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        by Chris Duffield  (1978)

Geothermal-technoecosystems logoMonograph, 151 pages, 233 refs.  Published in July, 1978 by the Office of Arid Lands Studies, The University of Arizona as Arid Lands Resource Information Paper No. 12.  151 pages.  Out of print. 

PDF of whole book

(Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)
Available from NTIS as PB-285129, for $39 paper copy, $12.50 microfiche; call 1-800-553-6847 or order at http://www.ntis.gov  
Copyright held by C. Duffield for non-governmental publication.

(The following chapter summaries were written in February 1995.)

In this book (which was also my doctoral dissertation), I applied technoecological insights developed in the first (geothermal) book to the case of solar energy technologies. Solar energy promises to be a long-term sustainable energy niche, which could act as the base for the entire global technoecosystem. The insights of technoecology can be useful for understanding different solar technologies and how they may evolve, interact, and become integrated into local and world technoecosystems.  
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Chapter Summaries 
    Original abstract
    1. Introduction
    2. Theoretical Framework
    3. Solar Energy Technoecosystems
    4. Solar Energy Technoecosystems in Deserts
    5. Conclusion

<Return to technoecology page>

Original abstract        <Return to chapter titles>

        Technoecology, the study of large complex industrial systems (technoecosystems) by analogy to biological ecosystems, is a new framework within which diverse solar technologies can be holistically comprehended and managed. Solar energy technoecosystems and sun-powered bioecosystems have many parallels at organismic and ecosystem levels. Evolution, succession, symbiosis, niches, competition, optical concentration, and other phenomena occur in both industrial and biological worlds.

        Solar collectors are analogous to plants in design, organization, and arid adaptations. Solar technologies for water processing (pumping, treatment, storage, conservation, desalination, evaporation) and use (solar energy collection, storage, and distribution; cooling; and heliohydroelectric and salinity gradient powerplants) are reviewed. Water scarcity makes large biomass systems (except those using desert plants, seawater irrigation, or greenhouses) impractical in arid lands. Complex symbiosis of solar and water technologies may be advantageous; technoecosystems in space are the ultimate extension of this. Large solar technoecosystems could counteract desertification and atmospheric CO2 increase.   Solar technologies are vital to future survival of arid oil countries; other developing countries need them now, at appropriate scale.

        Photovoltaic solar cells, analogous to chloroplasts, but water independent (ideal for deserts), could be the new base of technoecosystem trophic pyramid. Impending self-accelerating solar cell cost plummet, already begun, may drive complete global succession from fossil fuel to solar energy niche in the next few decades. Sudden arrival of technoecosystem strategies and effects at global scale signals the start of a new geological age, the Technozoic. Its continuation may depend on switch to solar energy.

1. Introduction         <Return to chapter titles>

A wave of rapid evolution of solar energy technologies is happening. At least it was in 1978. Technoecology can provide a holistic context and broad overview within which these technologies can be understood, and within which their further evolution & development can be predicted and assisted.

2. Theoretical Framework         <Return to chapter titles>

Ideas and terms of technoecology are reviewed. Technoecosystem evolution is an event comparable to biological evolution, only on a much faster time scale (centuries and decades, rather than millions of years). The bio-techno analogy is very good, arising out of similar origins and physical circumstances. Both types of systems undergo similar phenomena: convergent and divergent evolution, extinction, succession, etc. Technological inventions help us understand biology, and biological observations help us design new technology. By seeing our industrial systems as living ecosystems, we may be able to design and run them better.

In a cosmic perspective, shadow is as much a form of solar energy as sunlight is. It is energy contrast that runs systems. Light of sun and dark of space is the contrast that drives the oceans and the atmosphere. Properties of direct sunlight exploited by both biology and technology are: directionality, day-night differences, quantum energy of photons, and bulk heating ability.

Solar energy, in broadest perspective, includes all the energy flows and storages caused by sunlight: wind, falling water, waves, biomass, ocean temperature gradients, fossil fuels, fresh water, salt deposits, icebergs, and even low humidity. Solar energy cycles create almost all of the gentle physical environment within which we & technoecosystems exist.

Much as animals are classified ecologically by the food niche that they exploit, technoecosystems can be classified by the energy niche that they exploit. Each solar energy niche, whether it is solar thermal, photovoltaic, biomass, wind, or ocean thermal driven, will support a unique technoecosystem with its own whole set of technospecies and storage/transport/use technologies.

Throughout history, evolution and succession have driven our technoecosystem from one energy niche to the next. We can see hunting going out and agriculture coming in, as finite resources were depleted and new methods evolved. Wood burning was great until the forests were gone (at least in Europe), then we went to coal. Then we moved into oil and gas for technological and supply reasons. All these energy systems still coexist, though currently oil is king.

But we face the approaching exhaustion of oil resources, and the environmental disasters of prolonged coal use. So the fossil fuel niche appears to be closing, and a new global energy niche is needed. Geothermal and nuclear are limited by resource size and environmental damage. Solar appears to be the only viable standard long-term niche option. It comprises many diverse, stable energy niches, most relatively environmentally benign.

There are three ways to use solar. We can harvest the results of wild solar-powered natural systems (like fishing), control solar-powered natural systems and harvest them (like farming and hydropower), or collect solar energy directly.

Converting from fossil fuel niche to solar energy niche is a natural succession, returning us to a technoecosystem structure similar to what we had in the agricultural days before the industrial (mostly fossil fuel) revolution. We now have not only a much larger population of human beings, but we also have many high energy technoorganisms to support. So we need a larger "agriculture" to sustainably feed us & our machines. Biomass niche is too small to return to; we couldn't grow enough plants. Other naturally concentrated solar energy forms, while locally useful, are relatively small.

So it looks like directly harvesting diffuse solar energy forms like sunlight and wind is our only solar option large enough. Industrial "agriculture" on an unprecedented scale.

3. Solar Energy Technoecosystems         <Return to chapter titles>

This chapter uses the technoecological viewpoint to review solar energy technologies, and to predict their evolution, interactions, and consequences.

Solar energy technoecosystems must adapt to the same environmental conditions of sunlight, water, and atmosphere, that plants and animals did. So we can expect the human created and controlled systems to evolve similar structures and strategies. These may include large collector areas, energy storage systems (because of night and cloudy days), water storage and conservation, and a very large technomass. The new mechanical systems will use new materials and physical principles not available to biological systems, but they will function and be organized in ways analogous to biology. We will probably see a vast diversity of systems evolve, distributed worldwide according to local physical and geographical conditions, just like plants. They will interact and connect in ways reminiscent of biology.

We are talking about going from industrial hunting (oil) to industrial agriculture (solar) as technoecosystem base. The fuel-based system requires lightweight, mobile, relatively small technomass systems to hunt and exploit fuel resources. The solar-based system requires the addition of a whole new, and much larger industrial foundation, a vast new non-mobile technomass of solar energy collection and storage systems.

We currently have a predator-like energy base for our technoecosystem, exploiting the stored and fossilized residue of eons of plant growth in the past. But the future solar- based technoecosystem, while keeping many of the technoorganisms we have now, will replace this dependence on ancient solar collection with huge new systems to collect solar energy in real time, now. This large solar base will be like the huge plant biomass which supports a much smaller mass of animals.

Most technological solar energy innovations were invented first by nature, and are found in animals and plants.

Solar cells, whether photochemical or photoelectric, are the industrial analogue of chloroplasts. Both use quantum effects of light. And both comprise numerous small parts incorporated in much larger hierarchical collection systems (veins, leaves, plants, and meadows in biology, like solar modules, solar panels, and solar farms in technology).

Solar reflectors and lenses, used by mechanical systems to concentrate direct sunlight, are rare in biology. However, they are found in some mosses and other plants which grow in deep shade. Some cold-adapted flowers track the sun and reflect sunlight with their petals to warm the pollinating insects which bask in them!

Passive solar heating is used in buildings and by dogs. Active heat collectors are found on rooftops and in rabbit ears. Thermodynamic heat engines (heat pumps) are found in the natural flows of ocean currents and atmospheric storms.

Solar technologies choose sites and alter their behaviors according to sun and shade, day and night, and geography, just the way plants and animals do. Some very efficient cars and airplanes run on directly collected solar energy (like the protozoan Euglena). But most must store up (like eating) concentrated forms of energy such as electricity or hydrogen which have been gathered and stored by separate collection systems, the way cows run on green grass.

Solar energy technoecosystems will exhibit many phenomena observed in biological ecosystems. These include geographic zoning; hybrid energy forms; hierarchical energy cascading; symbiosis; formation, storage, transport, and distribution of concentrated fuels; vertical and horizontal spatial patterns; competition between solar energy technologies, and between them and other technologies; divergent and convergent evolution; niches; and succession. Small, decentralized solar technologies may outcompete large centralized ones.

Solar cells (and accompanying energy storage systems) may be the ideal replacement for fossil fuels. As their price falls, they increasingly outcompete fossil fuels, driving succession from the fossil energy niche to the solar niche. Just as men, having killed off the large animals of the Americas, were forced to develop agricultural systems, we are being forced to develop solar energy technoecosystems to replace the high quality fuel resources which are going extinct. The development of cheap solar cells and storage would also be analogous to nature's invention of the chloroplast. As the chloroplast made possible the growth and evolution of green plants, totally transforming the biosphere, so might cheap solar cells transform the global technoecosystem.

The solar energy niche does have its limits. The best areas for sunlight collection are limited. Materials to make collection, storage, and distribution systems are limited. And each solar technology has its own adverse environmental effects, whether from mining, pollution during manufacture, or degradation of natural biologic, oceanic, or atmospheric systems. Let's learn from the past, and enter this new niche carefully, humbly, and gratefully.

4. Solar Energy Technoecosystems in Deserts         <Return to chapter titles>

Much as plants, animals, and ecosystems are adapted to the special conditions of deserts, so can we expect solar energy technoecosystems to adapt to aridity. Some local special conditions which are likely to influence solar technoecosystems are: blowing dust and sand, few clouds (more direct light encourages reflectors), fog in coastal deserts, high temperatures during the day and rapid cooling at night, low humidity, scarce or salty water, and high winds.

The main characteristic common to deserts is the scarcity of water. Solar energy technoecosystems may adapt to aridity by collecting, storing, pumping, evaporating, desalting, and reducing use of water. Special solar technologies used or proposed for use in deserts include importing polar icebergs, running hydroelectric powerplants which empty into evaporation lakes, salinity gradient power generation, evaporation of water in powerplant cooling towers, and of course irrigated field or greenhouse agriculture. These and other technologies may integrate into large, complex technoecosystems adapted to local conditions, and influenced by history.

Solar cells are ideal for large and small solar energy systems in arid lands, because they require no water.

Arid oil-producing developing countries (mainly in the Middle East) are importing whole high-energy technoecosystems from the more industrialized countries. They might design and manage them better if they understood technoecology. Once their oil runs out, they may not have the resources to build a new energy base from scratch. So best to do it right, in the present, helping prepare the way for advanced solar energy systems of the future.

Arid oil-poor developing countries could use and develop small-scale decentralized solar technologies as an often cheaper alternative to oil-based technologies. Even small amounts of added energy from solar sources will go a long way for the people in these countries, and will buffer them from long-term fuel shortages if and when the oil niche collapses.

Outer space is the largest desert. Present and planned systems of rockets, space stations, and colonies on Mars are nothing but technoecosystems composed of technoorganisms, all adapted to strange new environments. Although the forms might appear to be new, the basic underlying principles of organization would be the same as in bioecosystems and technoecosystems here on this planet. There would be evolution and succession, regional distribution varying with local resources and conditions, niches, limits, and environmental effects. Different world, but same story.

5. Conclusion         <Return to chapter titles>

Technoecological overview can help alert us to upcoming industrial changes, and help us bring them about faster and more comfortably.

Cheap solar cells (and associated storage and distribution systems, like hydrogen) could completely replace fossil fuels, by providing a sustainable base to the global technoecosystem's energy pyramid. To maintain a U.S. level lifestyle requires about 10 kilowatts of high quality energy per person. At a solar cell cost of 10 to 30 cents per watt, it would only take $4,500 to $14,000 per person to provide this much power (ignoring distribution and maintenance costs) from solar cells which might last for 20 or 30 years. At this cost, it would only take about three to ten years of world GNP to supply everyone in the world with full U.S. level power. (This is a rough 1978 estimate to stimulate thought.) Clearly, development of cheap solar cells should be a top priority. And it would be if oil companies weren't running the current energy system. The choice and the consequences are ours. Switching the technoecosystem to a solar energy niche is likely to change the way politicians, economists, businessmen, and other technoecosystem managers think. Rather than seeking short-term profits and unlimited growth, they may learn to seek long-term sustainability. And they will need to always keep environmental effects and niche limits in mind.

From the technoecological perspective, life on Earth is entering a new geological age, in which machines and the ecosystems they form are the next level of biology's evolution, engulfing it. This geological transition is comparable to revolutions in the evolution of life which took place over millions of years. But this technological revolution is happening a hundred thousand times faster, on an accelerating time scale of decades.

I suggest we name this dawning geological era after the technoorganisms or "industrial animals" which characterize it (airplanes, cars, tractors, etc.). We should thus call it the "Technozoic" era. I'm thinking about titling a new book about technoecology: "Waking Up in the Technozoic".

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