Peak oil and the Arabian desert

OPEC, meet OSPEC, the Organization of Solar Power Exporting Countries

Published July 17, 2006 11:46PM (EDT)

An entirely predictable story on peak oil and the left-wingers who love it is on the cover of the August issue of Harper's, which arrived in my mailbox about an hour ago. Journalists appear to find the spectacle of liberals who are enraptured by apocalypse utterly irresistible, and author Bryant Urstadt is no exception. He's a good writer, but for those who are already paying attention to the topic, there's nothing to see here. Move along, move along.

Except, I was intrigued, during the de rigueur discussion of how renewable sources of energy won't come close to making up for the imminent end of cheap oil, to read, during Urstadt's dismissal of solar power, that "in all the years between 1982 and 1998, about three square kilometers of [photovoltaic] cells were shipped to customers." (In context, this statistic is cited to indicate how puny the existing installation of solar cells is.)

Funny, I had just finished watching, courtesy of a link from Treehugger, a recently delivered 45-minute lecture by Richard Swanson, the president and CTO of Silicon Valley's SunPower, to an audience at the Palo Alto Research Center. Swanson says that 1998 just happens to be exactly the moment when solar power started to take off. By 1999, there was a total of about 1 gigawatt of solar power-generating capacity installed in the entire world. But by 2005, said Swanson, the industry was installing almost 2 new gigawatts a year. Swanson says that since the late '90s industry revenues have been growing at a compound annual growth rate of 41 percent.

It's almost as if Urstadt had picked that particular data set specifically to frame solar power in the worst possible way. And that's a shame, because solar power offers some room for real optimism. Even if you compensate for the expected level of rah-rah from the founder of a solar power company, Swanson's presentation was impressive, with scads of detail on trend lines in photovoltaic cell manufacturing that show prices coming down, conversion efficiencies rising, and revenues beginning to roll in.

Among the tidbits dropped by Swanson:

  • Last year, half the homes built by Japan's largest home builder came pre-equipped with solar power panels.

  • By 2012, the cost-per-watt of solar power will have dropped low enough that subsidies will no longer be necessary to compete with fossil fuel-generated electricity.

  • The polysilicon shortage, a crimp in the supply line of the ultra-pure silicon that is critical to the manufacture of both photovoltaic cells and semiconductors, will shortly be ancient history, as new polysilicon production facilities (which cost around $300 million and require three years to build) come online all over the world. Three such plants are being built in China alone.

    Does this mean solar power will save the world from peak oil? No. Coping sustainably with peak oil will require massive efforts in conservation, huge improvements in energy efficiency, and the ramp-up of a comprehensive portfolio of renewables, including solar and biomass and wind and geothermal. But solar power is still a sector to watch -- because if it does reach a point where it is competitive in the market-place without subsidies, the current growth curve will simply explode.

    Which means that now might be a good time to invest in desert real estate. Because after watching Swanson's easy-to-digest video, I skimmed through the considerably more dense, 190-page report "Trans-Mediterranean Interconnection for Concentrating Solar Power," a study by the German Aerospace Center's Institute of Technical Thermodynamics, Section Systems Analysis and Technology Assessment, commissioned by Germany's Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.

    And if you think that's a mouthful, just try reading the report.

    The premise of the study is that Europe will be able to satisfy a significant fraction of its future energy needs by importing solar power-generated electricity from North Africa and the Middle East. The technological obstacles are huge; according to the report, at least 10 to 15 years will be required to build the "high voltage direct current transmission" lines necessary to make the scheme feasible. And the report doesn't even mention the potential political obstacles. At the moment, upgrading the energy infrastructure of the Middle East might give pause to even the most intrepid government or investor.

    Nonetheless, there's plenty of sun in the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East.

    "In terms of primary energy," reads the report, "the direct solar irradiance in North Africa equals a layer of crude oil of 0.25 meters thickness on the total land surface every year. This gigantic resource is several orders of magnitude larger than the global energy demand."

    Even if only a small part is captured and shipped off to the North, a real dent could still be made in energy demand.

    So what happens when cheap oil runs out? We'll start importing solar power ... from the Arabs.

  • By Andrew Leonard

    Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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