Solar – a novel idea

solar cover

I’ve just finished reading a new novel by author Ian McEwan.  McEwan is well-known for novels like Amsterdam and AtonementAtonement was made into a very successful film.

McEwan’s new book, however, takes on Climate Change – in a way.

It features a repulsive character – British physicist and Nobel Prize winner Michael Beard, who you will learn to despise, even though he’s the main character, and has the future of the earth in his hands, pursuing a unique new approach to solar power (I won’t give it away), and trying to demonstrate it for the world, but mostly for his own purposes.  So there’s a sort of tension throughout the book, a conflict for you, the reader, as to whether or not you should “root” for this character in spite of his nearly infinite flaws and generally disgusting behavior.

But since this is not a literary site, I will leave the real reviews to the professionals, and that’s why for that purpose I link you to these reviews from The Guardian and The New York Times.

What I wanted to focus on was a speech that Beard gives about 40% of the way through the novel.  In this speech, Beard is presenting to a room full of very rich, and very skeptical investors.  He himself is nearly ill from overeating before the lecture, and he’s so unsure of the reaction, he’s planned, quite literally, a quick exit through a gap in the curtains and off stage.

Here is some of Michael Beard’s 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, an 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.  Bu 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 gas 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.

(paraphrasing and summarizing here…)

1. The oil must run out.

2. Many oil-producing areas are politically unstable

3. (most crucially) burning fossil fuels is putting carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere, is steadily warming the planet, the consequences of which we are only beginning to understand.  But 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.

(Beard continues with a segment on how nations are not virtuous, and greed trumps virtue, and focusing on the audience and their greed).

Oil and coal are energy carriers, and so, in abstract form, is money.  And the answer to that burning question (how will we slow down and stop the use of fossil fuels) is of course 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 fueld 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…

(Beard goes on for several more minutes promoting the rationale for investing in alternate energy forms, then gets specific about solar power).

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 th 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 our sunbeams.  This is photovoltaics.  Einstein described it and won a Nobel Prize.  If I believed in God, I would say this is his greatest gift to us.  Since I don’t , I say, how auspicious are the laws of physics!  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.

(Beard relates a story that happened to him that very afternoon which helps explain the idea of realizing too late that we have the solution to our own problems in hand).

The problem lies within ourselves, our own follies and unexamined assumptions.  And there are moments when the acquisition of new information forces us to make a fundamental reinterpretation of our situation.  Industrial civilization is at just such a moment.  We pass through a mirror, everything is transformed, the old paradigm makes way for the new.

As I said, I don’t want to spoil this book for you, and think you’ll like it (although for a novel about the sun, it is very ‘dark‘.)  If you’ve liked McEwan’s other books you will like this one and if you want a book with a scientific thread throughout but with lots of drama and intrigue, it will provide that for you, too.