Almost exactly five years ago, US President Barack Obama addressed a gathering in the Silicon Valley town of Fremont in California. “The future is here,” he crowed. His government put its money where his mouth was, giving nearly half-a-billion dollars to the startup called Solyndra, which promised the next generation of solar technology, with tubular thin-fuel cells that aimed to displace the standard flat photovoltaics. Instead it turned into Gen Ex, declaring bankruptcy a year later.
The government splurged over $34 billion and the yields were a series of bombs like Solyndra. Now, half-a-decade later, that stimulus could prove Obama’s true future-proof legacy, as the green energy industry booms.
If the Internet changed the way we communicate, communities could well be empowered very differently in the decades ahead. Silicon chipped into the digital revolution, and is a component of conventional photovoltaic cells. And you know that we’re on the cusp of radical change when it isn’t just the green lobby that’s gushing over the prospects, but even Goldman Sachs.
That Wall Street behemoth sees a New Oil Order and in its 2014 annual report, says, “Mass market adoption of any new disruptive industry often takes a path of early enthusiasm followed by market rejection, volatility and ultimately, acceptance. This was true of the Internet, and evidence suggests a similar course when it comes to clean technology and renewable energy.” As Tech Crunch recently reported, Goldman’s placing billions of investment into the sector, as are Citibank and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, along with a host of Silicon Valley venture capital firms.
Then there’s Germany, the country of engineering and complex compound words like weltanschauung. It has something new to offer, energiewende or energy transition, one of those polysyllabic German creations that seem so inappropriate in these days of Twitter when ideas and ideologies have to be condensed into 140 characters.
But Germany will stick to its word, with renewable power expected to account for 80% of its supply by 2050. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister Ali al-Naimi has been talking of his country becoming an exporter of gigawatts of solar energy by around then. You can almost hear Timbuk 3 warble, “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”
But solar isn’t the only alternative pathway that’s electrifying those watching the sector. Wind power is no longer akin to Don Quixote tilting at windmills. In fact, newer iterations of those turbines are not quite even shaped the way that made them a Dutch treat. Storage batteries are getting denser and more powerful. The Equinox Blueprint Energy 2030 lists enhanced geothermal, generation IV and V nuclear reactors, the latter with Thorium accelerator-driven systems, in its menu of options.
Silicon Valley startup Bloom Energy’s power systems claim to feature “innovative new fuel cell technology with roots in NASA’s Mars program.”
Meanwhile, another company in that ecosystem, Tesla, benefited from the US government programme, and its founder, Elon Musk recently announced its Powerwall, “a home battery that charges using electricity generated from solar panels.” At a press event to launch that device, Musk said, “What we’ll see is something similar to what happened with cell phones versus landlines, where the cell phones leapfrogged landlines, and there wasn’t a need to put landlines in remote locations.”
India, of course, took that leap of faith, changing the communication landscape away from landlines. With almost a quarter of Indians living in energy poverty, off-grid offerings are an opportunity to overcome infrastructure woes. India racks up nearly a quarter of its generation as distribution losses. In the eponymous book, Malcolm Gladwell describes the tipping point as “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire”. Here’s a tip, we may be getting there with renewables. Hopefully, that’s a point policymakers are picking up.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal