Before the Left made everything personal, it was possible to examine some issues from a purely scientific point-of-view. Steven Den Beste did a great post on his now defunct USS Clueless about what it an alternative energy source needs in order to be a major contender.
His recent recap is here. Here are the five bullet points, though:
- It has to be huge (in terms of both energy and power)
- It has to be reliable (not intermittent or unschedulable)
- It has to be concentrated (not diffuse)
- It has to be possible to utilize it efficiently
- The capital investment and operating cost to utilize it has to be comparable to existing energy sources (per gigawatt, and per terajoule).
Then he gives the bummer news that only petroleum, nuclear, coal and hydro power meet all five criteria.
I think this stuff is important, because recent arguments about power tend to be abstract. If we could live on nothing but solar, I doubt anyone would be against that. But just in terms of how much energy actually hits the earth from the sun, we need a very, very, very large area covered with solar cells indeed. (Think in terms of, say, an area the size of the state of Georgia.) And that’s true even if we could get (an impossible) 100% efficiency. (You’d need something like 40 times the surface area of your car in solar panels to make it usable.)
Instapundit and Slashdot both regularly run features on improving solar technology efficiency, which is something I welcome (I think if it were about 10X more efficient than it is now, I could justify using it here), but you do come hard up against physics at some point.
This isn’t a reason to stop looking for better sources of energy–though I am a gasoline fan.
Freed from the constraints of engineering and physics, I can imagine a massive solar sail-like thing–bigger ‘n’ Texas–positioned somewhere above the earth that captures all kinds of solar energy and beams it down to a local power station.
How do we get that much solar material and how do we beam it? I dunno. I’m an “idea man”. The details I leave to you.