The Solar Revolution, by Steve McKevitt and Tony Ryan

the solar revolutionjpgThis is a slightly odd book. On the back it says: “The Solar Revolution tells the story of how scientists are working to reconnect us to the ‘solar economy’, harnessing the power of the sun to provide food and energy for a population of 10 billion.”

I bought the book on the basis of that description, so I was a little puzzled to spend the first hundred pages reading about evolution, the advantages and disadvantages of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, Malthus, and Mayan civilization. And then the second hundred pages elaborated on fossil fuels, wind power and nuclear energy before we finally got to solar power on page 192.

This isn’t the book I wanted to read – but I did keep reading, because this is a book that’s interested in everything, and so am I. There’s no doubt that it indulges all kinds of tangents and lacks focus, but so do I. If this would annoy you in a book, you know what not to do.

There is a central thread of course – the sun is the world’s primary energy source. All of nature is directly or indirectly solar powered. Plants photosynthesize, animals eat. The wind and the weather, the water cycle, all depend on the sun. Humanity drew its energy from the sun too, through biomass, animals, and wind power. It was only relatively recently that we overcame the solar cycle with fossil fuels – though they too are ultimately solar power. Those resources will deplete, and we will return to a solar economy: “one day it will be the source of all the energy we consume.”

Once we get to the bit about this new solar economy, there are all kinds of interesting things to discover – artificial photosynthesis, liquid solar fuels, a whole panoply of innovative energy storage systems. There are some prescient comments on the need for more solar funding, recently met by world leaders in Paris.

It’s a little technical in places, especially when describing the merits of various solar technologies. I got a little lost among the polycrystalline, single crystal or amorphous silicons. There are some comments on nuclear energy and GM crops that will upset traditional greens, though they are handled well in my opinion. And in a whole book about meeting our energy needs there is nothing about heating, which is an all too common oversight. Despite all of these things, it’s a good read. If you’ve never read about how our food and energy problems fit in the big picture of human history, then it’s worth picking up.

The authors also recognise that consumption needs to be reduced in richer countries, and that growth can’t go on forever. “A sustainable, unequal world is both conceivable and achievable, but surely our goal should not become the creation of a future in which the extreme poverty of the majority becomes a necessity to maintain the lifestyles of a privileged few?” Indeed, and that is the conundrum that inspired this blog in the first place.

Having rambled all through cosmology, biology and ecology, the authors finally get to their conclusion. “When we began this book,” they write, “our aim was to explore how we might address the four biggest challenges of the 21st century: population growth, food security, energy security, and climate change.” There – that’s what should have gone on the back cover.

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