Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Is solar still relevant, and more importantly, is my book? Errr... yes, I think so.

This blog was first published on the Routledge website.

It's a strange thing to write a book and feel yourself suddenly overtaken by events, but that's the situation I found myself in shortly after completing Desert Energy. As my book, exploring the potential and application of large scale solar power generation in the deserts was going through production, the Arab Spring erupted into full force. At the same time the ongoing financial crisis has pushed climate change down the political agenda, while in the US the emerging shale gas revolution is dramatically altering the economics of energy production. The solar industry too is undergoing a massive shake-out. Falling costs and mass production in China has led to global over-capacity, with many well known names going bust or struggling. A looming trade war over Chinese government subsidies to solar producers is on the horizon, making manufacturers and installers jittery.
So with all this in mind, is the book still relevant? I think so, yes. Part of the reason is that the book will hopefully equip the reader to understand the background and context to new developments. As I was writing it, I was aware that rapid change was possible... indeed, I stated that I expected many of the companies and projects mentioned would change hands or go out of business in the coming years, and that political instability could stymie plans for solar in North Africa. Yet despite these changes, the underlying rationale for solar power, including large arrays in desert or sunbelt lands, has not changed. Climate change is not going away, and after a couple of years in the wilderness it may be edging its way back up the agenda again. The recent announcement that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have passed 400 parts per million for the first time in millions of years shows we cannot hide from this problem indefinitely. Prices for solar continue to fall rapidly, and new, more efficient technologies are being constantly developed. While this may put pressure on existing solar businesses, in the long run the direction is clear – solar power is becoming more affordable, and it has never been needed more.
Of course, technology and potential can only take you so far. Political will is required too. The entrenched nature of the existing energy infrastructure is a big problem which still needs to be overcome. So too is the diffuse nature of solar power. Concentrated energy sources like fossil fuels, almost by definition, are worth a lot of money to a relatively small number of people. Non-extractive energy sources have a very different set of winners and losers. This provides a tremendous incentive to maintain the status quo. Yet in the long run the elegance of solar power and the benefits it could bring argue strongly in its favour. Despite all the changes Desert Energy remains a useful and readable introduction to what could be one of the most important and exciting technological revolutions of the 21st century.  

No comments:

Post a Comment