Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Sun is Rising on our Energy Situation

Reducing our dependency on fossil fuels, especially from foreign nations, can seem an insurmountable task. However, it may not be as formidable a challenge as the news often makes it out to be. You have to keep in mind that the oil industry represents a huge source of revenue for millions of people around the globe. A rapid shift away from it is not in their best interest, as far as they can tell, so there is a significant portion of the population that would like to see such a transition delayed as long as possible.

The fact is, the vast majority of the electricity in the United States is not produced using oil. If we were to shift the power source for cars and other devices that currently burn fossil fuels, to electricity, it would not be a matter of developing radical new technology. It would simply be a matter of producing a lot more of the same. We know how to produce electricity, and new technology will make it much easier and less expensive.

The most promising advancements, in my opinion, are coming from thin film photovoltaics. These are flexible, easily integrated solar cells contained in plastics. Various companies are developing the technology including Ascent Solar, Konarka and InnovaLight. It's not quite ready for prime time, but it's close. It holds the promise of reducing the cost of solar cells by a factor of 10 to 20 times.

The real dramatic changes will occur when the technology graduates from the scientist to the entrepreneur. When products produced by these companies get in the hands of the business community, the transformation will be swift and substantial. These materials will allow one to turn ones roof, fence, siding into solar collectors. They are even working on fibers that could conceivably result in power lines that not only transmit, but produce electricity. These same fibers can be used to produce glass that can either be transparent or programmed to dim as they collect light.

The materials are so sensative, they can even produce electricity from indoor lighting. Talk about recycling! The possibilities are endless. Virtually any surface that is exposed to light can be transformed into a power source. I don't know that even the companies working on these products understand the potential. For example, one product I'm sure hasn't yet occurred to them is a pair of glasses, with a memory card embedded in the stem and speakers attached to the ear pieces. The lenses collect and supply the power, and transition to shades in bright light. The memory card contains all your favorite songs which you can enjoy at the touch of a button. The same general idea can be applied to make your glasses function as a camera, a radio, even a cell phone or a combination of all of the above.

You'll first see the technology applied to hand-held mobile devices, probably next year. You will no longer have to charge your cell phone, your camera, your ipod. Just leave them exposed to some light and you've got power. There are already manufacturers of things like awnings and roofing materials getting involved.

The oil patch will not go quietly, but its days are numbered. We'll still use oil for a variety of products and chemicals, but 20 million barrels a day is probably going to be history much sooner than the barons would like to acknowledge.

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