How Solar Power Can Succeed

Last year, the South Pacific Island of Tokelau, a tropical atoll governed by New Zealand, became the first completely solar powered territory on Earth. Having invested $7.2 million on the project, the island of 1500 souls is now redirecting money it would have spent on oil to education, irrigation, and health care.

Could Tokelau's experience be a harbinger for the rest of the world? Maybe, maybe not. It is worth remembering, after all, that most of the island's inhabitants are subsistence farmers, and that thousands of their countrymen have emigrated to New Zealand and Samoa. An advanced economy it is not.

But let's take a moment to dream big and to consider just what it might take for solar to catch on in the same way across the industrialized world as well.

Sunny Scenarios

  1. Swanson's Law. This rule, a play on Moore's law, posits that the cost of the photovoltaic solar cells used to generate solar power will fall by about 20% each time global manufacturing capacity doubles. Spin that forward a few generations and you have the prospect of solar power plants that are reasonably cheap to build... and nearly free to operate.
  2. Better electricity storage and transmission. The sun doesn't always shine, of course. But new types of industrial-scale battery storage -- whether using liquid-electrolyte "flow" cells or something else -- could make it possible to save energy produced while the sun beams down for, well, a rainy day. And then transmit it to where it can do the most good.
  3. New photovoltaic technologies. Forget Solyndra. Yes, its failure was a cause celebre for a while, but quite a lot has been going on outside that spotlight. In December, for instance, San Jose, Calif.-based Solar Junction hit a world record 44% solar conversion efficiency with a new type of photovoltaic cell. Many other startups continue to win federal funding for promising photovoltaic manufacturing processes that will keep Swanson's Law in business.
  4. Climate change and high fossil-fuel prices. Should global temperatures continue to rise, or should oil prices remain high due to "peak oil" -- or both -- that would go a long way toward creating the economic incentives necessary to push solar technologies into mainstream energy production.

The U.S. and the rest of the industrialized world won't make the jump to solar overnight, especially given their continuing addiction to oil. Give these trends enough time to play out, though, and we may look back at Tokelau as a framework for solar.

Photo via Shutterstock