovoltaic cells converting sunlight into electricity and an indirect Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) method of concentrating heat from sunlight by strategic placing of mirrors to heat a fluid to turn a turbine to generate electricity. Even with subsidies both these processes come nowhere near the fossil fuel based ‘dirty’ power in terms basic affordability. For both, there is technical limitation in ‘transmission’ of the energy over great distances and connectability to grids that carry conventional energy. Solar energy is intermittent on account of earth’s revolution, its intensity fluctuating due to clouds diffusing the radiant energy so commercial generation of such energy requires back-up energies like wind. Despite great enthusiasm and sponsorship the generation and distribution of Solar power lacks the reliability that is demanded by the consumers.

In a broader perspective, if we look at sunshine as a key resource, its geographical distribution is clearly and naturally favored along the equator or roughly sunshine countries. If a new solar technology now arise which is as efficient and reliable as fossil fuel electricity, these countries may consider the sunshine as their natural resource just like OPEC countries consider oil as theirs. In today’s world, that may lead to another big political economic divide and I have serious doubts that affluent west will have any easy entry into the new energy market of the sunshine countries flashing ‘hi-tech’ as a venture capital. If you go back to the map of OECD and non-OECD countries, you can see that the equator runs almost entirely through non-OECD countries (mostly developing) and if we include up to 25 degrees north and south of it as sunshine corridor, China is clearly missing the bus. There goes your most eager energy buyer!

To sum it up all, Solar Power has great potential, it is undoubtedly the most abundant source of energy, but we do not have the technology to tap it without getting into serious conflicts of economy and development. Not at present time. I would humbly request Line Leonhard to consider that we have neither sufficient money nor resources to maintain ANY excess, not anymore. If we do, around 2100 this debate will be futile.

I am not painting any doomsday picture. Hardly. Our only salvation is through enough sense to limit our needs to the basics. Healthcare, Education, green living and a sense of restraint while interacting with nature. That is why I propose reducing energy consumption. And I wish to say it’s not such a difficult thing to do.

I liked Line’s proposal because she dared to venture beyond the conventional. I am not saying her idea is wrong. I am saying it’s unlikely unless there is a technological miracle. The greedy, hedonistic, consumerist world does neither deserve that kind of benign technology nor will appreciate it’s real worth.

Cross posted from Think About It – Climate Change.

Feature Image Courtesy – Suryashakti

Post Written by
Pabitra is an Honors graduate in Civil Engineering from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He has specialized in the field of River Hydraulics working for more than two decades training rivers, protecting banks and beaches and fighting erosion of the river banks/beds. He has worked with Bio-Engineering models involving mangroves using them as tools for cost effective and natural means of anti-erosion technology.His work is mostly concerning the extremely morpho-dynamic Hugly estuary with Bay of Bengal In course of his work, he got exposed to indigenous people of the Sunderban wetlands, who are fighting a losing battle against aggressive Industrialization. Pabitra loves to read and write and he is full of crazy ideas. He is a Youth Leader and Adviser to Climate Himalaya. He is also a contributor member of THINK ABOUT IT platform of European Journalism Center and a winner of the recently concluded competitive blogging on Water. Pabitra believes that he has a tryst with the strange river-country south of Bengal.


  1. Marina says:

    You have really interesting blog, keep up posting such informative posts!