PV is the steam engine of the Solar Age

Just as the steam engine enabled the Fossil Fuel Age, so will photovoltaics (PV) enable the Solar Age.

The Industrial Revolution began with the automation of cloth making. Richard Arkwright patented his water frame thread-spinning machine in 1768. He called it a water frame because it combined a waterwheel for power and a frame to handle the spinning spindle. His invention and other textile machines took off, but textile companies soon ran out of factory sites suitable for a waterwheel. The Industrial Revolution was rescued by James Watt’s steam engine, the first practical engine for generating mechanical power by burning a fuel. They started with wood fuel, but quickly switched to coal as forests disappeared. Factories could be situated anywhere because coal could be delivered in wagons.

So the steam engine was the crucial enabler of the Fossil Fuel Age. Without the steam engine burning fossil fuels, the Industrial Revolution would have been more of an Industrial “Revision”, not a Revolution. Although we no longer use the old style steam engines, the modern replacements—steam turbines for generating electricity and gasoline engines from transport—still operate under the same principle of burning a fossil fuel to make heat to generate mechanical power. Those newer engines exist because the old steam engines enabled the industrial expansion that created their newer technologies.

In a similar fashion, photovoltaics are the enabler for the Solar Age. PV panels allow anyone to set up a solar power source for their home, business, or institution. They permit essentially unlimited expansion of solar power to meet all of our energy needs. They will enable us to transition away from fossil fuels, just as steam engines allowed us to transition away from manual and animal labor. In fifty years when the world is entirely powered by solar energy using devices we cannot even imagine today, we will look back and see the simple solar cell as the enabler of the Solar Age.