Harnessing Solar Energy Power

It’s time to take renewable energy seriously. By harnessing solar energy power's current technologies and tapping the world’s virtually inexhaustible supply of solar energy, we can begin to build a brighter future.
By Steve Heckeroth
December 2007/January 2008
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Harnessing solar energy power. Solar is a promising source of future energy supplies because not only is it clean, it’s remarkably abundant.
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It’s time for harnessing solar energy power from the world’s virtually inexhaustible supply and start building a brighter future. If we act now, we can use renewable energy resources to replace our fossil fuel based economy and cure our addiction to oil, stabilize the climate and maintain our standard of living, all at the same time.

Harnessing Solar Energy Power

We know that relying on coal, oil and natural gas threatens our future with toxic pollution, global climate change and social unrest caused by diminishing fuel supplies. Instead of relying on unsustainable fossil fuels, we must transform our economy and learn to thrive on the planet’s abundant supply of renewable energy.

I have been studying our energy options for more than 30 years, and I am absolutely convinced that our best and easiest option is solar energy, which is virtually inexhaustable. Most importantly, if we choose solar we don’t have to wait for a new technology to save us. We already have the technology and energy resources we need to build a sustainable, solar-electric economy that can cure our addiction to oil, stabilize the climate and maintain our standard of living, all at the same time. It is well past time to start seriously harnessing solar energy.

Fossil-fueled Problems

Before you read on, take a moment to study the two corresponding pie charts, which compare the Earth’s estimated total reserves of non-renewable energy resources with the annual renewable energy options. You’ll see that the potential of solar energy dwarfs all other options, renewable or otherwise. To understand why a solar-electric economy is our best option, let’s look at the energy resources we currently depend on and compare them with the solar energy available to us.

Coal is burned mainly to produce electricity, and coal-fired power plants produce more than half the electricity used in the United States. But burning coal has serious drawbacks. One is that it releases carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming. It also releases heavy metals, such as mercury and sulfur. These toxins that were locked in the Earth’s crust over billions of years are suddenly spewed into the atmosphere and thus degrade our air, water and soil. The exhaust from burning coal contains more pollutants and global warming emissions per unit of energy produced than any other fossil fuel. In addition, the methods used to mine coal are destructive to the land and dangerous for the miners.

six days

Natural gas supplies more than half the fuel used to heat buildings and about 15 percent of the electricity in the United States. Natural-gas-fired power plants only emit about half the pollutants produced by coal plants, as long as the fuel is extracted close to where it is burned. However, U.S. natural gas extraction can no longer keep up with demand, so expensive and hazardous methods to liquefy and ship foreign natural gas are being devised. In the future, natural gas for the United States would have to be imported from countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan, Qatar and Iran, which together have 60 percent of the world’s reserves. When all the externalities, such as the cost and pollution caused by liquefying and transporting this fuel, are included, liquefied natural gas (LNG) is much more expensive than coal, and almost as dirty.

Natural gas is the second most abundant fossil fuel, but its total potential energy is equivalent to only about 1 1/2 days of sunshine striking the Earth.

Nuclear power plants fueled by radioactive isotopes of uranium produce 20 percent of the electricity used in the United States. When radioactive materials were sequestered and dispersed deep under the Earth’s surface, they presented very little threat to life. But we’ve made those materials far more dangerous by mining and concentrating them, and the byproducts left over after a nuclear reaction are even more dangerous than the original isotopes. Nuclear power plants create hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste that will continue to be a threat to life for longer than humans will walk the Earth.

Even if the problem of radioactive waste could be solved, the recoverable world reserve of fissionable uranium is equivalent to less than 1 1/2 days of the energy striking the Earth from the nuclear reaction of the sun.

Oil-fired power plants have all but disappeared in the United States, but oil (mostly diesel fuel and gasoline) powers nearly all our transportation. More than 60 percent of the oil consumed in the United States is now imported. Demand for petroleum will soon exceed world production capacity and at that point the price of fuel will start to rise dramatically. We should be asking ourselves how we will cope with gas prices as they rise from $2.50 to $5 to $10 per gallon and keep rising. It’s hard to imagine the hardship that will be faced by countries that remain addicted to oil, and even harder to imagine the suffering in countries that have oil, but do not have the strength to protect their resources or themselves.

Now consider that the entire recoverable world oil reserve is equivalent to the solar energy that strikes the Earth in one day.

Biofuels and Hydrogen

Before we explore the solar-electric future let’s discuss biofuels and hydrogen as other possible alternatives. Although both have received a lot of good press, I believe neither are viable solutions for our future energy needs.

Waste oil and biomass can make good transition fuels but unless human population growth slows, we will need all existing agricultural land to grow food. There are already many examples of food crop land that is being used to create ethanol to power SUVs and other flex-fuel vehicles. The cost of tortillas has quadrupled in Mexico in the last year because of rising demand for corn to make ethanol. If we let demand for biofuels increase, the impact on the world’s poor will be much more severe.

According to some studies, it takes 1,000 gallons of water and more than a gallon equivalent of fossil fuel to produce 1 gallon of corn ethanol. Finally, consider that biofuels just aren’t very efficient. When you do the math, the overall efficiency of biomass used as transportation fuel, from sun to wheel, is about 0.01 percent to 0.05 percent. In contrast, the overall efficiency of using solar panels to charge electric vehicles from sun to wheel is 3 percent to 20 percent. This means that solar-charged electric vehicles are from 60 to 2,000 times more efficient than vehicles burning ethanol or biodiesel. Which solution makes more sense?

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are no more efficient than biofuels. Hydrogen is much lighter than air, and it must be contained in order to keep it from escaping the Earth’s atmosphere, unless it is bound up in water or hydrocarbon molecules. The strong bonds that hold these molecules together take a significant amount of energy to break apart to extract hydrogen. Once the hydrogen is extracted, more energy is needed to compress it into a container that is small enough to store on a vehicle. In order for a fuel cell vehicle to go 200 or 300 miles on a tank, the hydrogen must be stored in metal hydrates or at 10,000 psi in heavy containers.

Even after more than 20 years of development, fuel cell vehicles still cost more than a million dollars each and don’t last very long or go very far. Finally, it takes about four times more renewable energy to drive a fuel cell vehicle than it does to charge the batteries in an electric vehicle to go the same distance. This is like the difference in fuel economy between a Hummer and a Prius. If you are wondering why hydrogen fuel cell vehicles continue to receive billions of dollars in funding given all these barriers, the fact that 96 percent of all hydrogen is currently extracted from fossil fuels may have something to do with it. There are powerful vested interests controlling our energy policy. Only informed citizens acting together can steer the best course.

A Bright Solar-Electric Future

A solar-electric economy is well within our reach. We’re already generating solar electricity at the utility scale using powerful concentrating solar power technology. We’re also generating electricity through wind energy, which many experts consider an indirect form of solar energy because it’s driven by temperature differences.

But also consider that simply incorporating passive solar design strategies (see “Homes Powered by the Sun,” below), energy efficiency, conservation and other active solar heating strategies in the construction of buildings can save up to 95 percent of the energy used in conventional buildings. With the addition of building-integrated photovoltaics, buildings can be turned into net energy producers. Energy from the sun can be used to power our vehicles, and that includes not only our cars, but also heavy vehicles such as tractors.

Electric Vehicles & Plug-in Hybrids. Electric vehicle drivetrains are inherently five to 10 times more efficient than internal combustion engines and they produce no greenhouse gases at the tailpipe. Even if powered by fossil-fuel electricity, emissions at the power plant are much lower per mile traveled than with internal combustion engines. In addition, electric vehicles can be charged directly from renewable sources, thereby eliminating emissions altogether.

One of the main excuses the auto industry offers for the lack of electric vehicles is that “the batteries are not developed yet.” But consider how quickly cell phone batteries developed, transforming mobile phones from heavy, bulky, short-lived nuisances to amazingly light, small and long-lasting necessities. The oil companies are doing a good job of protecting the American consumer from “dangerous” batteries, but in parts of the world where oil companies have less control, large format battery development is progressing at rapid speeds.

Electric Tractors and Agriculture. Experts have estimated that it takes eight to 10 units of fossil energy to put one unit of food energy on American tables, and that it takes the equivalent of 10 barrels of oil to feed each person in the country. Hearing those figures, it’s frightening to imagine what will happen as oil prices rise. To begin with, how would we fuel our farm machinery?

The good news is that not only can tractors run on electricity, they run even better on electricity than passenger vehicles do because of their greater weight and slower speeds. An electric tractor can quietly accomplish all the tasks necessary to maintain productivity on a small farm.

Dealing with the rising cost of mobility and energy are huge challenges, and the biggest challenge facing humanity may be maintaining an affordable and nourishing food supply. But we can have fresher and more nourishing food without fossil fuels. What it will take is public support for a switch to local food production on small organic farms using solar irrigation pumps and solar-charged electric tractors.

Solar Energy: We Have the Power

It’s easy to feel confused, cynical and even hopeless about the state of the planet these days. But I am excited and optimistic because I know we have the technology now that will allow us to wean ourselves from fossil fuels and move to a renewable solar-electric energy system.

Yes, I know — solar panels are still too expensive for many of us. But 10 years ago, nobody gave hybrid cars a chance of succeeding. Today, the Toyota Prius is the hottest thing going. Plug-in hybrids and all-electric options should be available soon. If we all work together and demand that our government set a wise energy policy and use taxes to support the right renewable energy options, I predict we can put the brakes on climate change and enjoy clean, true-green energy.


Annual Global Renewable Energy Resources
(in Terawatt hours*)

Direct Solar Radiation 350,000,000

Wind 200,000

Ocean/Thermal 100,000

Biofuels 50,000

Geothermal 10,000

Tidal/Wave 5,000

The amount of solar energy available each year (Annual global renewable energy resources image, yellow circle, Image Gallery) dwarfs supplies of any other source of power, including total reserves of all the fossil fuels on Earth (Annual global renewable energy resources image, small circle, Image Gallery).

Total Global Non-Renewable Energy Resources
(Terawatt hours*)

Coal 6,000,000

Natural Gas 1,500,000

Uranium 235 1,500,000

Oil 1,000,000

Tar Sands 800,000

Total: 10,800,000

*1 terawatt hour is equal to 1 billion kilowatt hours


Homes Powered by the Sun

Most of us depend on fossil fuels to keep our homes comfortable by providing heating, cooling and electricity. But surprisingly, it isn’t all that difficult to turn our homes from energy consumers into energy producers. New homes can easily be designed to take advantage of natural heat, light and ventilation; run more efficiently on less electricity; and be fitted with solar panels to produce electricity. Here are a few specific steps that make a big difference:

• Orient buildings to maximize solar exposure and protect them from prevailing winds. Use wind breaks and berms to channel cold weather around or over buildings.

• Add insulation to hold heat in winter and exclude heat in summer.

• Use sunrooms to capture solar energy when needed and vent it when it is not.

• Take advantage of natural light by using daylighting techniques.

• Use earth-sheltered building techniques to take advantage of natural heating and cooling provided by stable underground temperatures.

• Cool homes naturally using convection loops and cooling towers to circulate air.

• Add thermal mass to buildings by using dense materials, such as brick and stone on interior walls, to maintain more constant temperatures.

• Design overhangs and plant deciduous vegetation to shade living spaces in the summer but not in the winter.

• Plant food gardens and edible landscaping to produce more food at your doorstep.

• Install Energy Star appliances and water saving fixtures to conserve water and energy.


Annual World Energy Consumption

1980: 82,919 terawatt hours

2004: 130,971 terawatt hours

Projected for 2030: 205,686 terawatt hours

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration


Better Living Through Solar Electricity

Not only is the potential of solar power enormous, we already have the technology to take advantage of it. We can design our homes for solar heating and wind-powered cooling. Solar electricity can power our homes, our cars and even our tractors. All we have to do is start using it on a wider scale. So what are we waiting for?


Contributing editor Steve Heckeroth has built more than two dozen electric vehicles. He’s chair of the American Solar Energy Society’s Renewable Fuels and Transportation Division, and spent the last seven years as director of building-integrated photovoltaic products for the largest flexible thin-film PV manufacturer in the world. His website is www.renewables.com.


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Post a comment below.

 

Mike_75
9/8/2009 9:19:52 AM
Hi,First I will say I built my owned rammed-earth home in 1984. 12" walls, second if we follow the German-model for solar as shown on PBS per Nova this past year you could get a loan from the bank at a set interest rate locked in for 20 years and farm solar, which one farmer turned his fallow field into a $60K profit selling solar to the power plants. People are putting panels on their neighbors homes to get a return! And free electric. I haven't read all the comments, yet. I would like to meet like minded people though. Is there a forum for that? I am new, or a return customer from the early days! It is interesting that in 1980 Gulf Oil ran an ad in Newsweek promoting solar. What happened? To them?

Jeff@Restoule
11/17/2008 3:05:00 PM
As well as considering how we use our available energy, shouldn't we also consider "when" we use this energy. Look at any city with its signs, street lights and office towers using power 24 hours per day. Perhaps it is time for a major paradigm shift; work during the day when the solar power is available and sleep when the sun goes down.

Jeff Dahlgren
10/23/2008 11:46:12 PM
I agree about solar becoming the mainstay of renewable energy. The obvious downside is still the "non" green aspect of solar cell production as well as a still limited production of such panels world wide..a double catch twenty two. The upside is the quickly advancing technological breakthroughs that seem to be occuring almost monthly if not weekly. Many of these will develop solar power in a way not even imagined or envision just a few years back. The upside to most these are they mostly seem to get "cleaner" all the time as to the total environmental impact to produce. All in all solar power represents not only a great alternative energy source for the developed worl but even more so for the developing nations around the globe. Jeff Dahlgren www.motherearthenergy.com

R_12
1/10/2008 8:06:18 PM
I thought Steve Heckworth was too severe with Hydorgen (non hydrocarbon) fuel cells. With increased demand the efficiency and price will come down. They are the perfect companion to solar energy by storing, then reccovering electrical energy from the fuel cells. There is one off-grid home in New Jersey which operates with this equipment. Both big sites and small could benefit from this marriage.

Ed_23
1/9/2008 9:28:50 AM
To the guy with the ALL CAPS posting (JACKRABBITPATRIOT): You are, indeed, a Moron of the First Orde (and you can't write standard English very well). Perpetual motion is a MYTH, and this has been proven over and over again throughout the centuries. Please stop writing rubbish such as that which you have subjected us to, pick up some good text books, and READ them. Thank you very much.

Chris_50
1/1/2008 8:20:35 PM
Mr Travis, You are so right about conservation. Our efforts in conservation make solar a more viable alternative as well. It's not a magic bullet to incorperate solar power into the reneuable energy options and conservfation alone won't solve the problem either. Even if we cut consumption by 30%, fossle fuel consumption will still produce more CO2 by 20% than all the plants in the world can remove. And there are disposal issues with the CFL that I hear no one address, along with regular flourecent lamps, is the murcury content in those lamps. It's a small amount until you add thousands together and it becomes significant. Most states allow them to be disposed of in regular household trash toi go to9 lanfilols or dumped at seak, not to mention spilled on the ground from dumpsters where the lamps often get broken. By all means start conservation tomorrow morning but look for the new problems and put the alternate energy on the top half of the list as well

Robert_110
12/28/2007 9:45:47 PM
My thought is that there is too much searching for the "magic bullet" There ain't one! What works in Florida or California isn't likely to work, or work as well, here in northern New York or Michigan. The only thing the average Joe can do tomorrow is conservation. Seal a door for 5 bucks, save 10 or more in heat THIS MONTH. Oh yeah, a couple gallons of oil or a bunch of KW hours as well. Replace an incandescent light with a CFL..likewise. Now if everybody did it we're talking Mega.. Which releases money to insulate..etc etc. Yes, push ahead on solar, bio, nuclear. All have their place now and in the future; but start with something tomorrow morning!

Energy
12/28/2007 9:22:19 PM
Excellent points, demonstrating the high potential of solar energy compared to all other sources. It also makes it clear that solar energy is the ultimate solution. Unfortunately, a couple of key points are mentioned only in an off-hand way. Solar panels are too expensive to compete with other sources today. And batteries are too expensive and heavy to make it possible to justify the storage needed for significant renewable use, especially in transportation. Then, he seems to imply some conspiracy in blocking solar or minimizing incentives. Incentives are used heavily, both in the US and worldwide to promote solar power. Ultimately though, solar will become a significant part of the solution when they are economically justified, and only then. That will happen only when either their prices are significantly reduced by technology or energy prices rise enough to make solar and batteries economical. Trying to jawbone, scare, incentivize or regulate the solution just wastes resources. It will happen when economically justified, and not before. Energy Guru www.energy-guru.blogspot.com

Scott_40
12/27/2007 3:55:52 PM
it all sounds really good. I personally am excited about alternative forms of energy especially solar. The potential of this is great. I am truly looking forward to the developments in batteries to store excess solar energy when not directly used.

Chris_48
12/20/2007 5:20:46 PM
I'm an engineer that actually works in the solar industry and there are problems (and solutions) with solar power. Yes, the cost of solar is high. Cost of fossil fuel energy is high too. It's just hidden in our taxes. Consider the recently butchered energy bill as proof of that. Storage is becoming much less of a problem with more advanced batteries for PV and countries such as Spain are building thermal storage into their concentrating "power tower" type plants that will store energy throughout the night. The sun is hardly inconsistent in it's production. If it were, we'd all freeze or boil to death. There are very advanced models of solar insolation for every part of the globe. Systems designed properly will provide power when needed, year round. Also consider that solar is very effective even today as a peak energy demand offset for natural gas fired plants. This is exactly why CA and the southwest in general are so big on PV. The statement made about solar power requiring 50% of it's energy production to be made (energy payback of ~15 years) is way off. Typical PV modules are 2-3 years, thin films ~6 months and some CSP is as low as 4 months. Those printed ink modules mentioned above are from "nanosolar" and have a payback of ONE month. They're rolling them out this next year. PV is now. All energy is subsidized, financially and otherwise. Big oil just hides it from you. Just try to figure in the cost of your child having asthma to your next gallon of gasoline or a pound of coal. Oh yeah, and magic perpetual motion doesn't exist, CAPS LOCK GUY.

John_134
12/19/2007 2:54:53 PM
From the article: > ... it takes the equivalent of 10 barrels of oil to feed each person in the country.... Feed for how long? A year? A lifetime?

Jay Draiman
12/16/2007 6:12:33 PM
Selling Renewable Energy (Solar Etc.) Without Incentives In short, we need to market solar as an investment that will save money while you own it and return most or all of your investment when you sell the building it's sitting on. Chances are, as natural gas and oil prices go up, there will be a corresponding jump in your monthly electricity bill. So, instead of promoting a solar power system based on today's savings in electricity, we need to have easily understandable projections on what the savings will be over the life of a system. These numbers need to reflect what's really happening to the cost of energy! Here are some ideas I'd like to share. First, we need to find a way to make renewable energy economically competitive without the tax incentives. We do this by answering the question: "What is the opportunity cost of not using solar to decrease your energy bill?" There's something interesting I've found. There's a direct correlation among electrical rates, the cost of air conditioning a building, the heat index and the amount of sunshine on any given day. In other words, on the hottest, sunniest days, we use more electricity that costs more per kilowatt. So, why do we continue to promote average hours of solar production, when in fact (at least down here in California), we produce far more solar power per day during the heat of the summer when energy costs are highest, than we do in our temperate winter months when energy costs are lowest. A sound marketing approach would be to evaluate solar energy in "dollars" of production per year instead of in kilowatts. I'm sure there are some smart people out there who can match kilowatts of solar production on any given day of the year to what the rates will be (based on the projected costs of electricity). Secondly, we should stop trying to sell a solar package as a "cost." In real estate, there is a principle that says anythi

ROGER_20
12/11/2007 12:14:23 PM
PLEASE STOP WITH THE "SOLAR POWER IS THE ONLY SOLUTION" HYPE!!! ONLY A BRAINWASHED IDIOT WOULD CONTINUE ON THIS PATH TO SELL THIS IDEA THAT SOLAR Power IS A SOLUTION... IT IS NOT THE SOLUTION or even part!! AS ALL THE SOLAR POWER PLANTS IN THE WORLD COMBINED DONT GENERATE WHAT TWO COAL POWERED POWER PLANTS GENERATE. AND WHEN THE SUN GOES DOWN IT STOPS GENERATING POWER...REAL DUMB. PLEASE LOOK AT THE REAL SOLUTION...IT IS ON THE INTERNET AND IT IS CALLED THE "AIR TURBINE ENGINE" OR "THE CRYSTAL ION ENGINE".....AND IT RUNS ON AIR!!! IT RUNS ALL DAY!!! IT RUNS ALL NIGHT!! IT IS CLEAN ENERGY THAT THE US DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY HAS REJECTED!! SEE THE WEBSITE. LOOK AT THE ENGINE AND TECHNOLOGY THAT DR BOB AND RON ROCKWELL WENT TO WASHINGTON WITH AND JUST GOT REFUSED AND REJECTED. THE DEVELOPERS OF THE AIR TURBINE ENGINE WAS GIVEN THE "SORRY WE CANT HELP" AND PLEASE GET BEHIND SOLAR, CORN FOR METHANOL AND THERMAL ELECTRIC AND' PROJECTS, THEN... THE AIR TURBINE ENGINE "MIGHT" BE CONSIDERED. I WROTE HILLARY, I WROTE OBAMA, I WROTE TO THEM AND SAID HERE IT IS....A SOLUTION TO OUR DEPENDANCE ON OIL...LETS TALK ABOUT IT. NO ONE WILL TALK. PLEASE STOP THE 'DISINFORMATION' BY ALL THESE PEOPLE AND BY THE MEDIA... IF WE MADE THESE ENGINES SMALL, MEDIUM AND LARGE ALL ACROSS THE COUNTRY OUR SOLUTION TO THE DEPENDANCE ON FOREIGN OIL COULD BE ENDED NOW. OUR SOLUTION IS HERE AND COULD BE IMPLEMENTED NATIONWIDE IN LESS THAN TEN YEARS. BUT "BIG OIL" AND "GOVERNMENT" DONT WANT THIS SOLUTION CAUSE THEY CANT YET "CONTROL" IT....what bull. I THOUGHT THAT THE OBJECT OF THE GAME WAS TO CEASE OUR DEPENDANCE ON OIL. WELL IS IT OR NOT? IT MOST CERTAINLY IS ONLY LIP SERVICE.. NOW WE THE PEOPLE MUST... TELL THE PEOPLE THE TRUTH AND STOP THE LYING ABOUT NO SOLUTION. YOU HAVE THE SOLUTION GIVEN TO YOU TODAY. YOU HAVE THE MEANS...GIVEN TO YOU TODAY... SO WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO? HOW AB

Curran
12/10/2007 10:19:37 PM
I agree with the author of the article that eventually we will switch over to using solar as our primary source of energy. Yes fusion would be great, and anuclionic fusion would be the best, but so far the technology isn't ready for the market. We can keep doing research to that end, but in the mean time, we can concentrate on what works in the present, and given the nature of Mother Earth magazine, it's what works for the individual. I don't see anyone looking at installing a backyard coal burning plant, nuclear plant, or other types of generators. All the traditional "fossil fuel" type technologies are structured in such a way to keep people tied into a dependent type of relationship, to which Mother Earth magazine's philosophy strives to break. As for the energy payback for PV, it returns 7 times the energy ( 2007, Home Power magazine). If it comes down to a choice between more of the same ( coal, natural gas, nuclear fission, empowerment of dictitoral governments through petro dollars, mercury poison from coal, continued energy inefficiency) or (distributed local solar electric, hotwater, passive design, efficient design, and local autonomy), I will take the latter. And the thing to remember is the Hubbard Peak. Sooner or later, the geologic supply of fossil materials will run out. C.K. Geologist

ralph_14
12/9/2007 10:58:19 AM
why are we not developing more green geothermal powerplants? the american west has some of the best potenial sites in all the world. also clean coal technology & oil shale's time has come. the usa has 40% of the world's coal & 60% of the world's prooven reserves of shale oil. it's time to tell opec where to go. i'd glady pay a premium price for a chevy volt when it becomes available. that is, unless the oil companies axe it.

ralph_13
12/9/2007 10:45:53 AM
where are those cheap ink jet printed non silicon based flexible solar panels that are supposed to change our lives? i'm still waiting. how much longer are the oil companies going to fleece us? also, how come we never hear anymore about the vw three cylinder tourbocharged clean burn diesel hybrid that gets 100 mpg. who's blocking consumer choices. can can someone please answer.

G.R.L.
12/8/2007 3:02:11 PM
Heckeroth speaks of a time when radioactive materials were sequestered and dispersed deep under the Earth’s surface, but that was long before the advent of life. They have risen, so that more than half of all the uranium in the Earth is in the upper reaches of the continents. Like the red in a red-skinned apple, if that skin were 29 percent pigmented (land) and 71 percent not (ocean). The upper reaches include the top centimetre. It contains as much fissionable uranium as do the mines to which Heckeroth credits a 1.5 million terawatt-hour "recoverable world reserve". The sunlight that strikes the Earth in 1.5 days is, by my reckoning, 6.3 million TWh, not 1.5 million, so it's more like top four centimetres' uranium equivalent. But if he's looking at solar's potential, it's not fair to compare that to uranium mines' actuality. The rate of increase of economically demonstrated uranium reserves in Australia this year has been 740 tonnes per day. By comparison, the whole world's oil burn rate is a little over 825 uranium-tonne-equivalents per day.

Jack_28
12/6/2007 10:51:01 PM
There is no doubt that coal and nuclear are the big boys when it comes to electrical production in the U.S.. Renewables, comparitively, are currently a drop in the bucket. However, the rate at which renewables are growing is phenomenal. Thin film solar may become ubiquitous. Solar thermal can generate electricity even at night. Costs will continue to come down while efficiencies will continue to improve. Wind is already becoming competitive and other technologies such as wave are emerging. To use a poor pun, we haven't even seen the tip of the iceberg. People looking at current electrical production think it must be either coal or nuclear. No one who made the first computers envisioned the internet. if you asked them or anyone else what computers would be able to do you would not have gotten an answer that would have predicted even 1% what they are currently doing. Coal is too dirty to keep using. Not just the carbon but also its other pollutants.Nuclear has far too manty safety issues. Transportation of waste, de-commisioning of plants, terrorist' targets, other countries starting nuclear power programs in order to hide their bomb making intentions, not to mention accidents, employees who go crazy etc. 93% of our current R and D budget goes to coal and nuclear. Billions are spent on protecting oil reserves. Dictators run countries not needing their own peoples support only needing money from selling oil and the U.S. corporations and government backing them. Oil companies receive a wide variety of tax incentives and subsidies from the government. politicians receive very large donations from oil companies. Tax payers receive high energy costs. We can change the world. Don't believe those who say fossil fuels, coal, and nuclear are our only hope. They have been in the past. The future is up to us.

Robert_108
12/6/2007 9:45:34 AM
I find it interesting that the author completely ignored wave energy. It's already commercially available and being used, especially by the big Spanish utility, Iberdrola S.A. It's a far denser energy source and less visually dominating than wind since the bouys are out to sea and most of it is below water, and it's cheaper than solar. The leading manufacturer claims that one 10 sq. mi. grid of their bouys off the coast would supply the entire power needs of the whole state of California. Why did he ignore something like this? It's true, this isn't a solution for individual home owners and solar is. Nevertheless, I've investigated a solar PV installation for my own use. The payback period is over 40 years at current rates. That's way longer than the warranty on the panels! No matter how environmentally inclined one is, that's a pretty steep hurdle for all except the wealthy, so the author seems to be ignoring reality. In fact, he seems to me to have allowed his employment biases to intrude on his objectivity.

Julian_2
12/5/2007 8:49:33 PM
Did some one say "Three Mile Island" OOps. Accidents happen. Ever heard of a solar panel exploding or melting down? Oh and was there something you had planned for your roof? Nice patch of grass would look nice up there but OOps, thats green too.

David Williamson
11/29/2007 7:01:38 PM
Their is one serious flaw to going solar, it requires over half the energy to manufacture solar panels that they will ever produce in their lifetime of generating electricity. Secondly a much better storage method for energy generated must be created. We do not have the convenience of needing electricity only when the sun is shining. A large amount of electricity is used in the winter and at night during the winter. If all energy in the world were generated via solar then we need a very good battery to store the energy in peak production for use in non peak periods. It would be nice for all solar but is but a dream for now and anyone thinking they are saving large amounts of energy by using them are fools. Secondly to use them to stop green house gas emission you return to the manufacturing energy and material. Your great warm feeling of I'm saving the environment goes way down when you factor all this in. Their is no such thing as a free lunch and it is hight time that real science goes into these articles and remove the environmentalist propaganda. Secondly where do you think all fossil fuels derived their energy? Oil is nothing but stored photosynthetic energy generated when sunlight struck chlorophyl in plants millions of years ago, the same goes for coal. Our best options are as you put it with conservation.

Michael_75
11/27/2007 2:31:23 PM
CHERNOBYL, huh? Trying to compare US reactor designs to the poorly designed Soviet reactors is like crying out HINDENBERG every time you see a blimp. There's a huge difference between the two, and if we're going to make energy policy decisions based on fear, then we might as well go ahead and get used to being in the dark and cold. If, on the other hand, we're willing to make decisions based on logic and rationality, then there's no reason to suspect that the engineering advances we've made in the last 50 years don't make today's blimps safer than the Hindenberg and modern reactor designs FAR safer than the flawed Soviet ones. Even 103 sixties-era light water reactor that provide 20% of the US electricity today are far more advanced than Chernobyl. Please, spare us the "sky is falling" rhetoric and tell me exactly how you plan to shut down all fossil fuel and nuclear plants, replacing 90% of the country's generating capacity, AND meet future demands that will inevitably materialize as we move towards plug-in electric hybrids for transportation?

Tim_34
11/24/2007 5:48:27 PM
Please note that the advancement in solar cell performance is increasing very quickly. University of Del. has achieved 42% conversion. They are striving for 50% and 55% for selected panel performance. The current production solar panels run in the order of 12 to 20% for selected panels. This research work will more than double current output. This is brilliant work. The helicial wind generators have the best performance with very little noise and are not bothered by wind direction. The MAGLEV wind generators will also increase the output and decrease noise levels. Geothermal production plants HAVE to be increased in size and dispersion across the selected thermal zones. These 3 areas (of energy production) are our best quick solution to reduce energy imports and all that goes with these costs.

Walter_8
11/23/2007 10:08:17 PM
For anyone who believes that nuclear is an acceptable alternative to fossil fuels , I only have one word for you : CHERNOBYL If you don't think that an accident such as Chernobyl can happen here in the US or anywhere else , I don't think you are living in the real world. No matter how many precautions are taken , humans will always make mistakes. And computer back ups are only as good as the humans who use them . Or the humans who designed them.No. Nuclear is not an acceptable alternative to fossil fuels. It's just to dangerous.

Robert_104
11/21/2007 1:51:38 PM
Mr. Jackson, Fusion power does not involve the use of fissionable materials such as uranium. Instead, it involves using Hydrogen isotopes such as Deuterium and tritium, or possible helium-3, to combine 2 or more atoms into a larger atom. This creates energy, and significantly less radioactive waste, than fission. Solar power, based on earth, is limited to the surface area we can use to collect it. By its nature, terrestrial solar will not allow agriculture underneath it, unless mushroom farming. Space based solar power is one alternative; but considering the probable maintenance nightmare of orbital machinery (see the ISS and the trouble they are having there), we are proably better off developing centralized, maintainable fusion power.

Jim_63
11/20/2007 9:12:26 PM
I live in a grid tied solar home. A big point is solar doesn't require any water like coal, nuclear and natural gas. Solar makes the most during the peak time of use. My system is only 2.4 kw and makes more than I need over half the year. I also donate to my utility to buy 800 kwh of renewable energy and doen't even use it most of the year. I'm over 200% green btween my solar system and renewable donation. Why don't more people at least buy 1 block of renewable energy from their utility and start to make a difference

Reggie_2
11/19/2007 10:43:31 PM
Solar may be just as afordable as your utility bill soon. One company is planning to install a complete solar system on residential homes and the customers pays only a small deposit of $500-$1000. Once in place, it will generate clean renewable electricity and replace most of the dirty electricitly. This will cause a drop in the utility bill. This saving will, in most cases, pay for the "rent" fee charged by the company> Imagine, clean renewable electricity for the same price or less than the dorty electricity that we use today. Better yet, the "rent" fee is lock in. Since utility prices increase on a regular basis, the systems can save money. All with no up front charges. I have written many articles on the company in my blog at www.solarjoules.com. Or you can visit www.jointhesolution.com/razmataz if you want to view the companies website information.

Kevin_28
11/19/2007 9:47:25 PM
Solar could be even less expensive than it is now, if this technology gets off the ground http://www.popsci.com/popsci/flat/bown/2007/green/item_59.html

Michael_71
11/19/2007 9:40:52 AM
Nuclear and solar aren't in competition. They BOTH offset fossil-fuel generated energy. And last time I checked, nuclear FUSION had nothing to do with Uranium. Uranium is used in FISSION reactors, and there's enough of it left for well over 100 years - even without recycling and reprocessing. It would be sad indeed, if we couldn't find something better than nuclear fission power in 100 years, but today nuclear generates 74% of the carbon-free energy in the US making it the most valuable player in the fight against global warming. If you think that it's possible to deal with global warming AND replace the fossil fuels in use today AND meet the future energy needs, without nuclear energy, then we are indeed hopeless.

Sarah_25
11/18/2007 7:23:09 PM
The use of solar energy is like a snowball rolling downhill. Like the snowball, solar energy needs that initial push. The Federal government has provided incentives, tax breaks, grants etc, etc for most new technologies including coal, nuclear, oil and gas. However it has done very little for solar of any significance. States have tried to go it alone but for a massive rollout the Federal government needs to scale up their assistance. The current energy bill is bogged down in Congress and the alternative energy sections may be eliminated. We need to pressure our representatives to stop listening to lobbyists and get this country energy independent. Countries such as Germany and Spain are already moving ahead on solar. The amount of money spent on one aircraft carrier would do wonders for solar energy, this country and the planet. Like the snowball we need a good push from the voters. Contact your representative now and voice your opinion. They need to know what you think.

Thomas_30
11/17/2007 5:54:41 PM
Mr. Stuart considers nuclear fusion as a "truly inexhaustible energy source"? Does that mean there are infinite supplies of uranium to fuel these nuclear power plants? What about the waste? And what about the possibility of a meltdown? No amount of nay-saying and truth-twisting will make me believe that we are incapable of developing solar power to the point that we could completely replace every fossil-fuel burning power plant in the world within 20 years or less, especially considering the fact that the energy that reaches earth from sunlight in one hour is more than that used by all human activities in one year. If you have read the latest U.N. report on global warming, you'll see that we really don't have a choice. We need to act now. This quote from Albert Einstein sums it up nicely: "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." Solar power is really the only way to go. We have the technology. All we need now is the will.

Hugh_7
11/16/2007 6:41:43 PM
I appreciate the public's growing acceptance of electric propulsion. I have been publicly advocating for battery electric vehicles (EVs) for almost eight years, ever since renting a GM EV1 for a visit to Los Angeles in early 2000. Mitsubishi will begin selling its iMiEV in 2009; soon after, Subaru, Renault and perhaps even GM will join the dozen small makers that will be offering highway-capable EVs by 2010. Photovoltaics continue to increase in efficiency and drop in price, but even without solar recharging, EVs will reduce air pollution by 95%, compared to internal-combustion engine vehicles. See EVWorld.com for more information on oil-free, zero-emission EVs.

Michael_70
11/16/2007 11:49:08 AM
We have the technology to establish lunar colonies. Why don't we have them? Expense. Just because we have a technology doesn't make it practical to do it. And if we ignore that very important fact, then the people who will be hurt the most are the ones that are least able to afford it - the elderly, poor, and infirm. The biggest solar project on earth - a 350 Megawatt CSP station in California - has been in battle with the economics of running it ever since it was created. And although that solar project represents 95% of the WORLD's solar capacity, it is not even a drop in the bucket compared to what you are describing. The next largest solar project is a miniscule 11 Megawatt "power tower" in Spain. Neither of these can hold a candle to a modern 1600 Megawatt nuclear facility, which is reliable 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But let's just assume for a moment that we plan on taking a technology that is expensive and unreliable (there's only about 6 hours worth of useful sunlight each day) and try to scale it from less than two-tenths of one percent of our electricity production and make it our predominant form of electricity production. It's just inconcievable. Solar is, at best, a way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but it will be half a century or more before it is ready to play a major role in replacing conventional energy sources. Instead of getting everyone's hopes pinned on a pie in the sky, we should instead pursue a combination of wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and nuclear energy until we get there, and invest in developing a truly inexhaustible energy source that is not dependent on the wind blowing or sun shining, such as nuclear fusion.








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