Solar: Clean Greed

June 11, 2010

solar mcewanOne of the best speeches I’ve heard on clean energy business opportunities was not given by a cleantech executive or venture capitalist, but by Michael Beard, the fictional character at the center of Ian McEwan’s new novel Solar. Beard is a physicist who earned his Nobel laureate for an early brainwave, but is cruising through middle age as a short, overweight, and balding hedonist devoted to his alcohol, food, and infidelities, while puffing his ego and bank account with titular positions on various organizations and governmental committees.

You can read more literary reviews of Solar in The Guardian, The New York Times and elsewhere, but these tend to neglect the intimate and acute satire with which McEwan portrays the clean tech business world and the business-climate-academic interface. Some of the reviews suggest that Beard is depicted as a loathsome one dimensional caricature consumed with lust and gluttony, though I found McEwan’s anti-hero, from whose perspective the entire book is narrated, more nuanced, even empathetic. Perhaps it’s a function of familiarity with this milieu and its cast of characters, with their heady mix of save-the-world rhetoric, ego and ambition. The glimpse of self-recognition yields chuckles and goosebumps.

Beard transforms from disgruntled climate skeptic to fervent advocate and cleantech entrepreneur when he acquires the work of a junior colleague, who meets an untimely death. The technology with which Beard and his business partner, Hammer, promise to save the world is artificial photosynthesis, using the sun’s energy to generate hydrogen directly from water. This is far from science fiction, but also in the book, as in reality, far from commercialization. The technology, at first glance, bears an uncanny resemblance to the artificial photosynthesis work of MIT’s professor Daniel Nocera and postdoctoral fellow Matthew Kanan, which was heralded in Technology Review as Solar Power Breakthrough. A close reading reveals the hype in the real cleantech world, as Nocera’s technology is actually an efficient process for using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. By itself, it has little to do with solar power, but combined with a fuel cell it can provide an energy storage system to complement intermittent renewables. Beard’s technology is closer to the approach being pioneered by Prof. Stuart Licht, a former colleague at my own institution, UMass-Boston.  

Solar gives an insider’s tour of the clean tech world, the politics of securing grants and subsidies, the lobbying, networking and namedropping. Hammer introduces “Beard to the tax break lawyers and accountants who knew the state legislature, the go-betweens in Washington who patrolled the vast and vague territory between commerce and politics, and people who had a line to the grant-givers of the big foundations, the venture capital types who knew people who knew friends of men like Vinod Khosla and Shai Agassi.”  Hammer is beset by doubts, financial and scientific – he worries about the growing wave of climate skepticism, but Beard cynically reassures him:

Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. Even as we speak, the inhabitants of the island of Carteret in the South Pacific are being evacuated because the oceans are warming and rising. Malarial mosquitoes are advancing northwards across Europe… It’s a catastrophe. Relax!

Beard the rational, objective scientist has several amusing encounters with postmodern professors who argue that scientific claims are socially constructed stories. Just before Beard’s grand speech to an auditorium full of pension fund managers, he is accosted by a professor of urban studies and folklore interested in “the forms of narrative that climate science has generated. It’s an epic story, of course, with a million authors”. While the book gives a reasonably accurate and convincing account of climate change, the constructivist view is woven deftly into the fabric of the novel. Beard’s life is riddled with doubts concerning the history, memory, truth, and perception. He is almost ruined by the media framing him as a neo-Nazi for some awkward utterances. A central metaphor in the book is the legend of the unwitting thief, in which new information suddenly infuses a set of events with radically different meaning.

Beard’s speech to the pension fund managers is itself a masterful narrative, one from which I would not be surprised to find others plagiarizing liberally. Beard echoes Gordon Gecko from Wall Street, crafting a climate story in which “greed, for lack of a better word, is good”, and heroic entrepreneurs riding Schumpeterian stallions of creative destruction rescue the world from peak oil and climate change. Indeed, it is greed and ego that have energized Beard to develop his photosynthesis technology into a business start-up. The project is certainly more likely to save the planet than the Arctic retreat for artists and musicians he visits, whose participants descend into a tragedy of the commons as they steal from the limited supply of outdoor clothing. Here is the speech:

The planet is sick.  Curing the patient is a matter of urgency and is going to be expensive – perhaps as much as two percent of the global GDP, and far more if we delay the treatment.  I am convinced, and I have come here to tell you, that anyone who wishes to help with the therapy, to be part of the process and invest in it, is going to make very large sums of money, staggering sums.  What’s at issue is the creation of another industrial revolution.  Here is your opportunity.  Coal and then oil have made our civilization, they have been superb resources, lifting hundreds of millions of us out of the mental prison of rural subsistence.  Liberation from the daily grind coupled with our innate curiosity has produced in a mere two hundred years and exponential growth of our knowledge base.  The process began in Europe and the US, has spread in our lifetime to parts of Asia, and now to India and China and South America, with Africa yet to come.  All our other problems and conflicts conceal this obvious fact – we barely understand how successful we have been.

So of course we should salute our own inventiveness.  We are very clever monkeys.  But the engine of our industrial revolution has been cheap, accessible energy.  We would have got nowhere without it.  Look how fantastic it is.  A kilogram of gasoline contains roughly 13000 watt-hours of energy.  Hard to beat.  But we want to replace it.  So what’s next?  The best electrical batteries we have store about 300 watt-hours of energy per kg.  And that’s the scale of our problem – 13000 against 300.  NO contest!  But unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of choice.  We have to replace that gasoline quickly for three compelling reasons. First and simplest, the oil must run out. No-one knows exactly when, but there’s consensus that we’ll be at peak production at some point in the next five to fifteen years. …Second,, many oil producing areas are politically unstable, and we can no longer risk our levels of dependence. Third, and most crucially, burning fossil fuels, putting carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere, is steadily warming the planet. The basic science is in. We either slow down, and then stop, or face an economic and human catastrophe on a grand scale within our grandchildren’s lifetime.

And this brings us to the central question, the burning question. How do we slow down and stop while sustaining our civilization and continuing to bring millions out of poverty? Not by being virtuous…this matter has to move beyond virtue. Virtue is too passive, too narrow. Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, societies, a whole civilization, it’s a weak force. Nations are never virtuous. For humanity en masse, greed trumps virtue. So we have to welcome into our solutions the ordinary compulsions of self-interest, and also celebrate novelty, the thrill of invention, the pleasures of ingenuity and cooperation, the satisfaction of profit. Oil and coal are energy carriers, and so, in abstract form, is money.  And the answer to that burning question is of course exactly where that money, your money, has to flow- to affordable clean energy.

Imagine if I were standing in front of you 250 years ago – you, a collection of country gentlemen and ladies – predicting the coming of the first industrial revolution and telling  you to invest in coal and iron, steam engines, cotton mills, and, later, railways.  Or a century or so later, with the invention of the internal combustion engine, I foresaw the growing importance of oil and urged you to invest in that.  Or 100 years on, in microprocessors, in personal computers, and the Internet and the opportunities they offered.  So here, ladies and gentlemen, is another such moment.  Do not be tempted by the illusion that the world economy and its stock exchanges can exist apart from the world’s natural environment.  Our planet, Earth, is a finite entity.  You have the data in front of you, you have the choice – the human project must be safely and cleanly fueled or it fails, it sinks.  You, the market, either rise to this and get rich along the way, or you sink with all the rest.  We are on this rock together, you have nowhere else to go…

The revolution has begun. The market will be even more lucrative than coal or oil because the world economy is many times bigger  and the rate of change is faster. Colossal fortunes will be made. The sector is seething with vitality, invention – and, above all, growth.

It has thousands of unquoted companies positioning themselves with new techniques. Scientists, engineers, designers, are pouring into the sector. There are logjams in the patent offices and supply chains. This is an ocean of dreams, of realistic dreams of making hydrogen from algae, and aviation fuel from genetically modified microbes, electricity out of sunlight, wind, tides, waves, cellulose, household waste, of scrubbing carbon dioxide from the air and turning it into a fuel, of imitating the secrets of plant life.

Imagine we came across a man at the edge of a forest in a heavy rainfall.  This man is dying of thirst.  He has an ax in his hand and he is felling the trees in order to suck sap from the trunks.  There are a few mouthfuls in each tree.  All around him is devastation, dead trees, no birdsong, and he knows the forest is vanishing.  So why doesn’t he tip back his head and drink the rain?  Because he cuts trees expertly, because he has always done it this way, because the kind of people who advocate rain-drinking he considers suspicious types.

The rain is our sunlight.  An energy source drenches our planet, drives its climate and its life.  It falls on us in a constant stream, a sweet rain of photos.  A single photon striking a semiconductor releases an electron and so electricity is born, as simple as that, right out of sunbeams.  Less than an hour’s worth of all of the sunlight falling on the earth would satisfy the whole world’s energy needs for a year.  A fraction of our hot deserts could power our civilization.  No one can own sunlight, no one can privatize or nationalize it.  Soon everyone will harvest it, from rooftops, ships’ sails, from kids’ backpacks.

Some of the poorest countries in the world are solar-rich. We could help them by buying their megawatts. And domestic consumers will love making power out of sunlight and selling it to the grid. It’s primal. Basic science, the market, and to grave situation would determine that this is the future — logic, not idealism, compels it. We pass through a mirror, everything is transformed, the old paradigm makes way for the new.

One Response to “Solar: Clean Greed”

  1. Wow! Very compelling, yet very scary too! Harness the power that fueled the subprime meltdown: greed. I agree with so much of Beard’s analysis — it’s so interesting that he is able to see the limits attached to natural resources, but no limits on their analogue, money. Fascinating — thanks David. Bill