Initiate a strong national effort right now for alternative energy, notably solar, that outdoes what Europe can do, and we might well reclaim our economic status.
Sure, you can see plenty by going to such conferences as
Solar Power International '08 in San Diego in a few weeks. But if you're lucky enough to run into an all too rare, triple-threat integrator/enabler/educator in the solar power business as I did a few weeks ago, you'll be two years ahead in your understanding of alternative energy's major issues, and their immediacy, after about half an hour.
And with energy costs on a pace to rise from 15 to 20 percent a year in the near term, John Morgan sees an alarming lack of concern for addressing this problem right now. At the moment, with solar it really doesn't have much to do with better technology (although practical next generation solar cells will likely be looking to capture a lot of energy in the infrared, when the sun isn't shining). No, this issue has to do with what's happening nationally. And, from my experience, when you talk about a national effort, you're really girding for a fight against political expedience.
Twist or turn it any way you want, what we'll need is legislation that brings us to full speed in 2-3 years, not 10 to 15. And a need, says Morgan, for open-ended incentive packages, as some European countries (notably, Germany) are doing, versus the painful hair- and teeth-pulling experiences we have to go through here in the U.S. for year-by-year extensions. Else, on many levels, it may be akin to the case of "the same fire that cooks your food will burn your house down." It goes beyond that: Outdo Europe, on the other hand, we might well reclaim our status as the world's leading economic power.
Ultimately, it's really all about education. Recognizing that these kinds of efforts often end up in Washington, Morgan is perhaps as active at the municipal level as any other, which is one of the best (but yet most difficult) ways to generate some grass-roots support. It's tough because the municipalities look on the issue as a money proposition, too—i.e., "how long will it take to recoup our investment?"
But enlightenment, as great as it is, rarely gets through to people until the wolf knocks at the door. We tend to come to our senses when we see an absolute need for a better way. Congress generally takes its time, unless the house is falling down right now, as was apparent last week on Wall Street. Solar power may be just one step towards expanding the alternative energy effort, and how much a dent it will make in the global energy equation is still anyone's guess. But that doesn't logically translate into delaying the programs we're most certainly going to need. More directly, we haven't got a decade for the legislative branches of government to come around.
In short, it's a case of "You can pay me now, or you can pay me later," as the mechanic said on that commercial a few decades ago, referring to the need to replace your oil and oil filter on time. We now have the same problem, just a different topic, and there's no magic or prophecy involved. With solar, we know what we have to do. We know how we initially have to go about doing it. We know the timeframe. We have a good idea of what the initial costs will be. And we also have a good idea of what the costs will be if we decide to approach the problem 10 years from now, versus two or three.
Agreed, getting the money to start up will always be a problem—if the country had 10 times the money to spend that it has now, we'd somehow still manage to be in a deficit. But I have a feeling they're going to learn that lesson very quickly, once and for all. What's left is that design engineers have all the initial parameters they need. What they'll need, and hopefully get, is the national will to make it happen sooner than 2013...
And with this concluding blog, my tour of duty with Power Management DesignLine will be coming to a close (September 30). It's been a pleasure to serve as your conductor. During the past year, we've brought you a solid collection of technical articles that I hope you've been able to put to use. I'm indebted especially to the majors in the IC business who continue to make this site what it is, particularly National Semiconductor, Linear Technology, TI, Maxim, Fairchild, Analog Devices, STMicro, and Analogic Tech (and my apologies to those I fail to mention). I'd also like to thank our many readers who took time to write me with their thoughts, both pro and con, on a broad variety of issues. I couldn't have done it without you.