This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
These days it seems that all of the news about our environment is bad news. Bad news about the disappearance of glaciers in the Himalayas, bad news about rivers such as the Ganges that are fed by glaciers and that may by mid-century turn into seasonal streams, bad news about the health hazards of air pollution right here at home. And worst of all, there is the bad news that our political leaders are not only doing nothing about these problems, they refuse to recognize the problems.
Good environmental news is rare. So, I'm pleased to say that there is some, and it comes from Silicon Valley. In fact, what I want to communicate here is not so much news, although there is a news component to it, but a realization drawn from this news. The news is that a revolution in solar power technology has begun. The maker of this news is a Silicon Valley company called Nanosolar that has come up a with a way to produce solar panels 100 times thinner and 100 times faster than anything we've seen before.
This, in solar technology terms, is like the invention of the integrated circuit, which replaced masses of individual transistors and paved the way for the modern computerized world.
Here's the realization, which hit me like a thunderbolt: We are in the early stages of the commoditization of power generation. Traditionally, power generation has been the exclusive prerogative of big industry - big electric, big coal, big gas, etc. By way of analogy, we are in power terms where computing was in the 1960s, when a computer took up an entire building and when the number of computers in the world could be numbered in the hundreds. The possibility now exists that electricity generation could, like PCs, become a household commodity.
Not surprisingly, Silicon Valley is now getting excited about solar power. John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins, the valley's biggest venture capital firm, has taken to calling it Solar Valley. Why am I excited? Well, once a means exists to commoditize power, and Nanosolar is evidence that the means now do exist, the economic model for power generation is no longer the one that governs today's utilities but the one that governs today's personal computing market.
With the hightechification - pardon my neologism - of energy generation, we could possibly even see a kind of Moore's Law come into play. Moore's Law is the strikingly accurate prediction of Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, that the number of transistors in integrated circuits would grow exponentially, doubling about every two years.
The result of Moore's law is that I'm now typing this commentary on a consumer Mac that is substantially more powerful than the University of Utah's supercomputer that I messed with as a student there in the 1970s. The prospect of that kind of production/technology innovation brought to solar energy is certainly something a venture capitalist would slaver over. That's why Kleiner Perkins has invested in Nanosolar. That's why Google also is a big investor.
This is a revolution as fundamental to power generation as the integrated circuit was to computing, or the assembly line to the making of cars and everything else. Forward-looking communities will be putting their investment money not in coal-fired power plants, but in solar energy companies.
Thanks to the Bush administration's backward-looking energy policy, dirty coal and even dirtier nuclear energy have enjoyed an unexpected recent boom. But enthusiasm for these, like that for Bush himself, will fade, even in Utah. Communities that can see the future coming will be tomorrow's leaders. Those, like Ely, Nev., and Delta, Utah, that continue looking backward will be tomorrow's also-rans. Which of these will Salt Lake City be?
What forward-looking communities see is a chance to get in on the power production boom, not as consumers of dirty, increasingly expensive coal-fired power, but as producers of their own clean power.
There is a solar silver lining in our present environmental mess. It's a chance to reinvent ourselves. Let's do it right this time.
* ED FIRMAGE, JR. is a photographer living in Salt Lake City.