Monday, November 7, 2011

Technological Optimism

I'm a big fan of technology. I buy into the Julian Simon view that any "limits to growth" are wrong-headed because it ignores the fact that the ultimate resource is human ingenuity.

Here are some bits out of Paul Krugman's latest NY Times op-ed looking at the upcoming future for solar energy:
For decades the story of technology has been dominated, in the popular mind and to a large extent in reality, by computing and the things you can do with it. Moore’s Law — in which the price of computing power falls roughly 50 percent every 18 months — has powered an ever-expanding range of applications, from faxes to Facebook.

Our mastery of the material world, on the other hand, has advanced much more slowly. The sources of energy, the way we move stuff around, are much the same as they were a generation ago.

But that may be about to change. We are, or at least we should be, on the cusp of an energy transformation, driven by the rapidly falling cost of solar power. That’s right, solar power.


These days, mention solar power and you’ll probably hear cries of “Solyndra!” Republicans have tried to make the failed solar panel company both a symbol of government waste — although claims of a major scandal are nonsense — and a stick with which to beat renewable energy.

But Solyndra’s failure was actually caused by technological success: the price of solar panels is dropping fast, and Solyndra couldn’t keep up with the competition. In fact, progress in solar panels has been so dramatic and sustained that, as a blog post at Scientific American put it, “there’s now frequent talk of a ‘Moore’s law’ in solar energy,” with prices adjusted for inflation falling around 7 percent a year.

This has already led to rapid growth in solar installations, but even more change may be just around the corner. If the downward trend continues — and if anything it seems to be accelerating — we’re just a few years from the point at which electricity from solar panels becomes cheaper than electricity generated by burning coal.

And if we priced coal-fired power right, taking into account the huge health and other costs it imposes, it’s likely that we would already have passed that tipping point.

But will our political system delay the energy transformation now within reach?

Let’s face it: a large part of our political class, including essentially the entire G.O.P., is deeply invested in an energy sector dominated by fossil fuels, and actively hostile to alternatives. This political class will do everything it can to ensure subsidies for the extraction and use of fossil fuels, directly with taxpayers’ money and indirectly by letting the industry off the hook for environmental costs, while ridiculing technologies like solar.
Krugman is making the point that the upcoming 2012 elections are going to be important for many reasons. A big one is that they will decide whether the political right gets to continue blocking technological advance in the energy area. The sad fact is that China is quickly becoming a leader in this area (along with Germany) and the US, which used to lead the world, will soon be a "has been" and utterly negligible. All thanks to the Neanderthal thinking of the Republican party that favours the rich and corruption over the American people and a better future.

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