X-IRG5: The Solar Future: Science and Business Life in the Race against Climate Change

Building on prior research on States of Innovation, the Solar Future project at CNS-UCSB conducts research and interviews on current trends in second and third-generation solar photovoltaic development. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation to produce a trade book and a documentary film telling the story of the daily efforts by scientists, policy makers, large companies, small start-ups, and regular citizens to accelerate development of path-changing solar energy technology. The challenge is a simple one, as summarized in a recent report: “the world is not on a path to sufficiently reduced greenhouse gas emissions.”  Solar energy’s clear promise to society is to beat the climate clock. The project will describe the myriad challenges and the ongoing efforts of many people in a range of solar-oriented organizations to get us on that path.

X-IRG5 comprises: Chris Newfield (UCSB), Zach Horton (UCSB)

We are interested in the interactions among three dimensions of solar energy development: (1) scientific and technological challenges, (2) the social and economic environment, including institutional and financial issues (3) human factors, particularly laboratory life and craft practices.  Our primary focus will be on the people who are trying to make a difference – on their practical activities, motivations, and views about and practices within the industry and its immediate environment.

Our research group has a special interest in the leading-edge nanoscale research that has been advertised as having a transformative potential to decarbonize energy consumption faster than is currently imagined. In the United States, this research is now a small-scale byway of energy policy – about 0.015% of the US’s $1 trillion energy industry according to our ongoing budget study of nanoscale energy R&D. We seek to understand whether nanoscale scientific research really can make this difference, and the impact of other factors ranging from funding, price supports, energy storage, and cultural attitudes. The project will put nanotechnology in the context of one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced, one that current evidence suggests will defeat us. The storyline will be driven by this question: what factors and forces will allow us to pull this one out?

The world has many books, articles, reports, radio segments and TV shows about energy and climate. What would allow another book and film to capture an audience?  We plan to combine the following features:

  • Descriptions of the remarkable nanoscience in this area – for example, work on quantum confinement and its potential to break through current efficiency ceilings with very cheap materials.
  • A strong human-interest focus, making the project character-driven and event-driven. Science, policy, institutions, and ideas will provide necessary context but will not be the main story.
  • First-hand accounts based on direct reporting of activities of scientists, technologists, strategists, officials, and their organizations, all involved in a decentralized effort.
  • A substantial foundation in the policy, business, and patent literature developed through our center.

Our primary audience is the “educated public” – the wide range of people who watch shows on the History Channel, listen to National Public Radio, attended lectures by the authors of books like Collapse or Generation Hot.  We will avoid the kind of exaggeration and polemicism that has marred the climate debate and the reception of science, while counting on the inherent drama of the research and development to propel the story.