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Behind Closed Doors Day 2: Here Comes the Sun

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Graeme Stemp-Morlock
9 am - 6:45 pm. June 6, 2011
nergy 2030 Working Sessions

It was overcast outside, but the sun still caught the attention of delegates today.

New nanoscience solar panels could cause a major revolution in energy. Imagine 3 billion people with electricity…but no grid.

One of the most energetic speakers on this topic is Jillian Buriak, a Canada Research Chair in Nanomaterials at the University of Alberta. She gave a morning plenary talk on personalized solar energy (you can check out in the WGSI video archives by the way in case you missed it). New solar panel materials that can be printed on sheets of plastic using printers similar to household bubble jet models will hopefully be cheap enough to help make her dream of personalized energy possible.

Death to the grid

Recognizing the urgency of the situation and showing incredible flexibility, summit organizers rewrote the day's schedule after the morning plenary talks to allow delegates to cancel a planned meeting among all delegates to meet right away in small groups. This turned out to be a good move, as this flexibility allowed delegates to greatly raise the level of informed discussion.

In one discussion, delegates envisioned a system outside the expensive and limiting grid where micro networks sprout up in villages to distribute local energy resources. If we forget the grid, delegates believed solar technology could bring power to the 3 billion people with no reliable access to electricity.

The devil's in the details…

Unfortunately, cost details were sparse. Even major companies developing plastic solar panels are unsure of the final cost or when this new generation of solar panels will be available.

"Talk is cheap and solar's not," said one delegate. "We have to get the cost of everything that needs to be manufactured down as cheap as it can go."

And, what happens if that cost is still more than those 3 billion people can afford?

Delegates discussed public/private development or humanitarian funding agencies as one way to lower costs. "There’s major potential to lower the cost, and if there was local development and production, that would be a bonus," said one delegate.

The five-year dilemma

In a cruel twist of irony, many new nanomaterials break down when exposed to sunlight. Traditional solar panels might last 25 years, but new nanomaterials are only good for less than five years. One delegate worried "are we developing disposable solar panels?"

The level of energy in discussions today almost caused a runaway chain reaction: Delegates pushed each other to think of how the findings of the conference will be implemented worldwide (at least in the short term.)

…Will it be enough?

What was really heartening to see was that even in the early afternoon (approximately halfway-through the three-day process,) concrete steps were being laid out, teeing things up for tomorrow’s agenda, which will add to a (finally!) growing critical mass.

Finally, today marked the start of writing on the summit communiqué.

Between sketching out plans and baking them in into the communiqué (the official product of the summit) the whirlwind writing and editing won’t end until summit leaders release that document to the media and general public on June 9.


Written by: Graeme Stemp-Morlock

Graeme Stemp-Morlock is a freelance science writer based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Graeme has the opportunity to sit in on all the Equinox Summit: Energy 2030 working sessions. His writing has been published in Popular Science, National Geographic News, Reader’s Digest Canada Online, Environmental Health Perspectives, and Green Living Online.