Solar's Big Day is Still Around the Corner

Posted by Tomi Maxted on November 15, 2011
Solar's Big Day is Still Around the Corner

Let’s be real — as a species we are obsessed with technology. Everybody reading this post can name at least a dozen people who would be at a loss without their iPhone, Blackberry, PC, Mac, Twitter or Facebook account.

The problem, however, is that we become so obsessed with the latest and greatest technology that we fail to appreciate the histories of practical, everyday technologies that we take for granted. As children of the modern era, we cannot escape the fact that we want the newest item now, and at a relatively cheap price. Any technology that we can’t see ourselves buying in the next few years is labeled “developing” or “failed.”

We must, however, be cognizant of these histories, for otherwise we may prematurely judge and condemn a technology that could serve us well in the future. Case in point: solar. Commercially viable solar power has been around since 1964, but some critics still posit solar as a failed technology rather than one that could serve society well in the future. Considering our need-it-now perspective, this view is not surprising.

The fact is that solar technology, like the technologies that we can’t live without, has been advancing at an incredible pace: the cost of the average solar panel has decreased from over $2 per watt in 2009 to around $1.50 per watt in only the past two years. This pace, however, will still not be enough to convince those critics, so here are four stories to remind us all as to why, in the end, solar will prevail.

  • Vitamin C: Ignored Even By the Best. The British Royal Navy, the military might behind the British Empire, would not have ruled the seas without adopting each era’s cutting-edge technologies. But in a rare exception, it waited almost 200 years to adopt Vitamin C as an official remedy against scurvy. The use of Vitamin C as a remedy for scurvy was identified twice by two different English military surgeons, once in 1617 and once in 1747 (though only the latter experiment was controlled), but the British continued to stubbornly man scurvy-ridden ships until finally adopting the remedy in 1788.
  • Pasteurization: Milking Raw Dairy For All It’s Worth. Pasteurization, a process that has always been known to reduce health risks, was ignored for years in favor of tastier raw milk even though it was a major carrier of tuberculosis. Chicago became the first U.S. city to require pasteurization in 1908, a full 45 years after the process was invented (which is ironic considering that only two years earlier Upton Sinclair famously exposed the city’s filthy meatpacking practices in The Jungle).
  • Social Media: Before Mommy Bloggers, There Was Ward Christensen. Today, we equate social media with Facebook and Twitter. These sites have gone a long way to increase global connectivity, but social media far predates Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard hobby. In 1978, Ward Christensen launched the first Bulletin Board System (BBS), which allowed computer owners to dial into a server to access chat rooms, message boards and file downloads. The first online forum for users to interact, BBS was followed by instant messaging and chat rooms, but it would take 30 years until social media was a must-have.
  • [Insert Any Technology]: We Forget That Everything Worth Waiting For Takes Time. No, I didn’t forget the title of the fourth example. I could go on with yet another history of a technology that took 15+ years to fully establish itself post-launch, but the fact is that every single gadget and program we use today has taken a lot longer than we think to reach widespread adoption.

For example, these technologies took the following number of years to reach 50 percent household penetration: telephone: 50+years, automobile: 20 years, color TV: 15 years, washing machine: 40 years, answering machine: 9 years. Obviously, each of these technologies had its own set of circumstances that determined the length of the adoption lag; also, this lag period does generally get shorter and shorter with time.

But we cannot deny that even the newest technologies have taken many years to get to where they are now, and most of them were ignored or undervalued at first. iPhones, Skype, toll tags, etc. all blew up overnight, and today they are a must-have (I still hate waiting in the “Cash Only” lanes on the N.J. Turnpike). Despite the fact that solar is affordable for major corporations and some homeowners, this moment has not yet happened for the industry.

But fret not, my sunny friends, for appreciating the histories of today’s technologies will help us to understand that solar’s big day is not too far away either.


Tomi Maxted is an Account Executive at Beckerman, an independent full-service public relations firm, where he represents clients in the clean technology and public affairs sectors.

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