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Ahearn describes 'energy revolution' at alumni luncheon

February 09, 2009

Just as mainframe computers no longer are part of the future of information technology, so are fossil-fueled power plants becoming less vital to tomorrow's energy production, a solar-energy visionary told a College of Law audience Feb. 3.

Michael Ahearn, chief executive officer and chairman of First Solar, was the guest speaker at the 2009 Alumni Luncheon of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. Ahearn, a 1982 graduate of the college, leads the Tempe-based developer of technologies aimed at reducing the costs of solar energy and making it a sustainable alternative to conventional energy sources.

"When it comes to the world's energy infrastructure, we are reaching a point of no return where it becomes inevitable that there will be a change, and it will be very dramatic," he said. "The forces that drive this will pick up momentum and speed."

Ahearn's innovative approaches to solving problems as critical as global warming and the world's reliance on non-renewable energy are models that the College of Law wants to incorporate into its education of future lawyers, said Paul Schiff Berman, the college's dean.

"His extraordinary commitment and the intelligence he brings to thinking long into the future, what's going to happen to our society and our world is really inspiring to watch," Berman said in his introduction of Ahearn. "We are pursuing a comprehensive law and sustainability program at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law to provide a focal point for research and policy analysis on these issues."

Among Ahearn's predictions: fossil fuels will be replaced by renewable energy sources, primarily solar and wind, and augmented by new storage technology such as fuel cells. Gas, diesel and natural gas will be replaced by electricity, and homes and automobiles of the future will be designed to reduce greenhouse gases. Consumers will charge their own vehicles, generate their own power, sell the excess to other consumers, and be compensated for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Ahearn said.

"You will be able to become your own sophisticated energy traffic cop," he said.

Ahearn said his predictions are based on a growing global consensus that the planet is warming, and that radical changes in policies and actions are needed to prevent catastrophe from skyrocketing greenhouse gases.

"By 2050, the world will have to operate at 80 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than existed in 1990," he said. "Think of what that will require: we need a revolutionary energy system fully implemented by all industrialized countries to have a shot at it.

"And for industrialized countries that are not fossil-fuel rich – the United States, Europe, China and Japan – it's a matter of national security to become independent of the fossil-fuel rich countries."

The technology to do so is beginning to take off, Ahearn said, noting wind power costs have dropped 80 percent in the past two decades, and progress in solar development are even more dramatic. In 2005, First Solar produced panels generating 20 megawatts of power, but its capacity this year will be 1,000 megawatts, he said. At the same time, solar costs have dropped from $3 per watt to $1 per watt.

"We are seeing the confluence of technology, capital and entrepreneurship descend on clean technology," Ahearn said.

Much of this progress is taking place in Germany, which has spurred interest in electric cars by levying an environmental tax on gas, revenue from which has been used to subsidize governmental social security. The country's goal is that nearly half of all energy used will come from renewable sources by 2020, he said.

The U.S. is further behind, but now "probably has a political champion" in the Obama administration for policy change, said Ahearn, suggesting the federal government should  promote the flow of green energy projects by offering subsidies and tax credits, and lead an effort to plan, design and build a national transmission system for renewable energy.

"And Arizona is an ideal place to capture a big part of this as the big picture unfolds," he said.

Janie Magruder,
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law