‘Historically, energy usage grows tenfold every century,’ Freeman Dyson once told me during a chat we had at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, a few years ago. ‘So we are not far from becoming a Type I civilisation on the Kardashev Scale, perhaps within this century, or just a little later on,’ claimed the great physicist.
The scale, proposed by the Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev, designates a Type I civilisation as one capable of harnessing its own planet’s available energy, while a Type II can control the energy radiated by its own star and a Type III by its whole galaxy. We are still Type 0. ‘When we ponder the future of energy, the Sun is clearly the answer,’ Dyson said. Every hour, it ships more energy to Earth than we can consume in a year.
“The solar economy is progressing faster than predicted”
The magnitude of our species’ scientific harvest is impressive. Google Scholar, the online search engine that indexes the world’s scholarly literature, lists 66,900 solar energy papers published in the first two months of this year. In February, MIT’s professor Vladimir Bulović demonstrated a solar cell so lightweight you can place it on top of a soap bubble without popping it. Panasonic announced it has achieved a photovoltaic cell conversion efficiency of 23.8 per cent, a new world record. And it is not all about silicon: the US’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has managed to improve the maximum voltage available from a cadmium telluride cell, overcoming a limit that was elusive for decades. Researchers from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, have succeeded in getting 100 per cent efficiency in reduction, a critical stage of the water-splitting process to get hydrogen. If we manage to break apart water’s atomic components through free solar radiation, we could indeed witness the much talked-about hydrogen economy.
In the meantime, the solar economy is progressing faster than predicted. The US Energy Information Administration said 9.5 gigawatts worth of solar farms are expected to go online this year, three times last year’s installations. China has just surpassed Germany as the country with the most solar capacity (as well as outstripping Denmark as the biggest producer of wind turbines). Morocco is about to switch on the first portion of its huge concentrated solar power farm near Ouarzazate, in the Sahara desert, that will become the world’s largest when completed. London is about to unveil the world’s largest floating photovoltaic plant, on the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir near Heathrow.
Many more breakthroughs are needed to upgrade humanity’s standing to Type I. But, thankfully, the race appears to be on.
This was published in the April 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.