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The answer to Earth's energy needs is floating in the skies above. Photo: Conceptual Image Lab, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Earth photo courtesy of NASA/ISS Expedition 13 crew.
The answer to Earth's energy needs is floating in the skies above. Photo: Conceptual Image Lab, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Earth photo courtesy of NASA/ISS Expedition 13 crew.
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The Burning Answer to our energy needs

Jonathon Porritt

29th October 2014

Keith Barnham's new book reveals the giddying and glorious plethora of the solar technologies that lie at the heart of the all-renewable energy system that awaits us, writes Jonathan Porritt - making it 'one of the most exciting and genuinely hopeful books' that I've read in a long time'.

The overwhelming impression I take away from 'The Burning Answer' is one of a slowly building but completely unstoppable momentum behind this solar revolution.

I had a stroke of luck with Keith Barnham's The Burning Answer. I found myself on a long weekend in Wales (sunny spells, punctuated by quite a lot of the wet stuff) which meant I could read it cover to cover.

Even so, I nearly didn't. I nearly gave up by around page 150, beaten into submission by this eminent physicist's account of the semi-conductor revolution, the nature of light, Einstein's legacy, electromagnetism, the Manhattan Project, quantum mechanics and a good dose of cosmology thrown in for good measure.

All of which is, of course, directly or indirectly relevant to Barnham's real story: the solar revolution which is already in the process of transforming our entire global energy economy.

But for non-scientists like me, it was just too much to cope with, a barrier rather than a helpful introduction to the brilliant second half of the book that follows. So my advice to other scientifically illiterate readers is this: start on page 145!

The only viable form of nuclear energy is our great fusion reactor in the sky

And what a solar feast awaits you! Forget the idea of solar energy as a nice little niche on the margins of conventional energy systems - a giddying and glorious plethora of solar technologies lie at the heart of the all-renewable energy system that awaits us.

Barnham's no crazy solar fruitcake. After an extremely successful career in experimental particle physics, he switched to researching solar energy before getting stuck in himself as a solar entrepreneur - inventing a solar cell that is three times as efficient as the most efficient solar cells on the market today.

He's hugely knowledgeable about the industry, and about the barriers to success, and uncomplicatedly, joyfully passionate about its transformative potential - for the poor (but 'sun-rich') world as much as for the rich world.

He's also very clear why nuclear energy will play no part in this transformation. The nexus between the military, nuclear weapons and nuclear power is still a critical factor in the choices that nations make about different energy technologies.

His hypothesis that all nuclear weapons countries lag the field on solar and renewables precisely because of that nexus of relationships and money is compelling.

For the same reason, he has little time for the 'all of the above' brigade - as in the idea that we need renewables, efficiency and nuclear to get the task of decarbonisation completed in a timely manner.

People like Jim Lovelock and George Monbiot have simply got it wrong: everything they hope new nuclear will do for a low-carbon world can be done far more cost-effectively (and safely) with a 100% renewables strategy.

The two big obstructions - conservatism, and ignorance

He also takes on David ('Hot Air') McKay, Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, one of today's most influential and problematic solar-sceptics.

He gently demolishes some of McKay's more erroneous assertions, simultaneously demonstrating that DECC's much admired 'Pathways to 2050' are pretty much rigged to 'prove' the need for nuclear.

Both technologically and economically, Barnham argues that the solar revolution is do-able right now. But that's just the start!

Digging deep into the solar innovation pipeline, he reveals the extraordinary wealth of breakthroughs (on materials, costs, efficiencies, integration, storage and so on) that are now bearing down on bemused politicians and shell-shocked die-hards in the fossil fuels and nuclear industries.

As someone who still bears the scars of endless battles trying to get some of these breakthroughs deployed in the market, Barnham knows as well as anyone the scale of the challenge ahead.

International cooperation on nuclear fusion - but why not on solar?

If politicians really understood the incomparably serious threat of accelerating climate change (the burning platform for which solar is indeed the burning answer), we would be witnessing a dramatically different response from leaders today.

Why is it, he asks, that politicians are only too happy to commit tens of billions of euros to the international collaboration on nuclear fusion at Caderache in France, knowing full well that nothing useful will come of this investment for at least another 30 years - but can't even stump up a few million to establish a proper international solar laboratory? (Back to that military nexus, I'm afraid!)

But the overwhelming impression I take away from 'The Burning Answer' is one of a slowly building but completely unstoppable momentum behind this solar revolution.

As such, it's one of the most exciting and genuinely hopeful books I've read in a long time - notwithstanding the impenetrability of some of the accompanying science!

 


 

The book: 'The Burning Answer: a User's Guide to the Solar Revolution', by Keith Barnham, is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 9780297869634.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future www.forumforthefuture.org. His latest book, 'The World We Made' (£24.95, Phaidon) is available from www.phaidon.com/store

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