When vision isn’t enough

Those wishing to save the planet and leave the planet share a weakness: unbridled enthusiasm for the task leads people to overlook feasibility. This is a problem. But those who take advantage of that excitement and refrain from injecting a dose of rationality are creating a bigger one. A crowd of deeply disappointed supporters will be a serious setback for any project.

I work in the renewable energy industry, mostly with wind power. Wind turbines are simple; the atmosphere moves, the blades turn and electric potential sparks to life. Similarly, Australia’s solar PV industry continues to hit milestones that quietly engender small bursts of excitement. Though Australian federal renewable energy policy is trapped inside an absurd feedback loop, bodies such as the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (both targets of persistent governments attempts to eradicate them) finance experimental technologies that need more support than relative mature clean energy technologies, like wind power and hydro. Many spend their days designing, supporting and deploying technological solutions to our current reliance on carbon-intensive fuels.

Knowing too well the political fragility of the clean energy industry, I find it hard not to pay close attention to news coverage of new-fangled renewable technology. But it would have been impossible to avoid the Solar Roadways project, which went viral almost instantly. The seven-minute video, “Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways!” racked up hundreds of thousands of views daily. The project aims to “replace all roadways, parking lots, sidewalks, driveways, tarmac, bike paths and outdoor recreation services with solar panels”. Billing itself as a networked, distributed solar-generation replacement for the entire US road network, Solar Roadways raised US$2,219,848 on crowd-funding site Indiegogo. That figure represented 48,823 people each parting with a significant quantity of cash. The frenetic, talky video goes to explaining this fact, as does a tweet from George Takei, the actor who played Sulu on Star Trek, broadcast to his millions of followers. In 2009, the American Department of Transportation in America issued the project a US$100,000 grant, followed by another US$750,000 in 2011.

Solar Roadways also drew its share of criticism. It’s estimated that covering America’s highways with hexagonal solar tiles would cost around US$1 trillion. While applauding the ambition of the scheme, Eric Weaver, a research engineer at the Federal Highway Administration research and technology arm, stated that, “I'd say it's not very realistic to cover the entire highway system with these panels.” The couple behind the Solar Roadways, Scott and Julie Brusaw, published a series of exasperated rebuttals: “They want to just keep things the same. Perhaps they are the descendants of those who argued that the earth was flat, that we didn’t need cars because horses worked just fine, told the Wright Brothers they were out of their minds, or insisted that we’d never reach the moon.”

This is, of course, an error of logic. Most of the creators of amazing inventions we use today were visionaries. But, not all visionaries are destined to produce amazing inventions. The towering ambition outlined in their video is unlikely to be fulfilled in the near future, if ever. Sadly, the tens of thousands of supporters will surely feel some degree of disappointment. It’s hard not to dwell on what might pass through their minds, the next time an equally thrilling project comes their way, in need of funding.

Bertrand Piccard, grandson of balloonist Auguste Piccard (who reached record heights in the Earth’s atmosphere) and son of Jacques Piccard (who reached record depths in the ocean), is currently piloting an aircraft powered by a hybrid system of solar panels and battery storage. The crew is traversing the entire planet. The details can be interrogated on the project’s website, which includes real-time data on solar power, charging and battery input and output. The crew also outline their aims: “Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg do not plan to revolutionise the aviation industry but instead to demonstrate that the actual alternative energy sources and new technologies can achieve what some consider impossible.” The real-time demonstrability of Solar Impulse serves as an excellent example of technological advocacy. Those who dwell at the experimental end of the renewable energy technology curve could learn something from this blend of empirical rigour and passion.

Protecting human habitat necessitates the same fine balance as sending humans to space. Piccard’s great-grandfather and great-uncle, Auguste and Jean-Felix, were the naming inspiration for Star Trek’s Jean-Luc Picard. For many of those who have grown up on a diet of science fiction, space travel inspires a starry-eyed enthusiasm that is easily elicited. The Mars One project (co-founded by a wind energy entrepreneur) aims to capture that enthusiasm, but it’s grown clear that it’s analogous to the overblown claims of Solar Roadways rather than the level-headed zeal of Solar Impulse. Journalist Elmo Keep has outlined the problems plaguing the project in Matter magazine. The project’s ambassador has himself declared budget and timeline estimates are off by a factor of ten. As with Solar Roadways, these criticisms come paired with a disclaimer: at least they have vision. At least they’re trying. But Mars One consumes the enthusiasm (and cash) of an eager public, with no likely return.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX venture sits closer to Solar Impulse, in that it more successfully balances economics, feasibility and physics with a sense of adventure. You can live stream its spacecraft launching, ferrying cargo to space stations. Efforts that are unsuccessful are considered a necessary component of ambition, and publicly shared. Musk argues, “We must put a million people on Mars if we are to ensure that humanity has a future.” On Earth, Musk’s other ventures, namely Tesla and Solar City, look back to the world of energy. You can already test-drive a fully electric Model S in Sydney, and the company’s battery systems will soon be sold to households, looking to store solar energy. The success of these ventures can be watched, in real time.

Projects that carefully blend scientific feasibility and passionate excitement will serve as the most sustainable. We’re currently bound to an energy system powered by technology badly in need of modernisation. In the longer term, the colonisation of other planets may prove a necessity, given the exponential growth of the human population. There’s a surprising amount of overlap between our efforts to save Earth’s oceans and atmosphere, and our efforts to leave it. The genuine and unconditional enthusiasm of people who love technology and want to see both efforts succeed is a precious resource, and we ought to be more wary of how it’s tapped. 

Ketan Joshi
Ketan Joshi works in research and communications in the renewable energy industry, and writes on science, technology and energy.

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