Sun, Sun, Sun, Here it–wait, where is it?

At least on a monthly basis, Mr. Dr. Helen posts some sort of solar “breakthrough”. Although unlikely to be any sort of general panacaea, what with the impending ice age and all that, solar could be useful in the sun belt (and is, in limited cases).

But I’m reminded of this classic USS Clueless post by Steven Den Beste. (It haunts him, people love this post so much. Also check out his takedown of other alternatives.)

From what I can see, there’s an actual physics question to be gotten around. Namely, just not enough energy hits a particular point on earth to generate adequate amounts of electricity, even at 100% efficiency. (Den Beste uses a 2,300 square kilometer coverage figure, assuming 100% efficiency, that would generate enough energy to cover California’s 1990s gas usage.)

My only real issue was this is that he seems to posit it as some grand engineering feat, where I see another possibility in the form of dividing that 2,300 sq km up into, say, ten million pieces. That works out to about 2500 square feet per portion, and you have some efficiency in generating the electricity where it’s used.

That is to say, if you can paper over people’s roofs or parts of their yards, the engineering, financial and distribution questions are less humongous. (The environmental issues would go away until the green-types started bitching about how the solar collectors were disposed of, and until they discovered a photosensitive microbe adversely impacted by these new devices.) A local approach could even give us implementations for transport and storage, which I think would benefit us as a whole. (Some people would doubtless end up with lemons.)

That’s assuming that we could get to the point where solar really was that efficient and cheap. Anyway, I end up amused by stories like this. Every month (at least), a new story. When does it–when does any of it–come to market?

Serious Examination of Alternative Energies

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.