An interdisciplinary MIT study led by the MIT Energy Initiative has led to a 332-page report entitled The Future of Solar Energy. Among its key findings are that today’s solar panels are all that is needed to supply the world with many terawatts of clean solar power by 2050 (a terawatt is equivalent to 1,000,000 megawatts). The other main point the study makes is that it will take political will to finally wean the world off of fossil fuels.
The MIT researchers suggest the crystalline silicon photovoltaic technology of today will remain viable and relevant in the future. While further research may improve solar panel efficiency, we have all the tools we need right now to supply all of the world’s energy needs. What we don’t have is the combination of financial incentives and political muscle that it will take to break our old habit of pumping fossil fuels out of the ground to satisfy our modern lifestyle.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that the fossil fuel industries receive almost $548 billion in subsidies each year. That’s as of 2013, the latest year for which data is available. The MIT report says those funds must be diverted to clean energy to make the dream of a carbon-free future a reality. The authors say, “Solar electricity generation is one of very few low-carbon energy technologies with the potential to grow to very large scale.” But that growth won’t happen fast enough unless the money to build the solar infrastructure is allocated.
Rather than hoping for new breakthroughs that will lower the cost of solar panels even more, the MIT researchers think our emphasis should be on building a “smart grid” that integrates all of the solar energy available from rooftop solar systems, community solar, and utility-scale solar projects into an efficient whole.
It also denominates the relatively new field of electricity storage as an area where further research could lower costs dramatically. Just as the cost of solar panels has plummeted over the past decade, new battery technology and the economies of scale that flow from greater production will combine to drive down the price of energy storage in the next decade. Batteries are the critical component to bring out solar power’s full potential.
Any time there is a shift in technology, some entrenched interests suffer economically while some new businesses prosper. Particularly in America, we need to remove Luddites like Senator James Inhofe from office. He is the chairmen of the Senate Environment Committee who brought a snowball onto the floor of the Senate to make the point that climate change cannot possibly be taking place because it was really, really cold outside. Such mindless buffoonery earned him a place in history as the ignoramus who will forever be known as “Senator Snowball.” Our society simply cannot afford to be held hostage any longer by such a stooge of the fossil fuel companies.
The MIT report is written in the dense argot so popular among scientists, but its message is clear. We have the tools we need to produce all the energy we need from renewable sources. Now all we need to do is make up our minds to put those tools to work.