by Geoff Olson

There are two primary formulas connected with the name of Albert Einstein. The first equation ruled the latter half of the 20th century. The second will rule the latter half of the 21st century.

E = mc2 describes the equivalence of mass and energy. It allowed physicists to break open the atomic nucleus like a tiny Pandora’s Box, and enabled military commanders to paint people’s shadows on the streets of Hiroshima.

The lesser known equation, E = hf, was formulated by physicist Max Planck in 1900. Einstein interpreted the emission of electrons from metals struck by radiation – the photoelectric effect – as evidence that light is composed of discrete packets with the energy hf. It was his insight into Planck’s formula that won the frizzy-haired brainiac the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, and led to the science behind photovoltaic panels.

The Burning Answer: A User’s Guide to the Solar Revolution, makes the case for E = hf over E = mc2.  Author Keith Barnham points out the irony that several of the defeated nations of the second world war, including Germany and Italy, were prohibited from developing nuclear weapons and are now among the world’s leaders in solar technology. The victors in the second world war  – the UK, US and Canada –  are laggards in this technical revolution.

That revolution is not far off in the future. It’s happening right now, with solar R&D benchmarks falling like dominoes. The price of solar cells has plunged to .80 a watt from $4 a watt in 2008, and last September the International Energy Agency released a report predicting that solar power will displace fossil fuels and become the world’s primary source of electricity by 2050.

The planet is currently awash in cheap carbon-based fuels, which is undermining the petrostate Russia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Canada. But what happens when enough nations loosen their dependency on a substance behind most of the world’s currency markets and resource wars? That’s when all bets are off, geopolitically.

Even Arab nations have seen the texting on the wall. “The Saudis are themselves betting on solar, investing more than $100bn in 41 gigawatts (GW) of capacity, investing more than $100bn in 41 gigawatts (GW) of capacity, enough to cover 30 percent of their power needs by 2030 rather than burning fossil fuel needed for exports,” observes Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Telegraph.

Resistance to abundant alternative energy, including geothermal and secondary solar technologies like wind power, is mostly from lobbyists and political proxies of King CONG (Coal, Oil, Nuclear, Gas). Yet when money talks, older technologies and their supply chains walk, even if it takes a few decades for these monsters to stagger toward the door. That’s the history of technology in capsule form. (Remember whale oil? Exactly.)

Nuclear energy is well over a half-century old; a capital-intensive technology with a dubious safety record and a waste disposal problem worthy of a Frank Herbert novel. Its return on investment is impressive, but only if you ignore the substantial environmental risks.

Chemical combustion is an even older technology, which brings me to the recent spill of bunker fuel from a grain-carrying cargo ship in English Bay.

“Bunker fuel degrades even less rapidly in the environment than standard fuel oil, and is difficult to remediate because of its thickness,” notes a report in The Natural Resources News Service. The heavy grade oil is used to power the 90,000 cargo ships that ply the world’s oceans – many of which are used to push massive quantities of carbon-based fuel from one market to another.

As necessary as they are for today’s high-consumption lifestyles, there is nothing more steampunk than some of the bigger vessels you see in BC waters. Their technology dates back to the 19th century. So it’s not great surprise that global shipping is by far the biggest transport polluter on the planet. And while it’s unlikely we’ll ever see cargo ships powered by solar power alone, it’s a different story for automobiles, homes, office buildings, and their associated energy grids.

A vastly different world drawing on the energy of the sun isn’t a pipe dream. What’s a literal and figurative pipe dream is a planet dominated by fossil fuels and the petrodollar, to say nothing of a nuclear genie with bipolar disorder.

E = mc2 is so last century. I’m placing my bets on E = hf.

The Vancouver Courier, Apr. 17


  1. Steampunk! 🙂

    Just because we got a laptop in 2007, my wife got the crazy idea we should get a digital camera! I suddenly realized how pretty much all the technology I grew up with in the 1970’s was Victorian:
    – Chemical film cameras (albeit with electronic, automatic light meters)
    – telephones still basically like those from the early 1900’s, and computers barely out of the 1930’s and 40’s
    – the giant mainframe computer at my first IT job at Safeway in 1983 had only 8 MEGs of RAM storage. My phone now has 10,000 times as much RAM, and fits in my pocket. The Safeway computer was the size of two large freezers.

    Great to hear such great news about cheaper and cheaper solar! We need all the good news we can get to fight Global Warming.

    • Hey Chris, I’m old enough to remember when the high school computer club used punch cards – a technology that predates World War 2!
      Six years later a friend from that class was pleased as punch when he showed me a program he wrote for his Commodore 64, of a simulated dice roll. Just two numbers coming up, from one to 12, over and over again. Thrilling stuff.

      • Yeah… I thought that older computer stuff was super cool… I was lucky to be in the last computer class (class of 1981/82) at Langara that used punch cards… Much cooler, just not as convenient…

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