By David Lammers
Bob Johnstone, a technology journalist and author of five books, has brought his story-telling skills to the immensely important role that solar energy can play in creating a cleaner world. His latest book, Switching to Solar, (Prometheus Books, 2011) is as well-researched as his previous volume “Brilliant!,” on the LED industry, which I also heartily recommend.
I should reveal my assumptions. First, I respect the scientific consensus that global warming is real, that the main cause is the steady addition of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that we have to reduce the burning of coal, oil, and gas if we want to prevent global catastrophe.
Second, I am biased towards Mr. Johnstone, who as a magazine journalist lived in Tokyo at the same time I did, during the heyday of the Japanese electronics industry. A Scot by birth, he moved with his family from Tokyo to sunny Australia more than a decade ago to begin his book-writing career.
Johnstone excels as an historian of technology, weaving the history of a technology into an account of its current challenges and future prospects. For example, I read an entire biography of Thomas Edison 10 years ago but don’t recall the great inventor decrying the use of coal and oil, likening the practice to “tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel,” and referring to the sun as “What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” Quotes like that are the reason Johnstone’s books are such a pleasure.
Johnstone takes us through a brief history of solar, beginning with Albert Einstein’s 1920s discovery of the photovoltaic effect (for which he won the Nobel Prize), and including Daryl Chapin’s creation of an early solar cell at Bell Labs in 1953.
Johnstone peppers his books with great anecdotes; he has a knack for weaving mini-biographies into his books, describing how strong, colorful personalities are able to impact solar’s role in our energy policies.What could be tedious reading in another author’s hand comes to life as Johnstone melds human-interest stories about California’s hectic energy scene into Switching to Solar.
Much of “Switching to Solar” (which has the sub-title What We Can Learn from Germany’s Success in Harnessing Clean Energy) is about Germany’s implementation of a feed-in tariff, which guarantees a premium rate for a period of 20 years for all electricity generated and fed into the grid by owners of solar systems. “The whole idea is that solar generators should be fully compensated for the cost of their systems, plus make a return on investment, just like utilities do with their power plants,” Johnstone said.
The goal of the Europeans is to source 12 percent of their energy from solar by 2020. In the south of Germany, solar averages about three percent of its electricity, increasing to 20 percent or more on a hot afternoon.
What lessons can others learn from Germany’s success with solar? “Keep it simple,” Johnstone advises, with an easy-to-understand policy so that people who want to invest in solar know what they’re signing up for.
Johnstone spends several years researching each of his books. For Switching to Solar he interviewed more than 80 people, including as many as four long sessions with several of the early pioneers of solar energy. Thanks to those interviews, the book is a lively read, all the more so because its topic is truly essential to saving the planet as we know it.