Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts solar industry dominance in 12 years

April 27, 2016

Futurist Ray Kurzweil made a thought provoking presentation at a recent trade show. During his talk he shifted his attention to solar power.

Explaining the accelerating rate of technical progress, Kurzweil said technical developments form very predictable trajectories, and those trajectories are exponential.

Consider the progress of the computing industry, he said. He spoke about his cell phone, which he said is several billion times more powerful per dollar than the computer he used as a student at MIT.*

“I went to MIT because it was so advanced that it actually had a computer in the late 1960s,” Kurzweil said. “It took up the floor of a building. Still, this cell phone is thousands of times more powerful, and a million times less expensive. That’s a several billion-fold increase in price|performance. It’s also a tiny fraction of the size.”

Kurzweil said 4 years ago Google founder Larry Page and he were asked by the National Academy of Engineering to study emerging energy tech. Page and Kurzweil selected solar due to its exponential growth. Kurzweil said solar has been around for over 25 years, and its market share has doubled every 2 years.

Kurzweil explained, “In 2012 solar panels were producing 0.5% of the world’s energy supply. Some people dismissed it, saying it’s nice but at a half percent solar is a fringe player, not going to solve the problem. They were ignoring the exponential growth — like they ignored the exponential growth of the internet and human genome project. Half a percent is only 8 doublings away from 100%.

“Now 4 years later solar has doubled twice again. Now solar panels produce 2% of the world’s energy, right on schedule. People dismiss it saying 2% is nice, but a fringe player. That ignores the exponential growth — which means it’s only 6 doublings or 12 years from 100%.”

2 years ago Kurzweil presented this to the prime minister of Israel, who attended his class at the MIT Sloan School in the 1970s. Kurzweil said the prime minster asked him a question, “Do we have enough sunlight to do this with a doubling 7 more times?”

Kurzweil said, “Yes. After we double 7 more times, and meeting 100% of the world’s energy needs, we’ll still be using only one part in 10,000 of the sunlight we have. It’s not true we’re running out of energy. We’re only running out of resources if we stick with 19th century tech.”

* MIT is Massachusetts Institute of Technology

set | background on 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering
Highlighting the global challenges for humanity with featured solutions from field leaders.

Wikipedia | Grand Challenges

National Academy of Engineering | Grand Challenges for Engineering: main
National Academy of Engineering | Grand Challenges for Engineering: challenges list
National Academy of Engineering | Grand Challenges for Engineering: report
National Academy of Engineering | Grand Challenges for Engineering: committee — members list
National Academy of Engineering | Grand Challenges for Engineering: committee — Ray Kurzweil

list | 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering
Developed by the National Academy of Engineering.*

1. Advance personalized learning

A growing appreciation of individual preferences and aptitudes has led toward personalized learning — instruction is tailored to a student’s individual needs.

Given the diversity of individual preferences, and the complexity of each human brain, developing teaching methods that optimize learning will require engineering solutions of the future.

2. Make solar energy economical

Currently solar energy provides less than 1% of the world’s total energy, but it has the potential to provide much more.

3. Enhance virtual reality

Within many specialized fields, from psychiatry to education, virtual reality is becoming a powerful new tool for training practitioners and treating patients, in addition to its growing use in various forms of entertainment.

4. Reverse engineer the brain

A lot of research has been focused on creating thinking machines — computers capable of emulating human intelligence— however, reverse-engineering the brain could have multiple impacts that go far beyond artificial intelligence and will promise great advances in health care, manufacturing, and communication.

5. Engineer better medicines

Engineering can enable the development of new systems to use genetic information, sense small changes in the body, assess new drugs, and deliver vaccines to provide health care directly tailored to each person.

6. Advance health informatics

As computers have become available for all aspects of human endeavors, there is now a consensus that a systematic approach to health informatics – the acquisition, management, and use of information in health — can greatly enhance the quality and efficiency of medical care and the response to widespread public health emergencies.

7. Restore and improve urban infrastructure

Infrastructure is the combination of fundamental systems that support a community, region, or country. Society faces the formidable challenge of modernizing the fundamental structures that will support our civilization in centuries ahead.

8. Secure cyberspace

Computer systems are involved in the management of almost all areas of our lives; from electronic communications, and data systems, to controlling traffic lights to routing airplanes. It is clear that engineering needs to develop innovations for addressing a long list of cybersecurity priorities

9. Provide access to clean water

About 1 out of every 6 people living today do not have adequate access to water, and more than double that number lack basic sanitation, for which water is needed. It’s not that the world does not possess enough water – it is just not always located where it is needed.

10. Provide energy from fusion

Fusion is the energy source for the sun. The challenges facing the engineering community are to find ways to scale up the fusion process to commercial proportions, in an efficient, economical, and environmentally benign way.

11. Prevent nuclear terror

Engineering shares the formidable challenges of finding the dangerous nuclear material in the world, keeping track of it, securing it, and detecting its diversion or transport for terrorist use.

12. Manage the nitrogen cycle

It doesn’t offer as catchy a label as “global warming,” but human-induced changes in the global nitrogen cycle pose engineering challenges just as critical as coping with the environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels for energy.

13. Develop carbon sequestration methods

The growth in emissions of carbon dioxide, implicated as a prime contributor to global warming, is a problem that can no longer be swept under the rug. But perhaps it can be buried deep underground or beneath the ocean.

14. Engineer the tools for scientific discovery

Grand experiments and missions of exploration always need engineering expertise to design the tools, instruments, and systems that make it possible to acquire new knowledge about the physical and biological worlds.

* National Academy of Engineering is part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine

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