Several years ago, I was a guest on Stephen Euin Cobb's The Future and You and one of the topics we discussed was the likelihood of local solar power generation replacing our present system of centralized power generation via fossil fuels. I was on the show just days after visiting Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks, and I'd seen how the power gets run to the island from the mainland then fed through power lines that run the length of the mostly empty highway. Cheryl and I had gone out to the beach to do some stargazing, far out from the lights of civilization, yet still the night sky was bisected by power lines. It struck me as a somewhat impractical system. Ocracoke seemed like a terrific candidate for wind, solar, and tidal power generation. Why rely on miles of vulnerable cable to deliver something so essential as electricity?
At the time, a second factor made the rise of alternate energy seem just around the corner: I thought we were getting near peak oil. A lot of people did, as little as five or six years ago. We were nowhere near peak coal, but I thought the environmental cost of coal mining was something that would increasingly limit the growth of the industry. The pictures alone would hamper mountaintop removal mining, given that we are now able to summon before and after pictures of affected landscapes with a few keystrokes on Google Maps. The logic was simple: fossil fuels would get more expensive, making alternative energy projects more cost competitive.
Of course, today the price of oil is falling, and experts are saying there's vast reserves of accessible oil under America. Presumably, the fracking techniques we're using to free up previously inaccessible oil under our landscapes can be transferred to other countries. Not so long ago, I thought we might run out of affordable oil inside of twenty years. Now, I suspect technological advances will keep oil flowing for at least a century.
My hunch is that there will be no popular political movement to limit our use of fossil fuels. There might be a few hardcore environmentalists who are viewing our falling gas prices with a sense of terror, but I suspect the vast majority of voters are pretty happy to pay less to fill up their tank, and won't be eager to vote for someone who even hints at the possibility of implementing changes that will make prices go higher.
Despite the probable abundance of oil, I suspect we'll see prices go through many boom and bust cycles in coming years. As oil gets expensive, a lot of people are going to want to drill for it. But as a lot of people drill for it, there will be a glut, and prices will fall, and people will cut back on drilling. Then, prices will rise again, and so on.
What will finally get us off the roller coaster? I still suspect solar will be increasingly cheap and easy in coming years. I don't think plug in electric cars have much a future, nor will plug in hybrids. The impracticality of having enough charging stations to let everyone in the parking lot a the mall will keep plug in vehicles from being anything more than a niche market. But, what if solar panels can be sprayed directly onto a car like paint, and your hybrid charges anytime it's in sunlight? Just sitting in the parking lot at work, it could be getting enough of a charge to get you home without having to run your gasoline engine.
I'm already seeing a lot of tablet sized solar panels in camping stores made to charge cell phones while you're out camping or hiking. As we start carrying more and more smart devices that require charging, a lot of people will be glad to carry around portable panels to keep their gear running rather than constantly be on the hunt for the next outlet. Right now, when Cheryl and I go on long hikes or bike rides, we usually carry portable batteries. But, give me a solar panel with enough power to actually charge a phone and small enough to mount on handlebars, get the price down to where it's cheaper than the portable batteries, and I'll start using it. It won't require any tax subsidies to encourage me. I want to be mobile, and I want electricity, and I'll pay a fair price to have it.
Ultimately, I think that portability is going to be the real path to ubiquity for solar power. As vast as our power grid is, it doesn't go everywhere. Neither does the sun, but it goes a lot more places than a power line. Gasoline is also portable power, of course... but it's too heavy for a person to carry around a gasoline powered generator and gallons of gas. To supply a demand for cheap, mobile electricity for today's wired users who also like being outdoors, solar cells will continuously get smaller and more efficient. My hunch is that in a decade, solar power won't just be cost competitive with fossil fuels, it will be so cheap that consumers will flock to it for the most sensible reason of all: it saves them a boatload of money.
While I think there's a consumer market for portable solar, America and Europe will probably be the last places to have widespread adoption of solar power for houses and businesses. The problem is, we became wealthy on a fossil fuel grid and there's going to be a lot of inertia that keeps a lot of the country on that grid even after better alternatives arise. You see the pattern with cell phones. In a lot of poorer countries, cell phones far outnumber landlines, because it was easier to build a few cell towers than to run lines to every building. In America, I know lots of people who still have landlines, even though they make 99% of their calls on their cell phones.
In emerging nations that don't already have a widespread electric grid, it's going to be easier to build a house with cheap solar panels and energy efficient designs that make the house self sufficient than it will be to build a reliable grid to hook the house to. In the US, it will be much more difficult to retrofit old houses to take advantage of the new technologies. My own dwelling wasn't built with a south facing roof. Turning the house 90 degrees seems like more of an expense than it's worth. But, houses built a decade from now may well incorporate maximum solar exposure into the design plans.
Saving the planet is nice, but saving money is where you'll get actual behavioral change. I'm still hoping that, in the long run, we'll collectively be cheapskates enough to leave most of the fossil fuels remaining in the ground.