Watt’s Happening: Global Update

Don Pettit


Hey. Things are happening.

It’s a fact that the humanity is in the midst of a major shift in how it produces and uses energy. But one question remains: how FAST will this transition to renewables occur?

Titanic forces are at play here, some trying to slow down or ideally stop this transition, while others try to speed it up. We don’t hear much about this battle in mainstream media, because it is seldom “news” worthy. But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Previous great energy transitions, say the move from human, animal, and simple mechanical wind and water power to coal, or the transition from coal to oil and then gas, each took about 70 years, from early-adopter beginnings, through a peak of change, to general acceptance, establishing a new norm that was then stable for a period of time.

If we guess that modern renewables began somewhat in earnest about 20 years ago, we should be close to the middle of the current 70-year transition. A peak of implementation should be right around the corner, and there are signs that this is indeed beginning. Here’s a sample of a few such signs:


Last year the world installed more solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity than wind power. Dramatic price decreases for solar have driven a three-year solar surge that shows no sign of letting up. Prices for PV are heading for less than one dollar per watt. That’s 1/16th of the price per watt in 1985, and about ¼ of the price from just a few years ago. A real “tipping point” will occur when PV hits 50 cents per kilowatt sometime in the next decade, making it competitive with coal power (currently the cheapest, but also the dirtiest).


On May 3, Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard began his 5-leg flight across the U.S. in a one hundred percent solar-powered airplane, the Impulse HB-SIA. The trip was intended to “get people excited about renewable energy technologies.”

The ultra-lightweight, one-man Impulse has the wingspan of a 747. Solar panels on the wings feed four electric motors, and batteries store enough energy to allow the plane to fly through the night, a first for solar planes.

The HB-SIA is a prototype. It’s larger successor, the HB-SIB is scheduled to fly around the world in 2015, powered entirely by sunlight.


A developer has purchased a gas-fired heating facility that heats much of downtown Vancouver. It plans to convert the plant to bioenergy in a bid to help the city slash its CO2 and meet its Greenest City goal.


Last September saw the world’s largest solar thermal plant fire up and begin feeding power into the California-Nevada grid. 170,000 computer-controlled, sun-tracking mirrors focus Mojave Desert sunlight onto three giant steam generators, which, as in conventional fossil fuel or nuclear power plants, create super-heated steam to spin turbines which generate electricity.

The 377 megawatt plant will provide enough power for 140,000 homes, and will serve as a full-scale proof-of-concept model for possible future solar thermal plants.

The large footprint needed for the mirrors, some 3,500 acres of federal land, comes with some environmental concerns, however. Personally, I would rather put 3,500 acres of solar photovoltaics on a few hundred thousand empty roofs, and save the land.

This grand project also smacks of  “megamind” where big and centralized are where it’s at, a destructive folly I believe we must grow out of. Renewable energy is by its very nature “decentralized” and therein lies one of its greatest values.

We can all make our own power. It’s easy now.