A World Where Solar Land is More Valued than Farm Land
As fossil fuels lose their attractiveness the industrialized world has a fairly big problem. The problem might actually be big enough to threaten various stages of collapse in various region around the world – in other words, the world being forced to transition from fossil fuels could get ugly, and might threaten the investments of a lot of very rich people. The ensuing decrease in services could have a decidedly Dystopian quality. A lot of people could get hurt.
So now I have affirmed that the transition from a Carbon to a post-Carbon would could get viciously ugly, what would happen if it doesn’t get ugly?
There are a limited number of solutions available if we are to keep society more or less recognizable from 20th century developed nation consumerism, pluriform democracies and freedom. All three – consumerism, freedom and multicultural democracies are a recent phenomenon. Their long term succession is by no means guaranteed, even if most people in modern societies prefer all over their alternatives – autocracy, planned economies and nationalist states. We have tried feudalism and all of its variants for a few thousand years and my guess is most people would not opt for repressive societies. Repressive societies, no matter how well-intentioned and Utopian in ideology always end up favoring ruling elites.
The problem is that all trappings of a comfortable civilization cost money. As we have come to understand, money doesn’t really exist and is a fiction cooked up by politicians, ideologues and bankers. The substrate that underlies money is actually energy. Having a society that generates (or somehow succeeds in harvesting) an energy surplus can grow. If there’s no energy surplus, no amount of printing “money” can generate long term economic prosperity. We might have pretended for a while this is the case, but we are now running in to irresolvable limits to growth, and most these limits could be overcome if only we had access to sufficient energy.
The American standard of living by some is regarded as the highest form of life on the planet. A reason for the relative prosperity of typical Americans is the rate at which their directly or indirectly consume energy. Most of this energy is petrochemical. America consumes as a society about one fifth all energy of the world, and the world consumes about 20 terawatt per year in energy, again, most of which is non-renewable and carbon based. Apparently a lot of people world wide still consume energy in the form of burning wood. Or it’s less palatable cousin, cow dung.
Let’s for now assume, despite objections to the contrary, that carbon based fuels are either irreversibly depleting, or are becoming otherwise undesirable to consume at anything approximating current rates. I can think of a few reasons, such as mass extinctions and climate change but opinions tends to vary on these topics.
There is no existing alternative source of energy that can in 2015 replace “burning stuff”. We can’t scale up existing nuclear plants – Uranium nuclear has been operating at a nett loss (taking all costs in to account) for decades. Wind energy is too intermittent, Geothermal and Water turbines too regional, Thorium has not been proven, and most other alternatives too small scale. There is only one source of energy that scales up indefinitely and becomes cheaper as we invest in it, and that is Space Based Solar, but we won’t have launch capability to construct that for the better part of a century. That leaves us with planetary solar.
There are several competing formats for turning sun in to electricity, and it is pretty certain that in coming years we’ll unearth new ways to do so, with less stuff and with higher outputs.
And there’s a problem there. We’d want to produce solar electricity pretty close to where we’d like consuming it. Transporting electricity over vast distances is costly, subject to sabotage, extortion and vandalism, and it is inefficient. But no matter how much solar electricity we’d eventually come to produce, our society will always demand more to sustain our ever expanding hunger for consumer goods, cheap food, transportation, computation and whatnot. There is absolutely no cap on how much affordable energy eventually would want to consume on the planet (short of cooking away the oceans in doing so) and that means that as soon as means ti transmute sunlight in to marketable kilowatt-hours, there will be markets demanding more.
Right now our planet is covered with large stretches of forests, desert and agricultural land. Solar electricity would be consumed where most paying consumers would be, and consequently where stable states would exist to allow for permanent solar harvesting farms to operate undisturbed. A solar economy therefore might easily be argued to be more likely to be decentralized (no big monopolies), quite averse to violence (wars break all the solar) and democratic (easily taxable). I might break a lance to argue how more favorable a persistent and robust solar economy might be over a hydrocarbon based one, but I am sure a cavalcade of SUV aficionado’s might vehemently disagree with me.
Whatever the outcome – if solar does in fact take off in terms of output, safety, sustainability, return-on-investment, marketability (etc.) then we might see ever more sophisticated types of solar dotting the landscape, especially in place where people live.
The scariest and at the same time most fascinating scenario is a world, maybe half a century from now, where solar forests compete with agricultural or natural land. It might come to a point where we become so efficient capturing sunlight and turning it in to prosperity that demand for solar electricity outstrips other demands.
A century ago most currently developed countries had a lot more horses. There are less horses around now. Likewise in 2015 we have a lot of agricultural land and forests. Along the same lines, assuming we as a society get very lucky with Solar, might see large parts of the world covered with some form of structures that turn sunlight in to prosperity. As indicated, I’d rather see that happen in a near planetary orbit with Space Based Solar, but anything that sustains my (soon to be considerably life-extended) standards of living is welcome, and I am not asking for the sky just yet.
Images from Shutterstock.