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Solar solution: the next industrial revolution

Björn A. Sandéna, E-mail The Corresponding Author

aEnvironmental Systems Analysis, Department of Energy and Environment, Chalmers University of Technology, Göteborg, Sweden

Available online 27 November 2008.

The industrial revolution 200 years ago freed society from the limitations of bioenergy and brought tremendous growth but also huge environmental problems. Now, a new generation of modular technologies based on advanced materials enables efficient conversion of solar energy and carries the seeds of a new industrial revolution.

Article Outline


A man is sitting by the canal in Smethwick, a small English town near Birmingham. It is the summer of 1795. He has been struggling with the steam engine for many years, almost his entire life. Now he and Matthew Boulton are building a steam engine factory. At last they will start production of steam engines in large numbers. In January he will celebrate his 60th birthday. The world's first heavy engineering factory will be in place by then. James Watt can almost see it's reflection in the water. He can sense it. History is on its way to change.

Minor incidents add up to broad trends. Broad trends create room for decisive moments. Processes at different scales in society interact. Processes at different scales in nature interact. Nature and society interact. History unfolds. Could it be that threads from history now are interwoven into a new fabric, just like when the steam engine and coal set off an industrial revolution two hundred years ago?

It is the summer of 1995. A man walks the streets of Aachen, a small German city close to the border of Belgium. Wolf von Fabeck is 60 years old. He is glad about an achievement. On the 19th of June, after six years of struggle to get a system for cost covering solar tariffs going, a first contract had finally been signed between the local utility and a solar electricity producer. The cost covering solar tariff obliged the utility to buy solar electricity at a price of two German Marks (about one Euro) per kilowatthour, about an order of magnitude above market price for electricity. Many viewed the local council that had authorized this odd regulation to be out of their minds. Was it just stupid, was it idealistic but economically irrational politics or was it a magic glimpse of strategic thinking? What is rational and what is not is a matter of perspective.

At the societal macro scale, humankind had reached an interesting point in 1995, or to be more imprecise, towards the end of the second millennia (according to the dominant current chronology). The invention of controlled fire between a half and one million years ago provided heat and light and increased the nutritional base of Homo Erectus and gave our ancestor an advantage over other animals. Biological evolution continued and Homo Sapiens succeeded Homo Erectus. After spreading from Africa at some point 50 000 – 75 000 years ago (according to the ‘recent African origin’ model[1] and [2]), Homo Sapiens slowly filled the world. The spread was made possible by, and simultaneously stimulated, a burst of inventive activity that drastically increased the human wardrobe and toolkit, and thereby the ability to survive in all kinds of climate and biotopes. By 13 000 BC all continents were inhabited3. The world population of a few million probably had decent lives as hunters and gatherers. However, population numbers continued to increase, and a new strategy besides migration had to be developed to provide enough food – intensified land use. Gathering was gradually transformed to cultivation of selected crops, hunting to herding. Settled societies emerged in South-west Asia, China and later Mesoamerica. The invention of agriculture and ‘area-efficient’ food production enabled a massive increase of world population. According to Ponting3 population increased from four to five million between 10000 and 5000 BC, while in the following five millennia it boomed to a hundred million. The population growth made the agricultural revolution irreversible.

In the mid 18th century, world population had increased to about 800 million. In Europe, the large continental forests had been cut down to make room for agriculture, to supply materials for construction and ships and to produce charcoal for heating and metal production. Land was once again a limiting factor for population growth and economic progress. In response, the use of fossil coal, by many viewed as an inferior substitute for wood, increased and spread to new applications. At the time it did not seem to be revolutionary but it marked the start of a new era of human society.

To that point, humans had mainly depended on energy flows powered by the sun: direct sunlight, wind, running water and bioenergy. Bioenergy to feed humans and animals and provide heat and light was of crucial importance since the dawn of humanity. The agricultural revolution, or the first great transition, increased bioenergy output per acre, but as populations grew, the demand for food and wood kept rising. Coal, and later oil and natural gas, made it possible to bypass the area constraint. Exploiting the treasure of million years of stored solar energy in the ground enabled a massive growth of energy use.

That summer in 1995, world population was close to six billion, almost an order of magnitude increase since the days of James Watt. Energy use had increased by two orders of magnitude. In rich countries, citizens on average now used energy corresponding to hundred human slaves. The industrial revolution and the era of fossil fuels brought about a second great irreversible transition. But the use of the treasure in the ground had a cost. In the second assessment report from IPCC of the same year, it was explained that the massive emissions of carbon dioxide threatened to rapidly change the climate, and thereby rapture the natural foundation of the sensitive production systems the billions were dependent on4.

At the natural grand macro scale the great fusion power plant in the sun was created 4.6 billion years ago. On the third planet in the solar system, molecules emerged that could replicate themselves by using the exergy content of the sunlight. Life as we know it had started. Over billions of years, layers of more and more complex molecular structures were created and myriads of life forms filled the Earth. Biological evolution had created a system that, at the natural ‘micro scale’, efficiently converted the quality of the solar energy. It was an advanced nanotechnology optimized for its purpose, to produce and reproduce biological structure. Up to the industrial revolution, this was also the main source for society to get materials as well as heat and light. The steam engine of the industrial revolution widened the area of application by producing motion, which later also enabled electricity production, from fresh as well as fossil biomass. The bonfire of our ancestors a million years ago had grown to a world conflagration.

However, alongside the growth of energy and materials use in the second great transition, also the stock of human knowledge was growing. Towards the end of the 20th century, technological evolution had reached a level where humans were able to understand and manipulate atoms and molecules to make materials with properties never seen in nature – a new type of nanotechnology. In the 1950s the semiconductors were born. It revolutionized the storing and processing of information. It also gave birth to solar cells or photovoltaics, a technology that could harness solar light and transform it directly to electricity, an energy form that society by now was addicted to. Solar cells, combined with other devices that also relied on controlled energy conversion at the nanoscale, such as batteries and fuel cells, made a new type of energy system – beyond fire – imaginable. Compared to using land for bioenergy cultivation and consecutive conversion to electricity, or worse biofuel for internal combustion engines and transport, solar cells are incredibly area efficient. Driving a car 10000 km per year powered by ethanol produced from wheat requires some 5000 m2 of land while an electric car of equal size powered by solar cells would only require about 15 m2 (under northern European conditions). The solar energy reaching the Earth every year corresponds to 10,000 years of fossil fuel use at current rates. A way forward for the industrial society lies open. It can be taken if there are people who see it.

In the beginning there are the imagination and actions of individual men and women who set in motion spirals of events, snowballs that keep on rolling. And, different snowballs are combined and form unexpected shapes. In the end new large technological systems are created. The steam engine was first used in the niche market of pumping water from coal mines. The improvements made by James Watt made it competitive in a wide range of applications. The increased use of water pumps in mines increased the availability of coal. Coal was not only required to produce steam for the steam engines but also to enhance the production of quality iron. Quality iron was required to produce high precision machine tools, which in turn were essential for Watt's improved steam engine. Circles of positive feedback created a development and growth process. In the textile industry water powered mechanization had started. High quality iron enabled the invention of textile factories. With steam engines the factories did not have to be located by the rivers, and when even better iron enabled production of high pressure steam engines, also long distance transportation was mechanized. The railway and the steam ships emerged and, powered by coal, they transported coal (and other goods) over the continents and the sea. World trade flourished and created incomes that were reinvested in companies and further technical development. Coal and steam engines became cheaper and cheaper, and hence were used more, and the increased use did not increase the price but lowered it. Over time the clustering of development paths of individual technologies combined with institutional changes has the power to change the basic structure of production and consumption in society and create waves of economic development[5] and [6]. The accumulation of microscale events results in changes at higher system levels in society.

Solar cells found a first niche market in satellites, where the unique qualities outweighed the high cost of several hundred dollars per watt. The first oil crises created an interest in solar cells down on Earth. Many research programs were launched and the market grew rapidly in relative terms, but the volumes were small. Prices didn't drop as fast as hoped for, but enough to make solar cells economically viable in new niche markets, primarily energy supply far from electric grids and in consumer electronics. In the 1990s, first Germany, then Japan started to experiment with grid-connected solar cells on roof-tops. Visionaries like von Fabeck in Germany and Kusoke Kurokawa in Japan envisioned grand distributed solar power plants[7] and [8]. However, in the mid 1990s solar cell production in Germany was almost extinct and there was no national program for market support. But the snowball kept rolling at the local level. The feed-in tariff and cost covering price for solar electricity first introduced in Aachen, Freising and Hammelburg, spread to 40 municipalities all over Germany. After a shift in political power, a new law to support renewable energy of different forms based on the Aachen-model was implemented for the whole of Germany in April 20009. It was later revised and improved in 2004 and is now copied by well over 30 countries world-wide. With the new law the market and the industry boomed in Germany, and spurred industrial activity all over the world. The solar cell market has grown by more than 40% per year on average for a decade, and in 2007 it jumped to an annual growth of 69% taking the position of “the world's fastest growing industry”10. With increased use and mass production, solar cells become cheaper and cheaper, like 19th century coal and steam engines11. Solar energy conversion can be available almost anywhere, in any size, from large fields of solar energy collectors to miniature units. It can co-evolve with ubiquitous information and communication technologies, a new generation of sophisticated energy storage technologies and a host of other nanotechnologies and give rise to new production and consumption patterns. It will put pressure for institutional change and enable new habits. The potential is sufficient to replace fossil fuels and power a global industrial society.

But the outcome is not given. The growth of knowledge and our will and courage to develop a new industrial system are in a race against our increasing energy demands and the momentum of the old industrial system - once novel and fresh in the mind of James Watt by the glittering water in Smethwick. Processes at different scales will interact and history will unfold.


This text was produced within the project Nanorobust—Societal Aspects of Nanotechnology: Ecological Sustainability and Social Robustness with financial support from MISTRA, the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research. I would also like to thank Christian Azar, Eugenia Perez, Duncan Kushnir and the editors of Materials Today for valuable comments.


1 H. Liu et al., The American Journal of Human Genetics 79 (2006), p. 230. Article | PDF (378 K) | Full Text via CrossRef | View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus (3)

2 C. Stringer and P. Andrews, Science 239 (1988), p. 1263. View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus (229)

3 C. Ponting, A new green history of the world, Vintage, London (2007).

4 IPCC, Climate Change 1995: IPCC Second Assessment: A report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 1995, Geneva, Switzerland: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

5 C. Freeman and F. Loucã, As Time Goes By: From the Industrial Revolutions to the Information Revolution, Oxford University Press, Oxford (2002).

6 A. Grübler, Technology and global change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1998).

7 S. Jacobsson et al., Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 16 (2004), p. 3. Full Text via CrossRef | View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus (18)

8 K. Jelse and H. Johnson, Increasing the rate of solar cell diffusion in Japan: Dynamics of the PV innovation system, 1973–2007, Environmental Systems Analysis, Chalmers University of Technology, Göteborg, Sweden (2008).

9 Solarenergieförderverein. Historisches zur kostendeckenden Vergütung (KV). 2002 [cited 2008 June 27].

10 Photon International, Market survey on global solar cell and module production in 2007 (2008), pp. 136–166.

11 B.A. Sandén, Solar Energy 78 (2005), p. 137. Abstract | Article | PDF (330 K) | View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus (4)

Materials Today
Volume 11, Issue 12, December 2008, Pages 22-24

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