Let the Sunshine In: A Solar Power Blog

December 12, 2013

The Solar Right and the Arizona Test Case

Barry Goldwater, Jr., the son of the late conservative Republican Presidential candidate – and Arizona native – Barry Goldwater (who was defeated by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 election), has always been very much a man after his father’s heart. A retired seven-term US Congressman, the younger Goldwater compiled a solidly conservative record in the House. Though retired from government since the 1980s, he remains a figure of some stature in Arizona’s Republican Party. In other words, he’s absolutely not the kind of person one would expect to champion a progressive environmental position.

I’ve provided a brief background on this man in order to give some context to what seems to me a surprising, and surprisingly heartening, development in American politics. For Goldwater represents one of the most interesting examples of an emerging trend that I call “The Solar Right.” If more conservatives begin to emulate his example, it will bode very well for the future of solar power in this country… and for the future of the planet.

Here’s the situation in a nutshell. Goldwater’s home state, Arizona, awhile ago approved net metering (NEM) for its citizens. Net metering allows homeowners who install a solar power system to receive credit from the utility for that part of the power their systems generate that they do not use themselves, but that is sent out into the electrical grid to be used by other consumers. This is commonly called “running the meter backwards.” For obvious reasons, net metering has been a major incentive for folks to go solar.

However, like absolutely any great thing that happens in this country, net metering has generated fierce opposition, and Arizona represents a classic case in point. The power utility Arizona Public Service (APS) claims that net metering was inherently unfair to those of its customers who haven’t chosen to go the solar power route, because solar customers are allegedly “shifting the cost” of maintaining the utility’s grid to non-solar households. The APS was so adamant on this issue that it spent a whopping $4.7 million on advertising to try to persuade the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) to set a very hefty fee on solar households, ranging from $50 to $100 per month, to punish those awful consumers for their wicked, green-and-budget-conscious ways. However, the public, according to a poll (presumably including many respondents from non-solar households), rejected the proposed fee by 81 percent.

This is, by the way, a classic case of a company looking out for its own interests under the pretext of defending the consumer. Even in situations in which part of the power that non-solar households use actually comes from the excess electricity from other households’ solar systems, they pay the entire cost to the utility, so the utility is getting compensated for energy it does not in fact produce. Therefore, it’s only right and proper for the utility to credit solar households for providing electricity to non-solar households. And for those periods during the billing cycle when solar households, due to insufficient sunlight, cannot power their homes through their solar systems alone, they take energy from the grid and pay for it, just like anybody else. As most people will readily understand, this situation doesn’t in any way represent a “state subsidy,” much less “corporate welfare,” as the Wall Street Journal and others claim.

But this arrangement, known as DG (for distributed generation), scares the pants off utilities, because it proves they no longer retain a monopoly over a given communities’ electric power. These fossil-fuel-driven power companies, with their expensive and aging infrastructures, dread being perceived as dinosaurs… which is exactly what they’re becoming. And the more households that go solar, the closer the utilities get to becoming completely obsolete. So it makes perfect sense for them to demand a large monthly fee from the solar consumer, in order to make choosing solar an unprofitable proposition. And a number of powerful right-wing organizations, like ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council), strongly back the utilities’ anti-solar stance.

Here is where Goldwater comes in. Mad as hell over the fee proposal, he decided to take action and co-founded an organization called TUSK (Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed – no, the acronym doesn’t work, but the name does suggest the tusk of an elephant and is thus intended to evoke the GOP). This “ostensibly Conservative front group” as the Wall Street Journal sneeringly called it, lobbied hard and otherwise generated considerable conservative support in opposition to the fee. TUSK even produced this highly effective ad, in which Goldwater personally spoke out:

Conservatives want – no, they demand – freedom of choice, whether it’s health care, education or even energy. We can’t let solar energy be driven aside by monopolies who want to limit that freedom of choice: it’s not the American Way; it’s not the Conservative Way.

As five of the commissioners on the Arizona Corporation Commission are Republicans, these efforts surely did not go unnoticed. In the compromise the ACC came up with, the Commission dubiously decided that cost shifting to the non-solar consumer was indeed taking place in Arizona and ruled to impose a fee on new solar households only. However, this fee was a mere $.70 per kilowatt-hour per month, which, for a 10 KW system, would come to just $7.00 per month: much, much less than what the APS had asked for. For the solar industry, it was both a defeat and a victory – a defeat because the Commission’s ruling set a dangerous legal precedent for the establishment of such fees at all; a victory because the APS did not get the kind of cripplingly high fee that would have destroyed the solar industry in Arizona. After all, in many parts of the country (though probably not in Arizona), an average day’s lunch costs more than $7.00.

Many of Goldwater’s conservative colleagues must have been taken aback when he broke with his Party’s mainstream in the most emphatic way possible on this issue. But when you think about it, his position represents one powerful tradition among the many, sometimes conflicting, strands within the Republican camp. ALEC, in its solidly pro-corporate stance, represents the authoritarian strain within the GOP. Goldwater, in his emphasis on personal “freedom” and “choice,” represents his Party’s Libertarian tendency. Ironically, in boldly asserting the consumer’s freedom of energy choice, he condemned “monopolies” as vehemently as any left-winger. But I don’t believe he was being at all contrarian or dismissive of “conservative values” – on the contrary. And it’s quite possible that his message may have struck a chord with at least some influential conservatives, so ALEC’s campaign to kill solar may well be undone… by the Republican Party itself.

 

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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 13, 2010

Of Tasty Cars and Tasteless Politicians: A Tale of Two Energy Conventions

According to all the reports I’ve read on the MIT Energy Conference, held last weekend in Boston, it was really two conferences. Conference One proved that, with the right funding and the right minds to take advantage of it, tremendous things are being done (and even more can be done) in the field of clean energy research. Conference Two proved that, outside the golden world of green tech science, the same old climate change denying and sheer incompetence still reign in the less-than-golden world of public policy.

First the good news: the breakthroughs, real and potential, by MIT researchers, whose work on clean energy tech was praised by Barack Obama last fall, are truly impressive. One team is exploring the potential of particles called excitons, the mechanism for light emission in semiconductors. The goal would be to create thin-film, non-tracking solar cells with power efficiencies greater than 30%. Another team is exploring ways to replace expensive copper parts in solar thermophotovoltaic (STPV) systems with cheap plastic parts. The principle is that, as long as there is some kind of heat source, the cell can generate light, which in turn can generate energy even when the sun isn’t shining.

A third team is dealing with a related problem: energy storage, a major difficulty with intermittent energy sources, like wind and solar. Compared to 15% in Japan, only 2.5% of the capacity of the U.S. energy grid can now be stored. The solution that one scientist has proposed are gigantic liquid metal batteries (to be kept at temperatures of around 700 degrees Celsius) to act as “frequency regulators” that would keep energy flowing to consumers if power from the energy source is suddenly cut off. A fourth team is working on a cobalt phosphate catalyst that would split water into hydrogen and oxygen cheaply. If research is successful, three liters of water could conceivably power a home. This technology would be particularly useful for the developing world, where there is often little or no existing electricity-generating infrastructure.

But the star of the conference was unquestionably… Lola! Lola is a Formula 3 racing car, created by the University of Warwick, constructed entirely of renewables, including carrots, potato starch and flax, and fueled by… chocolate. Developed over 9 months at a cost of $200,000, it has a top speed of 135 mph and can go from zero to 60 in 2.5 seconds. Its engine runs on diesel, not gasoline, and can even run on fuel derived from chocolate factory waste and other vegetable-based oils. Its radiator even converts ozone back into oxygen, literally cleaning up the atmosphere as it runs.

In dramatic contrast to these encouraging — even astonishing — innovations is the decidedly uninspiring, indeed downright depressing state of national energy policy. Of course, we already knew that the facts were grim. But Nobuo Tanaka, who spoke at the conference in behalf of the International Energy Agency (IEA), brought us down even further with his statistics on the state of climate change and what is really needed to combat it. The multi-trillion dollar investment that is needed to stabilize the climate would require, according to Tanaka, the construction and deployment of:

  • 18 nuclear power plants
  • 17,000 wind turbines
  • At least 2 huge hydroelectric plants
  • 94 (I have no idea where he gets that precise number) new solar power plants per year between now and 2030.

And all that is only to maintain the projected target of 450 parts of carbon emissions per million in the atmosphere, which would nonetheless still raise the earth’s temperature 2 degrees Celsius. As I disagree with the viability or safety of nuclear power plants (see previous post), a lot more wind and solar generators than Tanaka’s estimate would be required to compensate. And many activists and others think that 350 parts per million is the only safe target. Yet Tanaka insists that the target of 450 per million is “science fiction” if this massive investment does not take place.

One  of the chief conference speakers was John Rowe, CEO of Exelon, the nation’s largest electric utility company and the owner of the biggest fleet of nuclear power plants in the U.S. He stated that pro-climate government regulation was “in my economic self-interest.” (This statement apparently makes more sense now than it would have a short while ago, since President Obama mysteriously decided recently that nuclear power is renewable energy.) Rowe emphasized that the government should establish and maintain a steady, consistent policy, and the American consumer should understand that there’s no free lunch: combating climate change is going to involve some personal cost. However, he rejected government regulation as a solution. Bringing out a chart of what he called 27 potential EPA regulations, he referred to it as a “train wreck” that would cost utilities billions of dollars and provide jobs only for lawyers.

He asserted that carbon pricing — either a carbon tax, or cap-and-trade (preferably the latter) — was the only way to fulfill the four goals of a viable energy policy:

  • Cleaner energy
  • Greater energy security
  • Job creation
  • Lowest possible cost.

Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who gave the closing keynote speech, brought back the latest news from the Beltway… and it was not good. In contrast to Rowe, he affirmed that clean tech could not be realized without a major shift in government policy, including new regulations. The chances of that happening soon in partisan Washington, however, said Bingaman, are slim. He perceived a pattern whereby the U.S. creates an innovation (e.g., the lithium ion battery) that somebody else then manufactures and profits from. His four-point program for a viable energy policy would be:

  • Support clean tech R&D;
  • Aggressively increase manufacturing capacity of clean energy;
  • Create a more favorable domestic market for clean energy;
  • Increase tax credits to bring the above goals to fruition.

The consensus of many of the experts of the conference seemed to be that our underachieving government was hardly the whole answer to the problem… but it could be doing a whole lot more.

To me, all this suggests two burning questions:

– Will our civic leaders ever emulate the intelligence, much less the creativity, of our clean tech scientists?

– And will today’s songwriters follow the example of the car-loving musicians of yesteryear and create hit songs about the new edible car? (Note: The title “Lola” is already taken.)

February 18, 2010

Britannia Still Rules… in Solar

President Obama has lately been busy advocating the comeback (after over thirty-five years!) of nuclear power plant construction, a policy wrongheaded in every respect – for our ecology, for our economy, even for our safety and that of our children and grandchildren. Instead of claiming to meet the climate change challenge by employing discredited “solutions” from the past, our cousins across the pond have, much more wisely, been looking to the future. The British government is doing what some mainland European governments (particularly Germany) are already doing and what governments everywhere should be doing: motivating people to use energy in a more sustainable way.

Following up on a policy it first made public in July 2009, the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) recently announced the amounts of a new tariff, effective April 1, to help persuade their citizens to change their source of electricity from fossil fuels to renewables. This plan, called the Clean Energy Cashback, or the Feed-In Tariff (FIT), will provide families who invest in renewable energy systems – solar, wind, hydro or biomass – with a deal unprecedented in the UK’s history.

Not only would UK consumers be paid for any excess energy their homes contribute to the local grid, they would receive cash from the government for energy they use themselves. Participating households would receive a credit of 41.3 pence per kilowatt-hour (equivalent to about $.65), about four times the market value of the electricity, and would get a bonus 3 pence ($.05) for every kilowatt-hour exported back into the grid. In other words, householders can earn money as well as save it. The annual benefit in electricity savings would be equivalent to about $220 and the reward itself would come to about $1400. The amount would be adjusted over time for inflation. And it’s all tax-free, too.

Ed Miliband, the secretary of DECC, was quoted as saying, “The guarantee of getting an income, on top of saving on energy bills, will be an incentive to householders and communities wanting to make the move to low-carbon living.” One British family, the Colquhouns, spent the equivalent of $19,200 on their solar panel system and under the new policy, at a return of more than 8%, can expect to break even in less than 12 years. (The rate and duration of the tariff depends on the type of energy used and other factors.)

The policy is in line with the UK’s target of generating 15% of all energy from renewable sources by 2020. The government predicts that, by 2020, 2% of all electricity demand will be met by such small-scale renewable installations. The UK currently generates 5.5% of all its electricity from renewable sources, as opposed to 2% in the U.S.

The British public seems to have embraced the idea. According to one survey, 71% of UK homeowners said that they would think about installing a low-carbon system if they were paid enough. One of the side benefits of the situation is that some households that install renewable energy systems like solar may see the value of their homes rise: the houses themselves would generate energy income. Small-scale energy generators would also provide protection against rising fossil fuel prices. The construction industry is positively ecstatic: it is predicting a $42 billion dollar windfall (and lots of jobs) from new and retrofitted solar systems.

However, the policy has also met with considerable criticism on both the Right and the Left. Environmental groups object to it on the grounds that it doesn’t go far enough, because the tariff is too small. (The government claims that, since these incentives will be funded by a small annual extra charge to those who do not take part in the plan, it could not make the tariff higher because that would be unfair to non-participating households.) Dave Timms, of Friends of the Earth, was quoted as saying: “Ministers have been far too timid with a policy that could make a significant contribution to cutting emissions and boosting energy security.” Meanwhile, in a bizarre contrast to the situation in the United States, with its fanatical right-wing climate skeptics, UK Conservatives (“Tories”) have not only jumped on the FIT bandwagon, but have declared the policy “long overdue” and accused the current Labour government of “lacking ambition”!

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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