This book is broader in scope, and much more fun to read, than its title suggests. It's an expert-guided whirlwind tour of the solar industry as of the year 2023. It recounts some of the industry's history and puts solar into the context of the world's accelerating energy transition—playing its part alongside wind, nuclear, hydrogen, and batteries. The book also gives a fascinating glimpse into a fast-paced world of startup companies, fierce competition, and promotional hype, where accurate information is scarce and precious.

Author Jenny Chase has made a career of gathering and sharing accurate information about the solar industry. In 2006 she founded the solar analysis team at New Energy Finance, a startup company providing market research about renewable energy to corporate clients. The company was acquired by Bloomberg in 2009 and is now called BloombergNEF. If there's anyone who understands the solar industry better than Chase, I don't know who that would be.

Now is a good time to take stock of where the solar industry stands. For many decades, photovoltaic cells were a niche technology, useful on spacecraft and for low-power off-grid applications. But their cost has steadily dropped as production volumes have risen. The exponential growth that seemed so gradual for so long has reached a tipping point, suddenly making photovoltaics an affordable source of grid-scale electricity. Solar power now provides more than five percent of the world's electricity, and its share is growing by about a percentage point each year. In 2023 the world installed more than 400 GW of solar panels (as measured by their peak capacity).

In the book, Chase conveys the thrill of being in the middle of this revolution, even while staying sensibly grounded in reality. That's a remarkable accomplishment. It would be so easy to get caught up in the hype, extrapolating exponential growth curves without regard to the many challenges that solar power still faces, such as transmission bottlenecks, international trade disputes, and especially the intermittency of sunlight. It would be equally easy to become a cynical naysayer, predicting that the solar bubble will soon burst due to these challenges. If you're personally inclined toward either of these attitudes, you should definitely read this book.

The book is not a systematic elucidation of solar technologies. It is most certainly not a textbook. Its 25 short chapters are almost vignettes, giving us glimpses of the solar industry from a variety of angles. There's a chapter on failed solar companies, a chapter on trade wars, a chapter on solar thermal technologies, and a chapter on how to deal with intermittency. The quantitative data in the book's two dozen charts are more illustrative than comprehensive—and necessarily so, because any attempt to be comprehensive would be too dull to read, and/or thwarted by trade secrets, and/or out of date before the ink is dry.

But the book's real strength is not its facts or data but its delightful nuggets of wisdom. Here are some of my favorites:

  • “I started to dimly realise that not all people with green plans are entirely honest.”

  • “Generally, a solar module technology firm declaring it will focus on niche applications immediately precedes its failure.”

  • “As an analyst, you can achieve a remarkably high success rate with predictions just by being skeptical of the next big thing.”

  • “Without China, solar would still be a cottage industry, and some of the plans of other countries to have their own factories look rather cute in comparison.”

  • “Wind is more valuable than solar in countries away from the equator.”

  • “It's possible that managing daily fluctuations in power generation is not actually that complicated, we just need a load of batteries.”

  • “Carbon footprint calculation is a scientific and sometimes philosophical pain.”

  • “But if you take one thing away from this book, please let it be that dramatic scale-up of renewable energy is entirely possible and often easier than you might have expected.”

I hasten to add that all these pronouncements will carry more punch when you read them in context.

You can tell that this book was thrown together rather quickly. It has more than the usual share of typos and other minor errors. The beautifully drawn “Solar Power Policy Landscape” map is printed at such a small scale that you can barely read the whimsical annotations (and this alone may be enough reason to get the book in electronic form). More seriously, Chase criticizes David MacKay's 2008 book Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air in ways that are too superficial, suggesting that the main source of MacKay's pessimism about solar and wind was technical errors on his part, when it was actually his reluctance to believe that people would allow these technologies to cover large expanses of the countryside and ocean.

You won't find much physics in Chase's book, nor do you need to know much physics to read it. Only in one chapter might it be helpful to know a little about quantum thresholds and the mix of photon energies in sunlight. You do need to know the difference between a kilowatt and a kilowatt-hour, or at least you need the ability to grasp this distinction upon reading the very quick overview of units on p. 6. You also need to understand log-scale graphs and to be comfortable enough with numbers to hold several of them in your head at once and compare them to each other, in order to get the point.

This book, in other words, is not especially intended for physicists. Yet I strongly recommend it to physics teachers and, even more, to physics students. Chase was a physics student herself, at the University of Cambridge, before a summer internship lured her into the world this book describes. Several of the chapters are autobiographical, recounting lessons learned in transitioning from academia to a small startup company and then to a much larger company. Although it would be impossible to repeat her unique career trajectory, many young people will find her to be an inspiring role model.

So I recommend this book, first, to anyone interested in renewable energy and the energy transition. Second, I recommend it to science and engineering students who are contemplating any sort of career in the private technology sector. And third, I recommend it to anyone who works in a laboratory and might draw inspiration from the story of how a laboratory technology grew and grew and grew until it changed the world.

Daniel V. Schroeder is a professor of physics at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, where he teaches a general education course on energy.