In a column published in Project Syndicate, Sachs argues that the most promising technology in the long term is solar power. He says if most of our energy demand can be fulfilled by harvesting solar power, mainly from deserts, which receive the strongest and highest radiation. Not a bad proposal but is it financially feasible? Do we have the technologies to harvest solar power in such a large scale? It would definitely be cleaner than the present power sources. More funding for research and development in this field is definitely needed.
The most promising technology in the long term is solar power. The total solar radiation hitting the planet is about 1,000 times the world’s commercial energy use. This means that even a small part of the earth’s land surface, notably in desert regions, which receive massive solar radiation, can supply large amounts of the electricity for much of the rest of the world.
For example, solar power plants in America’s Mohave Desert could supply more than half of the country’s electricity needs. Solar power plants in Northern Africa could supply power to Western Europe. And solar power plants in the Sahel of Africa, just south of the vast Sahara, could supply power to much of West, East, and Central Africa.
For all of these promising technologies, governments should be investing in the science and high costs of early-stage testing. Without at least partial public financing, the uptake of these new technologies will be slow and uneven. Indeed, most major technologies that we now take for granted – airplanes, computers, the Internet, and new medicines, to name but a few – received crucial public financing in the early stages of development and deployment.
It is shocking, and worrisome, that public financing remains slight, because these technologies’ success could translate into literally trillions of dollars of economic output. For example, according to the most recent data from the International Energy Agency, in 2006 the US government invested a meager $3 billion per year in energy research and development. In inflation-adjusted dollars, this represented a decline of roughly 40% since the early 1980’s, and now equals what the US spends on its military in just 1.5 days.