Humans are the "only creatures who take energy from inside the planet," Earth Day co-founder Denis Hayes said Tuesday.
The other creatures use the sun, added Hayes, who believes that the need to reduce greenhouse gases linked to climate change will make solar power the dominant energy source during the next 50 years.
"We have so much sunshine hitting the earth," said Hayes. "It's a matter of harnessing it and, most importantly, storing it."
Hayes addressed solar energy and how Buffalo might position itself to take advantage of what he predicts will be a quickening transition away from fossil fuels in several talks presented by the University at Buffalo.
Although Buffalo, with its cloudy winters, may not seem like an ideal place to bank on solar energy, Hayes said its climate is similar to two countries that are considered to be at the forefront of solar energy development -- Japan and Germany.
Developments in solar energy technology are continuing to drive down the costs of the photovoltaic panels that collect and transform sunlight into electricity, he said.
"For the past 30 years, every time we doubled our production [of panels], the cost has gone down 20 percent," he said.
Currently, Hayes said, the cost of making the panels is about $3.50 per watt generated. "If we can get it down to $1 a watt, you'll see strong growth," he said. "There are no technical barriers to overcome."
In many countries in Europe, he said, solar panels have become highly visible.
"All of the sound barriers along the highways are filled with photovoltaic panels," he said.
Hayes believes they will also become part of the landscape here. Eventually, he said, they could line the south-facing exposures of area homes, much like vinyl siding.
"The fastest-growing segment of the solar market now is shingles," he added.
Hayes, named by Time magazine one of its "heroes of the planet," said he doesn't see increased nuclear power production as an option because "it's an energy source we're not prepared to share."
He noted that two of the United States' biggest foreign policy crises focus on Iran and North Korea -- both countries that want nuclear technology for power, a source of fear in the Bush administration, which believes they want to develop nuclear arsenals.
"There's no way to extricate nuclear fuels from nuclear weapons," he said.
The economic opportunity for Buffalo, he said, is in the development of the industry that is already developing around harnessing renewable, nonpolluting sources of energy.
Climate change "provides real opportunity," he said. "Some people are going to invent that future, and somebody's going to buy it."
"Believe [the move away from fossil fuels] is coming at you and take the necessary strides to get out in front of it."