Solar Energy - a Promethean project

There are a number of curious parallels between humanity's historic use of fire and the development of modern solar technologies.

Although estimates vary, the scientific consensus is that protohumans were controlling fire as early as 400,000 years ago (BP).

The archeological record indicates that hearths for heating and ovens for cooking were used with increasing regularity over subsequent centuries, as evolving primates developed more sophisticated methods for exploiting fire.

By 20,000 BP, kilns used to fire pottery and statues were commonplace, and by 10,000 BP, industrious homo sapiens - emboldened by successes with urbanization, animal domestication and agriculture - began smelting ores to extract valuable metals.

Although these breakthroughs happened over hundreds - if not thousands of years - their impact on humanity is impossible to overstate. The ability to control fire was the original technological breakthrough that made all other innovations possible, from cooking meat and regulating light in the environment, to space travel.

Solar energy production is one of the next great frontiers of human discovery. In an analogous way, the development of modern solar technology is a contemporary reiteration of early hominids learning to control fire half-a-million years ago.

In those times, naturally occurring fires in brush or woodlands - caused by lightning - would have been used on site by local primates for warmth, light or cooking. Its usage would have been based on circumstance.

Later, transported via a flammable medium - like a dry stick - the fire could have been taken back to a settlement and sustained using whatever fuels were at hand. Wood, brush and coal could allow the fire to burn indefinitely.

Finally, early hominids would have discovered combustion, allowing them to ignite fires for themselves.

Learning to start fires independently would have emancipated early humans from nature in unparallelled ways. In the collective memory of the species, fire and light - have, not surprisingly, become associated with the unique qualities that distinguish homo sapiens from other primates.

In its passive applications in architecture, agriculture, astronomy and weather prediction, knowledge of the sun and solar energy have been used for thousands of years. At this stage, humanity's exploitation of solar energy could be considered comparable to the early hominid use of naturally occurring fires.

Energy recovery in modern crystalline silicon devices have achieved about 25 percent efficiency, with theoretical limits reaching roughly 30 percent. These devices are the proverbial "sticks" early humans would have used to transfer fire to their settlements.

Lastly, a compelling argument can be made to demonstrate how the development of an economically viable and efficient solar conversion technology could be an achievement equaling the hominid ability to ignite a fire.

Control of fire was - and remains - a pivotal event in the evolution of the species. As one might surmise, in comparing its advent to the development of solar-based technologies, I suggest that the consequences for modern humanity would be similarly monumental.

The Kardashev scale measures technological development of advanced civilizations based primarily on energy output. Values in 2011 show humanity at 0.72 percent of Type I - as yet unable to harness energy on a planetary scale.

It's expected that humanity will transition to a Type I civilization sometime in the next several centuries and that solar energy will play a key part in that transformation.

Much as the ability to control fire invested early humanity with the power to dominate their immediate environment, so to will solar technologies figure in the eventual emergence of a planetary civilization capable of cultivating energy from terrestrial and extraterrestrial sources.

The ancient Greek myth of Prometheus tells how the mighty titan brought fire to primitive humans. Later accounts credit Prometheus with teaching humanity writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine and science - essentially alighting the intellect and self-reflexive consciousness of the race.

The quest to capture solar energy follows the same pattern as the quest to capture fire. In turn, both quests follow historic and archetypal sequencing that link them to the evolution of humanity itself.

By recognizing the connections between the two events, individuals, businesses and governments can better prepare themselves for the unprecedented societal transformation that is already underway and certain to continue over the coming decades.

After a millennium spent in darkness, it seems that homo sapiens are finally starting to see the light.

(2010)