Jon Markman

SuperModels6/5/2008 12:01 AM ET

It's solar power's time to shine

Soaring oil and gas prices have finally persuaded US industry and government to get serious about renewable energy -- and solar thermal energy looks particularly promising.

By Jon Markman

The dirty little secret of the energy biz these days is that exploration executives don't want to see $130 oil, $12 natural gas or $4 gasoline any more than we do. For they fear two words that strike terror into the hearts of oilmen everywhere: demand destruction.

Nobody really knows where the tipping point of energy prices is -- that last straw on the camel's back that makes ordinary citizens and business planners decide enough's enough and, en masse, stop using so much -- but it sure seems close. From where I stand in Seattle, it's already here.

It's that moment when a soccer mom decides not to drive across the state in her Chevrolet Tahoe for a youth tournament, letting her daughter carpool with teammates. That moment when a father in Tucson decides to just keep the home windows open in 95-degree heat instead of turning on the air conditioner. That moment when a regional food-products salesman decides to call his customers on the phone, rather than spend $200 on gas to visit them in person.

It's almost as if you can hear the balance tip, conversation by conversation. And once long-held habits begin to change, the effects can be like a dam burst: shocking, widespread and long-lasting. On the consumer side, we can just look at the report out of General Motors (GM, news, msgs) on Tuesday that shows sales of its macho, gas-guzzling trucks were down 37.5% in May compared with a year ago. Now that is what I call demand destruction.

Our Saudi Arabia of sunshine

And yet it's the business side of the ledger that is far more important, as industry uses an order of magnitude more energy than the public. It may have taken a quintupling of oil prices in five years to ring the alarm bells, but the nation's industrial giants and their lackeys in government have finally decided to get serious about renewable energy and not just talk about it in PR campaigns.

Nothing typifies the renewed focus on renewable-energy sources more than solar energy, as authentic, large projects are just now getting under way in California, Nevada and Texas. This makes sense, as the U.S. Southwest is our Saudi Arabia of sunshine -- meaning it has the greatest need for cooling as well as the best stretches of open desert land for collecting, concentrating and distributing rays.

The rap on solar energy has always been that big arrays of photovoltaic cells are too expensive, too hard to maintain and produce a stream of energy that is too variable with the sunlight for intense industrial exploitation and can't be easily stored for use on rainy days. And in many ways, the photovoltaic story is still a challenging one because of a confounding worldwide shortage of the specialized chips that make it work.

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Solar Power © Russell Illig/Photodisc Green/Getty Images
Sun power is rising
Has solar energy finally become an affordable -- even profitable -- alternative-energy source?

But the real focus these days is on a much more low-profile and, let's face it, duller application: solar thermal energy, or STE if you'd prefer the hip shorthand version. You can forget all the fancy electronics and hippie jokes with solar thermal. Stripped to its core functionality, all that STE producers do is reflect sunshine off a mirror to boil a pressurized liquid that turns into bursts of steam that turn a turbine.

Continued: California government mandates

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