One of my pet peeves in conversations about cleantech is what I think of as the “still photo of an object in rapid motion” discussion. The still photo’s usually some sliver of data – the current percentage of the world’s power provided by renewables, today’s sticker price on an electric car, something like that – which is then used by Very Serious People as irrefutable evidence of absolute limits. Never mind the rate of change in those numbers, the abundant evidence that cleantech functions under some of the same tranformative, paradigm-busting forces that revolutionized telecommunications over the last quarter century – no, never mind all that. This stuff’s marginal now, a statistical irrelevancy, and that’s all it will ever be. 

Here’s a trusty old example from Germany, the world’s leading cleantech economy. In the early 1990s, when Germany first started flirting with large-scale renewable energy development, the German Nuclear Forum asserted baldly that renewable energy would never produce more than one percent of the country’s power. Never. Case closed. Just the other day, solar power was generating half of the entire country’s electricity all by itself, and there will be no more nuclear power on Germany’s grid at all by 2022. 

Unexpected results like this are always good to keep in mind when we talk about our future energy needs – particularly future energy demand, which is by default assumed to follow basically the same fast-expanding wasteful trajectory that it did for most of the 20th century. And then you stumble on some bit of news, and do a quick Google search for other info in that sector, and you realize that most of the world’s still working under the false certainties of the German Nuclear Forum, so to speak.

For example, you see a headline like this one from Wired: “Ultra-efficient LED puts out more power than is pumped in.” Which would of course seem to defy the laws of physics, which (if you’re me, anyway) then makes you very curious about just how many chapters in the LED development story you’ve missed while you were arguing about the long-term prospects for German solar.

The Wired story acknowledges the seeming miraculousness of the breakthrough – the LED light, it observes, exists in “a category normally occupied by perpetual motion machines” – before explaining that it works its miracle by using the electricity provided to it with staggering efficiency and by absorbing latent heat energy in the air around it. The amazing LED, which operates at 230-percent efficiency overall and is being developed by physicists at MIT, is still very much at the lab-experiment stage, but Wired suggests it could one day be used to improve the efficiency of electronic devices.

Larger point, to my mind, being that we’ve only begun to discover the potential in this stuff. If you and I had been reading that old German Nuclear Forum prediction about renewables by incandescent light 20 years ago, the prospect of ubiquitous LED light would’ve seemed even more distant than a German grid drawing half its juice from solar panels. As we pondered just how much nuclear power we’d need a generation or two hence, it would’ve been impossible to account for a world in which buildings were lit by something exponentially more efficient than the standard light bulb.

But here we are in 2012 – lit, increasingly, by the bridging technology of compact fluorescents. LED light, meanwhile, is expected to expand its share of the general lighting market worldwide from 7 to 70 percent by 2020, according to a McKinsey & Company report. General Electric is ready to introduce an LED replacement for the standard household light bulb, which requires almost 80 percent less power to provide the same illumination. By decade’s end, LEDs will be the most common light source. And it’s a veritable certainty that there are further breakthroughs in efficiency and application that we can’t even imagine yet.

Which is why, as I said, I find those conversations about that still photo some Very Serious Person just took – look, LEDs are just seven percent of the market! – so frustrating. (And let’s not even mention the nearsightedness common to House Republicans, who continue to fight hard to protect the inefficiencies of the soon-to-be-obsolete incandescent bulb.)

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