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The Solar Solution to the World’s Energy Problem

For decades, environmentalists had labeled nuclear power as too dangerous.

But Chernobyl aside, the industry earned respect by boasting a strong overall safety record and low emissions. It also offered a viable energy alternative to oil.

Then the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.

And not only did it cripple operations at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, it caused a full-blown radiation catastrophe.

Despite the crisis, though, it’s worth noting that it wasn’t the earthquake that damaged the reactors. They were built to withstand such an impact – and did so. It was the resulting tsunami that damaged the reactors and generators.

Regardless, the safety of nuclear power is once again under a microscope – and the very future of the industry is under a cloud.

But it doesn’t matter whether you’re for or against it. The real reason to move on from nuclear is that we simply don’t need it. Why?

You Can’t Plan for a “Worst-Than-Worst-Case” Scenario

For all the “best-laid plans,” the simple truth is that you can sometimes never fully account for such massive shocks. So-called “100-year events” have the power to destroy landscapes, buildings and lives.

For example, the World Trade Center towers were built to withstand a crash from a Boeing-707 aircraft… but were struck by much larger Boeing-767s.

The New Orleans levees could handle a Category 3 hurricane… but Katrina was a Category 4.

So with regard to environmental disasters, the key question is this: Are these unforeseeable risks worth the benefits of clean, affordable energy?

The question holds major political, scientific, ethical and philosophical questions. But I believe it’s moot. Nuclear power has missed its opportunity.

Why Solar Power Momentum is Gathering Pace

Peak Oil. Global warming. National security implications.

Whatever the reasons for cultivating alternative energy sources, there’s no doubt that we need to.

Slowly but surely, the world is realizing it – and acting. The solutions are on the way and the fact is, for all the massive investment into nuclear power, technological advances and investment into other clean energies have left nuclear in the dust.

Take solar power, for example. In just 14.5 seconds, the sun provides as much energy as humans use in an entire year. The power is there… it’s just a matter of capturing it efficiently and affordably.

Regarding efficiency, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows solar efficiency – under laboratory conditions – as high as 41%. Simply put, that means 41% of the energy hitting the solar panels gets turned into useable electricity.

And on the cost side, we’re making progress there, too. Solar costs have fallen at an exponential rate since 1980. Why? Two reasons:

  1. The cost of producing solar cells is falling.
  2. As I noted above, the efficiency of solar cells is rising.

What we’re looking for here is grid parity. That is, when the cost of a watt of solar energy is the same as the average from other sources. That’s expected to happen by 2020 at the latest, with some projections pegging it as soon as 2015.

To put that in perspective, the U.S. power plants currently under construction won’t even be built by that time.

A Safer, Cheaper Solution to Our Global Energy Problem

In the early days of the alternative energy movement, solar power seemed like it would be too expensive. But as technology advances, the cost is getting cheaper at an exponential rate.

There are many precedents for this formula. In 2007, for example, it would have cost you nearly $400 to buy a one-terabyte computer hard drive. Today, you can get one for about $70.

Solar is following the same trend.

For the record, I’ve got nothing against nuclear power. In fact, given the options a few years ago, I believe it’s been worth the risk, as the world strives for alternative energy sources.

But any current expansion of nuclear power won’t come online until solar is cheaper, safer, and ubiquitous. So why risk it?

Ahead of the tape,

Matthew Weinschenk

Matthew Weinschenk