Here comes the sun

The Sun

Solar Power to Rule in 20 Years, Futurists Say

Via Instapundit:

He predicted the fall of the Soviet Union. He predicted the explosive spread of the Internet and wireless access.

Now futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil is part of distinguished panel of engineers that says solar power will scale up to produce all the energy needs of Earth’s people in 20 years.

There is 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to meet 100 percent of our energy needs, he says, and the technology needed for collecting and storing it is about to emerge as the field of solar energy is going to advance exponentially in accordance with Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns.

They didn’t say “could scale up” or “be capable of producing all the energy needs of Earth’s people.” They said “will.”

I’ve long been a strong supporter of greatly increased nuclear power generation, but if this turns out to be true I’ll happily jump on the solar bandwagon.

However, this seems to be the basis of the 20 years claim:

“We also see an exponential progression in the use of solar energy,” he said. “It is doubling now every two years. Doubling every two years means multiplying by 1,000 in 20 years. At that rate we’ll meet 100 percent of our energy needs in 20 years.”

To expect the growth rate of something in the early stages of its infancy to continue is not terribly realistic. On the other hand, if solar electricity generation breakthroughs bring the benefits that many are hoping for, I can see it happening.



  1. Kurzweil used similar logic in ‘The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology’. I don’t always believe his analysis, but he describes it in interesting ways and his ideas about the union of technology and biology are pretty gripping.

  2. So, what’s going to be the solution to ‘it’s cloudy’ or ‘it’s night’ or ‘we’re inside the arctic circle’? Until I hear a convincing answer to that I’m going to be terribly skeptical.

  3. I had a similar reservation: you have to find a way to store it for when the sun’s not shining somewhere close enough where you want to use the power, or else you’re still going to need other sources. I mean, solar isn’t going to do much for, say, Seattle, from September until late April.

  4. The power grid can solves a lot of the problems. The south ships power north to a large degree. Tucson will be one of the first places solar power makes economic sense, Seattle one of the last. but it will economical to ship power from Tucson to Seattle before solar makes sense in Seattle locally. For this to happen solar cost per watt has to drop, as it does the area that solar makes sense in will expand. If I ran the power companies in the southwest I would be buying land near long range power transmission lines, for futures uses as solar collector. A base load of nuclear power however will be needed for night time use, as power lines crossing the ocean seems to be too expensive for quite a while.

  5. Solar is HUGELY popular in Israel & the W. Bank. Think it might be all the sunny days? LOL! If they can improve the efficiency of the solar systems for cloudly areas like MI, I’d be all for it, and like Murdoc…………I believe we absolutely should go nuclear on their @44e$! LOL! I dare say petroleum pricing in the next 50 years, won’t be anything like it was in the last 50. 🙁

  6. Solar energy is advancing quite rapidly. Prototype level cells are producing efficiencies in in the mid 50 percentile. Thin film and nanopaint solar conversions are in the i-10 percent range. The real bottleneck is not storage (though that is a problem – just not all the big of one)its power transmission and space. Solar power is a function of space – it works best in a dispersed environment, humans tend to live in cities. Power line connection costs and power loss due to transmission lines inefficiency is real deal killer. This issue really frustrates me to no end. The moon is practically made of silicon (principal ingredient in solar cells.)The real solution is build rovers for the moon that produce solar cells. Basically you have limitless power up there. Transmit the energy back to the earth via microwaves to designated areas problem solved.

  7. I think the only way Solar could ever power everything for us would be to get orbital launch costs down low enough to have geo-synchronous orbiting solar platforms, beaming energy back as microwaves. The only way terrestrial solar could cover the vast majority of power would be to have superconducting, high-voltage DC transmission lines (no losses) and ship power long distance, from day to night, basically. Otherwise you would need to supplement it with solid-oxide, or other high-efficiency, scalable power source on cloudy days or overnight.

  8. Oh, another point: If you want an example of a technology advancing, and being adopted, exponentially, look no further than silicon-based transistors. Moore’s law (which isn’t any kind of fundamental law or anything, it’s just a prediction that’s been right repeatedly) says that transistor density doubles every 18 months (sometimes quoted as 2 years). Hard drive capacity follows a similar trajectory.

  9. Alex: I agree that many technologies advance at great pace. But to just say solar energy ‘is doubling now every two years’ so we just did that for 20 more years and saw we could power the whole world is stretching credibility. As you point out yourself, there’s a lot more to powering the whole world with solar than just improving the efficiency of solar panels.

  10. Transistor density doesn’t map directly to performance, though. Even if your application is extremely parallelizable you still have increasing overhead as you split the work up between multiple cores/machines. So while it’s a useful prediction, it only tells part of the story. Transistor count may double every 18 months but available computing power doesn’t.

  11. Kurzweil is a certified nutbar. He also thinks computer will have emotions by 2029. Google it if you don’t believe me. He also dabbles in longevity and who knows what else. I have to admit that his synths were pretty funky and the speech recognition software isn’t too shabby, but as a futurist, he is off his rocker.

  12. I actually think what makes the most sense is to use nucular for electricity and solar/wind for generating hydrogen gas, or some other synthetic liquid/gaseous fuel for powering vehicles etc. Making H2 is inefficient but if you’re getting the energy to do it ‘for free’ (in some senses) it’s less of a worry. Plus the fuel is a storage medium, so the fuel can be burned at night/on a cloudy day/etc. and far from the production point, negating most of the disadvantages of solar power. As a bonus I think cracking water is more efficient at higher temperature so you can use the sun both to heat the water and to generate the electricity used to electrolyze it.

  13. The quickest way to sell the solar power thing to the public is not to use huge desolate areas for power, but to make it cost effective to power each individual home with solar panels and then store or sell the excess, thereby making every residence a potential powerstation. Someone’s solar goes down, they buy some from the local co-op till they can get back on line. You are away for a week and arn’t using most of your capacity, automatically sell it to the co-op for storage or usage in areas that don’t have solar available. Just my 2 cents