Let the Sunshine In: A Solar Power Blog

September 13, 2013

The Case for a Solar Race

Once upon a time, at the height of the so-called Cold War in the 1950s, the United States first became involved in something called the “Space Race” with its arch-rival, the now-defunct Soviet Union. Rocket technology had evolved dramatically during the recently-concluded World War, and in the decade afterward, both the US and the USSR had developed this to such an extent that for the first time flight beyond earth’s atmosphere became conceivable.

To the surprise of the US government – and of most Americans – it was the Soviets who got the jump on America by launching the Sputnik 1 satellite in October, 1957. Although little Sputnik was probably smaller than WALL-E’s head, the success of this crude satellite sparked a crisis in the halls of power in Washington. America of course had already inaugurated its own rocket program – the singularly ill-named Project Vanguard – but this effort had failed to launch a satellite first. Those darn Russians beat us, angry politicians of both parties cried! Whereupon the US government promptly committed many billions of (pre-inflation) dollars not only to catch up to the Soviets, but to surpass them, with a manned moon landing as the ultimate goal – a milestone the US triumphantly reached with the Apollo 11 flight nearly twelve years later, in July 1969.

This very serious and expensive competition between the two superpowers resulted not only in bragging rights for the victor, but major technological breakthroughs, many of which (the Internet, cell phones, ATMs) have had what most people would regard as a positive effect on human life, in areas far removed from the narrow realm of space travel. It has even been claimed that the Space Race helped spark the modern environmental movement: pictures of earth taken from space evoked a worldwide consciousness of both the beauty and fragility of our planet.

Knowing well the above history, this writer is amazed by the behavior of the US government and public in its response – or rather, non-response – to the swift ascendancy of so many rival countries in the area of solar power, in comparison with America’s relatively lackluster progress. Given the life-and-death importance of energy resources in the coming decades, and the vastly greater imperative (compared to that of putting a man on the moon) to develop viable sustainable sources of energy, America ought to see itself in the midst of a “Solar Crisis” far surpassing the Space Crisis of the mid-1950s. Yet, when news comes out about, say, cloudy Germany leading the world in solar, or South Africa investing over 5 billion dollars in renewable energy (mostly solar) development to end its dependence on coal, the reaction, if any, in America’s capital as well as on Main Street, is a shrug of indifference.

Where is the old competitive spirit of the Cold War years? Competition in the context of militaristic political conflicts – particularly war – seems to me invariably regrettable. But competition between nations for a technological goal may ultimately yield a positive result, if the goal itself is good. Few environmentally-aware persons would argue that a permanent transition to renewables, particularly solar, would not be a good goal for America. That’s why I’d like to call for a new Solar Race for the US, analogous to the Space Race of the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties.

What would such a race be like? Obviously, it would mean lots and lots of federal and state funds – equaling and hopefully surpassing the superfluous subsidies currently thrown at the fossil fuel industry – to be invested both in technological development and incentives to consumers to go solar. But it would involve much more than that. A public awareness campaign would be created that would portray solar power in a worldwide context, and our national honor as dependent upon our ability to compete successfully with other nations in this arena. Making solar hip, therefore, would become a major national priority. Celebrities would be recruited to extol its virtues. Some of the excitement of the new that characterized the birth of the motorcar and of aviation in the early 20th Century (see my post on the flight of the Solar Impulse) could be experienced again, but with the knowledge that this time the result would not be traffic jams or jet fuel-polluted skies, but a much more livable planet. And the old American pioneer spirit, last seen in this country with the rise of hero astronauts like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong in the 1960s, would be revived for this campaign, including perhaps in an area (which I have previously discussed in an early post in this very blog) whose ultimate possibilities are as yet unknown: space-based solar power.

So what would be the goal? Obviously, Americans love to trump other countries, so “beating Germany” could provide the same satisfaction as “beating the Soviets” did after Apollo 11. But the ultimate satisfaction would be the knowledge that the US will have made itself the pacesetter in a technology that not only clearly represents the future, but one that will help to ensure that mankind has a future. So the ultimate beneficiary for such a revival of American competitiveness might well be, paradoxically, the entire earth.

However, I’m not naïve enough to believe that the will to realize this dream is going to come from the current fossil-fuel-loving political or media establishment. Rather, it must come from the grassroots. Those who are already in the solar industry, as well as those who write or read blogs like this, must step up to the plate, and help to make the ideal of a solar-powered planet a reality.

 

March 21, 2010

Go Green Expo, Part 2: Hanging out with Matthew (Modine) and Ed (Begley, Jr.)

Green Is King!

On the second day of New York’s Go Green Expo, the first day in which it was open to the general public, the place was packed! On an almost freakishly beautiful March Saturday, with the temperatures climbing at least twenty degrees above normal, hundreds of people chose to spend their day off right here, at Pier 92, to check out the cutting edge in sustainable living for every aspect of their lives.

However, I couldn’t allow myself to be distracted because I didn’t want to miss the “star” speakers today. Now, I should clarify my position here vis-a-vis the Celebrity Thing. Some years ago, I worked — and believe me, it was work — as an extra in movies, on TV and in commercials, so I was rubbing elbows with famous people on a daily basis. And the big names generally didn’t impress me very much. I mean, it’s really hard to have much reverence for a person, no matter how well-known, while observing him or her pouncing on the food from craft service with the same shameless gluttony as oneself. But activists do impress me, and I’m fascinated by the combination of show-biz success and sincere ideals. And today’s program offered not one but two such stars: Matthew Modine and Ed Begley, Jr. Indeed, the latter has become as famous for his environmentalism, if not more so, than his (non-reality show) film and TV credits.

Mr. Modine, who was sporting an impressive beard (he’s currently appearing in the Broadway production of The Miracle Worker), spoke to us about two topics: the fortieth anniversary of the first Earth Day, with a current campaign to drive the movement forward called the “E Campaign,” and an organization he founded called “Bicycle for a Day” to encourage city dwellers to use bicycles rather than motor vehicles as their main source of transportation.

To that end, he showed a brief video of himself (sans beard) happily bike-riding around New York City — without a helmet. Afterwards, poor Matthew was taken to task by an audience member for his lack of headgear, and she refused to let the issue go, taking up Modine’s, and the audience’s, valuable time. Hey, lady, I wanted to say (but didn’t), you’re way off-topic: this is an environmental expo, not a personal safety expo!

When Modine was finally allowed to talk about what he came to discuss, he had interesting things to say. He observed that the 200-plus-year-long Industrial Revolution, which has been responsible for transforming the earth and which now threatens our very lives, is but a split-second in the geological history of the earth, which is itself but a moment in the history of the universe. He seemed to be saying that the things we think are so important are actually insignificant in the great scheme of things, and we can begin to turn things around when we realize that.

He gave an effective answer when someone asked him about Obama’s nuclear policy: “It’s a temporary solution to a permanent problem.” He pointed out that, even if the proposed plants actually get built, aside from the problems involved in the dangers of uranium mining and of nuclear waste, there exists only enough uranium to supply our energy needs for 20 years. “Should we spend billions of dollars for 20 years of energy?”

Modine also had another intriguing idea: instead of bailing out the auto industry, subsidize it to switch from the manufacture of autos and trucks to light-rail transport. In the 19th Century, not only America but relatively non-industrialized nations like Russia sacrificed to create viable rail networks in their countries. Those networks were themselves sacrificed to the almighty auto. It’s time for America, said Modine, to revive this cleaner mode of transport.

After his talk, when I asked him my standard question (“The future of solar is…?”), Modine answered, “The future of solar is almost eternal energy.” He clarified by pointing out that the sun, like all other heavenly bodies, must one day become extinct. Hey, I’m not like little Alvy Singer in Annie Hall: I’m more than happy to concentrate on life on earth in the next eon or two, and let what comes afterwards take care of itself!

I was expecting no less than an outstanding presentation from Ed Begley, Jr. — and he did not disappoint, in either the informational or comedy departments. He began by pointing out that his marriage to his beloved wife Rachelle boasted the only pre-nup agreement to include carbon credits. He also complained because his wife accused him of being insensitive to her needs, just because he bought her a hemp thong for her birthday. Talk about petty!

He soon turned serious, but not solemn. Surprisingly, he did not attempt to refute the climate change deniers (of which there were most probably precisely none in that audience). Instead, he focused on assertions that were totally non-controversial. He began with the adverse health effects of air pollution around the world, as well as the contamination of ground water with such substances as benzine, pesticides and herbicides. He reminded the audience of how the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire from pollution in 1969 and how fisherman on the Hudson came back from the Vietnam War only to find themselves unemployed because of river pollution.  

Yet, unlike most environmental prophets of doom, he took care to point out the good things that have already happened. Thanks to the Clean Air Act, the smog in L.A. has been cut in half. Due to the Clean Water Act, rivers no longer catch fire and the Hudson (though far from ideal) is much cleaner. Even the hole in the ozone layer has shrunk.

“If we do this [environmental reform] smart, we won’t go broke!” What is good for the ecology may also be good for the pocketbook, Begley insisted. He recalled the first Earth Day forty years ago, and said that part of the reason he chose to participate in that event was to honor his (Republican) father, the wonderful actor Ed Begley, Sr. , whose conservatism ironically taught his more liberal son how to conserve.

As a poor struggling actor in the 1970s, he entered the green lifestyle modestly. His electric car was more like a glorified golf cart. Yet it was cheaper to plug it in than to buy gas for a “real” car, and it required practically zero maintenance. He bought a solar oven, then bought solar-powered water heating in 1985 (when there were no subsidies). Finally, he went all the way and got solar electric in 1990. But his ultimate innovation was to build a fence for his house out of recycled (white) plastic water jugs. (Actually, I had seen this infamous fence in the charming film Pittsburgh with Begley and Jeff Goldblum, and wondered at the time if it was for real.)

Begley summed up his message as “don’t ever be discouraged.” He pointed out the two lies about the environment currently being promulgated in the culture and emphasized that both of them must be fought:

  1. There really is no environmental problem;
  2. There is an environmental problem, but it’s too late to solve it.

Alluding to the Climategate so-called scandal, he compared it to the O.J. Simpson trial, in which Mark Furman’s behavior was enough to get all his evidence against the former athlete thrown out. Thus, some “wacky emails from East Anglia” were enough for some people to conclude (falsely) that the whole climate change evidence was fraudulent.

Referring to the theory that the melting of the polar icecaps are due merely to natural causes, Begley pointed out that, even if one accepts that idea, everybody knows that human-made CO2 would make such “natural” warming even warmer. “Why put a feverish patient in a sauna?” he asked.

He strongly disagreed with Obama’s stance on nuclear power, because:

  • “I don’t want more fissile material for people to get their mitts on;”
  • Nobody wants either a reactor or nuclear waste near where they live; and
  • Both people and computers make mistakes.

Asked whether the cost will come down on solar panels, he said he thought the price would become much cheaper than before. But he said that this would probably happen with solar panels covered with amorphous coatings, which are indeed less expensive, but also less efficient.

Begley said several things with which I disagreed, such as his comments in favor of cap-and-trade, but at the end I gladly joined the audience in the enthusiastic applause. Yet when I headed for the booth where he was signing copies of his book, Living Like Ed, I felt some trepidation. Would he be annoyed that I did not buy a copy for him to sign, since I am, as they say, “in transition,” and thus could not really afford to purchase it?

I greeted him and he warmly shook my impoverished book-free hand. I asked him my standard question.

“The future of solar,” he said, “is government subsidies to move things along quickly.” Then I took his picture (twice) and moved on to make room for the next person in line.   

I should point out that because of a problem either with my camera itself or (more likely) the lab to which I brought the film for development, my pictures of Matthew and Ed unfortunately do not exist for me to grace this blog.  You have only my report of the event to go on. But I think I have conveyed how interesting and inspiring it was.

March 20, 2010

Go Green Expo, New York City, Part I

The first day of the New York edition of Go Green Expo took place yesterday (3/19) and at the very least it demonstrated for me the extent to which green consciousness has permeated our culture. (This day was dedicated solely to businesses and the press and was not open to the public; Saturday and Sunday, the expo is open to everybody.) “The nation’s leading eco-focused, interactive green-living showcase,” as the press material describes it, housed in a gigantic space at Pier 92 in the far west side of Manhattan, contained areas devoted to Energy & Conservation, Home & Building, Travel & Transportation (including some very nifty-looking cars), Business & Electronics, Health & Beauty, Foods & Beverages — even a Kids Zone. “Go Green Expo focuses on going green without sacrifice [emphasis mine].” (I am a bit skeptical about that last part: assuming such a thing is desirable, is sustainability without sacrifice even possible, at this late date?)

Solar power was not slighted at this event. Walking in from the registration area, I came upon the booth for Mercury Solar Systems, which is headquartered in Port Chester, New York, but also has offices in Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. and describes itself as “one of the leading solar integrators on the East Coast.” The man behind the counter, David Weiss, was a most upbeat fellow, very enthusiastic about his product. Asked how he got into the business of solar, Weiss said, “I wanted to sell a big-ticket product that was good for the earth and also fun to talk about, though for a while, I wasn’t sure what that product would be.” To the question of how he overcomes customer resistance to solar power, he cited what he considered the three main customer misconceptions:

  1. The Northeast is lousy for solar;
  2. The technology is too expensive;
  3. It looks ugly.

Weiss was happy to refute all of these assumptions (he thinks the Northeast is actually better for solar than Florida). He also refuted another argument buyers use to postpone installing the technology: that some amazing breakthrough in solar tech is just around the corner that will make it much cheaper and/or more efficient and that therefore they should hold off on buying solar until after this great event occurs.

“It’s not going to happen,” said Weiss. According to him, “in the last 20 years, solar energy has only gotten one or two per cent more efficient.” He said that the important things for the salesman to accomplish are to explain the rebates that are available through state legislation, and make people understand that there is no point in waiting. Asked when solar sales will start skyrocketing, he answered, “They’re skyrocketing now.”

Bill Wang of American Renewable Energy (ARE) (“one of the leading solar integrators on the East Coast,” as its brochure states) also believes that the main problem is educating the buyer — as well as government officials. To that end, he has been in touch with the mayor of Philadelphia to try to increase awareness of how the city can adopt solar power. The company sees itself as “a bridge between traditional ways and a renewable energy future.” To that end, he is willing to partner even with the fossil fuel industries, oil and coal, to try to get them to “come on board” the solar revolution. He predicts that by 2013, 22%, over one-fifth, of homes will be powered by some form of renewable energy. Asked why they are doing this, Mr. Wang said, “to benefit our children and grandchildren.”

An outfit called Solarrific had a booth containing all kinds of imaginative solar-powered (and dynamo-powered) gadgets. These included a stick light that changes color and a tile light, both designed to illuminate outdoor areas (such as a garden). There was a solar-powered battery recharger that worked with AA, D and 12-volt batteries. Most interesting was a solar-powered bug zapper that works both indoors and outdoors. (This seemed to me a good alternative to those aromatic flying insect killers that can only be safely used outdoors.) Other things Solarrific marketed included a solar water fountain kit, a combination cell-phone-charger, light and solar panel, and a solar caddypack.

A pleasant French fellow by the name of Patrick of Solar LED Innovations sold very elegant-looking solar-powered flashlights and tube lights, which doubled as cell-phone chargers. They were manufactured by employees hired from Handi-Crafters, a service whose clients are developmentally disabled. When I asked Patrick about the future of solar, he said that solar was now the most dynamic form of renewable energy. He pointed out the often-cited statistic that solar power use has been rising 50% annually, in effect doubling every two years. He said that solar is becoming more affordable and that new creative uses are being found for solar power all the time.

The last word of this post belongs to Bradford Rand, the President and CEO of Go Green Expo. When I asked him his opinion of the future of solar, he answered as follows:

The future of solar is omnipresent: a clean, sustainable, renewable energy source that will continue to grow through the 21st Century. It is an area of knowledge that will generate tremendous economic growth and a clean environment and help rid us of the curse of dirty energy.

January 11, 2010

Space Is the Place, Part I

In my youth, practically everything having to do with outer space conveyed a glamour that nothing else quite matched. Astronauts were to me near-mythic beings, more heroic than soldiers or cowboys. (John Wayne, after all, never had to cope with zero gravity.) Outer space was the place — more than any foreign country or remote area on earth — where nearly any possibility could be imagined. On TV and video, I devoured just about everything that had to do with space, from epic visions like 2001: A Space Odyssey to fables such as ET: The Extra-Terrestrial to the sleaziest sci-fi dreck… much as wholesome meals and sugary junk tasted much the same to my hungry and undiscriminating palate.

So there is a sense of satisfaction for me, after absorbing so much fantasy, in the idea that one of the greatest real-life wonders of space is its potential to help save humanity from our energy emergency through space-based solar power (SBSP). Something like the concept of SBSP has existed, at least in fiction, since 1941, when Isaac Asimov published the short story Reason, which is set on a spaceship from which energy is beamed by sentient (and highly temperamental) robots to distant planets. In 1968, the notion was promoted from science fiction speculation to science theory by Peter Glaser. Many people, including the Department of Defense, have recently been taking SBSP very seriously indeed. Everybody’s talking solar… but why is it so important?

SBSP, if and when it is successfully implemented, might well solve many of humanity’s energy problems. The sun is the most constant and dependable source of energy on earth. In what appears to be the “darkness” of space, there is, in fact, no night: solar panels could receive sunlight 24 hours a day, with no interference from the atmosphere nor any obstruction through bad weather. All this, of course, does not mean that space solar power will or should replace terrestrial solar power. But if and when it becomes viable, it might well become the main energy source for many on this planet.

Three basic elements are necessary for a viable SBSP system:

1. a way to transform, in space, the energy from the sun into electrical energy and collect that energy;

2. a way to transmit this collected energy from space to earth;

3. a way to receive on the earth’s surface the energy from space and distribute it to users.

The good news is that much of the technology necessary for making SBSP a reality not only exists, but is actually quite commonplace. Commercial space satellites — the machines necessary to carry out the first element above — have been in existence since Telstar, launched way back in 1962. Photovoltaic (PV) cells for harnessing solar energy are of course in increasingly common use. (Even the International Space Station employs solar arrays, though strictly for its own use.) As for the second element, both microwaves and lasers have been proposed as the means to convey solar energy from space to earth; both these technologies are well advanced. For the third element above, rectangular antennas (called “rectennas“) are the most commonly proposed method of catching the energy from space on earth.

So what’s holding us back?

The most significant problem seems to be one of scale… and here is revealed the “profitability paradox” at the heart of the SBSP project. Simply put, to produce the sheer quantity of electrical power necessary to make the program affordable would seem to require devices of colossal size and complexity, both in space and on the ground. But the fact that the devices need to be so large and complex makes creating and assembling them deeply problematical… and potentially unprofitable.

It has been estimated that an adequate receiving antenna in space (which would, of course, be only one part of the entire satellite) would need to be a kilometer (over six-tenths of a mile, or about 11 football fields long) in diameter — which is almost two miles in circumference and over three-tenths of a square mile in area. How to get such a Godzilla of a device into orbit — and keep it functioning once it’s there — may be the biggest single challenge of SBSP technology. And then there’s the rectenna, an enormous structure in its own right, estimated at perhaps 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) wide and 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) long… though at least no one has to lug the damn thing into space. (Note: the dimensions above represent one theoretical estimate; Solaren, the California-based corporation, envisions a satellite array several miles across, while the Japanese space agency, JAXA, proposes a receiving station on earth that would “only” be 1.8 miles wide.)

[Continued in Part II]

January 3, 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Irrational

Now that we’ve finally left behind that unmourned year, 2009, the Internet seems to have arrived at a consensus on two seemingly contradictory premises vis-a-vis solar power. These are: a) last year was a very rough year for the industry, and b) the outlook in general for solar in 2010 and beyond is fair to excellent. In other words, if the battle of the solar industry with the fossil fuel giants could be compared to a prizefight, the round just ended has left the challenger seriously battered, but still standing and primed to charge out of his corner swinging when the bell rings again.

Predictably, in the aftermath of the financial collapse, the cleantech sector suffered a decline by just about any measure: sales, profitability, stock prices, even venture capital. Even so, the statistics can deceive. Investment was actually up significantly in 2009 from just two years ago and solar, among all the renewables industries, is the undisputed leader, pulling in $1.4 billion from investors (the second biggest was biofuels), more than a quarter of the whole renewables market. Most sources are predicting a good year for solar in 2010, or at least the beginnings of a recovery.

Strangely enough, one of the main problems with solar in 2009, according to one blogger, has been oil… or rather, people’s quite illogical perception of it. Very little oil goes towards creating electricity, he noted. Yet when oil prices decline, so does the demand for solar. How can this be?

For Americans, there seems to be some kind of psychological block when it comes to investing in new tech, so long as those good ol’ familiar fossil fuels can be had at bargain prices. And, despite all warnings, Americans have never really bought into the idea of resource depletion (never mind global warming). They cling, like primitive peoples, to the atavistic myth that oil and gas, like diamonds, are forever, unwilling to grasp that renewables will, sooner or later, become absolutely necessary. Call it the Palinolithic Effect.

So even though solar advocates, despite the economy, are standing at the crossroads of a major breakthrough for human sustainability (and survival), here comes stubborn human irrationality — like Eli Wallach‘s sinister Mexican outlaw — blocking our path. Paging Clint Eastwood!

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