Environmental news from California and beyond

« Previous Post | Greenspace Home | Next Post »

Solar power: Karl Wolfgang Boer and a lifetime of green discoveries

October 1, 2010 |  3:02 pm

Solar panels
Karl Wolfgang Boer stumbled upon a few little yellow crystals in a drawer of a German physics lab.

The accidental discovery would turn out to change his life and the future of green energy.

The crystals were cadmium sulfide (CdS) platelets. The scientist investigated both the electrical properties of the crystals, and his long-term research would lay the groundwork for CdS-based solar cells.

Boer recently published a memoir, “The Life of the Solar Pioneer Karl Wolfgang Boer” (iUniverse, 2010). Written in conjunction with a foreign-languages professor, the book documents Boer’s life journey --including growing up in Berlin, his personal family trials, immigrating to the United States, and chiefly his scientific discoveries that helped to shape solar power.

From a young boy fascinated by physics, setting up little chemistry labs in his parents’ basement, Boer became a trailblazer for alternative energies technology.

In 1973, Boer created the Solar One house, the first house to convert sunlight into electricity and heat. He also helped to develop the American Solar Energy Society, has written numerous books on solar energyand has explained why CdS improves solar energy conversion.

He recently spoke with the Los Angeles Times about his work and how he sees the green future developing.

How do you believe solar power has most changed the world?
Modern solar power, especially photovoltaics (solar cells), has changed the recognition that conversion of sunlight (not only into plants, wind, and rain), but directly into electric energy is real, and already today is able to provide 35 gigawatts to the world. (The average nuclear power utility is rated at 1 gigawatt.)

What would you like to see develop in the future?
The future in solar lies in the concerted supply of useful energy (electric, heat, etc.) from multiple sources (solar electric, wind parks, hydroelectric, ocean waves and tidal, bioconversion and many others) that will work together. But most important is the development of a new electric grid (a DC-grid) to interconnect these resources with consumer centers (cities), where DC can be transformed to AC and then distributed to end consumers.

Can you talk about the greenhouse  effect? What are the immediate and long-term steps we should take to reverse its impact?
The impact of the greenhouse is multifaceted -- not just local temperature increases, but the increase of the severity of weather (i.e., weather extremes). Reversing the greenhouse effect is a long-term (decades) process. The best we can do to stop further acceleration of the effect is to significantly reduce emission of CO2.
Part of solar energy is tied to economics. What would, in your opinion, a green economy really look like?
A concerted, careful introduction of a green economy would gradually replace fossil power plants with wind and solar in general. (Not nuclear -- that produces long-lasting pollution and is too expensive when accounting properly.) This gradual introduction would shift the workforce from conventional plants and their harvesting of resources (oil, gas, and coal) to the new industry related to renewable energy.

This movement has already created -- in the last year alone in Europe -- several hundred thousand new jobs for a wide variety of openings. But as important, it would drastically reduce the reason to start wars between nations.

What technological advances need to be made in order for us to move into a greener future?
In solar and wind, there are little "device advances" necessary, except for the aggressive development of mass fabrication of techniques and facilities.

Further development of solar cells beyond what is on the market today would be an icing on the cake, but will take decades before such breakthrough cells become marketable.

Fifty years from now, by 2060, how do you anticipate we will have advanced?
[By then] we must have turned the Earth to a "solar economy" [and] to a "solar world," if we want to avoid catastrophes of yet-unheard-of magnitudes.

-- Lori Kozlowski

Photo (top): Solar photovoltaic panels generate electricity at an Exelon solar power facility in Chicago. The 10-megawatt facility on the city's South Side is the largest urban solar installation in the United States. The 32,292 panels can generate more than 14,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per year, enough to meet the annual energy requirements of up to 1,500 homes. Credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images. Photo (lower): Karl Wolfgang Boer. Credit: Smith Publicity.