The Solar Century? A Vision for a Solarized World (Review)


Image credit: Jeremy Leggett

"Building houses that use no fossil fuels, directly or indirectly, is surprisingly easy..."

This is not the type of statement you'd expect from a former oil geologist. But Jeremy Leggett is not your average former oil geologist. Having left academia to campaign for action on climate change, he eventually decided to found Solarcentury, which he describes as his "very own microcosm of hope in the business world." The company has since become the UK's fastest growing energy company, it's launched innovative products like the complete solar roof, it's expanded it's solar operations to Spain and is partnering on bringing major solar installations to the Middle East, and it's even mounted solar arrays on hundreds of schools. You certainly couldn't accuse Leggett of suffering from a failure of ambition. Now he's applying that ambition as editor and lead author of a new book that lays out his vision for a world-wide solar surge that could revolutionize the way we think about energy. The Solar Century is an incredibly inspiring read. So much so, that I had to remind myself to keep a healthy dose of skepticism to some of its claimst—a man who sells solar for a living (and names his book after his own company!) is likely to be a little biased when it comes to the potential of solar energy. Yet Leggett presents a compelling, exciting and inspiring case for solar as a central thrust of a renewable energy future.

Citing studies from the likes of Shell Oil and the German Economics Ministry, Leggett claims that contrary to what naysayers will tell you, it is perfectly possible to power the entire world with renewable energy technologies much sooner, and much cheaper, than most pundits would have you believe. (Previous TreeHugger posts have also covered the question of how much land is needed to power the whole world with solar, not to mention a plan for a world powered by 100% renewables by 2030.)

I'm not qualified to assess the technical feasibility of Leggett's vision, but I do know that we need to aim extraordinarily high if we are going to get anywhere near the kind of carbon reductions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. And with solar being regularly cited in surveys as everybody's favorite energy source—regardless of political persuasion—what's not to like about a plan to harness the energy falling on our rooftops, parking lots and deserts to create clean renewable energy? (One project in my community exploring how farms can double crop solar energy with food production—just one example of how out-of-the-box thinking can help solar to coexist and even enhance existing land uses.)

The book also takes the opportunity to talk the lay reader through the various solar technologies available, including thin-film, crystalline, solar-thermal, passive solar and solar concentrators, as well as exploring the various potential combinations of centralized versus decentralized supply, grid-tied versus off-grid, and how smart grid technologies may help manage supply and even out demand. The result is a highly accessible guide to the pros and cons of each approach, and an uplifting pep talk on just how much can be achieved if we can only find the political will to act.

Interestingly, for this non-techy reader at least, Leggett and his co-authors' also tackle the potential for improvements in solar technology and explain that media focus on improving solar cell efficiency is perhaps less than half the story—companies are also working on squeezing more value out of their products at every level of the supply chain. In fact, with silicon ingots making up 95% of the costs of solar wafer manufacture, finding ways to use silicon that has not been purified to solar-grade may be at least as important as the actual efficiency of each cell.

There's plenty of big-picture thinking in The Solar Century to keep the visionaries happy too. In fact, the last third of the book is dedicated to defining and assessing a number of visions that could help lead us to a truly "solar century". Ranging from the idea of carbon armies rebuilding economies after the financial crisis, through most buildings being transformed into power plants, to solar reaching grid parity with fossil fuels, Leggett lays out where we need to go, how we need to get there, and what has already been achieved on the road to these goals.

Crucially, while Leggett clearly believes that solar needs to be a central (perhaps the central) technology for a renewables revolution, he also recognizes that efficiency, wind, geothermal and other technologies will play a vital role in kicking the fossil fuel habit.

I started out reading The Solar Century expecting a sales pitch for Leggett's company. In some ways, that's exactly what I got. But when a company stands for nothing less than a startlingly ambitious vision to rethink the way we power our entire world, reading its sales pitch becomes a sheer delight. Having picked up the book early yesterday evening, I found myself still pouring over the details at midnight. Somehow my still relatively new solar panels on the roof are beginning to feel like the first step to something much bigger.

See also my brief interview with Jeremy Leggett back in 2006.

More on Solarcentury
The Complete Solar Roof from Solarcentury
The TH Interview: Jeremy Leggett of Solarcentury
Solarcentury's Thermal and Electric Tiles Win Green Energy Award
Solar4Schools: Solarcentury Launches Initiative for Solar Education
Solarcentury Expands to Spain

Tags: Alternative Energy | Solar Energy | Solar Power | United Kingdom

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