The Promise of Solar Energy

Featured speaker and MIT professor, Daniel Nocera, participated in an eloquent dialogue at the Aspen Environmental Forum. He captivated the audience with humorous and informative anecdotes, while explaining his vision to meet the world’s energy needs.

The world will require 30 terawatts* of power by 2050, assuming that humans will achieve an additional 15 terawatts of energy efficiency gains by that timeline.

Photosynthesis is the process of using sunlight to convert CO2 into organic compounds, such as sugars. Nocera hopes to mimic this practice as a means to generate solar energy, while using minimal quantities of water, also a critical component to photosynthesis.

After explaining the limits of other fuel sources such as biomass and nuclear fission, Nocera revealed his optimism about the ability to shift the global energy make-up. Paradigm shifts have occurred in the past. More than a century ago, only rich people had horses. As affluence grew, common belief was that poor people would acquire horses and eventually lead to a manure disposal problem. Some calculated that the streets of London would be covered nine feet deep in manure and the streets of New York, more than two stories. The advent of automobiles took that problem away. It created other problems, but the point was that there was a paradigm shift. “Shift happens,” Nocera concluded.

On a serious note, the implications of climate change do not provide ample time to act, at least not for humans. “The Earth will be fine with higher levels of CO2,” Nocera said, “but it just won’t support nine billion humans.” At the least, the earth will not support nine billion humans under current consumption practices.

People think Nocera is a fan of helping the poor, which is not true, he admitted. “The poor are helping us. They are showing us how to live. We will have to live like them in the future.”

On the whole, Nocera’s theme was indeed upbeat. Although plants are inefficient at solar storage, they are very efficient at being solar machines. If Nocera’s research is successful at duplicating these characteristics, solar energy will move to the forefront of promising renewable energy technologies.

(*This is a correction. An earlier version stated 15 terawatts.)

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Chad Lipton is currently starting a business delivering clean energy services in Cote d’Ivoire. Previously, Chad worked for National Geographic where he managed a grant program to fund entrepreneurs delivering innovative energy solutions to communities facing economic, climate change, environmental and other challenges. In 2013, Chad submitted the winning idea to be the subject matter for National Geographic's challenge competition, called the Terra Watt Prize. He helped develop the prize objective, which is to address the challenges of energy access by facilitating the flow of capital between entrepreneurs and investors and also to identify viable business models. Before National Geographic, Chad worked for Elysian Energy as an energy auditor, carrying out site visits and analysis in the residential energy field. Prior to Elysian Energy, Chad worked in the field of carbon management, where he performed site verification for greenhouse gas emission reduction projects. From 2004-07, Chad worked as an environmental health specialist in Africa carrying out water and sanitation projects in Côte d’Ivoire and Mozambique. Chad has master’s degrees in Environmental Health Science and International Relations from The Johns Hopkins University.