Written by Clayton B. Cornell
Published on March 25th, 200845 CommentsPosted in Solar power
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In January, Scientific American writers unleashed an ambitious plan to halt global warming, eliminate our dependence on petroleum and the substantial trade deficit, boost the economy and create 3 million jobs, and brighten the dismal forecasts for the mid twenty-first century.
The plan is conceptually simple but would be substantial to implement:
Construct a 30,000 square mile array of solar panels in the Southwest,
along with concentrated solar power arrays and,
a massive direct-current power transmission backbone to distribute electricity throughout the country.
Excess power produced by the photovoltaic arrays would be distributed and stored as compressed air in below-ground caverns.
Development of such a system could provide almost three-quarters of the nation’s electricity by 2050.
If this sounds like fantasy-land, it’s not. The technology is already here, and even if it wasn’t the need for renewable power is very real. Some scientists are calling for an all-out Manhattan-Project-style focus on developing alternative energy sources. One thing is almost certain: if we can’t move beyond coal as our (worldwide) primary energy source, we’re in for a rocky future.
I’ve written several posts lately about plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and their need for renewable energy charging sources. PHEVs are a stepping stone as the future of transportation heads toward electric vehicles powered either by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells. Solar power would be the ultimate source of clean energy for either type of electric vehicle.
The authors of the Scientific American article think all of this energy can come from solar power. Here are some excerpts:
Utilizing only 2.5% of the sun’s energy falling onto the 250,000 square miles in the Southwest suitable for constructing solar power plants could match the total power used in the US in 2006.
With a massive investment in solar power plants and infrastructure, solar could provide 69% of US electricity and 35% of total energy (including transportation) by 2050.
If wind, biomass, and geothermal power sources were also developed, the US could produce 100% of its electricity and 90% of its transportation energy (in the form of hydrogen) from renewable sources.
To make this happen, the US would have to invest $10 billion per year for the next 40 years. For comparison, the US is now spending $12 billion per month for military involvement Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. The entire solar array would cost approximately 15% of the total bill for both of these operations. $420 billion is also less than the tax subsidies paid for the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure in the last 35 years.
A conversion to renewable energy of this scale would displace 300 coal and 300 natural gas-fired power plants, and eliminate all imported oil. Even better, greenhouse-gas emissions would be reduced to 62% below 2005 levels.
In sum, the potential is there, but it’s going to take some work. As the authors conclude:
The greatest obstacle to implementing a renewable U.S. energy system is not technology or money, however. It is the lack of public awareness that solar power is a practical alternative—and one that can fuel transportation as well. Forward-looking thinkers should try to inspire U.S. citizens, and their political and scientific leaders, about solar power’s incredible potential. Once Americans realize that potential, we believe the desire for energy self-sufficiency and the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions will prompt them to adopt a national solar plan.