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Machines Like Us

Solar: It's about to be a whole new world

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Many conservatives appear to have an unshakable, bedrock belief that solar power will never be cost-effective. Talk about solar, and conservatives often won't even look at the numbers - they'll just laugh at you. Mention that solar power recently provided almost half of Germany's electricity at peak hours, and they'll say things like "Oh, Germany's economy must be tanking, then." It seems like almost a fundamental axiom of their worldview that solar will always be too expensive to exist without government subsidies, and that research into solar is therefore money flushed down the toilet.

I suspect that many of these conservatives came of age in the 1970s, when solar was first being mooted as the "green" alternative to fossil fuels. They probably saw solar as a crypto-socialist plot; by scaring everyone about global warming and forcing businesses to convert to expensive solar power, "greens" would impose huge a implicit tax on business, causing the capitalist system to grind to a halt.

Maybe some people did support solar for just such a (silly) reason. But far-sighted people knew that technologies often require lots of government support to develop (basic research being, after all, a public good), and they saw that fossil fuels would have to start getting more expensive someday.

And now, after decades of research and subsidies, we may be on the verge of waking up into a whole new world. The cost of solar power has been falling exponentially for the past 35 years. What's more, there is no sign at all that this cost drop is slowing. New technologies are in the pipeline right now that have the potential to make solar competitive with coal and natural gas, even with zero government subsidy.

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