What’s Up With Solar Power?

What’s going on with solar power? On the one hand, I read things like this:

• Paul Krugman, Here comes the sun, New York Times, 6 November 2011.

In fact, progress in solar panels has been so dramatic and sustained that, as a blog post at Scientific American put it, “there’s now frequent talk of a ‘Moore’s law’ in solar energy,” with prices adjusted for inflation falling around 7 percent a year.

This has already led to rapid growth in solar installations, but even more change may be just around the corner. If the downward trend continues–and if anything it seems to be accelerating—we’re just a few years from the point at which electricity from solar panels becomes cheaper than electricity generated by burning coal.

This would be a big deal! As you may have noticed, attempted political remedies for global warming aren’t working too well yet. Cheap solar power won’t be enough to solve the problem: even if we can build a grid that deals with the intermittency of solar power, the problem is that electric power only accounts for some of the fossil fuel burnt. But it could help.

On the other hand, I read things like this:

• Jackie Chang, Half of China solar firms halt production, says report, Digitimes, 9 December 2011.

About 50% of the firms in China’s solar industry have suspended production, according to the country’s Guangzhou Daily.

The daily cited the solar energy division of CSG Holding as claiming that half of the solar firms have stopped production, 30% have halved their output and 20% are trying to maintain certain levels of production.

Digitimes Research’s findings have indicated that only tier-one solar firms in China had capacity utilization rates over 80% in the first half of 2011 while tier-two and tier-three firms were already facing falling capacity utilization rates.

Guangzhou Daily stated that oversupply and significant price drops are the reasons for the firms to shut down production.

The report also indicated that China firms have been facing increasing production costs following news on September 2011 that one of the large-size solar players had a chemical leak at one of its plants that polluted a nearby river. This means the other solar firms now face increasing costs to prevent such pollution while suffering from sharp price drops and low demand.

And this:

• Yuliya Chernova, Chinese solar industry fueled by unsustainable debt, analysts say, Wall Street Journal, 8 December 2011.

Even now, as the U.S. reevaluates its federal loan and other subsidy programs for renewable energy, some lawmakers invoke the strong support the Chinese government offers to its own renewable energy industry as a call for the U.S. to match up with its own support.

Indeed, easy access to low-interest loans over the past three years helped Chinese solar makers build up capacity, and quickly take over market share from European and U.S. manufacturers. In 2010 alone, the China Development Bank made $35 billion in low-interest credit available to Chinese renewable energy companies, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a figure cited by Energy Secretary Steven Chu in his testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee in mid-November.

But, perhaps an unintended consequence of this easy access to capital was that the cheap, plentiful production of solar panels resulted in a cutthroat pricing competition, which, in turn is now starting to suffocate the very same large, leading Chinese manufacturers.

“We remain concerned about debt levels across the solar manufacturing complex given the compression of profit margins,” wrote Think Equity analysts in a recent report. “With increasing net debt and reduced module prices, it is hard to imagine absolute gross margin dollars growing enough to offset existing OpEx and interest payments.”

It’s hard to know who to trust. Of course all three of these news reports could be true! Or none.

Do you know what’s really going on with solar power?

62 Responses to What’s Up With Solar Power?

  1. Tim van Beek says:

    It’s hard to know whom to trust with these matters, FWIW here are two numbers from the ministry of environment from Germany (see report on renewable energy 2011):

    Power generated by photovoltaics rose from 6.6 TWh in 2009 to 11.7 TWh in 2010. It has an overall share of 2% of the energy generation, with renewables having a 11% share.

  2. Witek Więcek says:

    Is there any contradiction between those three articles? I thought it’s pretty evident that as prices fall and technology keeps improving at great rate a lot of companies will struggle to keep up and we start to see pricing wars.

  3. Jon Rowlands says:

    Very interesting recent NPR On Point episode on renewable energy in China, if a little depressing. Big subsidies including on solar, but most solar is for export and captures subsidies from foreign governments. If they’re in trouble, maybe those foreign subsidies aren’t as forthcoming as expected in the current economy.

  4. Hudson Luce says:

    See this: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/solar-panels-take-100-years-to-pay-back-installation-costs-917202.html

    “Solar panels are one of the least cost-effective ways of combating climate change and will take 100 years to pay back their installation costs, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) warned yesterday.

    In a new guide on energy efficiency, Rics said that roof panels for heating water and generating power are unlikely to save enough from bills to make them financially viable in a householder’s lifetime. In the case of solar panels to heat water for baths and showers, the institution estimates the payback time from money saved from electricity and gas bills will take more than 100 years – and up to 166 years in the worst case.

    Photovoltaic (PV) panels for power – and domestic, mast-mounted wind turbines – will take between 50 and 100 years to pay back.

    Given that the devices have a maximum lifetime of 30 years, they are never likely to recoup the £3,000 to £20,000 cost of their installation, according to Rics’ building cost information service. Instead, it suggested people wanting to cut fuel bills should insulate lofts and cavity walls, install efficient light bulbs and seal windows.”

    This is the case in the US as well, the only people doing any kind of solar or wind generation are the wealthy who can throw away the money or people who are off-grid and have no other choice.

    • nad says:

      The UK is not the optimal location for solar power but even in the UK other calculations give quite different results from what this Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors says, see e.g.:
      http://www.solarguide.co.uk/solar-pv-calculator

    • Here in Bavaria (950h sun per year) a typical home PV (30kWp) takes 10 years to pay back, when financed with 3.8% interest and a feed-in tariff of 0.287€/kWh (which is guaranteed by German govt. for 20y).

      Meanwhile most apt home and farm roofs here have PV (my visual guess). Who has no PV today does not want one for some weird non-reason. I guess the first PV gold rush is over. One reason why I’m not surprised by current industry trouble.

      There’s an analog of Moore’s law in PV price evolution, and perhaps more similarities with chip industry. So perhaps there’s also the classic boom-bust cycle of chip industry.

      • nad says:

        “Meanwhile most apt home and farm roofs here have PV (my visual guess). Who has no PV today does not want one for some weird non-reason. I guess the first PV gold rush is over. One reason why I’m not surprised by current industry trouble. “

        Here in Berlin it doesn’t look like that, but there is probably also less sun. In the link below Mr. Krautzberger linked to an interactive map with Berlin roofs. (unfortunately the map doesn’t work properly everywhere). So I could imagine that there is still quite some roof space which could be used in Europe.

        “Here in Bavaria (950h sun per year) a typical home PV (30kWp) takes 10 years to pay back, when financed with 3.8% interest and a feed-in tariff of 0.287€/kWh (which is guaranteed by German govt. for 20y).

        The problem with buying an individual solar installation is that you have to take all the risk alone. That is—assuming that you found a credit for that rate (?!)—if your solar installation should not work out as advertized then you may be quite in trouble, if you do not have some extra cash on the side. I could imagine that one could install much more solar with an arrangement like for example that people rent out their roof space for 10 years for free and get the solar installation then after ten years for free. That would by the way be also a very reliable mean for banks to put their capital (the European banks were recently lamenting that they don’t have anymore enough “save enough” ways for capitalization, since the european government bonds got so unreliable). I.e. Banks could team up with solar companies, so that amongst others the risks could balance out on a large scale.

        • I could imagine that one could install much more solar with an arangement like for example that people rent out their roof space for 10 years for free and get the solar installation then after ten years for free.

          It seems effectively working that way. The numbers (except the feed-in tariff which is guessed from wikipedia) are taken from a real Bavarian PV installator (Wohetec). There’s some insurance and some reserve for hail storm stuff and (up till recently most dreaded) converter failure. But they don’t tell total carbon footprint. (Well, who in EU would care about carbon accounting these days…)

        • nad says:

          Florifulgurator wrote:

          It seems effectively working that way.

          I don’t know, but it seems to me this is not so clear. As an example. There is a Berlin company called Solon who sells modules. They offer an insurance for two years and then they write:

          “9. Was passiert nach den ersten zwei Jahren?
          Falls Sie nach Ablauf der zweijährigen Deckung an einer Weiterversiche- rung Ihrer SOLON Photovoltaikanlage interessiert sind, besteht für Sie die Möglichkeit, den Versicherungsschutz individuell über einen SOLON- Rahmenvertrag zu besonders günstigen Konditionen weiter zu führen. Ein entsprechender Vorschlag wird Ihnen vor Ablauf der zwei Jahre zugestellt, damit Sie sich in Ruhe entscheiden können.”

          This week this company declared insolvency.

          So what does this all mean for the insurance? Looking at this it seems to me that the calculations of Solon company are unfortunately on rather shaky grounds. And if I understand correctly Solon might not be the only solar company which will have troubles.

        • nad says:

          I forgot the link to the citation above about the solar insurance – it is
          SOLON-Solar-Insurance_de.pdf at the Solarversicherung site

        • nad says:

          I looked a bit around for other solar assurances , the magazine Ökotest had just a comparision, however also in the examples which seem to have a lot of coverage like this condor assurance I couldn’t find out like what happens in the case that you have a damage within guarantee time, but the company is insolvent (there is no coverage for guarantee time damages).

        • nad, the Ökotest link doesn’t work. Alas, insolvency precaution is something that just gets started with banks. Insurance might be taken care of in the next round of the universal growth-and-debt crisis. Who knows. (At least I’m looking forward to buy myself one or two solar panels to a fraction of the cost of hemp tarp, so I can dwell and work in a tipi with wireless Internets connection, back to a practically most superior carbon negative kitchen with open fire. Sweet progress of technology!)

  5. Giampiero Campa says:

    I am not sure, but it looks to me like wind power is a better alternative overall (even if only slightly), so on some level i wonder why we should direct investments to solar power when we could invest in wind power.

    Ok, diversification might be good, but still …

    • david tweed says:

      One thing is that both solar and wind are intermittent power sources, and one reason why it might be better to invest in a mix than just one is that in a given geographical area quite often the conditions giving “harvestable” wind (not too low or too high speeds) occur at different times to the conditions for effective solar generation.

  6. As far as quality semiconductor material goes, PV is really the pits. Yet I think many people are realizing that an efficiency of a few percent if you don’t require crystalline material and can deal with defects, is a good trade-off to all the cost and effort required to achieve a hypothetical efficiency of 30% or higher (and that is with multiple quantum wells to act as a multiplier).

    Look at the electrical characteristics of charged carriers in a typical amorphous solar cell, and you will see the definition of disordered transport.

    My mantra — disorder is the future, and stochastic analysis will rule. We will learn to rely on the predictability of the unpredictable, including solar, wind, and other entropic sources.

  7. david tweed says:

    It looks to me, as someone outside to the solar energy field, that comparisons with Moore’s law may be making a mistaken comparison. Without denigrating the important contributions of all the chip designers, physicists, process engineers, etc, who work on computer technology the dramatic revisions in design and technology only occur every 8-10 years (a shift to a new method of chip lithography, dramatically different chip layouts, etc) with the 18-24 month doubling happening roughly on schedule in-between just due to steady incremental improvements. In contrast, a lot of the “Moore-ish” improvements in solar technology appear to come from complete process revamps and new physical insights, so I that may limit such dramatic improvements long-term sustainability.

    • John Baez says:

      Good to see you around, David!

      You wrote:

      It looks to me, as someone outside to the solar energy field, that comparisons with Moore’s law may be making a mistaken comparison.

      I agree, but I hope we don’t let that distract us too much from more interesting questions. Here’s a guy who, unlike you, really went overboard:

      • William Tucker, Paul Krugman flunks Moore’s law, American Spectator, 15 November 2011.

      As far I can tell, the really interesting question about the price of solar and wind power is not whether it’ll keep dropping exponentially for a long time, but whether it’ll drop

      1) below a threshold that makes people decide to stop building fossil-fuel-burning power plants

      or even

      2) below a threshold that makes people start retiring fossil-fuel-burning power plants.

      Of course this threshold depends on a number of things, most notably the price of fossil fuels, and also maybe the intermittency of solar and wind.

      • Walter Blackstock says:

        I’m writing this in a room at 18 deg C. It’s an old-ish apartment build to British standards of 20 years ago (and without doubt inferior to German standards of that time). It’s single-glazed, faced with standard thickness plaster-board and heated solely by off-peak electricity. I think this is far from atypical in UK housing stock. While I could spend a lot of money relining the walls and triple-glazing, I would never recover the cost, so rational rather than altruistic behaviour, is to spend at least part of that money on cranking up the heat. I don’t like this (and don’t do it), but all other discussion is rather abstract.

        As always, I enjoy the threads, even those I don’t understand :)

        • John Baez says:

          It’s good to hear from you, Walter, and I’m glad you’re enjoying this blog. I can see that shivering in an 18°C building on a cloudy day might reduce your enthusiasm for discussions of solar power. Here in Singapore we are sweating and sweltering as always—except in the overly air-conditioned offices and stores.

  8. Here’s a study that’s pretty positive about solar trends:

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364032111003492

    I think with all the government support in trying to encourage this area, you get the strange effects of the wrong technology being pushed too hard, companies going out of business as the price drops from under them and so forth. But overall it is a good thing for the world, as we get to cheap solar more quickly than we otherwise would.

  9. P.F. Henshaw says:

    Well, other basic problems with solar are that 1) the decline of cost for solar is for a growing economy using growing amounts of fossil fuels, NOT for a steady state economy using renewable fuels and 2) the introduction of new energy sources has never replaced fossil fuels before, but only *added to them*, and the niche applications for solar that serve to release strained supplies of fossil fuels is what the industry is growing on.

    Both of those point to the completely missing discussion of how to unwind a fossil fuel economy. It isn’t discussed because it contradicts our main economic purpose of course, but also distracted from by the wildly popular faith-based solutions people come up with, like that making economies more efficient will cause their impacts to vanish.

    The simplest sort of study of the facts is that efficiency is what businesses use to grow, *expanding* production, not to shrink consumption. That’s the explanation that holds up for why the world statistics so clearly show improving economic efficiency is accompanied by ever faster increasing energy use.

    This is just one of dozens of places the popular discussion has been steered by social philosophy and adopted as environmental policy, with hardly a soul accepting the need to explain clear facts to the contrary. Social values, after all, are completely self-affirming, so it just seems silly to check whether social policy based on them would work or not.

    • John Baez says:

      I was wondering if it’s true—as some suggest—that the price of solar power is about to become cheaper than electricity made by burning fossil fuels. If this happened, maybe people would become willing to stop building new fossil-fuel-burning power plants—or even better, retire old ones. This sort of ‘phase transition’ could be an important thing.

      But it sounds like you’re suggesting that if solar power becomes cheaper than fossil fuel power, people will continue to burn fossil fuels at about the same rate, and just increase total energy use.

      I can see that making power cheaper will get people to use more power. But if solar power were a lot cheaper than fossil fuel power, why would I keep burning fossil fuels?

      • P.F. Henshaw says:

        Well, that might be true on the margins, but that thinking corrects the main error of failing to recognize that fuels go into an energy market. Most alternative energy discussions makes false assumptions caused by failing to remember that an economy allocates resources through markets.

        Providing alternative fuels will just “add to the mix”, and so both directly add to the environmental impacts of energy use (not reduce them) as well continue to energize an economy designed to generate ever growing demand for everything else too…. The the price of solar panels depends on the price of the fossil fuels to run the economy, so their cost curve is not purely technological.

        The solar panel cost curve also doesn’t include the operations costs for solar at all, of course, and as the technological share goes down the operations part is likely to come to dominate, with a rising cost trend as the prime niche markets for using solar are exhausted.

        In no case will renewables provide growing energy supply sufficient to satisfy ever growing demand for already strained critical resources of all other kinds. What we have is an irresolvable demand problem.

  10. John Baez says:

    Here are some more comments, from over on Google+:

    Heikki Arponen:

    Maybe the Chinese had just seriously overestimated the demand and are now adjusting…

    Bob Hannent:

    The cost of producing a product can’t drop infinitely, there are always materials, logistics and labour factors that fix the base price. The production of panels required significant investment and that isn’t going to be recouped any time soon. The Chinese government are known for providing unrealistically long term loans to fund the establishment of an industry so it might be that eventually solar gets cheap, but I doubt it. We still have to ship heavy and delicate panels long distances. PV is inherently inefficient and unreliable, so I don’t see how we can pin our future on it.

    Bob Hannent:

    Just as a side note: I actually think solar thermal is much under rated, work in Spain has shown you can even store the resultant energy for many hours in order to meet demand variations. Solar thermal can also be built easily by developing regions with just basic metal working tools and base materials.

    Ruobin Ran:

    Regarding your second note: yes, the right combination of photovoltaic and thermal solar energy is the question.
    However, I believe that, after a period of rethinking, the PV panels will get much cheaper.

    Here in China the “Solar Energy” Industry got a little on hold as they have overestimated the speed of for changes in energy politics in Europe. However, I know from many business talks here that the Chinese SE Industry is negotiating quite big deals with countries in Africa, South America and South-East Asia.

    I will take the momentum out of this post to renew my fact sheets and database, as my data (from stock analysis) are outdated.

    Greg Kuperberg:

    For once, you shouldn’t trust Paul Krugman. You shouldn’t trust ANY article that compares solar electricity favorably to coal without even mentioning wind power or nuclear power. Solar power has a long way to go to catch up with wind power, and wind power has a long way to go to catch up with nuclear power.

    I have to say that I was extremely disappointed in this article by Krugman. He wrote it without thinking like a sober economist. In his blog he defended it with references to other blogs. His sources were tendentious.

    I don’t remember exactly which publication I found particularly convincing regarding the costs of solar and wind electricity, but I remember that it came from this site:

    http://eetd.lbl.gov/ea/emp/re-pubs.html

    Meanwhile if you look at new installations of carbon-free electricity, hydroelectric power and nuclear power are doing the heavy lifting in China:

    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf17.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_industry_in_China

    Hank Campbell:

    “For once, you shouldn’t trust Paul Krugman.”

    For ONCE? Anything that might be remotely fashionable politically disqualifies Krugman. He’s the “Midnight Oil” of economics.

    If you’re not of an age to remember that wonderfully talented yet hopelessly cliched band, that is less funny. But no less true.

    Perry Metzger:

    “The cost of producing a product can’t drop infinitely, there are always materials, logistics and labour factors that fix the base price.” — true. However, in the present case:

    1) The most important material here is Silicon, which is something like 25% of the earth’s crust. The main cost of the materials here is energy, and even then, simple scale up lowers the energy needed, and cheaper and cheaper solar power would also lower the cost of that energy.

    2) Production can be largely automated, lowering cost.

    3) The main cost of the “logistics” is transport, and the main cost of transport is power, and the main effect of cheap solar is cheaper power.

    4) You’re also ignoring other factors. Simply reducing kerf losses in sawing cells from ingots, and reducing the thickness of cells, can have dramatic effects on cost. SunPower raised their cells’ efficiency substantially just by moving the electrodes to the back side.

    True, most of these effects are only visible over many years — but the problem of things like greenhouse gas emissions is also only visible over many years. Keep your time horizons to years and tens of years, not months and years, when discussing this stuff. Over the very long run, there is little reason the cost can’t drop until we hit a small factor over the price of raw materials, meaning a small factor over the price of silicon dioxide, which is as cheap as dirt because in much of the world it is what dirt is made of. As a practical matter, that means something like $5 to $10 a ton, which is pretty negligible. Even at $5,000-$10,000 a ton, solar cells would be astonishingly cheap. I wouldn’t worry about there being enough “room at the bottom” for the price of the raw materials.

    As for the noted situation in which production is being scaled back by many Chinese manufacturers: similar dramatic shifts happen regularly in semiconductor production, oil production, housing and many other industries. Right now there’s a worldwide recession — I’d look at what production looks like over five or ten years, not one or two years, as a model.

    Perry Metzger:

    Hank Campbell: I frequently disagree with Krugman’s columns (though not with his academic writing), but in this case I see no reason to think he’s wrong. One should not judge such things on an ad hominem basis in any case. All that matters are the facts, not who says them.

    Perry Metzger:

    (I base my own opinions here on the month I spent studying PV production at the behest of a friend who had an energy oriented VC fund. My beliefs about the situation five years ago or so, when I did the work, seem to have been largely borne out by what has happened since. If one is interested in a historical analog that I find instructive, look at what happened to the price of Aluminum from 1880 (when it cost as much as modern precious metals) to 1910 (by which time it cost quite little) to now (when it costs only a buck or two a kilo in spite of the vast amounts of energy needed for the production process).

    The main limiter in the production of PV cells is the production of monocrystalline electronic grade silicon. As with aluminum, the first steps in production involve fairly high energies, and on top of that one needs to do a nasty refining step in which the silicon is turned into silane or a silane analog, distilled and then turned back into highly pure silicon, and on top of that one has to grow single crystals of the stuff afterwards. You would think something this complicated couldn’t be made terribly efficient, but it can. Up to the point where you get to manufacturing in the many thousands of tons range, the larger you scale the process, the more you can lower the energy involved without any terribly deep technological change. Heck even just being able to use larger vessels with smaller surface area to volume ratios helps, and there are a lot of much subtler but equally (in the end) “boring” things you can do here. There are some parts of the purification stage, for example, that aren’t practical until you’re doing giant quantities.

    At the moment, we’re still producing orders of magnitude less EG Si than we will need for global deployment of PV as a major energy source — If I recall correctly (please don’t hold me to this) I calculated that we’d be needing something like 20M tons per year ultimately (same order of magnitude as worldwide aluminum production) versus a production a few years ago of on the order of thirty thousand tons. Over that sort of scaling, there is incredible amounts of cost that can be squeezed out.)

    Greg Kuperberg:

    Perry Metzger: From what you’ve said so far, it makes the impression that you don’t see any reason that Krugman is wrong simply because you haven’t considered any reason that he could be wrong. Just as I’ve seen many other people do, including Krugman, you recite a lot of standard praise for solar PV electricity without any very convincing comparison with any other way to make electricity.

    Yes, solar PV electricity has gotten cheaper over the years at a certain rate. So have other methods of electricity production. The fact remains that to date, the solar PV revolution has largely been fake. It has been fake in the sense that solar electricity is still much more expensive than the alternatives, and the only way to make it sound good is not to discuss the alternatives very much.

    In the United States, nuclear electricity remains the heavy mover of carbon-free electricity. Wind power has only begun to scratch the surface of the importance of nuclear power, and solar PV has only begun to scratch the surface of the importance of wind power. Solar electricity has worked best as an ostentatious method to make a very small impact on greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn’t make anyone very unhappy, largely because it has accomplished so little.

    Wind power has at least grown to the point to sometimes encounter the maddening perversion of environmentalism known as NIMBYism. The fact that solar hasn’t gotten there yet is telling.

    Perry Metzger:

    “Yes, solar PV electricity has gotten cheaper over the years at a certain rate. So have other methods of electricity production.” — no. Coal plant technology has remained essentially stagnant for many decades. Once you develop high enough temperature turbines to get close to the Carnot Cycle there are limits to how much more efficiency you can squeeze out. Coal and natural gas technologies are is now essentially mature, though high efficiency small scale natural gas systems are indeed new (and are the reason many large building complexes now do cogen).

    “The fact remains that to date, the solar PV revolution has largely been fake. It has been fake in the sense that solar electricity is still much more expensive than the alternatives,” — untrue. The manufacturing cost of PV is now sufficiently low that it is used in lots of places where people have their free choice of many ways to produce power. For example, people in third world countries quite freely choose solar power systems over small generators and have for several years.

    I suspect you simply haven’t studied this problem enough. Don’t assume you know more than you do. Study it on your own.

    Daniel Haggard:

    There was a discussion about this on Science Friday on NPR the other week. From memory the discussion seemed a bit one sided – but not uninformative. Not sure if any good references were cited. But might be worth listening to.

    http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/201111182

    John Baez:

    Thanks, everyone! I’m just waking up here in Singapore, reading this nice discussion. Just one small remark on a side point. Greg wrote:

    “Wind power has at least grown to the point to sometimes encounter the maddening perversion of environmentalism known as NIMBYism. The fact that solar hasn’t gotten there yet is telling.”

    Actually down in southern California there’s been a big battle over a proposed 392 megawatt solar thermal plant solar plant in the Mojave desert. A company in Oakland called BrightSource Energy got a $1.6-billion federal loan guarantee to build this plant, but there’s been a lot of opposition by an environmental group called Western Watersheds. In April 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management halted part of this project after an assessment found that construction on a 5-square-mile parcel of land would require that 160 endangered desert tortoises be moved… and 600 others would die anyway. The company claims that only 38 would be disturbed.

    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/greenspace/2011/04/desert-tortoise-ivanpah-brightsource-solar-energy-san-bernardino.html

    The governor of California, Jerry Brown, signed a law earlier this year mandating the state get 33 percent of its energy from alternative sources by 2020, including solar energy. So, in July he filed a brief backing BrightSource Energy:

    http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/jul2011/2011-07-22-091.html

    I don’t know much about what’s really going on. For example, I don’t know how much NIMBYism is lurking behind the opposition to this project. I don’t know who is factually correct about the tortoises. I don’t if there’s any 5-square-mile patch of land that you can built a solar power plant on without causing some problems. I also don’t know the current state of play in this battle.

    Greg Kuperberg:

    John Baez: Good point, almost. Solar thermal is cheaper than solar PV and it’s a different case. The unfortunate political syndrome is not even PV in and of itself, it’s specifically PV on rooftops. PV on a roof cannot be in anyone’s backyard, so it can never (or almost never) run afoul of NIMBYism. It is even more expensive than utility-scale solar PV, and ultimately it is eco-jewelry.

    Peter Krautzberger:

    Just thought I’d throw in Berlin’s Solar Atlas. It shows some of the untapped potential of PV (it’s in German, but it’s color coded in the obvious “sunny” way). Of course, the German government recently reduced the financial support for citizen investments…

    http://www.wirtschaftsatlas.berlin.de/mapguide/Apps/Solar/Public/index.jsp.

    EDIT: just found an English page describing the project:

    http://www.businesslocationcenter.de/en/3d-model-of-berlin/the-project/project-examples/solar-atlas

    Perry Metzger:

    There are a bunch of huge area PV projects going in in Europe and the US that have certainly suffered from NIMBY problems. Citations on request. More to the point, the bulk of solar installations are on individual rooftops, not in giant generating facilities, and NIMBYism there in the form of zoning and community boards getting angry about the “unsightly” panels has been growing too.

    Greg Kuperberg:

    I guess that it was a mistake for me to suggest that NIMBY reactions are any sort of litmus test of success. The real point — part of the real point — is that there is a lot more wind power than solar PV power in almost every country that has both, certainly including the United States. And another part of the point is that wind power in the US is itself tiny compared to nuclear power.

    Linas Vepstas:

    1) China has crazy political ways of (mis-)allocating investment; there’s immense amounts of pork-barrel. Don’t know about PV, but it’s certainly plausible that they’ve over-invested in it. I believe it was one of their targets deemed important for the future.

    2) I’ve watched PV prices drop over the last decade. Seems to drop about 50 cents/year/watt or so, and its now about $4-6/watt installed. I think that ballpark around $1-3/Watt installed it matches typical urban utility rates. The cost of PV panels themselves is maybe 50% of the total cost. (When I say “installed”, this also includes all converters, meters, wiring; amortization over some 10-15 years, insurance for hail damage, etc) So, yeah, it can’t be long before PV becomes very competitive. And China is not the only supplier of PV panels…

    • Martin Rubey says:

      Greg wrote that “the unfortunate political syndrome is solar PV on rooftops”. I would like to understand what would be wrong with solar PV on rooftops – so far I thought it’s a great thing when well done (although given the amount of gas I need for warm water, I also think that thermal solar is the thing to do first).

      Namely, wouldn’t it be possible (not now, but at some point) that households produce almost all energy they need? I know that it is already possible to build such houses from scratch (although at high cost) in Austria. (in german: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plusenergiehaus) I guess the problem is what to do with all the old houses…

      • John Baez says:

        Over on Google+, Greg Kuperberg wrote something that may serve as answer to your question:

        Yes, if you live in the US, then under certain conditions you can break even or better by installing solar electricity on your roof. But that doesn’t mean that the country breaks even, because the subsidies for this activity are enormous. The subsidies are in an approximate political equilibrium to keep home solar electricity almost popular. If it gets too popular, then the subsidies have to be reduced, because the government doesn’t want to pay these subsidies too often.

        Germany, Spain, and the US are all on the same path: The subsidy-induced solar mirage.

        • Martin Rubey says:

          Thanks for pointing that out. However, I don’t quite buy that argument: as far as I know, almost all power production is currently subsidised in one way or another. (E.g., at least in Europe nuclear is heavily subsidised, since production does not need to pay insurance for accidents and, more importantly, does not pay waste storage, at least as far as I know.)

          One possible form of subsidies is to borrow (or steal) well-being from our children. Wood-farmers (sorry, I am a non native English speaker, so I don’t know the right term) know this well: the high-value trees they plant now are not for themselves but for their kids – at least here in Austria. If they plant faster growing trees, they cut on the income of their kids.

          One possible take home moral from that story is: don’t take more than what you deserve. If we cannot produce energy in a sustainable way, we have to use less.

          On the other hand, doing so will possibly diminish progress. So I think one should be very carefully deciding which subsidies one wants to use and which rather not.

        • John Baez says:

          I can’t speak for Greg Kuperberg, but I think his full argument might go something like this.

          The world burns about 8 billion tonnes of fossil fuels a year. To stop global warming, we’d need to burn almost none, since carbon dioxide goes away very slowly. To significantly slow global warming, we’d to cut the rate of burning by a significant fraction.

          So far, a negligible amount of our total power usage is solar power:

          As of 2009, photovoltaic solar power generated 21 gigawatts of power.

          • This is a very small fraction of the roughly 4,500 gigawatts total global electric power from all sources in 2009.

          • Electric power is in turn just roughly 1/3 of the total world power usage: a lot more fossil fuels are burnt in transportation, heating buildings, etcetera. In 2010, the world power usage was 15,000 gigawatts.

          I’m sorry that the years don’t match—it’s annoyingly hard to quickly get the data I want! But anyway: photovoltaic solar power is now roughly 0.15% of total world power usage.

          So, for photovoltaic solar power to really help slow global warming, we need to use about 50-200 times as much.

          Given this, one has to ask if putting solar power on some rooftops in small wealthy nations is really a good strategy. Maybe it’s just a way to make people like you feel better—and keep you from noticing how far we are from taking serious action!

          And if people only install solar panels when they get significant subsidies, it’s possible that the use of solar power won’t grow by the factor of 50-200 that’s required for it to really help slow global warming.

        • P.F. Henshaw says:

          You’re all still overlooking the need to change how the financial system works, so it allocates investment funds to projects creating profits in the future rather than ever greater liabilities that are unaccounted for. There’s simply no money ever going to be available for these technology fixes if you don’t do that.

          I’ve written about the basics of what is necessary to achieve that. Basically it’s to have a combined business balance sheet, showing the real cost of societal liabilities for using outmoded technology and the like. Only accounting for them will put the real costs to the commons of scraping the bottom of the barrel for exploiting the riches of the earth will get noticed… That’s part of the “environmental dashboard” needed [http://synapse9.com/blog/2011/01/31/dashboard-options-measures-of-saving-the-earth-to-boost-the-economy/]

          It’s so obvious this needs to be done, but honestly, no one is really doing it yet. Otherwise investors and business people won’t know how to make constructive choices. Otherwise the social decision to “do the right thing” is nothing more than a vague gesture containing no real information on how to steer the economy into the future.

  11. John Baez says:

    Here’s some more discussion from Google+. I wish all this conversation were happening here, but people there don’t always want to come here, so this is the best I can do!

    John Baez:

    So, naively extrapolating from what +Linas Vepstas just said, and temporarily assuming that he’s correct, photovoltaic solar power needs to drop about $3/watt to become competitive with fossil-fuel-based electric power, and it’s dropping about $0.5 per year, so it should become competitive in about 6 years.

    Does anyone care to improve/correct/demolish that estimate?

    This is somewhat orthogonal to Greg’s point that solar panels on houses are silly, except for people who live off the grid or don’t have reliable power companies. I take it for granted that in most places in Europe and America, power companies will continue to provide electric power more cheaply than most of us can do it ourselves. So, I’m mainly talking about large photovoltaic solar power farms.

    It’s also somewhat orthogonal to the fact that nuclear, wind and hydro provide a lot more power, or that it may well be wiser to focus on them.

    Right now I’m just asking if and when photovoltaic solar power will become competitive with electric power made by burning fossil fuels.

    I’d also be happy to hear your answers for thermal solar power.

    Greg Kuperberg:

    It’s neither correct nor likely for the price of any form of electricity generation to drop linearly over time. Solar PV modules have fallen in price by 6% per year over the past 30 years.

    http://www.aaronfyke.com/2009/07/solar-grid-parity-calculation.html

    However,

    (1) Because of installation and maintenance costs, the total price of solar electricity has fallen more slowly.

    (2) The price of coal electricity has also fallen over the same period. Both coal mining and coal incineration have gotten more efficient with new technology.

    (3) Part of the exponential price drop is explained by economy of scale from an exponential expansion in production. That component of the price decrease is not sustainable forever.

    Finally, while it certainly is silly to expect rooftop solar PV to be the electricity revolution, it isn’t really irrelevant, because it’s also a main reason that solar PV is politically popular. Seeing is believing, both when you see the PV panels on roofs and when you see electricity meters winding backwards.

    John Baez:

    Greg Kuperberg wrote: “Part of the exponential price drop is explained by economy of scale from an exponential expansion in production. That component of the price decrease is not sustainable forever.”

    True, and it’s even more obvious that we can’t sustain a linearly decreasing price forever. But I’m really not interested in “forever”. I’m really interested in 1) whether and 2) when solar electric power might become cheaper than, say, electricity from coal.

    Unsurprisingly, one can read radically different estimates from people who aren’t blatantly insane.

    Here’s a quote from a guy named Andreas Späth:

    “It might come as somewhat of a surprise then that the day when electricity generated by harnessing the energy of the sun will cost less than electricity produced by burning coal isn’t far off at all.

    The cost of solar power has dropped exponentially for three decades and the trend continues unabated. According to the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the price of photovoltaic (PV) electricity (excluding installation) has plummeted from $22 per Watt in 1980 to just $3 today. In Germany, solar PV output has increased by 76% since 2010 while equipment prices have dropped by 50% since 2006. This year alone, the cost of conventional solar panels has fallen by over 20% internationally.

    Michael Liebreich, the CEO of London-based research company Bloomberg New Energy Finance notes that “the most powerful driver in our industry is the relentless reduction of cost”. Some commentators have suggested that solar power will reach price parity with coal by 2020, a mere nine years from now, but their estimates are turning out to be rather conservative:

    • In May, General Electric’s global research director, Mark M Little, suggested that his company’s thin-film PV technology would deliver cheaper electricity than fossil fuels or nuclear plants within three to five years.

    • In June, the world’s largest thin-film solar panel manufacturer, Arizona-based First Solar, announced that they expect to be supplying power utilities in California at cheaper-than-coal prices in 2014.

    • In August, a report by a think tank linked to the Chinese government projected that solar power would be as cheap as or cheaper than coal by 2015. China is set to double its solar electricity generating capacity to 2 Gigawatts by the end of this year, up from 900 Megawatts at the end of 2010.

    • This month, a study published by the European Photovoltaic Industry Association suggested that parts of Europe could see cost parity between solar energy and the cheapest fossil fuels as early as 2013.

    • For many poor, remote and rural areas in developing countries, locally produced solar power is already cheaper than electricity generated at large, centralised coal-fired plants.”

    http://www.news24.com/Columnists/AndreasSpath/Solar-power-cheaper-than-coal-20110914

    This company claims it can already make solar power cheaper than coal:

    http://www.celsias.com/article/nanosolars-breakthrough-technology-solar-now-cheap/

    For all I know it’s just wild hype.

    This article more modestly says that in India, solar power can already beat electric power from diesel generators:

    “Solairedirect, France’s second largest solar power company, made a game-changing bid to supply solar power to India’s national power grid at Rs7.49 (US$0.14) per unit (kWh). This rate is now better than the average cost of power generated by diesel generators, which is about Rs 13 (US$0.25) per unit. ”

    http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2011/12/solar-power-becomes-cheaper-than-diesel-in-india

    I could also dig up lots of quotes from people who say solar will never be competitive.

    Greg Kuperberg:

    The main issue is whether or when solar electricity can overtake other forms of electricity production in developed countries, rather than in places like India. The LBL linked that I showed you has reviews of levelized costs in the United States, and my overall impression is that in roughly 20 years solar electricity — might — become price-competitive. But I say that largely because the future is hard to predict. For any of these technologies, there is a curve of price vs scale of production. Obviously you expect the price to go down with increasing scale, but along what curve? My general impression is that the price-scale curve of solar electricity is not particularly favorable, at least not yet.

    Not too surprisingly, China can intervene in the price-scale curve of any technology. It can set up huge production with relatively cheap labor. However, in the case of solar electricity, it may have created an unsustainable market glut.

    The fact that India has a dysfunctional electric grid plays to the strengths of solar electricity. Diesel and gasoline are much more expensive than coal, and a local diesel generator in India has less economy of scale than a centralized power plant. Really these diesel generators are a desperate step.

    Perry Metzger:

    “Does anyone care to improve/correct/demolish that estimate?” — there’s another important aspect here you need to keep in mind. As the price falls, fossil fuel prices will not stay stagnant — they will drop because the suppliers want to remain in business and will need to remain price competitive with the new cheaper alternative. At the same time, when the price becomes competitive, demand will grow fast, outstripping supply, and keeping the price near the price of fossil fuels (if it was lower, “everyone” would buy) until supply catches up enough and manufacturing costs fall enough that fossil fuels just can’t compete at all any more.

    That will add a bunch of years onto the transition time. You don’t scale an industry by three orders of magnitude in a year — it takes a while for that sort of thing to happen — and competing products will not stand still during the transition. (I am already preparing to hear naysayers explain, when fossil fuels “unexpectedly” fall in price, that solar simply can’t win — until of course it does, “overnight”, and then most of the naysayers will claim this is how they believed it would happen in the first place.)

    My own calculation, which was not terribly precise given that precision in these things is impossible (it depends on predicting future technological trends!), was that we’d see manufacturing costs drop enough for price crossover for small generator systems very close to now (this seems to have in fact happened), and for “normal” usage in first world countries by 2016-2018 or so, but that it might not be until the early 2020s before manufacturing capacity overshoots demand. However, believing any such calculation is foolish, as I said. Don’t bet money on any particular timing calculation — if P != NP, we clearly can’t figure these things out with any real accuracy in advance, and I doubt any of us would bet that P = NP.

    Speaking of betting money, capacity will inevitably overshoot demand, as it always does in such booms, because humans just aren’t capable of predicting demand well enough (which would again require solving NP complete problems). Since we’ll doubtless overshoot, there will also doubtless be a couple of years where the stock price for suppliers collapses and everyone wrings their hands saying that the industry can’t possibly survive and that the whole thing was stupid. (These will be the same analysts who will, during the exponential phase, publish earnings forecasts for suppliers that assume that the human race will eventually pave the entire planet 15 times over with panels.) (Remember the way some assumed that people would buy pet food from specialized companies over the internet? Remember how everyone then said that clearly no one would buy anything over the internet? Both sides were, of course, crazy.)

    On the question of installation costs, wiring, storage systems, etc., most of those have significant economies of scale to be wrung out. Right now every installation is handled on a semi-custom basis — imagine how expensive indoor heating and plumbing systems would be if that were the case. (In fact, you don’t have to imagine — the stuff was unaffordable for some time after it was invented until mass standardization hit.) This will inevitably change. I don’t know whether rooftop systems or large desert “field” installs will ultimately prove more competitive (I suspect it will be a combo, depending on where you are and how expensive grid losses and the grid itself are), but roof installs will benefit from less custom work, more off the shelf components and competition in the installation world. The field installs will ultimately benefit greatly from large scale automation — not just for installation but also for maintenance, like the very necessary job of cleaning the panels at intervals.

    BTW, speaking of “field” installs, there are all sorts of interesting unused spaces that might get PV panels at some point. For example, parking lots might get solar shed roofs. Even roadways could conceivably get such things. There’s an awful lot of asphalt out there which doesn’t require continuous sun exposure during the day…

    Allan Stewart:

    some of the untruths of solar
    the hotter the panels get above 25 degrees less power is generated;
    the panels should be mounted at least 100mm off roofs for cooling.
    there is a newer panel out now much thinner but have not been out long enough to be proved to last 25 years.
    some panels from china are very good and some not so good. please do your research before buying.

    Bob Hannent:

    The statement was that the reduction is currently 0.5c per W per year, but I wonder, because half of the cost is currently not related to the panels can all aspects (especially labour) reduce in value as modelled? With the price of copper remaining stable, the strength of currencies in different markets I would suspect that six years is optimistic.

    Linas Vepstas:

    Bob Hannent: the $0.50/year was a very very rough estimate made from memory; some of the other posted urls in other comments provide more accurate graphs of price trends. Supply/demand curves are non-linear, as dropping costs increase demand and prices. Residential solar-rooftop costs are very different than large-scale systems. Urban utility prices vary widely. Picking different amortization rates: 5-10-15-20 years changes everything. There’s a huge variation in cost due to these factors, which are big enough to allow both optimists and pessimists to be correct. My impression, though, is if you are frugal, live in a southern city with expensive electricity, and install it yourself, you can break even or better. Especially if you are dumping $300 or $600/month into air-conditioning bills in the summer, solar PV starts looking very very interesting.

    p.s. no one has yet mentioned the elementary-school kid whose science-fair project showed that if you place solar panels at angles like leaves on a tree, you can raise avg. power output by 10% 15% as compared to laying them flat!

    Greg Kuperberg:

    Yes, if you live in the US, then under certain conditions you can break even or better by installing solar electricity on your roof. But that doesn’t mean that the country breaks even, because the subsidies for this activity are enormous. The subsidies are in an approximate political equilibrium to keep home solar electricity almost popular. If it gets too popular, then the subsidies have to be reduced, because the government doesn’t want to pay these subsidies too often.

    Germany, Spain, and the US are all on the same path: The subsidy-induced solar mirage.

    Bob Hannent:

    The UK has just halved the subsidy for domestic FIT.

    Greg Kuperberg:

    Yes, the UK feed-in tariff for solar electricity was lowered from £0.433 per kilowatt hour to about half that.

    http://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/Generate-your-own-energy/Financial-incentives/UK-Government-proposed-changes-to-solar-PV-Feed-in-Tariffs

    Compare that to the US production tax credit for wind electricity: $0.022 per kilowatt hour.

    http://dsireusa.org/incentives/incentive.cfm?Incentive_Code=US13F

    The production tax credit for wind power makes a lot of sense as an implied carbon tax. Coal emits about 1 kilogram of CO2 per kilowatt hour. So the American production tax credit is equivalent to $22 per tonne of CO2. This is a defensible and in fact low rate of carbon taxation. The arrangement isn’t entirely fair to natural gas or nuclear, but it’s roughly correct.

    My dream would be a production tax credit for all forms of electricity production in proportion to how much less CO2 they produce per kilowatt-hour than coal does. The tax credits could indirectly be funded for with higher rates for electricity — this way politicians could avoid the sin of tax increases and instead tout tax credits.

    Typical feed-in tariffs and construction subsidies for solar, on the other hand, are equivalent to sky-high carbon taxes. They serve to keep solar PV electricity marketable in the face of crushing competition from all other forms of electricity production.

  12. Martin Rubey says:

    (I’m slightly confused on where I can put my reply: the comment I want to reply to doesn’t have a reply button :-()

    Re rooftop panels: I am well aware that current photovoltaic production is not all that impressive. What I’m trying to say is: I would have thought that “going local” what concerns household energy production is a good thing. This includes at least electricity, warm water, heating.

    As far as I know, part of the problem in central Europe (restricting to that because I don’t know other places well enough) is that some houses are built in the most stupid way possible: far off any public transport, with lot’s of “nice looking” turrets and other gadgets that actually cost energy, etc.

    However, if it becomes possible to become energy self-sufficient, one could hope that it becomes also politically possible to strip subsidies for energy.

    This has actually happened: since it became possible to build houses that use only little energy, subsidies for construction have been restricted more and more to such houses. (I’m not sure whether subsidies for construction exist in other parts of the world, and for my taste the restriction doesn’t go far enough. Eg., it doesn’t take into consideration yet whether there is public transport nearby…)

    I am quite sure that the effect is not restricted to “small wealthy nations”, because developing countries often copy what wealthy nations did.

    I hurry to add that your numbers are quite convincing what concerns industry. But I don’t think that any single strategy will suffice. In the end, we will probably need to both improve technology and change our way of living.

  13. nad says:

    John Baez wrote:

    Given this, one has to ask if putting solar power on some rooftops in small wealthy nations is really a good strategy. Maybe it’s just a way to make people like you feel better—and keep you from noticing how far we are from taking serious action!

    Its at least a step.

    John Baez wrote:

    And if people only install solar panels when they get significant subsidies, it’s possible that the use of solar power won’t grow by the factor of 50-200 that’s required for it to really help slow global warming.

    It seems there is actually something lets say “misunderstood” about the german “subsidies”. According to the german Wikipedia table “Leistungsabhängige Fördersätze in ct/kWh” the money you get for generated electricity via photovoltaics is for 2012 for a typical family house 23,23 cent/kWh, in 2013 it will be only 21,14 cent/kWh or even lower than that. However the price/kWh for renewable energy electricity for example from the big electricity company Vattenfall is currently 22,18 Cent/kWh (the boni and the base tariff are approximately canceling out in generic cases) it will be 23,85 Cent/kWh next year. This means that the electricity companies can sell solar electricity for more than a home solar electricity producer is paid for. This is how the subsidies in Germany go.

  14. Hybrid Moiety says:

    Solar technology will keep advancing, but solar is an intermittent source. That will prevent solar from becoming the bulk carrier of electrical generation.

    If you have carbon free electrical generation covering the base load, then you still have to ramp it up to the level to cover for cloudy no wind weather. Why not always be generating at that level?

    And it is a slam-dunk to use Molten Salt Reactors for the base load, if it were available !

  15. Frits Smeets says:

    There’s this thing I can’t get out of my mind. The real problem with solar energy isn’t technological, I’m confident engineers can & will take care of that. Nor is it a matter of finance, although I agree with P.F. Henshaw’s point about reform of the financial system, i.e. allocation of investment funds on the basis of real cost calculation.
    The problem is that solar energy is the ultimate threat to (geo)political entanglement of interests. Let’s face it: since the breakdown of the Berlin Wall international politics is not about territory, it is not about ideology, it is mainly about securing fossil energy supplies. Solar energy is the sword that threatens to cut the knot. Again, I don’t doubt that engineers and financial project-managers can take of their bussiness – if we let them.

    • Frits, It’s very true that changing ideological systems takes more than having a practical reason to do so.

      It’s not just the “vested interests”, it’s all the kinds of systemic integration of systems to work as a whole, making them more resistant to change than the popular “single value theories” might suggest. John Sterman of MIT has looked at the great effort it takes to build models that will expose those “hidden infrastructures” of systems that develop by growth. My work is often about discovering the hidden barriers to change, and understanding why they seem so easy to grow and unexpectedly hard to change.

      Tonight’s news was about the storm damage to overhead power lines. It seems to never pay to put them underground if they started above, so much other stuff has to be moved. It’s the same for technologies, that become uniquely integrated as they grow, as people fit in new things to complement what was already there. The starting points of growth (as a process of accumulative design) generally need to be part of any future. You see that in diverse examples to how evolution never loses its origin to how the roads around Boston are generally just expansions of old cow paths and wagon trails.

      For solar one of the problems is fueling, that where electric cars get recharged won’t correspond to where people get other kinds of services for their cars. The distribution of gas stations was based on getting full service at a quick stop. Electric recharge will be for only one service, leaving the car for a long time… and so incompatible with the geometry of car service habits without a other kinds of change too.

      Ideological rigidity of that kind develops too. How professional and social languages generally adapt to fit their environment produces history dependence. Local language often becomes integrated with social roles and “frozen in place” as a “silo” of thinking, and a mental fixation for the social networks involved. How “sustainability” developed as a social movement around increasing resource supply rather than reducing demand, extends supplies by accelerating actual depletion, is a kind of trap that frozen thinking in a changing world produces.

      I’d love to know it there’s an actual literature on the subject. The problem is also discussed as “systems inertia” or as “scar tissue”, neither of which gets at the real source of the natural resistance to change for things that are already built. It’s that changing things that are already built means reorganizing them too. I discovered that as a pivotal insight as I started my work in the 70’s, and that it conflicted in a big way with growing the economy by changing resources and technologies ever faster as a way to solve resource depletion by substituting new ones all the time.

      So, I agree with you, that various kinds of “geo-political entanglement” will create stubborn resistance to converting to solar. Organizational rigidity is also a natural property of all things that develop by growth. I first noticed it affecting my work on passive solar in the 70’s, which has been economical in many ways all along but mostly never adopted. To make good use of passive solar you need to adopt a “solar ideology” of a sort, and become attuned to the variations in weather as a way to live. “That’s just not how people think”, is what I ran into.

      • Frits Smeets says:

        P.F. we’re talking about natural resistance to change things that are already built. For one thing, we must not forget that we got were we are through our policies – and policy is the only way out. There’s no way around it. So try this as an execise. Changing from fossile to solar implies the relocation of the bigoilwar taxdollar, for starters. Which means transforming the military-industrial complex into something else. For obvious reasons that’s not going to happen unless people get lured into it. And the only way is ‘show, not tell.’ Now imagine a mayor or senator who wants to start a pilot project and asks your advice for the trip. I don’t know what your advice would be but you’d better take account of five epistemological rules of thumb:
        – goal-oriented design is rigid, means-oriented design is plastic.
        – energy demand (question) is quantitative, supply (answer) is qualitative.
        – quantity is a product of measurement, numbers is counting.
        – you never know what rule operates to explain any open series of numbers. New facts change rules.
        – maximisation of the value of any variable equals shortcuts equals loss of flexibility.

        I guess any mayor or senator gutfeels that the risk of rigid design is its sudden death. What he probably doesn’t know is that the risk of flexible design is its possibility of new pathology. There’s no easy way out of fossile energy and no easy way into the sun, yet it has to be done and since we’re consciously trying we’d better be prepared for mistakes during the process. The way to be right is to accept the possibilty to be wrong. That’s as far as my imagination gets and why I end up with the above rules of thumb.

        • OK, One also might apply your own principles to the starting definition of the problem as “solar transition”, and find perhaps that it’s actually a rigid goal-directed idea, and not sufficiently plastic to fit the real world of complex circumstances it needs to grow in. If the rigidity of the idea is part of why it’s hard to apply, the barriers it’s confronting in the rigid social structures of the old system also seem impossible to change too. So… it might help… to back off a bit and think about the big picture of where rigidity in design generally comes from.

          I think it’s generally from extending a flexible design to its natural point of inflexibility. Developmental change is inherently about adding successive changes to “things that are already built”. For example, once you start a building as a single family home, it’s hard to convert it to becoming a multiple dwelling, even if the market changed and you’d like to. That’s what organizational rigidity is, a limit to what you can do with the foundations first built.

          So “solar transition” may have begun with the very versatile idea of “love the earth”, but then was developed to fit a BAU growth model. It also seems an idea of simply swapping solar for existing energy systems like bubbles on a flow chart, but actually to have become a rigid strategy before finding a means of application. The existing economy wasn’t built on that energy source foundation, though. Maybe that’s why it just doesn’t quite fit.

          Growth as a natural process is the accumulative design of an emerging new way to use energy. It invariably starts without great applications, but slowly finding applications for its unproven seed of new organization. When successful it then becomes an explosion of applications of what then seems like a quite reliable “great old idea”, but that also distracts us from the tentative ideas it really came from, and what the successful strategy’s real natural limits are. The first principle is that “accumulative design extends a fundamental design”. Then the natural limits of rigidity for the fundamental design are what emerge when development stops finding new things it can do, and can only be expanded by improving efficiency. I think it’s important to consider that general case when considering any particular case.

          So, the “mayor or senator gutfeels” they are facing a wicked problem. They’re feeling tempted to either throw their up their hands in frustration or do something drastic and dangerous…. That circumstance is often accompanied by finding, if they look around, the one kind of rigidity they’re focusing on is part of a whole network of other rigidities. So removing the one, even if possible, would not foster change or alter the larger system’s natural organizational limits. It would just waste money, energy and social capital on efforts that would be ineffective, dangerous or truly self-defeating.

          Nature’s ways of solving that kind of extreme re-design dilemma don’t include getting rid of one thing to replace it with another. Systems don’t have “interchangeable parts” like a bubble diagram does or a machine. That’s like a tempting “bridge to nowhere” approach, a lot of people DO seem to think of as their only choice, though. To avoid the high hazard of that kind of poor choice, to try a “death and regrowth” strategy, redesign would need to proceed by atrophy of one thing as some more versatile and satisfying thing takes root, using the profits of the thing being allowed to atrophy as a “cash cow” of sorts.

          That approach avoids treating “what to do” as a political choice, turning it into an investment allocation choice to stop investing dead end strategies. It then lets the investment markets find something better to do. With great regularity “problem solvers” have done the opposite, though, struggling to find new ways to invest in keeping pushing the old systems toward their point of maximum efficiency, and rigidity.

          Perhaps a smooth transition to solar, or something else arising organically, might have occurred already if our rigid thinking had allowed it to. For many decades now, we’ve been investing in increasing our rigid dependence on faster resource depletion to fulfill our rigid commitment to maximizing profit growth for those with the most profits, and things like that. We should have let the economy coast, to look for new ways to put down roots, allocated the investment resource for looking around for better things to do.

        • Frits Smeets says:

          Well, there’s a difference between a goal and a target. It’s the difference between football and basketball. Goals are larger than the player, targets are smaller. Let’s assume that our goal is transition from fossile to solair energy. And for practical, Azimuth-like reasons Iet’s concentrate on the logical steps necessary for such transition to be feasable:

          1) handling numbers. Numbers are beautifull because they are fast. They are good because they calculate precisely what we tell them to calculate. But, alas, they are not true. Any experienced piano tuner wrestling with the Pythagoras Comma will tell you so. And so did Gödel. So we have some elbow room – and so has our adversary.
          2) differentiating between numbers and quantity. Numbers are the product of counting, quantities are the product of measurement. We can have exactly three tomatoes but we can never have exactly three gallons of water. Numbers are relational, pattern-like, a matter of digital computation. Quantity is analogic, probalistic, a matter of (non)consensus. Few senators realise this so you’d better realise it yourself.
          3) cherry picking from the mess-to-be measured. In other words, the quantity of precisely what shall we measure & count: terawatts? barrels of oil? miles? workinghours? taxdollars? Wallstreet index? the happiness curve? life expectation of (grand)children? climate prediction? Ah, lots of elbow room, so be prepared.
          4) incentive imagination. In the U.S imagination is ruled by the myth of the pioneer. So don’t tell your senator why it’s a mess in the East, tell him to go the proverbial West.

          To sum it up in terms of problem solving:
          – appeal to sentiments (see 4)
          – pick the types of quantities you’d best address to your public at hand (see 3)
          – stand your ground for the types of quantity but never rake in their numbers (see 2)
          – don’t forget that numbers tell a lot but show nothing (see 1)

  16. Well, you seem to be taking off in a new direction, not where we started with identifying natural world barriers to the “logical course” of our adapting to how we changed the earth.

    We were beginning to discuss what kinds of responses are possible or impossible, better or worse. Now you seem to be looking for what kind of theory to use. I think the kind of theory to use is to identify the natural world barriers and what to do about them.

    As for using math, I don’t see the critical difference as between “measuring” and “counting” but more on “what you’re measuring” and “what you’re counting”. Do your numbers correspond to anything’s working parts, or are they just “statistics”. My scientific method focuses on finding answerable questions to ask, in the hopes of avoiding the calculation of precise results for questions that may not really mean much.

    Following that approach I recently published a paper called “Systems Energy Assessment (SEA)” for how to count up the fuel uses required for operating businesses. The finding is really strange. It’s that because economists have been only counting up the energy purchases recorded on slips of paper that business accountants keep on file, they miss counting on the order of 80% of the energy uses that businesses purchase from outsourced services, businesses need to operate.

    So, the problem then, is what better way is there to define what energy uses to count, when the real problem for the accountant is that they ran out of information to categorize? Somehow we need to estimate the total energy demand of running a business in the real world, to understand the real energy problem we face, closer than +/- 500%.

    • Frits Smeets says:

      Well, I don’t feel it’s a different direction. I first gave some rules of thumb on how to deal with barriers to the transform from fossil to solar. Next I paid attention to some logical steps to avoid traps in designing a transform ‘program,’ one of the steps being to differentiate between numbers and quantities. I looked at your article and saw that what you sure did is differentiating between the two. It’s a good example of 2) and 3) of my last posting. Fine piece of work, seems to me. I hasten to add that I’m nothing of an energy expert. I’m a philosopher interested in epistemology, especially in the concept of epistemological ‘first steps’ pioneered by Gregory Bateson. F.S.

  17. Frits, Great! I’ve learned a lot from philosophy, but started looking at how both philosophers and scientists think of reality as built in their minds, and so a source of error. If the common currency of intellectual discussion is “looking for the better model”, I think it means we’re studying models, and not “exploring reality” in fact.

    There does seem to be a real world, but it’s also confusing that “what we see is not what we’re looking at”. What we see in our minds is physically our own mental environment. That’s only a personal version of a social construct for our personal experience of the world. That’s not reality, and even hard to distinguish from a complete dream world.

    I think that’s physically where the “six blind men and the elephant” dilemma comes from. We all have a strong tendency to think of consciousness as being the world everyone else lives in. It may be a “nice world” but the reality is only we ourselves live in the world of our own imaginations. In so many demonstrable ways consciousness is a world we construct for ourselves.

    So, for learning how to “do math” to help us with the real world we’d need some way to distinguish features of the real world from others we create by our own thoughts. That’s tricky… because so very much of what we think about is our own fictions. The curious thing I found with SEA is how very common it is for people to theorize that the world is whatever makes sense of their information. That completely overlooks the profound gaps in our information caused by the self-managing systems of the natural world. Because they are internally organized, they just don’t expose to us how they work.

    So, to counter that I looked for ways to help identify elements of nature independent of my thoughts. One is finding the bursts of new relationships that coincide with growth processes. That particular continuity of regular positive proportional change (i.e. explosions), exposes “persistent heterogeneity” in individual local processes that theory can’t explain at all. To me those seem to exist as realities outside our theory. It sure stumps the physicists and economists anyway! ;-)

    So, that’s where I started using a general “two reality model” (sort of like Robt. Rosen does) as a step toward sorting out which human social realities are self-serving constructs misleading us about the real planet…

    • Frits Smeets says:

      O.k. Allow me to point out two epistemological knots in your posting where it says near the end “So, to counter that, I looked for ways to help identify elements of nature independent of my thoughts.”

      The first knot is that it is impossible to identify anything independent of your thoughts. The reason is that any identification is an act of plotting perceived differences onto some map. There’s no way around the difference between map and territory – not for bees, not for monkeys, not for human researchers. No map ever covers the territory and all territories mess around outside maps.

      The second knot is more complicated. Please note that your intention is to counter something, meaning that you intend to create an alternative map. The interesting thing with a map is its triple epistemological functionality: it offers me a certain description of a territory, it more or less persuades me to accept what I read, and it instructs me (un)succesfully to follow the interests of the mapmaker.

      Now, the bottom line is that you don’t trust the energy map you’re presented with because it doesn’t plot the differences in the territory you do perceive and find important. So you design your own map with the intention “to counter” the other. I’m afraid that’s where you’re likely to go astray. What you should keep in mind is that, for travellers (your average mayor or senator), maps are not related in terms of pro/contra. For them maps are related in terms of differences in descriptive relevance, persuasive potential and instructive power. The only way to transform from fossil to solar is getting travellers to buy the new map.

  18. Well, that’s semantics for you! It leaves traps for our tendency to not consider the multiple interpretations of the words available. I do acknowledge that all my meanings of things are in my mind, whatever name I might give them. It’s the things of nature that I have no way to define in my mind, except by “pointing” to something else, that I find opens my “maps” to a real world “independent of my mind”.

    Pointing seems to be the normal use of words for referring to things by name we have no way to know how to define. Referring to them, like saying “is that a rose” or “pass the plate”, gives us a point of takeoff for exploring or interacting with complex subjects, needing only a simple definition for pointing to them.

    That seems imprinted in the evolutionary design of language, too. Looking at root meanings of words they seem to fall into categories, in my view, with all the old ones mostly meaning “like”. “Like what?” is the question that seems answered by “undefinable things observed that people wanted to refer to” and found words a good way “pointing” to those otherwise undefined subjects.

    What confirms to me that directing our thoughts to “things not of our thought” is happening is the reliability of my being able to then explore their features and find out valuable things I simply never could have imagined about them.

    Seeing an apple produces a meaning in my mind using the metabolic energy of my body, some of which may have come from eating apples. Apples can, though, be found to have been produced by a tree, using energy direct from the sun not having gone through my body, for example. That the tree may have been planted there because I like eating apples doesn’t seem to mean the same thing as “I created the apple in my mind”, so a separate question.

    So what in means to have words that point to things of nature, that exist independent of our minds, is that we get a “map” of the world just chock full of holes. Those holes are where we can usefully and reliably mine information for our maps that fit “other realities”. Another value of having “maps” full of holes, that “point to” things we can locate but not define, is it lets an observer separate the two aspects of reality in their own maps. It also allows two observers to confirm they are each discussing their independent explorations of *a corresponding hole* in their own maps. The method of pointing that creates the “hole in the map” itself, can be defined and communicated.

    Without all that I guess it’s natural for you to think what I said was presenting a contest between a popular map and one of my own invention. It’s the explorability of the holes in one, and lack of similar explorability for the other, that is the difference I think makes more of a difference.

    • Frits Smeets says:

      No, it’s definitely not semantics for me, so I didn’t read that remark : )
      What I do read is that you concentrate on the map-territory relationship, whereas I concentrate on what a map does in terms of epistemology. Interesting difference.

      Let me sneak up from another angle. In discussing the map-territory relationship you use the phrase ‘pointing to.’ That is a very mistifying way of putting things, and I’m not talking semantics. Maps point to nothing, what they do is suggesting. They are metaphors. To be precise: a map transforms, by way of some code, classified differences of a certain logical type into another logical type of classified differences. High/low in the love affair gets transformed into eyes opened/eyes closed in the poem; High/Low in the hills gets transformed into red/blue on the sitemap; High/Low in oil pipe pressure gets transformed into +/- in statistical flow charts; High/Low in expected energy demand gets transformed into a up/down of the Wall street index. Metaphor rules.

      If I understand you correctly, you use a map as a heuristical tool for spotting uncovered territory, ‘holes,’ in a in order to get them explored. That is an elegant & efficient way to travel and I have no problem with that method whatsoever. What I want to get across from an epistemelogical point of view is the idea that maps have the triple funtion of metaphor: they describe, persuade, and instruct. In short, they are a beautifull mess. The beauty of it is obvious. A mess, because a map can & will be used by travellers having intentions completely different from the motives of the maker. That’s why I jumped in on this blog: to remind that the transformation from fossile to solar follows the rules of metaphor. Hope it helps.

  19. Well, even highly articulate people tend to make assumptions that create insolvable problems for communicating, I find more and more it seems (1). I’m not exactly talking about the meanings of “the map-territory relationship”. It’s not that I’m not interested in that, but initially more interested in how a map is grounded, and ways to discover whether it is connected to ANY territory. You might also think of that as a question of how to “tether the map” to the territory.

    The important part seems to directly conflict with the physicist’s usual notion of “phase space”. So I need to find devices to bring up that part without being dismissed before getting to discuss them. It’s the quite interesting vast gaps in our information for any natural system we can readily observe from the outside, but is evidently organized and operated from the inside.

    Those critical large gaps in our information are what I refer to as “holes” in what is observable to us. They are then naturally reflected in any information map. So far they seem to be completely missing from the normal concept of phase space, however. It makes an enormous difference for understanding why so much of nature doesn’t behave like equations.

    So, I’m interested in finding a way to discuss those odd holes (or “voids”) in our “maps” of definable relationships. They seem to be filled with identifiable natural structures from “another reality”, that we can readily locate and are what give original meaning to the maps we make, but still remain holes in our information we can’t define. So some version of “pointing” seems needed.

    For example, if I say in conversation at your home “your daughter looks ill”, where would you look to discover what I’m talking about? Would you look around the room to see if she is there, and at her face to see if she looks ill, perhaps? Or would you look up the words in a dictionary in hopes that will tell you what they mean, or would you maybe look to your own feelings about her and me, and try to guess why I would intrude in personal matters I know nothing about? So it’s a question of how the map tells you where to “point” your attention.

    I’m commenting here a bit like you, I guess. My interest is to find anyone curious about how things like “the transformation from fossil to solar” needs to involve a natural world outside our definitions, a world of material relationships not contained or containable in theories or explanations, a “non-map” world that needs to be navigated not explained. So to add to your list of the map functions of interest “to describe, persuade, and instruct”, I’d also add “to question” and “to misrepresent”.

    “To question” refers to the need to go back and poke around in the voids in our information to find clues about what nature is doing in there. It can lead to new discoveries and help resolve contradictions or identify contradictions, as when exploring “promises too good to be true” that may appear in your map.

    “To misrepresent” refers to the need to have doubts about the patches your map making process naturally creates, made for covering over the cracks and voids in your information with useful fictions. They’re partly of interest for being able to turn your map into a kind of ungrounded fabric of magical thinking if you’re not quite careful.

    1)Did we turn “Big Media” into “Big Brother”?

    • Frits Smeets says:

      From my epistemological point view your approach to “a non-map world that needs to be navigated not explained” shows two ‘holes’. It skips the fact that you can’t navigate without some map. And it skips the fact that a map for transition from fossil to solar inevitably wil be a map of maps.

      In the business of scientific (re)search ‘map’ reads as ‘hypothesis.’ Hypotheses get tested, verified, falsified, corrected, etc. in cycles of ongoing research. It’s in the process of cycling and recycling where the functions of ‘questioning’ and ‘misrepresentation’ take place – not in the hypotheses.

  20. Well, the epistemology use does require adjustment. Reading a mental “map” of your own construction is a different exercise from being led by the responsiveness of things in your environment you can identify, but are unable to define, explain or predict. That is like reading a map you didn’t write, being drawn by something else.

    It’s like smiling at another person, you just don’t know what’s going to happen. Without what DOES happen, you often can’t know how to proceed from there. So, that’s not reading your own “map” but “navigating something else’s” that remains undefined as you are more or less groping along. That’s the switch that lets you out of assuming all the world is a subjective construct, the clear navigable evidence that you’re “not making this up” but being led by the constructs of something else.

    So, as I think Robert Rosen suggested, that leaves scientific methods a necessity of needing to use both those “map using” methods. One is making and using your own map and the other is finding and being led by the “?maps?” of others. As the two quite separate orientations, I think probably for semantic coordination they’re better termed as “two separate realities”.

  21. So, are you persuaded to accept that there seems to be a very distinctive “pattern of holes in phase space”?

    • Frits Smeets says:

      Since Shannon it is possible for us to separate information from meaning. Shannon defined information as the exclusion of uncertainty. Either it’s ‘yes’ or it’s ‘no.’ And that sure is a what science for a variety of reasons picked up. It’s called fundamental reductionism: approaching an organism by studying its parts in terms of structure (mechanics) and forget the context. In this strategy, science concentrates on plotting data onto maps that represent territory. And by consequence, organisms appear as a data plotting contact machines.

      People like Ludwig Berthalanffy, Robert Rosen, Gregory Bateson and more recently Carl Woese, Umberto Maturana & Francisco Varela reversed the strategy: approaching the info processing organism by studying it as being part of a whole. In this strategy, science concentrates on levels of interaction. By consequence organisms appear as communicaters.

      The reason I don’t like the hole-in-the-map concept is that it suggests that our theories ‘cover’ a territory. It is metaphor that reflects a militaristic, colonialistic, paternalistic self-image of the scientist. Kurt Vonnegut once said that we should be careful what we pretend because we become what we pretend. What I pretend my ‘map’ to do is not covering a territory but probing the territory’s meaning to me. If it turns out (as it always does) that the meaning is ambiguous or multi-leveled or two-fold, that is no reason to conclude that the territory is ambiguous or multi-leveled or two-fold. ” We ought to get the mapping right and separating reality in seperate parts is definitely is not the way to follow. Not even as a semantic coordination do I go along with the idea of “two seperate realities”. Seperate maps is ok, it implies seperate meanings. And that’s exactly where I jumped in: substituting solar for fossile equals one map another.

      Why is the sky blue when the sun is out? The first answer is that it is blue to us, not necessarily to night owls. The second answer is that it’s blue to us because our visual apparatus easily catches the ‘blue’ part of the sunlight spectrum being filtered through the air molecules surrounding us. The eyes of owls catch other parts of the spectrum. We know that the sky definitely looks different to them even if we don’t know (yet) the particilars. So it’s one sky with multiple meanings. One reality ready for multiple mapping.

  22. But, those are for information theory, i.e. for what is constructable from available definable observations.

    I’m pointing out a very large, verifiable, source of *missing information* How self-managing systems work (like you or me) is hidden inside their own self-referencing processes, and so not visible to the outside. That’s the usual case for the systems of nature that develop internal organization by growth. Outside observers not “in the loops” of their internalized behaviors are then consequently “out of the loop” in terms of being able to reconstruct them from observations, being naturally quite unaware and uninformed.

    Just think about how hard it is to know what’s going on in your daughter’s mind, or in your competitor’s research, or within another culture. Seriously.

    All an outside observer can deduce from their lack of information of what’s going on inside other things is just some stereotype crafted to patch over the hole in their information about how such self-managing systems actually work. We don’t know because there is no way to know, for entirely natural causes.

    • Frits Smeets says:

      Assuming that you’re right in concluding “We don’t know because there is no way to know,” there seems to be no point in you trying and we’d better accept the limits of knowledge.
      Refusing on the other hand, to accept that there is no way to know, the only strategy is to lay one down in walking. That is, by reshuffling/combining existing theories.
      – For example combining autopoiesis and Rosen’s M,R approach; Googling, one sees that results are not very fruitfull: it’s very abstract and experts find the maths quite right. Probably our host John Baez could help you on this one.
      – A more general approach is Complexity. a guided tour, Melanie Mitchell. Oxford University Press. Oxford 2009. Or: Unsimple truths. science, complexity, and policy, Sandra D. Mitchell. University of Chicago Press. Chicago 2009.
      – In the field of economics the concept of ‘natural experiment’ is being developed. Here, the guiding principle is to conceive of history as producing experiments; it is up to creative research to recognize and analyse them. See for instance Economic Gangsters – Corruption, Violence, and the Poverty of Nations, Raymond Fisman & Edward Miguel. Princeton University Press. Princeton 2008.

  23. Ah, well, the *way* you can know “there’s no way to know” is by looking at the edges of the evident holes in your information. There are lots of different kinds of observable limits to extending our information, of course. Pushing some kinds of edges yields more than others, though. That science took “a big leap” in assuming what we don’t know doesn’t matter is the problem. We end up treating just whatever information we’ve found how to collect as defining the universe, is the deeper problem. It’s really better to let the universe be self-defining, and our information be only what we know, right?

    As the QM physicists do it, reality for science is defined as its information, and whatever analysis follows. The question of whether any “other” reality is then brushed aside as not being a subject of science by semantic tautology. That’s where the Heisenberg uncertainty principle gets to be an implication that reality is uncertain, and not just our information about it, for example. It’s a wonderful fantasy that doesn’t detract from the analysis of the data we have, and so is also practically meaningless in that it applies to nothing else.

    So, taking the opposite approach, there are evidently lots of different kinds of limits to our information. Our distinct lack of information about the internal designs of the self-organizing and self-managing systems we interact with you’d expect to be MUCH more consequential. I’d quite agree with you that the other approaches to systems theory have proven “nice in theory” often, but rather feeble in their application. I think there’s a clear material cause, that they all attempt to specify systems everyone has names for… but no one has real information about.

    To me that exposes a mismatch between the method and the subject. You can’t represent things with models unless you have information to encode first. So, I go back to a more primitive technique. It starts with accepting I don’t have enough information to do “problem solving” and have to resort to a forensic use of information, for “problem finding” instead.

    Take the example of my Systems Energy Assessment (SEA) econometric method for measuring the energy use of businesses. It looks at businesses as a network of physical services working together, identified by being linked by *physical* causation, and finds a big “hole in our information” about their energy use. We only record the energy use information for the technology being used. None of the self-managing parts of a business report or even record how much energy they use to deliver their equally essential services.

    That leaves one to find a way to assign a more accurate estimate than zero, to the energy uses of the working parts of the business that leave no energy records. It turns out the overlooked energy uses are nominally four times the scale of the recorded ones, and to explain a *whole lot* about why the accounting of economists is so disconnected from physical reality!

    To study that you just have to allow the hypothesis that there IS a physical reality first, and one might potentially be missing information about it! Then you can test your ability to locate answerable questions about what might be hidden from view, and come to find some methods for doing that consistently successful.

    • Frits Smeets says:

      The last lines of your reply read: “… you just have to allow the hypothesis that there IS a physical reality first, and one might potentially be missing information about it! etc.”

      From my epistemological point of view, those lines hit the nail on the head of the problem I have with your approach: me ‘here’, unknown territory to-be-milked ‘out there.’ What you don’t seem to get is that you’re separating yourself from the reality you’re part of. Physical reality doesn’t come first. What DOES comes first is that you and I co-incide with what we think we look at and try to understand. That’s the only way to understand why, for example, the sky is blue. It’s the interplay between sunlight & oxigen & us.

      Your statement “reality first” implies the very same epistemological first step that your average scientist makes: here I am and out there is reality. It’s naive.
      The naivety shows in the name of your site. Have a close look at it. It’s called Reading Signals from Nature. That name could well have been the motto of the oracle of Delphy in ancient Greece or of the present Wall Steet Index. Their dynamics are the same: make believe you’re not part of the territory you’re watching and pretend to be collecting info from ‘out there.’ You @couldaknown bettter since nature turned up with Darwin and Cybernetics.

  24. Well, yes, I’m taking the view that to make sense of the large differences between thought and natural systems, we need to consider conscious reality as a natural system of thought, within a preceding physical reality. I don’t deny that there are big problems to solve. It’s easy enough to both observe and explain why what’s going on within other systems like our own minds, organized and animated from the inside, is inherently unknowable.

    That is only one if many big problems for the traditional view, that an observer can determine reality from their observations. We demonstrably can’t, but much of what we do observe originates from their hidden workings. What’s clear is that any explanation based on our observations will be leaving all that level of reality out, and makes even the most “objective” explanation highly subjective indeed. So, you see I arrive at the same caution you do, but based on what’s unknowable about physical phenomena.

    I just think it’s also highly subjective to think that natural systems don’t hide anything, to the point of making it plausible that consciousness must have come first. To me that sounds like an unsupported assumption, not a conclusion. It’s not being offered as a hypothesis, to see if it’s testable. Maybe that’s what I pushed myself to do years ago, in order to come up with this line of inquiry, just conceding that *maybe* my thoughts are not making up my brain.

    In testing it you’d only need to come up with an explanation for the range of quite complexly organized things that occur as physical phenomena, unavoidably independent of our reasoning. There’s the distinctive burst of neurological network activity of “having a thought” for example. There’s every function of our bodies, and all the other complexly self-organized systems of nature that have workings completely hidden from outside view. It makes it seem the natural view of consciousness is of there being two realities, where different explanatory principles apply. One is subjective consciousness, working as any person thinks, and the other is full of things working by themselves, independent of our thought.

    If not permitting the question to be tested on the evidence I think that might be considered more emotional reticence than a defense of principle. That would seem to rely on refusing to entertain any doubt about a major proposition. Once you do you find it’s a far less costly a question to ask than it might have first seemed. As soon as you emotionally permit it, your reasoning is them more swayed by the predominance of the evidence. You still have the freedom to go back and forth, and for particular questions to be associated with the world view with which it belongs, at one’s own pace.

    • Frits Smeets says:

      I’m not getting new input so I end our discussion with best wishes to you.

      • So, You’re saying nature just needs to be considered a projection of consciousness, or “epistemology” at least, and that idea needs to be treated as unquestionable?

        Why isn’t it a fair test to see what there is to learn from taking leads others have found to be highly useful, discovered while exploring the opposite assumption?

  25. Frits, It occurs to me, there is a solid proof of your position, making your view that there is no reality not produced by consciousness into a tautology. It’s that as long as you see me as a figment of your imagination anything you think about me will be a true reflection of your own consciousness. Kind of unavoidable…

    I’ve only been reversing that motive, and looking for what prevents me from closing the loop of self-attribution, rather than looking for what’ll persuade me it can’t be opened. There always seems to be interruptions in either.

  26. Arrow says:

    Spambots are already almost making sense! They will become sentient any moment now!

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