Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Solar is the answer to long-term energy needs.

Given that oil will become increasingly scarce and eventually run out, another primary source of energy is needed. The obvious alternatives are: Coal, nuclear (conventional fission reactors), wind and solar. These all are available now in various stages of development. Nuclear fusion is another possibility, but it remains a very distant prospect at present. It's decades away, if ever. Of course, if an unexpected breakthrough occurred, it would be given due attention. However, we ignore it in this article.

Before discussing solar itself, we point out the drawbacks of the alternatives:

Coal Drawbacks:

* Highly polluting

* High carbon footprint; Global warming potential is undiminished relative to oil

* Requires significant energy input to convert to gas, itself polluting

* Will eventually run out

* Land destruction by strip mining

* Worker safety issues of dangerous mining environment

Dangers and drawbacks of nuclear power:

* Danger of catastrophic accident (low probability but having severe consequences)

* Attractive target for terrorism

* Earthquake danger

* Build up of massive quantities of radioactive waste (no completely safe known disposal solution)

* Massive quantities of fissionable material must be manufactured, transported, stored, regulated and safeguarded.

* Thermal pollution of rivers

* Expense of decommissioning reactors

* All or nothing installation-not scalable, therefore massive capital investment required initially.

* Expense of security measures for waste, fuel, facilities, etc.

* Finite amount of uranium fuel available. Is imported uranium another source of future dependence?

* Municipal insurance costs against accidents and lawsuits for worker exposure to radioactivity.
Probably uninsurable.

* Costly regulatory and legal procedures, lawsuits.

* Requires highly trained and security screened staff to operate plants.

The solar alternative:

Multi square mile solar arrays in the Southwest deserts (either photo-voltaic (PV) cells or Solar thermal conversion): They could generate both grid power and hydrogen from electrolysis. The hydrogen could fuel conventional power generation at night. (The combustion of hydrogen only produces water). These in combination could be the basis for a 24/7, zero emission, electrical grid.

At noon, approximately 3.0 Gigawatts of solar power fall on each square mile. Of course, the losses due to low sun angles, nighttime, clouds, and solar cell inefficiencies reduce the recovered power. However, present solar PV panels can generate about 500 megawatts peak power per sq. mile. Silicon is unlimited and there is no theoretical obstacle to massive quantities being manufactured. Other photo-electric conversion technologies are in development. Future development and breakthroughs can only increase efficiencies and lower costs. Actually, present solar thermal conversion methods are more efficient. But PV technology will likely surpass it, both in efficiency and cost. Solar is a truly long term zero emission and sustainable source of energy, as opposed to coal, nuclear, natural gas, oil, etc. Wind power is also viable as a zero emission source of power. However, solar has the advantage over wind power in that it can be more widely dispersed. Every house can have solar panels and so can many odd locations. The power thus generated can be used locally, or fed back into the grid, where part of the grid power generates hydrogen for power plant use at night. Wind power does not lend itself to this kind of dispersal. It is physically more intrusive with more limits on where it can be placed. However, wind power can be an important supplementary power source where locations permit.

Large-scale solar power is do-able. It’s mostly a matter of political will, along with continued development of efficiency and economies of scale. An electric economy could also eliminate most automotive internal combustion engines. All this would be a major break with our dependence on oil. We will be forced to do something like this eventually, since oil will become scarce as worldwide reserves dwindle. Achieving this is a triple win: It de-funds hostile oil exporting regimes (Iran, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, etc.), it's zero emission and reduces global warming and pollution, and provides a long term sustainable energy source.

Advantages of Solar Power:

* No potential for terrorism

* No earthquake danger

* Safe, zero emission, no waste or pollution, no significant hazards.

* No moving parts, except possibly for simple sun tracking mountings

* No thermal pollution

* Energy source is inexhaustible and free

* Scalable to any size. Can be concentrated or dispersed. Simply add more cells anywhere.

* Relatively low tech and simple to maintain

* Low maintenance and security costs.

* No complex regulatory and legal procedures.

* Low insurance costs since risks and dangers are essentially non-existent.

* No decommissioning necessary.

Opponents say PV cells are not efficient enough yet to put them on an equal economic footing with current competitors like nuclear and fossil fuels. That is true at present. However, there are many hidden costs to fossil fuels, including the military efforts to defend the supplies of oil, as well as the environmental cleanup and regulatory costs that do not appear at the pump. Solar energy generation has no ongoing "fuel costs", as do coal, gas, and nuclear. One wonders if economic comparisons are computed using lifetime estimates of fuel costs or only the present fuel costs. It would be very unrealistic to use only present fuel costs for coal, gas and nuclear.
Those fuel costs are certain to rise, and probably very sharply. Solar, on the other hand, has no fuel costs whatsoever. And over time the PV and other conversion technologies will only improve in cost and efficiency, lowering the capital investment costs. Developments in material sciences can only improve the competitiveness of solar relative to other energy sources. Economies of scale will also improve it. Nuclear, on the other hand probably doesn't have as much potential for improvement, since a large scale adoption could create a uranium demand bottle neck. And the more massively we create fissionable materials, the more complex the safety and security concerns become. An accident or design flaw discovered after building many reactors could force a widespread shutdown causing massive disruption. The psychological effects of a nuclear accident can be much larger than the actual damage. That could seriously affect the viability of the entire system, because of lawsuits and massive opposition. In the long term, fossil fuels will become more expensive and solar will become relatively more competitive, in fact cheaper. Since this is inevitable, why not start on a replacement before it becomes a crisis ?

It may be heresy to some, but cutting military spending by, say, 100 Billion (or more) a year to fund R&D on solar/electric infrastructure development would be a wise investment . Given that we are spending about 500B a year on military expenditures (an obscene amount, and seemingly getting little in return in geopolitical results), it would seem a wise thing. If successful, it would eventually de-fund our enemies (oil rich regimes). And from an internal economic viewpoint, it would be essentially free. That's because it would be a reallocation of existing funding from something not useful (military expenditures are generally not useful in the everyday consumer economic sense) to something actually useful (an oil free energy infrastructure).

Even at today's retail prices, a PV panel costs about $900 for a 200 watt panel. It occupies approximately 1 square meter. That works out to approx 2.0 billion dollars for the panels alone for 1 sq mile of panel area. They would generate about 500 megawatts peak power. Obviously there is more to such an array than just the panels, such as mountings, power control and distribution, etc. Nor does it include facilities for electrolysis of water conversion to hydrogen gas and oxygen. Yet, it's not that large a figure when talking about government subsidized projects. It's fully possible today. It's certainly do-able if funded from excess military funds, as these funds are free in the sense already mentioned. And economies of scale and future materials science should make major reductions in these costs. We need an energy independence "Manhattan Project" to break out of the "chicken and egg" barriers. The hydrogen gas can be used to fuel conventional power generation, so that the grid always has power 24/7. I believe a multi square mile solar infrastructure in the southwest deserts (and all other locations where installation is feasible) can accomplish this. The conventional power generation using hydrogen gas could be developed. There is no technical barrier to that. Pipelines and storage tanks can supply conventional power plants with hydrogen, just as for natural gas now. The pipelines probably require retrofit to prevent deterioration and leakage due to hydrogen's special properties. Pilot studies and plants need to be tried to perfect this technology. Some of the other uses of hydrogen (fuel cells, compact hydrogen storage for automotive engines, etc.) need further developments. Honda recently released a hydrogen powered fuel cell car (Honda Clarity) to a limited number of persons in CA for tryout. It has a range of 280 miles before refueling. It is powered only with an electric motor and emits only water as exhaust. There are a small number of hydrogen refueling stations in that region. This is a small pilot study, not full production. But if the 24/7 grid is solar powered, as described here, the electric economy is on a major path to fossil fuel independence. Fuel cells, battery technology, plug in electric vehicles, etc., can be brought along later, as technical and economic developments permit. Conservation techniques are also an important part of energy independence.

There are powerful lobbies in the oil, coal and nuclear industries opposing solar power. The advantages of solar power needs to be widely disseminated to compensate for the influence of these lobbyists. Beyond all this, our country needs a cause, something constructive to believe in. We presently seem in a malaise of division and partisanship. This might be something that would help bring both sides together and have the other beneficial effects already mentioned. The spirit of innovation and technological leadership can be reclaimed.

Electric car info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battery_electric_vehicle

Photovoltaic solar cells: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photovoltaic_array

Utility Scale PV panels:


Terrorist attack: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superph%C3%A9nix

Honda Clarity: