Via “Mother Jones“, and PBS – “Need to Know“.
Futurist Ray Kurzweil Isn’t Worried About Climate Change
Author, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil famously and accurately predicted that a computer would beat a man at chess by 1998, that technologies that help spread information would accelerate the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that a worldwide communications network would emerge in the mid 1990s (i.e. the Internet).
Most of Kurzweil’s prognostications are derived from his law of accelerating returns — the idea that information technologies progress exponentially, in part because each iteration is used to help build the next, better, faster, cheaper one. In the case of computers, this is not just a theory but an observable trend — computer processing power has doubled every two years for nearly half a century.
Kurzweil also believes this theory can be applied to solar energy. As part of a panel convened by the National Association of Engineers, Kurzweil, together with Google co-founder Larry Page, concluded that solar energy technology is improving at such a rate that it will soon be able to compete with fossil fuels.
I caught up with Kurzweil when he was in New York promoting a new documentary about his life to ask him about his optimistic views on the usually gloomy subject of energy and climate change.
Lauren Feeney: You have made a prediction about the future of solar energy….
Ray Kurzweil: One of my primary theses is that information technologies grow exponentially in capability and power and bandwidth and so on. If you buy an iPhone today, it’s twice as good as two years ago for half that cost. That is happening with solar energy — it is doubling every two years. And it didn’t start two years ago, it started 20 years ago. Every two years we have twice as much solar energy in the world.
Today, solar is still more expensive than fossil fuels, and in most situations it still needs subsidies or special circumstances, but the costs are coming down rapidly — we are only a few years away from parity. And then it’s going to keep coming down, and people will be gravitating towards solar, even if they don’t care at all about the environment, because of the economics.
So right now it’s at half a percent of the world’s energy. People tend to dismiss technologies when they are half a percent of the solution. But doubling every two years means it’s only eight more doublings before it meets a hundred percent of the world’s energy needs. So that’s 16 years. We will increase our use of electricity during that period, so add another couple of doublings: In 20 years we’ll be meeting all of our energy needs with solar, based on this trend which has already been under way for 20 years.
People say we’re running out of energy. That’s only true if we stick with these old 19th century technologies. We are awash in energy from the sunlight.
The doubling of the efficiencies and the halving of cost projections that Ray Kurzweil extrapolates always have to do with leading edge technologies. The theory doesn’t hold with old technologies that have been around for a while, like the internal combustion engine – on the dieing technology side of the equation, progress is a lot flatter – but I fully agree with Kurzweil’s prediction in the case of solar energy.
The only problem I see is that the climate scientists say we have only 10 years before we reach the tipping point in carbon content in the atmosphere – the point when the carbon we have released will cause warming that will have catastrophic consequences. We need to speed up the doubling in this case. One of the interesting things we know from the experience of technological progress is that if governments seed certain areas of research we can accelerate progress in specific areas (see The Manhattan Project).
Part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Financial Stimulus Plan – American Recovery and Re-investment Act – was a renewing of the economy based on sustainability. Specifically, Obama proposed a national high speed rail program that some states are building right now. Obama’s vision though, is being shot down by reactionary Republicans like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker – who’s attack on collective bargaining rights of state employees was immediately preceded by a scraping of a $800 Million Federal grant for a high speed rail link between Madison and Milwaukee (stopping it will cost Wisconsin $14.25 million in money already spent – HuffPost: 11/ 8/10 )
(Remind you of anything – like Mayor Rob Ford – Transit City? Scraps the $8.3 billion LRT project and then goes after the TTC union’s right to strike, privatizing garbage collection, reducing city services, lay-offs of city workers and staff… .)
So while reactionaries like Mayor Ford are busy busting unions and destroying the middle class – and thus further reducing the tax base, can the more progressive Ontario Provincial Government of Premier Dalton McGuinty please spend the remaining portion of that CAN$8.3 Billion on development of solar and wind power – please?
Mother Jones – Feb. 16, 2011: “Futurist Ray Kurzweil Isn’t Worried About Climate Change”
PBS Need to Know Broadcast, “The Daily Need” blog – Feb. 16,2011: “Futurist Ray Kurzweil Isn’t Worried About Climate Change”
Wikipedia: “The Manhattan Project”
Wikipedia: “American Recovery and Re-investment Act of 2009”
Michael Holloway’s FilterBlogs – Feb. 18, 2011: “The Real News Network on Wisconsin Protests”
Wikipedia: “Transit City”
Posted: February 21st, 2011
Author: michael holloway
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