Solar: The First 1% Was the Hardest

Solar power now provides roughly 1% of the world’s electricity. It took 40 years to reach that milestone. But, as they say in tech, the first 1% is the hardest. You can see why in this chart below.

As solar prices drop, installation rate rises. As the installation rate rises, the price continues to drop due to the learning curve.

How fast is the acceleration?

Looking at the projections from GTM, it will take 3 more years to get the second 1%.

Then less than 2 years to get the third 1%.

And by 2020, solar will be providing almost 4% of global electricity.

GTM expects that by 2020, the world will be installing 135 GW of solar every year, and will have reached a cumulative total of nearly 700 GW of solar, roughly four times the 185 GW installed today.

For context, at the end of 2013, after almost 40 years of effort, the world had a total of 138 GW of solar deployed. We’ll deploy almost that much in a single year in 2020. And the numbers will keep on rising.

The growth of the total amount of solar deployed around the world continues to look exponential, with a growth rate over the last 23 years of 38% per year. Over the last three years it’s slowed to a mere 22% per year. All exponentials become S-curves in the long run. But for now, growth remains rapid, and may indeed accelerate once more as solar prices drop below those of fossil fuel generation and as energy storage plunges in price.

The first 1% was the hardest.

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There’s more about the exponential pace of innovation in solar, storage, and other technologies in my book on innovating to beat climate change and continue economic growth:The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet

How Much Land Would it Take to Power the US via Solar?

I’ve seen some pieces in the media lately questioning this, so allow me to point to some facts based on real-world data.

tl;dr: We’ll probably never power the world entirely on solar, but if we did, it would take a rather small fraction of the world’s land area: Less than 1 percent of the Earth’s land area to provide for current electricity needs.

First, let me be clear: I doubt the future is 100% solar or anything like it. We are in the midst of a multi-decade transition. And while solar is the most abundant renewable on the planet, and plunging in price faster than any other, there’s a role for solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, and geothermal in the distant future based on ideal geographies and scenarios. I very much hope to see highly advanced, high-yield biofuels come into the mix in the next decade. And for a number of decades to come we’re going to have fossil fuels in play. This article is a ‘what if?’ and not a prediction of or call for 100% solar.

Second, to move to a high-renewables world, we need low-cost energy storage. We’re making progress on that. But there’s still quite a distance to go.

For the data, let’s use two examples.

Example #1 comes from a Breakthrough Institute article complaining about the vast amount of land that solar needs. Guest writer Ben Heard complains that solar’s land footprint (specifically at the Ivanpah plant) is 92 times that of a small modular nuclear reactor. (If you’ve read The Infinite Resource you may know that I wrote a whole chapter in praise of nuclear power and of small modular reactors in particular. I’m a fan.)

What Heard’s Breakthrough Institute article doesn’t tell you is how tiny that land footprint, in the grand scheme of things, actually is. Do the math on the numbers he presents: 1087 Gwh / yr, or 0.31 Gwh / acre / year.

At that output, to meet the US electricity demand of 3.7 million Gwh per year, you’d need about 48,000 square kilometers of solar sites. (That’s total area, not just area of panels.) That may sound like a stunningly large area, and in some sense, it is. But it’s less than half the size of the Mojave desert. And more importantly, the continental United States has a land area of 7.6 million square kilometers. That implies to that meet US electrical demand via this real world example of Ivanpah, would require just 0.6 percent of the land area of the continental US.

This fact – which puts the land area requirements in context – is completely missing from Heard’s piece at the Breakthrough Institute site.

Asked about this on twitter, Heard replied that larger size nevertheless is a disadvantage. It threatens ecosystems and endangered species, for instance. And this is a legitimate point, in some specific areas. (Though certainly far less so than coal and natural gas.)

But, for context, agriculture uses roughly 30% of all land in the United States, or 50 times as much land as would be needed to meet US electricity needs via solar.

Ivanpah, of course, may be an atypical site. So let’s look more generally.

Example #2 is a convenient reference from NREL:  Land Use Requirements for Solar Plants in the United States (2013) It’s excellent reading. I recommend pulling it up the next time Bjorn Lomborg writes an op-ed.

The second to last column tells us that, weighted by how much electricity they actually produce, large solar PV facilities need 3.4 acres of total space (panels + buildings + roads + everything else) for each Gwh of electricity they produce.

That leads to an output estimate of 0.294 Gwh / year / acre, and virtually the same total area, around 50,000 square kilometers in the US, or 0.6% of the continental US’s land area.

Update: In my original post I didn’t take the time to compare this area to other suitable areas in the US, such as rooftops, parking lots, and built land. Various people pointed me to pieces of data. So, consider that:

1. The built environment in the US (buildings, roads, parking lots, etc..) covered an estimated 83,337 square kilometers in 2009, or roughly 166% of the area estimated above. (Likely this area would not be as efficiently used, of course. But it could make a significant dent.)

2. Idled cropland in the US, not currently being used, totaled 37.2 million acres in 2007, or roughly 150,000 square kilometers, roughly three times the area needed.

3. “National Defense and Industrial” lands in the US (which includes military bases, department of energy facilities, and related, but NOT civilian factories, powerplants, coal mines, etc..) totaled 23 million acres in 2007, or roughly 93,000 square kilometers, nearly twice the area needed to meet US electricity demand via solar. Presumably much of that land is actively in use, but it gives a sense of the scale.

4. Coal mines have disturbed an estimated 8.4 million acres of land in the US. That works out to around 34,000 square kilometers, not too far off for the estimate from solar, and doesn’t include the space for coal power plants. And coal currently produces around only 40% of US electricity and hasn’t been above 60% in decades. To scale coal to 100% of US electricity would have required far more land than is required to meet that same demand via solar. Other analysis says the same: Counting the size of coal mines and their output, solar has a smaller land footprint per unit of energy than coal.

And the solar estimate of ~50,000 square kilometers, of course, is with solar systems already deployed. It doesn’t take into account the possibility of future systems with higher efficiencies that could reduce the land footprint needed.

Again, the point here is not that we’ll see a 100% solar world. The more solar we deploy, the more sense it makes to deploy wind to complement it. And frankly, I want to see the nuclear industry succeed. Nuclear is safe baseload power that we should be rooting for. I hope the nuclear industry can get costs and construction times down and under control.

But, when it comes to solar, land is not a blocking issue. Be skeptical when it’s brought up as one.

2014 Was a Good Year: Better Than You Remember

Eric Garner. Michael Brown. The Sony hack and surrender to fear. 2014 seems to be ending on a crappy note. My twitter feed is full of people expressing good riddance to the year.

2014 was better than that. I want to take a moment to remind us, and to offer some perspective on the dark stories.

So, good things about 2014:

1. 2014 Was the Year Same-Sex Marriage Reached More Than Half of America

2. 2014 is the Year That American Support for Legalizing Marijuana Tipped

3. And the Year that the First Legal Marijuana Stores Opened in Two States

Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use of marijuana in the 2012 election, and opened their first stores in 2014. Oregon, Alaska, and Washington DC joined them in fully legalizing Marijuana in the 2014 election, while 20-odd other states have allowed medical use or softened penalties for recreational use.

And so far, the evidence is, legalization is working pretty well.

4. In 2014, the Internet Reached 3 Billion People for the First Time

That data is courtesy of the ITU.

Not only is that a staggering number, it’s more than half the adults on the planet. For the first time, this year, more adults have access to the internet than don’t, a trend that’s only going to continue, as seen below in this chart from a presentation by Benedict Evans.

5. 2014 Saw a Historic Climate Agreement Between the US and China

Remember when we would never act on climate change because we’d never be able to agree with China? Yeah, me neither.

While the US-China deal isn’t enough on its own to meet the world’s goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, it represents a sea change. It’s a turn of the steering wheel, starting the process of steering us away from the cliff we’ve been headed towards. There’s much more work to do, but every course correction starts somewhere. And, as Slate shows, quantitatively, this one is a big deal.

6. 2014 Saw a Record Installation of Renewable Energy and Energy Storage

Final numbers will show that 2014 had the largest ever deployments of wind power and solar power. This was also the year that saw the largest purchase of energy storage in US history. Both of these are vital steps in bootstrapping the industries that will allow us to power our civilization while cutting the emissions that cause climate change.

And they’re just the latest in the ongoing surge in renewable energy in the market:

Renewable energy remains a tiny fraction of worldwide energy use. It’s starting from an extremely low base. Even growing at its phenomenal rate, it will likely take decades to turn the corner in climate change, but it is possible.

7. 2014 Saw Mainstream Realization of Solar and Wind’s Incredible Price Decline

That possibility is made even more clear here: 2014 saw two incredible graphs from mainstream financial analysts on the price plunge of renewables.

Lazard Capital Management put out a report showing how, in the last 5 years, wind and solar in the US have dropped 58% and 78% in price, respectively, now putting them below the price of grid electricity in many regions. (The red lines below are my own additions.)

And AllianceBernstein published their even more provocative solar “TerrorDome” chart (with slight yellow arrow annotation from me) showing how, in the long term, solar is plunging even more phenomenally in price relative to traditional fossil fuel energy sources.

Both are as important for who published them as for what they say. These are not reports from environmental groups or even greentech investment funds. These are financial analysts advising their clients on trends in the costs of energy – trends they see as upending the market.

8. In 2014, Hunger and Malnourishment Reached a New Low

In 1969, more than 30% of the developing world lived in hunger. Now that’s down to 13.5%. The rate of hunger reduction has accelerated in recent years, according to the FAO. As a percent of humanity, it’s likely that hunger has never been this rare, in the couple hundred thousand years our species existed. And even absolute numbers have dropped over the last 25 years. There is a huge amount of work left to do – but 2014 is the best yet in this measure.

9. And So Did Global Poverty, Child Mortality, and a Host of Other Ills

We don’t have the final data yet, but it’s almost certain that when we do, we’ll find out that in 2014, global life expectancy was at an all-time high, global poverty was at an all-time low, and worldwide child mortality had reached another new low, as part of the long trends of progress on each of these metrics.

For instance, see the trend on poverty, via Max Roser

Or the trend on under-five mortality, which has dropped by half since just 1990:

10. In 2014, the US Became Healthier and Safer as Well

Here again, we lack final numbers, but when we have them, it’s extremely likely that we’ll find that in the US, 2014 continued the long trend of:

– Declining infant mortality

– Declining crime rates.

11. Finally, 2014 Will Be Seen as a Transparency Tipping Point

The stories that drew the most outrage in my corner of the internet – outrage that I shared – were stories of police violence, intentional or unintentional, without proper accountability. And so I’ve saved this for last.

I’m a pragmatist who believes that police are a vital part of society, but who also believes that those who have the most power should be held to the greatest accountability. That isn’t the case today.

On the flip side, many, primarily conservatives, viewed the Mike Brown case through an entirely different lens, instinctively seeing it as a police officer confronting a criminal, and defaulting to trusting the officer’s view of the world. The debate has been loud, acrimonious, and sometimes downright nasty.

What almost everyone agrees on, though, is that more transparency is good. Support for police body cameras has been voiced across the political spectrum. That technology isn’t a panacea, by any means. As we saw in the Eric Garner case, a video doesn’t lead to even an indictment, let alone a conviction.

But the best data we have is that wearing body cameras does reduce police use of force and complaints against them. In other words, if Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who used a prohibited choke hold on Eric Garner, had been wearing a body camera, he might have reconsidered his behavior. Garner might still be alive.

What’s just as important is the increasing ubiquity of cameras in all of our hands. The video of Pantaleo choking Garner didn’t lead to an indictment, but that very fact led to voices on the right and left expressing dismay. One case won’t lead to change. But enough clear-cut cases will. And with cameras becoming cheap and ubiquitous, police officers now need to assume that their every action will be recorded.

Transparency is the key to change. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. The problems of police over-use of force have existed for years, if not decades. The problem of police near-immunity from prosecution is even older. These aren’t new issues. They’re simply coming further into view. Social media allows us to take issues that might once have been obscure, carried on the back page of one newspaper, and shine a glaring light onto them. And the presence of cameras everywhere – in our pockets, most of all – means a flood of imagery that we lacked even a few years ago. That visibility is essential. It informs our opinions, our conversations, our votes.

Sunlight is the best disenfectant. In the first few rays, though, the world can look grimy indeed. Just remember, the grime was there all along. What you’re seeing isn’t new. What’s new is that we have the power, for the first time, to wipe it away.

2014 will be remembered as a transparency tipping point. A sunlight tipping point. It’ll go down as a year that authority – in at least one form – had to start becoming more responsive and more accountable to the public.

–Far From a Perfect World–

I could go on about a dozen other ways the world is getting better, but I won’t. This list isn’t meant to convey that the world has no problems, or that it’s getting better in every way. Plenty of things are getting worse. But I trust you can find lists of those pretty much everywhere you turn. They’re over-represented in our discourse, and especially in the news. The good news is radically under-represented.

Good news doesn’t happen magically. The above trends didn’t pop out of thin air. They represent the hard work of millions of people – maybe billions. Some of them are improving the world out of simple self-interest. Others are doing it out of some passion, out of altruism, or out of deep conviction. Either way, optimism isn’t the same as complacency. Optimism is about action.

So here’s to those who act.

I think 2015, while it will have its share of problems too, will be even better.

The Learning Curve for Energy Storage

Energy storage prices are dropping fast. If you follow me, you’ve seen me write about this before. Energy storage prices have in fact been dropping exponentially for at least 25 years.

Here’s a new piece of analysis –  a model that uses a 20% learning curve per doubling to that project Li-ion batteries dropping to 5 cents per kwh round-tripped through them by ~2030.

You can read more about this here.

This cost projection is roughly in-line with what I’ve seen for Li-ion. For instance, here’s the view of what happened in Li-ion price and density in the well-studied period of 1990-2005.

However, for grid storage, this may be too conservative. Why? Because there’s a very real chance grid storage will veer away from lithium ion and towards flow batteries. Flow batteries are much bulkier and heavier than the lithium-ion in your cell phone and in a Tesla, but they’re potentially much cheaper.

ARPA-E’s GRIDS program has the goal of producing grid-scale energy storage at the capital cost of $100/kwh. With reasonable numbers of recharge cycles, that’s already at or close to 5 cents per kwh. ARPA-E has looked at many different technologies in the program. Among those are flow batteries. And having talked to some of the GRIDS folks, I see the flow batteries coming out of the program (and the other flow batteries coming onto the market) as nearing that line.

All of which is to say that we could see 5 cents per kwh stored closer to 2020 than 2030.

And that’s a price at which large scale grid storage starts to look economically viable.

I talk much more about renewables, energy storage, and how to accelerate progress in them in my book on innovating to beat climate change and other resource and environmental challenges: The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

The Renewable Energy Revolution

Transforming the world’s energy supply will take decades. It is a very tall order. But it’s starting. The price of renewables – and energy storage – continues to plunge, putting them on a path to being cheaper than any other form of energy within the coming decade. And they continue to grow exponentially – albeit it from a low baseline – spreading out into the market.

WIND

Wind, more established than solar, has seen it’s price decline by a factor of more than 20 over the last 30 years. The average wind power purchase agreement signed in 2013 was priced at 2.5 cents per kwh.

In many parts of the US and the world, wind power is now the cheapest source of new power.

In scale, the amount of wind power around the world has grown by an astounding 10x (1000%) over the last 11 years. Incredible.

SOLAR

Solar makes wind look slow and sedate. Solar PV module prices have dropped an astounding 150x since 1977.

Of course, module costs are not the whole cost.  Even so, fully system cost continues on an impressive decline of its own, having fallen by a factor of three in just the last 10 years – a more rapid decline than any other energy source.

And the solar market, in response to plunging prices and market and regulatory incentives, has exploded, surging by an incredible 100 times (10,000%) in just 13 years.  A few years ago the total solar installed base was just 1/10th that of the wind power installed base. Now it is almost half the size of the wind installed base, and poised to overtake it in the next 4-5 years.

OUTPACING IEA PREDICTIONS

The growth of solar and wind has been staggering. It has also consistently outpaced the projections of the International Energy Agency, the US Department of Energy, and virtually all other traditional energy forecasters. The graph below shows how the IEA, in particular, has had to raise their forecasts of future solar and wind growth every year to keep up with actual growth rates.

And in fact, the IEA predicts that new installations of solar and wind will stay flat or decline over time, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Here’s a fuller analysis of IEA’s continual under-estimation of renewables.  Bear this trend in under-estimating new technologies in mind when reading forecasts from traditional energy forecasters.

BATTERY STORAGE

Finally, while the battery storage technology for the grid is, IMHO, unlikely to be lithium-ion, and is more likely to be flow batteries, it’s instructive to look at the price history of lithium-ion batteries to see what’s possible.

Between 1990 and 2005, the price per unit of energy stored in lithium-ion batteries dropped by a factor of 10, and the amount of energy that could be stored per unit weight nearly tripled.

That’s instructive, as flow batteries appear to be nearly at the price to make them viable for grid storage. If they have similar price trajectories as they scale, renewables will see one of their most formidable obstacles to adoption removed.

We shouldn’t trivialize the challenges ahead. It took decades, if not a century, to build the modern energy system. We still lack solutions for the nearly 1 billion internal combustion vehicles on the road, for the manufacture of steel and concrete, for growing meat without methane release, and for numerous other issues. This transition will be long. But the trends in the core technologies for electricity are extremely promising.

There’s more about the exponential pace of renewables in my book on innovating to beat climate change and resource scarcity and continue economic growth: The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

 

Carbon Prices Drive Clean Energy Innovation

I want to point out something I see commonly missed.  Carbon prices accelerate innovation that brings down the price of green energy. So do renewable energy portfolio standards, green energy subsidies, and a whole swath of other climate policies. They do this by increasing the scale of the industry, which drives more scale (a price reducer) and also brings more players, more investment (much of which goes to direct R&D) and more price competition between players (the single best driver of reduced prices there has ever been).

The context: I noticed today a brief symposium on climate change with Larry Summers, Bjorn Lomborg, Alex Tabarrok, Tyler Cowen, and others.

There are some smart responses there.

Several of the panelists put forward, quite correctly, that green energy must ultimately be cheaper than fossil energy for us to succeed at climate change.  I agree.

And various panelists put forward cases for increased government R&D in green energy or X-Prize style prizes for major innovations in green energy.  Great ideas.

But let’s look at what’s happened in the industry recently.

Here’s the price of solar power modules, on a Log Scale, over the last 30ish years.

 

This is a rapid exponential decline of more than 95%. Some of that incredible progress has been driven by government sponsored R&D. But the single largest driver has been the scaling of the industry, and the innovation (both scientific and highly practical) that has come with it. That industry scaling has been made possible by a host of climate initiatives.

That’s just module cost. Here’s what’s happened with overall installed cost.

More recent data suggests the price has fallen even faster, to around $2.50 / Watt installed price in the US (weighted over all installations, which means largely utility scale).

That’s a ~75% reduction in total system price over the last 12 years. That’s staggering in almost any industry.

It’s not just solar, either. The price of wind power has plunged by 90% over the last 30ish years. And while it temporarily hit a plateau (as wind power became a major consumer of carbon fiber and demand temporarily exceeded supply) prices have once again resumed their decline.

And, though few people know, the price of energy storage is also plunging. Here, on a log scale, is how much energy storage you can buy for a dollar. Over a 15 year period, driven primarily by competition by laptop and cell phone manufacturers and their providers, the cost of lithium ion batteries dropped by a factor of 10 per unit of energy stored.

As electric cars and grid-scale storage drive up demand and heat up investment, private sector R&D, and competition in the space, the price of energy storage will continue to drop.

Again, there is some basic R&D in all of these areas funded by government. But the #1 driver of the incredible price reductions in each of these areas has been intense competition between private sector companies going after a growing market.

Why is the market growing? We’re reaching the point where it’s growing on basic price dynamics. But for the past three decades, the markets for wind and solar have been bootstrapped by governmental actions. 

Bjorn Lomborg, at the symposium, said:

the best long-term strategy to tackle global warming [is] to increase dramatically investment in green research and development. They suggested doing so 10-fold to $100bn a year globally. This would equal 0.2% of global GDP. Compare this to the EU’s climate policies, which cost $280 billion a year but reduce temperatures by a trivial 0.1 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

Lomborg’s number of $280 billion is roughly an order of magnitude greater than the EU’s actual direct spending on green energy, but let’s ignore that for now. The bigger issue is that he’s missing the primary impact of their climate polices. The number one impact of Europe, and particularly Germany’s investment in clean energy has been to drop the price of clean energy for everyone, now and into the future. That means that every future dollar spent on fighting climate change via green energy is dramatically more effective, for Germany, for Europe, and for everyone else worldwide. It’s a positive externality.

The price of solar power is now roughly 1/10th of what it was when Germany started their push into it. Yet it only dropped so far because of Germany’s major push. They have, in effect, paid the early adopter tax.

More to the point, the tens of billions per year the world spends in green energy subsidies have mobilized hundreds of billions per year in industry and consumer spending (similar to the effect a prize has, I’d note!) That private spending, in turn, has translated into a massive and continuing price decline in the technology.

How is that different, in effect, than direct R&D? Indeed, do we have any indication that spending that money on direct R&D instead would have done anywhere as well?  (Note: I don’t oppose direct R&D spending. I think we should do more of it. But it’s not a replacement for creating a market explosion and tapping into price competition between market actors.)

Alex Tabbarok, of whom I’m a huge fan, is the one member of the panel to state the connection. He states that: “A carbon tax will induce innovation as people demand a way to avoid the tax.”

This is absolutely true. But I’d extend and amplify this statement.

Any policy that expands the market for green energy – and puts providers in direct price competition with one another – will induce innovation, as providers scramble to tap into that market, and compete directly with one another to bring prices down.

Indeed, this isn’t a hypothetical. One has only to look at the graphs above to see that it’s already happening.

I write much more about solar, wind, energy storage, and why the pace of innovation in them is critical – and hopeful – for both fighting climate change and for long term economic growth in the book I originally did this research for. The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

Arctic Sea Ice: Less in November 2013 than Summers Before 2006

(This is a correction of a previous post that stated that there was less Arctic sea ice in December than in any summer before 2007. That post used a PIOMAS anamoly graph, which was not appropriate.)  

The Arctic is melting. That's a problem. Ice reflects 90% of the energy of the sunlight that hits it. The dark waters of the Arctic Ocean below it absorb 90% of that energy instead. If the sea ice is gone in the height of summer, the additional sunlight captured would be enough to warm the whole planet substantially. Exactly how much we don't know, but perhaps as much to keep raising the planet's temperature as much each year as all the human-released carbon in the atmosphere. Additionally, the regional warming effect would be even greater, which would accelerate the melt of permafrost near the Arctic, and the release of buried carbon there, much of which will come out as extremely dangerous methane. The melting Arctic is an extremely dangerous climate feedback loop.

We usually hear about Arctic sea ice in terms of the area it covers. Every winter almost the whole Arctic freezes over. That's changed very little. But in summers less and less is left. But what's even scarier is that the ice is also thinner by about half. When we look at it in terms of volume, in the height of summer, three quarters of the ice volume from the 1980s is gone. Three quarters. There's ice still covering water, but it's thin, and fragile.

Another way to think of it – today, in December  in November of 2013, the last month for which we have complete monthly ice volume data, in a year when ice coverage has rebounded, there was less ice (by volume) left in the Arctic than in any summer prior to 2006 2007, going back for at least thousands of years.

You can learn more about Arctic sea ice volume at the Polar Science Center.

The raw data for the graph above came from PIOMAS Monthly Volume Data 

I write much more about the challenges of climate tipping points, and how to innovate to maximize our chances of overcoming them, along with the related challenges of energy, food, water, and other natural resources, in my book on the topic:  The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

Pieces I’ve Written Around the Web

Over the last few months (and a bit over the past few years) I wrote a number of pieces around the web, primarily on energy, sustainability, genetically modified foods, and economic growth.  I did a poor job of linking to them on my own site.  So here's a roundup.

Science Will Save the Planet (If We Let It), Wired UK, May 2013

Seven Reasons Why China May Lead the World in Fighting Climate Change, Slate, May 2013

Grantham Is Wrong: We Are Not Headed For a Disaster of Biblical Proportions, Business Insider, April 2013

Why Polluters Should Pay YOU to Fix Climate Change, FastCoExist, April 2013

The Limits of the Earth: Part 1, Problems, Scientific American Guest Blog, April 2013

The Limits of the Earth: Part 2: Expanding the Limits, Scientific American Guest Blog, April 2013

Greener Than Green: Biotech and the Future of Agriculture, Genetic Literacy Project, April 2013

Why Organic Advocates Should Love GMOs, Discover Collide-a-Scape Blog, April 2013

Why GMO Advocates Should Embrace Labels, Discover Collide-a-Scape Blog, April 2013

How Innovation Could Save the Planet, The Futurist, March 2013

Can We Capture All the World’s Carbon Emissions?, Scientific American Guest Blog, March 2011

Smaller, Cheaper, Faster: Does Moore’s Law Apply to Solar Cells?, Scientific American, Guest Blog, March 2011 (Cited by Paul Krugman)

Pricing Nature to Save the Planet

New Scientist, covering Rio+20, talks about putting a price on the natural world:

Green economics, the theory goes, will work by quantifying nature and giving it a cash value. As Steiner put it: “Factoring natural capital into the bottom line will bring the real wealth of the planet from the invisible to the visible spectrum.” The hope is that, faced with the potential for monetary loss as a result of environmental degradation, decision-makers will feel compelled to act.

The notion of putting a price tag on nature is a powerful one. Economic self interest is a tremendous force. Given the importance of the planet to us, why isn’t it as easy to strike it rich in green tech as it is in internet tech?

If we want to unleash innovators on the task of preserving nature, we need those economic incentives. We need it to be as possible to get rich by improving the climate or solving ocean acidification or deforestation as it is to get rich creating the next Facebook.

This will, however, require action from governments. The natural behavior of markets is to treat commons as free resources to exploit, even when those commons have economic value for others. If we want markets to value them, we will need to impose a price on those resources, and only governments are empowered to do so.

via Earth Summit signals move to give nature a price tag – environment – 27 June 2012 – New Scientist.

A roadmap for growing prosperity while saving the planet

Chris Jablonski at ZDnet interviewed me recently about my next book, The Infinite Resource.   Here’s a short excerpt.  Click at the link at the bottom to read the whole interview.

In your upcoming book, The Infinite Resource – Growing Prosperity While Reducing Impact on the Earth, you point to knowledge as the path to a prosperous future. What inspired you to pick this theme?

RN: The book is really the intersection of two lines of inquiry. The first is the state of the environment and our natural resources. We’re simultaneously facing climate change and peak oil, ocean overfishing and fresh water shortages. As someone who cares about the future, I wanted to understand those challenges for myself.

The second is about innovation and its relationship to resource use and prosperity. I come from a tech background, so I’m used to the incredible onward march of Moore’s Law. But I was surprised to discover that something like Moore’s Law operates in solar energy. In the last 30 years, the price of electricity solar photovoltaic cells has dropped by more than a factor of 10. This decade, it’ll drop below the price of electricity from coal fired plants – the current cheapest. In 20 years, if the trend continues, it’ll be half the price of electricity from coal fired plants.

The driving force behind the reduction in solar energy prices is innovation. Scientists and engineers in the area keep coming up with new ways to make solar cells cheaper, thinner, lighter, and more efficient. That’s an accumulation of knowledge that has the promise to help us offset the depletion of a physical resource – oil.

That intersection led me to view our knowledge base itself as a resource.  And as a resource, knowledge plays by different rules that make it incredibly powerful. Unlike physical resources like oil, our stockpile of useful ideas and engineering designs and insights into the laws of nature keeps growing. Ideas don’t get destroyed or consumed in usage. If I have a piece of knowledge and I share it with you, I don’t have to give it up myself – its impact gets multiplied by the number of holders. And best of all, the right knowledge can substitute for or multiply just about any other resource – energy, labor, materials, land, even time.

Read More: A roadmap for growing prosperity while saving the planet | ZDNet.