A Shot in the Dark

I’m about four months late here, but whatever.  If Wired can run a blurb on this in April, I’m not that late.  Am I?  Anyway, it’s an ongoing issue — ongoing for at least the next decade.  So deal with it.  In the scheme of things, I’m punctual.  I’m timely.  I’m goddamn prescient.

In February, the Department of Energy announced a plan to achieve cost competitive solar energy by 2020.  This means that in the next decade the DOE’s goal is to drive the price of a kilowatt-hour of energy generated from the sun (in some form) down to a price that’s comparable — or cheaper — than a kilowatt-hour of energy generated from burning gas, oil, coal, etc.  All around, a good goal.  Good for the environment, good for energy security, good for humanity.  Personally, I think solar energy, both photovoltaic and concentrated, is the best option for a fossil-fuel-free future.  (I’ve mentioned Robert Laughlin‘s course on the future of energy on this blog before, and at the end of the course the Nobel laureate said that solar is the technology he thinks has the best chance of working, too.  So even if I don’t personally have any credibility, this is a thought that has some credibility.  We swear.)

The DOE initiative has a cute name: SunShot.  It’s a reference to the Apollo program that culminated with Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk, a period of brilliant innovation and prodigious resource allocation referred to by President Kennedy as a “moon shot.”  This moon shot was, in many ways, the crowning triumph of the United States — maybe the crowning triumph in the second half of the twentieth century, maybe ever.  With a $24 billion price tag, it was definitively the largest undertaking by any nation in peacetime, ever, and the results were irrefutably indelible.  Not only did the US win the space race, but the country established itself as a pioneer and leader in the aerospace industry, created innumerable technological advances now used in everyday life, and firmly cemented in the minds of every human being on the planet the idea that, when we pool our resources, our brains, our efforts, we can truly achieve the impossible.

We put a man on the moon.  It’s too bad the sentence has become trite, because when you stop and think about it that’s an absurd accomplishment.  That thing in the sky — we’ve been there.  And come back.

It took $24 billion dollars and 400,000 people to change the limits of human knowledge and existence as we knew it.  SunShot is hoping to match that confluence of talent, drive, and determination to make the US the leader in solar energy production, to prove that the sun has potential we haven’t even begun to utilize.  And to do that, to change the world, the DOE has pledged $27… million.

Not to say that’s an insignificant amount of money.  And it does come on top of the $1 billion the DOE has already invested into solar energy.  But this is a challenge that I think is as big, as noteworthy, as the drive to make it to the moon.  So where’s the national fervor?  Maybe it’s not there because the Cold War thawed.  Maybe it’s because the Soviets are no more, and there’s no more Evil Empire rushing to beat us at every turn (though China is certainly competing with us in the solar sector).  Maybe it’s just because an initiative to increase the efficiency of photovoltaic cells just doesn’t have the same ring to it, the same glam factor, as space race.

But it should.  In my mind, it’s just as important.  There’s just at much — no, more — at stake.  In 1962, Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University that’s often quoted when people talk about the Apollo program:

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

I see all the same reasons for action in the aptly named SunShot.  This decade is a turning point, in countless ways: gay marriage, health care, Afghanistan, Medicare, Mayan apocalypse.  There’s another one of equal magnitude in the race towards the sun.  Hopefully the United States realizes that and attacks this and other cleantech pursuits with the vigor seen in the days of Apollo.  Apollo was, after all, the god of knowledge — and the god of light and the sun.

One final note on priorities — with Obama’s recent announcement that the number of troops in Afghanistan will be dramatically reduced in the coming months, I’d like to share a quote from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, president immediately before Kennedy:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.