Something new is happening in the world of solar panels. Last time I counted, there were 16 companies with four or five distinct technologies promising solar cheaper than coal. A real diversity of approaches; goop sprayed on plastic, wires printed on metal, yard-wide inflatable bubble-mirrors. The front runners, NanoSolar and Konarka have hundreds of millions of dollars of smart Silicon Valley money and are poaching manufacturing talent from places like IBM. They are cheap, too, these new panels. No retail yet, but manufacturing costs are estimated at 1/6 to 1/20 of conventional solar costs.
You know what that means? If this is for real - and we will find out very soon, within 5 years - energy will become as cheap as information. Enough solar panels to power an ordinary house for 20 years will cost $500. This is the tech fix so often dismissed in the literature, but it is physically possible. The energy from the sun is there, and building a better machine to scoop it up is a technical problem, not a metaphysical one. If it has been discovered by NanoSolar or Konarka, what then?
Cheap energy and cheap information. A world covered in wireless data networks and littered with solar collectors hoovering up the energy of the sun to run the machines and everything else. Energy so cheap that pulling the carbon back out of the atmosphere becomes economic. Praise be to the Sun Absolute! Is this paradise?
Well, no. Cheap electrical power and ubiquitous data networks may accelerate rather than halt loss of the biome, as clean green logging operations down the forests with solar-powered chainsaws. Water is still an issue in many places. But cheap solar power may well break the back of some of the fundamental problems of the human race as surely as smallpox vaccination did. Violence over energy and over many forms of poverty may stop as cheap power turns into cheap tools to improve farming or process crops.
The coal will slumber in the ground. The reactors will be decommissioned. The patents will expire and then the solar materials will become as cheap as physics and chemistry allow, as cheap as tarpaulins, as cheap as cardboard, as cheap as bamboo mats. People who do not know arithmetic will carry solar blankets to charge the phone-computers that connect them to global culture, or their own past, as they choose.
This world is not only possible, but, given the thousands of gigawatts pouring from the sky, with only a very minor interruption in human foolishness, it is inevitable. Once you get to silicon chips, the step to solar panels comes. Once you get to solar panels, if you stop investing in the technologies which generate power by destroying the climate, cheap solar panels come. Once you have cheap solar panels, the age of carbon becomes a bad dream.
We can wake up from the age of carbon into the age of the Sun. We are doing it in this very generation. Praise be to the Sun Absolute!