By Keith McDowell
Do you need one of the modern energy pick-me-up concoctions to make it through the day? Do rolling power outages from a record number of days with temperatures over 100 degrees interrupt your lifestyle? How about the drain on your cellphone battery from too much texting, tweating, emailing, and gaming? Is the high price of gasoline driving you to consider purchase of a hybrid or an electric car? How about global warming? Are you one of the many people suffering adverse consequences from the effects of severe weather events? If so, join the crowd! It’s a world gone crazy as we find ourselves “too pooped to pop” and “too old to stroll” as Chuck Berry famously crooned.
But wait! Are we really running out of readily available energy or does it just seem that way at times? Have we become so dependent on rapid access to energy through our high-technology gadgets and our American lifestyle that the slightest interruption portends an energy crisis? Are the lights really dimming in America, the incandescent bulb controversy notwithstanding?
Like many, I thought for many years that we had a looming energy crisis, both in the production of electricity as available electrons and the production of fuels in the form of gasoline, home heating oil, and natural gas. I was certain America was in trouble, not because of dysfunctional government, energy policy, or lack of political will, but from fundamental scientific issues and some basic facts.
To begin with, fossil fuels have a limited lifetime of perhaps a century – quibbling about the exact time frame is a stupid exercise, although fracking and other new discoveries and techniques help to extend their contribution as an energy source. But the book Out of Gas by David Goodstein and the existence of Hubbert’s Peak convinced me that the rate of fossil fuel consumption would eventually pass its rate of production. And the issues of human-driven global warming and adverse climate change as by-products of the use of fossil fuels along with the concomitant increase in carbon dioxide emissions were real show-stoppers for me. America needed to find a way to slow the use of fossil fuels.
The short-term solution appeared to be nuclear power, although three-mile island, Chernobyl, and now the Fukushima incidents demonstrate that real and long-term issues exist for the industry – Mother Nature being the strongest protagonist through earthquakes, tsunamis, and the gradual leakage of toxic and radioactive wastes into the biosphere. But as a physicist, I accepted these risks and knew that they could be mitigated.
Hydropower, geothermal, and biomass alternatives didn’t compute in either the short- or the long-term for me for many reasons including scale and basic economic considerations. Although wind power continues to demonstrate its efficacy as an alternative source for electrons, it will never answer the full projected demand curve for electrons nor solve the need for fuels. It’s not the ultimate or even the short-term solution.
The long-term solution seemed simple to me, but scientifically and technologically challenging. We needed fusion power! We needed sexy, high-technology physics projects like the National Ignition Facility to unlock the secrets of Mother Nature and to turn on the Sun right here on Planet Earth. Advancing our understanding of fusion power would culminate in a limitless energy source to do almost anything we wanted to do. And it would push forward the frontiers of science to boot! The scientist in me was thrilled at the prospects of yet another triumph of humankind over nature. But then I had my epiphany! That moment when you realize how stupid you’ve been and that the solution has been in front of you all along. It’s called solar energy!
My personal journey to the realization that solar energy is the solution began in the period of 1979 and 1980. After reading the 1979 American Physical Society study entitled Solar Photovoltaic Energy Conversion by H. Ehrenreich – I’m one of the select few who actually read the document from cover to cover – and listening to the discourse at the time about photovoltaics, I became convinced that environmental issues surrounding the large-scale mining of the exotic metals needed to produce photovoltaic devices, the exorbitant costs, and the “low technology” flavor of solar panels mitigated against solar energy as a solution.
But then I read the wonderful article by George Johnson in the National Geographic for September 2009 entitled Plugging into the Sun that summarizes the current status of the solar-power industry around the world. Two important factors finally dawned on me. First, the flux of solar photons onto the Planet Earth is enormous. Depending on one’s favorite metaphor, the Earth receives “more energy in one hour than the world used in one year” in 2002. [Wikipedia] Translation: We already have a fusion source of energy that provides a nearly unlimited supply of free, convertible photons. Second, the technology needed to convert photons into electrons or electricity already exists and the market forces are rapidly making the production and sale of solar panels for homes or buildings cost competitive. Furthermore, we already know how to construct and utilize giant solar power plants. Translation: solar power is not a scientific or technological challenge.
But this begs the question: why is America not jumping with both feet onto the solar energy bandwagon? We want energy independence. Why not solar, especially given that it is a “solved” solution? Thomas L. Friedman in Hot, Flat, and Crowded has opined more broadly on the issue advocating for market forces to drive innovation across the spectrum on possible energy sources including solar. Even as I write this article, an email has arrived in my inbox with a Paul Krugman editorial entitled Here Comes the Sun in support of solar energy and pointing out the rapid acceleration of the sector off most people’s radar screens – the Solyndra story notwithstanding. So what are the pitfalls for solar energy and what about other alternative energy sources both for the production of electricity and for fuels?
One unspoken issue is that we might converge too quickly onto a specific solar energy industry using inferior technology. It’s both the “low tech” issue and, more importantly, the sunk cost issue that plagues the nuclear power industry. Many believe that the prevalent reactor design was chosen too quickly and is sub-optimal. Is the same thing happening to the solar industry?
And then there are all the usual technological and economic issues including the location and viability of American transmission lines – we need a smart grid, energy storage during off hours, distributed generation using local solar panels versus large-scale solar collection plants, and the associated costs of building out the infrastructure. But these are old issues and we have to deal with them independent of choosing solar energy. Indeed, we do that every day. They are not show-stoppers for solar energy.
How about environmental issues? No one should be fooled. There is no such thing as “clean” or “green” energy, alternative or not! Every source of energy carries a burden whether in the production of the materials – think mining – used for the infrastructure or the process itself – consider the environmental issues of solar plants in a pristine desert. Even algae, a potential source for fuels and carbon feedstock, must be “fed” by phosphate salts – or the equivalent – taken from the earth. In the end, it is a trade-off.
And what about the issue of solar energy only producing electrons, not fuels? In my opinion, this is the true insertion point for innovation. What would we do with a large excess of electrons? Would we “flare” them off as we often do with natural gas? Or would we design ancillary systems to absorb and use them in creative ways? With enough electrons, one can convert lots of different materials into fuels. If we no longer need coal to produce electricity, we can extend its lifetime as a feedstock for fuels using electrons as the energy source for the conversion. Even better, we can invent new technologies for converting biomass into feedstock for the chemical and plastics industry instead of the ultimately futile game of converting biomass into fuel. And we can slow down the use of fossil fuels, thereby improving our biosphere and reducing global warming. Yes, we need more innovation through research and development including even studies on fusion energy.
But do we have an energy crisis founded on scientific issues or basic natural facts as I originally thought? Are we “too pooped to pop?” Emphatically, NO! What we have is the lack of societal and political will to use and turn the levers and knobs available to us to effect the transformation to a solar economy. Mercifully, as suggested by Krugman and others, there are positive signs that change is afoot. I’m not an expert on the subject, but federal loan guarantees seem to be working in California. Tax incentives for the installation of home solar panels are essential. We should pursue any and all avenues to stimulate the solar transformation. In short, what we need is a well-constructed “Solar Electrification Program” similar in spirit to the original Rural Electrification program used during the Great Depression. We need to support the Solar Energy Industries Association as a counterpoint to government. We need to understand that solar equals jobs and jobs now! With a clear understanding of where we are at in the space of solar power and the bigger space of the energy crunch, we can innovate and replace the current growth in short-term solar installation and construction jobs with longer-term high technology jobs.
Are we too pooped to pop? I think not. It’s time for America to “pop” and go solar.