Technologies to harness wind and water power go back millennia, their evolution revealing human imagination, years of hard work, incremental innovations, setbacks, occasional leaps forward, and fortunes won and lost along the way.
They are ‘solar’ technologies, because the winds and the water cycle are driven by the sun’s heat. The photo-voltaic (PV) story started more recently, but still spans nearly two centuries. Currently, it accounts for under 5% of electricity generation, both in the UK and globally. It is unfolding in a similarly chaotic fashion to its older solar cousins.
An early PV cell to generate electricity (manufactured with selenium) appeared in the 1880s on a New York rooftop, over 40 years after Edmond Becquerel first explored the PV effect. It was many years later, during WW2, that a Bell Labs engineer working on radio transmission discovered, by chance, that a cracked silicon rod exhibited PV behaviour. By 1954, a US magazine surmised: The silicon strips may provide more power than all the world’s coal, oil and uranium.
Waves of sector enthusiasm have a habit of floating all boats. Also in 1954, nuclear power was described as on a road to becoming too cheap to meter by the then US Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, Lewis Strauss. It is unclear if Strauss was referring to nuclear fusion or fission. Either way, commercial fusion remains tantalizing but elusive; fission is not free. Meanwhile, PV has a way to go to out-power other renewables technologies, never mind fission and fossil fuel alternatives.
So, the first lesson is that moments of ‘irrational exuberance’ form part of our energy evolution. Reaching a sustainable energy future will require patience, and we need to be wary of high-tides of enthusiasm around any technology.
PV history provides extra lessons for the energy sector. The evolutionary spur for a technology often comes from unlikely places. From the 1950s, the nascent PV industry faced the oldest problem of them all – finding a market. From where did help come? Well, literally from outer space, the investigation of which was a purely government-funded activity with heavy military resonances in those days. Moreover, in the early satellite boom of the 1960s, the price of solar cells was astronomical, so not even the Martians could afford them.
From those improbable beginnings, the next helping hand came from an equally-unlikely source in the 1970s, the oil & gas industry, both as venture-capital provider and customer (for remote drilling sites). Another eccentric early adopter included the global maritime industry (lighthouses, navigational buoys, and the like).
The second lesson, then, is that technology growth enablers, including high-risk capital providers and early anchor customers, may emerge from strange places within the broader economic system. Imagination and graft characterise the search process for hard-to-see connections between demand and supply.
A further thought concerns realpolitik. In practice, the energy sector is heavily influenced by subsidies in terms of mature and emergent technologies. Subsidy ‘leadership’ is often passed around the globe like an Olympian torch. Within my generation alone, the solar baton has passed from the US, to Japan, Europe and China. Through all this, future consumers kept winning with falling costs – national boom/bust cycles have integrated into long-term sustainable global value.
So, the third lesson, which is often forgotten, is that while every generation leaves unwanted liabilities for the next, it also bequeaths generous bounties. That is true of every technology we have ever developed in energy.
Overall, the development of energy technologies needs to be interpreted in the context of a complex and evolving international energy system. Technological progress has emerged with unlikely and unnatural partners, the discovery of unimagined markets, huge policy support, and with undreamed of cost reductions and accumulated knowledge benefitting future generations.
Now, back to our beloved UK and Ireland. Better to see our energy future for what it is – uncertain, non-linear and inextricably linked to the broader globe – than to believe in ‘sure things’.
Who knows - maybe fusion will have its future day in the sun, helped by our young scientists at the Culham Centre. If, instead, PV becomes the leading light, local or imported from distant deserts, that will also be smart - harnessing the fusion in the sun’s core for our earthly benefit.
A recent FT article quoted Chris Case, the CTO of a leading UK solar developer as saying: “It seems to me the rest of the world is staking their future on solar and the UK is not.”
Alternatively, given our island meteorology, winds and hydro appear to have enormous potential to grow further. And, in case we want diversification from these solar technologies, let’s not forget the much-closer moon and the tides it generates.
Then again, maybe an imaginative toddler currently playing with bricks in a play pen will one day stumble upon something completely different.
In the interim, the best hope for all of us lies in our society supporting a vibrant spirit of curiosity, constant learning, competitive tension, and international collegiality. That is the real challenge for UK energy policy. ‘Twas ever thus.
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