Genesis Morocco

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Genesis Morocco

Project Genesis is a strategic sustainable development framework for Morocco to translate from being a net importer of energy and a country facing water shortage issues, into the number one producer both of clean renewable energy and water in the region.

Thursday, December 14, 2006    <<Home

Dave Roberts at Grist has an excellent interview with fund manager and former corporate buyout specialist Travis Bradford on his book Solar Revolution.

question Your book's central claim is pretty bold.

answer Thanks for recognizing that.

It's not just that we're moving toward alternatives, it's that we're moving toward distributed [power generation] as well. If both of those are true, solar is the only viable option.

Solar is different from other energy technologies in that it delivers energy at the point of use, directly to the end user. That allows it to circumvent the entire supply chain. It's not another option for a utility, it's a competitor to a utility -- the first time utilities have really had a competitor.

The best way to describe it is with an anecdote about cell phones. We used to have these monopoly telephone infrastructure players. They controlled everything, and they had all the processing power at central switching stations. You had these dummy terminals that you just picked up; you had a connection, but no brains. All the brains were in the center of the network. And then these cell-phone producers came along and, in the Telecommunications Act of '96, were given access to the telephone grid. They began to go completely around the supply chain and offer competing services to the same customers, wireless and easier. The telephone utilities ... first they ignored it, then they tried to fight it legislatively, and when they lost that they tried to fight it economically. Eventually they just decided, screw it, we're going to buy them. Today those are the most profitable parts of their business. That's the transformation.

This also happened in computers. We went from large, centralized mainframes with dummy terminals to a distributed hybrid architecture.

Solar is slowly going to begin to unwind the existing utility economics, to the point where utilities decide they have to get in or they risk losing their core business -- exactly the transformations we've lived through in the last 20 years.

The solar revolution does not require new breakthroughs in technology. You could do it with the technology we have, scaling it up and learning how to do it incrementally better every year -- which is what naturally happens with scale.

question Solar is mainly used for electricity, which represents just over a third of energy use. How do you account for transportation fuels?

answer We'll never solve the problem of transportation until we reconnect the transportation and electricity infrastructures. There's not enough liquid fuels.

I'm not a big fan of biofuels -- on close examination their environmental impact is wretched. What it does is export part of our energy price for transportation through the grocery store, right? We end up subsidizing the cost of our transportation infrastructure in the price of food stocks. Biofuels will solve some problems, but at the end of the day there's not enough land in the entire Mississippi River Valley to meet our transportation needs. And then where would we get food from? There's cellulosic, but that's only another 10 percent.

There are real capacity constraints in any transportation-fuel option until we reconnect it with the electricity infrastructure. You do that either with plug-in hybrids or with electrolyzed hydrogen. My guess is that batteries will be better for transportation purposes, and electrolyzed hydrogen for stationary applications, because fuel cells on site are much easier to make than fuel cells with the thrust needed in automobiles.

Other than industrial processes, we use thermal applications in heating and hot water. There are electric analogs to both of them. We can have electric hot water heaters just as easily as gas hot water heaters. We can have electric home heating. Historically it was believed that thermal applications were about a third the price of electricity-based heating applications, but that was based on $2 per thousand cubic-foot natural gas and whatever the prevailing price of electricity was. These have come a whole lot more in parity, and in a lot of places in the world, electric heat's the way they go.

Everything has to reconnect. The infrastructures that separated -- first at the beginning of the century, and again in the middle of the century for natural-gas infrastructure -- have to reconnect. And we'll need a lot more electricity to drive that.

question A lot more. What do you do about coal?

answer Coal is the enemy of the human race.

question There's my pull quote. Do you think solar's going to beat coal?

answer Solar's going to change the electricity infrastructure in a way that will make coal unnecessary. This distributed architecture is going to get to the point where wind and geothermal, where available, take over a lot of the baseload needs; solar will meet a lot of the peak needs, and some of the base needs during the day. The combination of these portfolios will make coal irrelevant. Wind and thermal are nearly as cheap as coal, if not cheaper, and coal still enjoys tremendous subsidies. Under certain circumstances nuclear power would be OK, but I highly doubt those circumstances can be met.

Solar is a universal system available inversely with the wealth of the nation. The richest countries have less and the poorest countries have more.

question It's frequently said that the U.S. is falling behind in 21st-century energy industries. Is it true?

answer I often claim that we are in danger of trading our addiction to Middle Eastern oil and Russian natural gas for an addiction to Chinese polysilicon and solar cells. That is a risk.

But if you look at where the materials come from for the solar industry today, while a lot of the cells are made in Germany and Japan and a few in China, a majority of the silicon they use comes from the United States. We're shipping them the feed stocks, and we're making a tremendous amount of money doing it. That's where all the profit is in the supply chain right now, because of the shortage.

The U.S. has lost the glamorous parts of the supply chain. But the profitable and the potentially path-breaking parts like thin-film solar are still here. If we don't get in the game, those will go away, too. We are at risk of losing those, but right now we actually have a pretty strong position, at least in solar.

question Are you a "crash and contraction are inevitable" environmentalist or an Amory Lovins-style techno-optimist?

answer I am definitely in the latter family. The way I characterize those two schools of thought are the defense school and the offense school. The defense school is filling the sandbags -- they think we have passed the point of no return, so their strategies to cope are defense-based strategies. My deepest concern is that the defense crowd is right. But I'm not ready to play defense yet.

If we're going to solve the problem, the solar revolution is a necessary and significant component of the solution.

question Will the decentralization of power production be accompanied by a decentralization of political power?

answer Solar power is empowering. All things being equal, people like to control the resources upon which they rely. That's why I spend time thinking about solar technologies rather than centralized, easily controlled technologies. At the end of the day, sustainability includes distributed power and democratization.