For more than a generation, solar power was a environmentalist fantasy, an expensive and impractical artifact from the Jimmy Carter era. That was true right up until the moment it wasn't. Solar silicon prices dropped 94 percent from early 2008 to the end of 2011. Crystalline silicon has since fallen an additional 47 percent, to $15.20 a kilogram.
Many were caught off guard by the emergence of solar as a competitive power source. The scientist who led Exxon's research arm back in the 1980s wasn't one of them.
Peter Eisenberger, now an environmental science professor at Columbia's Earth Institute, co-authored an internal report for Exxon projecting that solar wouldn't become viable until 2012 or 2013. The report, written before he left the company in 1989, suggested that Exxon would do best to sell its solar assets; not surprisingly, the company did just that. What is surprising is that Exxon's 25-year-old solar projections nailed the timing for the arrival of affordable solar power.
Eisenberger left for academia and in 2010 co-founded a alternative-energy company, Global Thermostat, at which he now serves as chief technology officer. The company works to reduce the cost of capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide and rendering it useful for synthetic fuels and materials. "Almost all the people that are involved in founding this company—and in helping me get going—were from Exxon," Eisenberger said. "Every one of them. They're the only people who didn't think I was nuts."
Exxon and the other large international oil companies are also working on the commercial capturing of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and understandably so. Unless it can be effectively and cheaply removed and used profitably for something else, oil and other fossil fuels will increasingly be regarded as pariahs.Back to top