Saturday, February 23, 2008

Solar: The Future’s So Bright

Newsflash: oil is over. It’s history. It’s finished. Get over it, people, it’s time to move on.

Twenty years ago I thought the oil companies would have to invest in alternative energy. It just seemed like the logical business move, what with oil running out and all. Silly me. What was I thinking? They’re oil companies, not energy companies. They’re scrambling after the last remaining scraps of a vanishing resource, like a flock of pigeons fighting over a lone saltine. It’s terribly short-sighted, but absolutely predictable. I was dumb to think they'd do anything else.

So we’re going to have to look elsewhere for new ideas. The oil companies aren’t going to do it, and the oil men in Washington who run our government aren’t going to do it.

The good news is, there’s a lot out there, and I thought I’d share some of what I’ve found in the next few blog posts.

1Watt in comments on the No Nukes thread shared this Scientific American article from January on A Solar Grand Plan. It proposes
A massive switch from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power plants to solar power plants [which] could supply 69 percent of the U.S.’s electricity and 35 percent of its total energy by 2050.

Great! (Read the article for the details, BTW). But making this transition will come at a price:

The federal government would have to invest more than $400 billion over the next 40 years to complete the 2050 plan. That investment is substantial, but the payoff is greater. Solar plants consume little or no fuel, saving billions of dollars year after year. The infrastructure would displace 300 large coal-fired power plants and 300 more large natural gas plants and all the fuels they consume.

The plan would effectively eliminate all imported oil, fundamentally cutting U.S. trade deficits and easing political tension in the Middle East and elsewhere. Because solar technologies are almost pollution-free, the plan would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 1.7 billion tons a year, and another 1.9 billion tons from gasoline vehicles would be displaced by plug-in hybrids refueled by the solar power grid. In 2050 U.S. carbon dioxide emissions would be 62 percent below 2005 levels, putting a major brake on global warming.

I’m sure the notion of $400 billion in subsidies for solar energy over 40 years strikes fear in the heart of conservatives, but why not? Even by the most conservative estimates, the Iraq War will cost us $700 billion in direct spending alone. That’s a pretty nice subsidy for the oil industry.

The best news is, this is already happening. We don’t need the Federal government because private companies are already building large solar farms in the Southwest. Check out this plan for Phoenix:

Today, Arizona's largest utility, Arizona Public Service, is announcing plans to build the world's largest "concentrating solar power" plant, a $1 billion project to spread parabolic mirrors over a 3-mile-square stretch of desert 70 miles southwest of Phoenix. To be designed and built by the Spanish firm Abengoa, it would generate 280 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power 70,000 homes.

That makes it four times as large as Nevada Solar One, near Boulder City, Nev., which last summer became the first CSP plant to open in the United States in more than 17 years. Tomorrow, Nevada Solar One's developer, a rival Spanish company, Acciona, plans a star-studded dedication ceremony for the facility ...


Unlike the solar energy that most people know, CSP doesn't use expensive semiconductor material to transform the sun's energy into electricity. CSP relies on mirrors to focus sunlight onto a heat transfer fluid, which in turn heats water into steam, which turns turbines to generate power. The big Arizona plant, which will be called Solana Generating Station, will take the technology an exciting step forward by using molten salt to store solar energy for up to six hours. "When the suns sets, this plant keeps on ticking," says Arizona Public Service President Don Brandt. "We'll have solar energy in the dark."

What is wrong with American companies? Why are European companies so far ahead of us on this stuff?

There’s a new energy future coming and America is going to be left in the dust because we’ve focused all of our attention on oil. How stupid is that?