By Karl Smith
Joe Weisenthal says we'll just have to trust him that the rise of solar power is taking the world by surprise. Noah Smith has been on this bandwagon for a while, but outside of the futurist community I will admit that solar power doesn't get much press.
Why? The reason is simple. There is no policy issue here. With most energy products from fracking to biodiesel to wind, there is some relevant policy issue. Will carbon be taxed? Will fuel economy standards be raised or modified to include certain types of power sources? Will we go to war with Iran? These questions are basically irrelevant to the future of solar. Saying the world will be solar powered is like saying computers may play some role in the future economy. Barring cataclysm, photovoltaic solar is the future of power source of everything. There is some question about what is to be done with the power. I tend to favor using it to make methanol, but its hard to see how that sort of thing will shake out.
The economics are too revolutionary. The power source will likely be so cheap as to be practically free. The issue is the power conduit. Do we synthesize hydrocarbons? I strongly lean toward this, admittedly because I doubt you are going to improve on evolution. Life isn't powered by hydrocarbons for no reason. Natural selection pretty much got it right on this one. However, perhaps there will be some unforeseeable battery breakthrough or maybe an electrical power system flexible enough to manageable a smart globally integrated grid. The sun is always shining somewhere, after all.
But these are relatively minor issues in terms of the evolution of power. They will consume most of our cognitive time because there are actual decisions to be made. In contrast, the transition to solar is not a decision point. It will happen. It essentially cannot be stopped and helping it along is largely pointless, except for extracting some warm glow for being on the "winning team."
More interesting, if significantly geekier, is the future of lighting. Will solar power and LEDs mean that we banish the night? A world where it's never dark, the lights are always on and always at 10,000 lux -- at least where humans live. It might get dark somewhere in the wilderness.