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A Solar Grand Plan
February 17, 2008 10:16 AM   Subscribe


 
"...but $420 billion in subsidies between 2011 and 2050 would be required..."

and the whole Iraq debacle has cost us how much so far?
posted by From Bklyn at 10:38 AM on February 17, 2008


Ray Kurzweil says, too late!
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 10:41 AM on February 17, 2008


> But $420 billion in subsidies from 2011 to 2050 would be required to fund the infrastructure and make it cost-competitive.

> and the whole Iraq debacle has cost us how much so far?

Coincidentally enough, that's just a little bit less than you've spent on the war in Iraq. So far.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:42 AM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


A direct-current (DC) transmission backbone would also have to be erected to send that energy efficiently across the nation.

So would this be direct current only over the transmission lines, and then turned into AC before it reaches people's homes? Or are we going to all buy new electric razors when this happens?

I'm not going to poo-poo this idea, since, ultimately, we're going to need renewable energy to stave off environmental collapse. From my layman's point of view, SciAm's idea seems at least technically feasible. The question, I think, is whether or not we have the cultural and political will to undertake such a vast change in our way of life -- which moving from fossil fuels to pure solar/wind/biomass would undoubtedly be. It would change every part of our existence, and I'm not sure people would be willing to try it -- even if the alternative is endless wars and environmental catastrophe.
posted by Avenger at 10:45 AM on February 17, 2008


Oops, looks like you're up to about 495 billion now.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:47 AM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Avenger writes "So would this be direct current only over the transmission lines, and then turned into AC before it reaches people's homes?"

Yep, there would be DC-AC substations to convert the DC power into AC.
posted by Mitheral at 10:48 AM on February 17, 2008


..420 billion is probably a lot less than the nuclear option, with all its hazards. Solar technology is making leaps and bounds, by 2050 the efficiency will be so high and the costs so low that this plan will seem quaintly old-fashioned.
posted by stbalbach at 10:49 AM on February 17, 2008


To meet the 2050 projection, 46,000 square miles of land would be needed for photovoltaic and concentrated solar power installations. That area is large, and yet it covers just 19 percent of the suitable Southwest land. Most of that land is barren; there is no competing use value.

There sure will be when you come looking for it. This is where the plan falls apart from my perspective. The amount of environmental challenges, lawsuits and media focus on families forced to move from grandpappy's ranch that will occur from a 19% land grab will be politically devastating. Unless the gov't uses their large military reservations, which I doubt the Pentagon would want to lose.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 10:49 AM on February 17, 2008


Why on earth does the cost of the Iraq war always come up in these threads?
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 10:50 AM on February 17, 2008


You honestly think America and the rest of the world is gonna last another 43 years without ridding themselves of a dependency on oil?
posted by dobbs at 10:52 AM on February 17, 2008


Heard the same talk as I was standing in a gas line in 1973
posted by robbyrobs at 10:53 AM on February 17, 2008


A direct-current (DC) transmission backbone would also have to be erected to send that energy efficiently across the nation.

Hoy hoy!
posted by cillit bang at 11:07 AM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


> Why on earth does the cost of the Iraq war always come up in these threads?

"For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been..."
posted by you just lost the game at 11:09 AM on February 17, 2008 [6 favorites]


The cost of the War in Iraq (on Terror, for spreading democracy, etc) comes up so often because it's a great number to throw out whenever someone bitches about the price of something comparable. "Wait wait ... you're whining about that amount spread over forty years, but in six years we've spent more than that on a pretty stupid war that you were all BOO-YAH about and now figure we should just walk away from?" It's great to put things into perspective for the people who aren't quite bright enough to figure out that freeing us from dependence on a limited foreign resource should be in our defense budget.

No, really. Our defense budget has all kinds of scenarios for attacks on our infrastructure, yet this one thing, which could cripple the country magnificently, is somehow left out. A power grid attack, while awful, would only hit a few states at a shot. Poisoning a water supply has about the same effect. Blowing up a chemical plant takes out a city and surrounding areas. Cut off the oil supply for the United States and we'd be back to about 1920 in terms of technology.

And it wouldn't take long, either. The miracle of the Internet has allowed companies to cut out middlemen, shorten the inventory in supply chains, and keep just as much stock in the background as predictions allow for the next few days. Our margins are quite thin. Cut it off and the trucks full of produce stop rolling into the cities in a couple of months, or less.

And I like solar, but we need to not put our eggs in one basket where we hope efficiency will get us there, eventually, if everyone cooperates. Meanwhile, nuclear power plants of new and safer design slot right into our existing energy infrastructure - we don't have to build a new set of power lines and substations across the country. Nuclear would be a great stopgap.

With any scenario, we'll need ultracapacitors/wickedcoolbatteries to fix us up when it comes to our transportation. All the money the telcos grabbed in the 90's has mysteriously failed to give us fiber to our homes, and how many people's jobs can really be done at home, anyway? I mean people not on Metafilter. Hairdressers? Stockboys?

Because, at the heart of it, the hardest thing to change would be our culture. Those sprawling suburbs and demand for strawberries in any month, nevermind the season, damnit, depend on large amounts of energy hauling us and our goods about.

Now, if you excuse me, it's Sunday, I need to drive by the church and pick up the kids for training at our hidden survivalist camp.
posted by adipocere at 11:12 AM on February 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


46,000 square miles of land would be needed for photovoltaic and concentrated solar power installations. That area is large, and yet it covers just 19 percent of the suitable Southwest land. Most of that land is barren; there is no competing use value.

Except for, you know, the ecosystems and the wildlife and the migrating birds and that stuff.
posted by jokeefe at 11:24 AM on February 17, 2008 [4 favorites]


Well, if Halliburtin or KRB could get their hands on some of that susidy you might see some action, not saying that solar infrastructure would actually be built, but you will see some action.
posted by mattoxic at 11:39 AM on February 17, 2008


I wonder why they would use compressed air for excess energy. I would think that flywheel farms are better. Either way, we could use as much solar right now to match the daytime spikes during business hours, because those spikes determine the need of building more plants using older methods.
posted by Brian B. at 11:49 AM on February 17, 2008


I'm not really sure I want huge tracts of land covered with solar cells. But I guess huge tracts of land are currently covered with corn. That does seem a little more natural, though.

I'd really like to see us invest more in Fusion research. That seems like the holy grail of energy production, since it gives you even more energy then nuclear with much less waste.
posted by delmoi at 11:58 AM on February 17, 2008


46,000 square miles of land would be needed for photovoltaic and concentrated solar power installations. That area is large, and yet it covers just 19 percent of the suitable Southwest land. Most of that land is barren; there is no competing use value.

From wikipedia:
"The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is an agency within the United States Department of the Interior which administers America's public lands, totaling approximately 264 million acres (1,070,000 km²) or one-eighth of the landmass of the country. Most public lands are located in western states."

I agree that the ecological impact could be significant. But so is the ecological impact of burning oil, dumping nuclear waste, or any other human activity. You can at least study which has the least ecological impact.
posted by mai at 12:03 PM on February 17, 2008


Why on earth does the cost of the Iraq war always come up in these threads?

Because anti-war people who turned out to be right about Iraq like to rub pro-war peoples' faces in it, in the hope that this will win the pro-war people over to the anti-war worldview. But vindictive sneering just makes pro-war people hate us even more, and even less likely to come around to our side.

This is kind of obvious, but some people just have to have their har-har-I-was-right moment, at the expense of constructive discourse.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 12:04 PM on February 17, 2008


46,000 square miles of land would be needed for photovoltaic and concentrated solar power installations.

Well, Phoenix needs the shade.
posted by Brian B. at 12:09 PM on February 17, 2008


Because anti-war people who turned out to be right about Iraq like to rub pro-war peoples' faces in it, in the hope that this will win the pro-war people over to the anti-war worldview. But vindictive sneering just makes pro-war people hate us even more, and even less likely to come around to our side.

What does that have to do with anything? It's not like it's not a fact that the war has cost a shitload of money. And most pro-war people will simply forget that they ever supported it. Just look at Hillary Clinton.
posted by delmoi at 12:10 PM on February 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


dumping nuclear waste

Oh, Christ. When will the anti-nuclear people get it? Nuclear waste is not dumped! It's not even landfilled. It's produced in such low amounts that most of it can be kept on-site in a swimming pool. If we got serious about disposing of it, and so-called environmentalists started caring more about living sustainably and less about pretending that we can convince the wind to blow when the sun isn't shining and the sun to shine when the wind isn't blowing, then we could dispose of it safely and permanently in stable geological formations. Seal it in barrels, put the barrels in the ground, put a guard post at the entrance, and forget about it. Less total lifecycle CO2 footprint than hydroelectric power per kilowatt hour, and a far smaller geographic footprint than some ridiculous scheme to build hundreds of square miles of solar panels (just how much energy is that going to take?).
posted by Dasein at 12:14 PM on February 17, 2008 [8 favorites]


I agree that the ecological impact could be significant. But so is the ecological impact of burning oil, dumping nuclear waste, or any other human activity. You can at least study which has the least ecological impact.

The SciAm proposal would see a solar panel farm with a surface area three times that of Vermont. We're talking solar panels it would take you hours to drive past. That's more than just "impact," that's potentially devastating. And we need intact ecosystems more than we need fuel.

The "least ecological impact" would be abandoning this idea that we have a right to do and consume whatever the hell the day's whimsy/boredom/laziness/etc. dictates with no interference.

I'm also curious about the amount of oil that would be required for the fabrication, maintenance, and distribution involved in such an undertaking. I'm not saying solar power isn't part of the solution, especially when combined with wind, hydro, geothermal, etc. But it really does seem that at some point down the road there is an unavoidable impasse to continuing the traditional North American lifestyle.
posted by regicide is good for you at 12:25 PM on February 17, 2008


What does that have to do with anything?

Nothing really. It's just why the Iraq figure always comes up. Not because it's new or relevant - just because it's cathartic, if deeply counterproductive, to axe-grind.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 12:27 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Surely nukes are the better option--an existing technology and infrastructure to deliver cheap power to our electric cars?

At the same time, with solar power costs dropping like a stone the time might be right for more local applications of solar power, especially in roofing materials. I just read an article last week about solar technology following Moore's Law, but damned if I can find the link right now.
posted by LarryC at 12:45 PM on February 17, 2008


I always thought the Iraq war figure came up because it's a great example of opportunity cost. We could have fixed "America's crumbling infrastructure," been half-way through switching to alternative energy sources (thus negating the need to ever fuck with the Middle East in the first place), and maybe jumpstarted a universal healthcare plan with that money. I am probably thinking too literally about the cost of the war, though; it's not like they literally handed out 4 billion hundred-dollar bills to gallivant around in the desert. Anyway, my point is, it's not always 100% axe-grinding to bring it up. It's sort of relevant.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 12:47 PM on February 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Why on earth does the cost of the Iraq war always come up in these threads?
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 10:50 AM


The Iraq war (as well as the GWOT) was the result of a decision to invest in access to/control over traditional, fossil energy sources. It was not an innovative, considered decision by any means; western powers have been invading Iraq since the potential of oil and gas for fuel was realized, for this very reason.

The cost of that investment is
1) an example of the economic power we in the US wield(ed?) economically
2) an example of how we foolishly decided to spend our social product chasing future energy supply

we could at least foolishly, haphazardly decide to invest in clean energy and internal conflict, as opposed to more carbon pollution and external conflict.
posted by eustatic at 12:51 PM on February 17, 2008


Nothing really. It's just why the Iraq figure always comes up. Not because it's new or relevant - just because it's cathartic, if deeply counterproductive, to axe-grind.

Well, it's totally relevant because it's tied up to our dependence on foreign oil. If we had spent the money we spent on Iraq on alternative energy systems we would have been much better off on in terms of our investment.

Furthermore, the cost is actually more then $500 billion, because you need to factor in medical for veterans over time, as well as the capital losses in terms of wear and tear on military equipment.
posted by delmoi at 12:57 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]




As a pro-war person who has come around to the anti-war side (like most of the country), I frankly don't understand why the cost of the invasion and occupation shouldn't be mentioned when discussing large scale policy projects. It's not really that strange that both of arguably the two most pressing public policy issues facing the US would come up in the same thread. It's like saying, "we're talking about buying a car, and all you want to do is bring up that totally irrelevant one weekend in Vegas I lost $10,000."

As to the article, that's a well-researched, well-supported plan. But then, I know roughly nothing about how to harness solar power; it could be full of poppycock and balderdash for all I know. I can see whoever's elected in the US giving consideration to this plan.
posted by ibmcginty at 1:00 PM on February 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


all of these techno-fixes, even solar, need to be bracketed by the fact that Land Use change (aka deforestation, de-prairiefication, and destroying working ecosystems like wetlands and chapparral) releases the most carbon dioxide of any single anthropomorphic source.

NASA, Apr 2007, Dr. Foley [pdf]

Of course we need to challenge (the profits of) the oil and gas industry, as they are the greatest powers standing in the way of our adapting to the changing environment. but it would be foolish to disregard a land ethic in pursuing the end of the dominance of fossil fuel extraction.

environmentalists had tried to argue this point about corn-derived ethanol, but we had to learn the hard way, eh?
posted by eustatic at 1:06 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


From the NRC, ca. 2002:
How much high-level waste is there?

About 160,000 spent fuel assemblies, containing 45,000 tons of spent fuel from nuclear power plants, are currently in storage in the United States. Of these, about 156,500 assemblies are stored at nuclear power plants, and approximately 3,500 assemblies are stored at away-from-reactor storage facilities, such as the General Electric plant at Morris, Illinois. The vast majority of the assemblies are stored in water pools, and less than 5% are stored in dry casks.

About 7,800 used fuel assemblies are taken out of reactors each year and are stored until a disposal facility becomes available.

If all the 160,000 spent fuel assemblies currently in storage were assembled in one place, they would only cover a football field about 5 1/2 yards high.
So now , I guess there are another 39,000 tons stored here and there. Probably the football field is only 7 yards deep in the stuff.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:07 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Nope, my math is bad again. Not 7800 tons a year; 7800 fuel assemblies. Somebody with actual arithmetic skill can fix it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:09 PM on February 17, 2008


Will there even be enough of the rare metals required for PVs? They typically require indium and gallium, which aren't exactly in large supply. While I'm all for the alternatives, none of it is going to work without a radical change in how we use energy-- we'll need to walk and ride our bikes more, drive less or not at all. We'll need mass transit. We'll need to live without A/C. We'll need to learn to live without as much lighting and assorted techno-gadgetry.
posted by drstrangelove at 1:28 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


A direct-current (DC) transmission backbone would also have to be erected to send that energy efficiently across the nation.

In your face Westinghouse and Tesla! In your face!

Yep, there would be DC-AC substations to convert the DC power into AC.

That would be extraordinarily inefficient. Far better to convert home lighting, consumer electronics and small appliances to some DC power input standard. I suspect 48VDC would triumph, but 12 or 24 VDC might work too. Since it seems like lighting will be LED or OLED based by then, we'll already have a lot of the home (outside of the kitchen) using DC power by the time this project would get off the ground.

I wonder why they would use compressed air for excess energy. I would think that flywheel farms are better.

Because you'd have to build a flywheel farm, compressed air storage could take advantage of underground mines, caves, depleted oil deposits, etc... Another option is the LA Water & Power one. Use two reservoirs at different elevations as a giant battery, pump up when power is cheap, and generate hydro power during peak times.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:28 PM on February 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


While I'm all for the alternatives, none of it is going to work without a radical change in how we use energy-- we'll need to walk and ride our bikes more, drive less or not at all. We'll need mass transit. We'll need to live without A/C. We'll need to learn to live without as much lighting and assorted techno-gadgetry.

Conservation is important, especially for dealing with temporary shortages. Witness CAs response to water shortages or rolling blackouts. However, I doubt the government is going to be able to mandate we all bike and use mass transit and not use A/C at the same time that industry is using massive amounts of power. If the economy is what's dictating it, you'll see food prices and everything else go up like crazy. If we're really headed for an energy poor future, expect food riots and widespread suffering. If you are expecting voluntary conservation, we'd need long term 100% participation, and I don't see that happening.

Pray for fusion.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:35 PM on February 17, 2008


This article has several problems.

First, how much natural gas are we talking--and for how long--to use the compressed air storage system? The natural gas supply for North America is in a much more critical state than the global oil supply. Relying on it as a critical part of your plan out to 2100 seems like a big Achilles heel to me. It's not like the switch will flip and suddenly this is going to provide all of our electricity needs. More likely, conventional gas-fired plants will continue to operate as this plan is phased in, so we'd need to see projected supply vs projected demand and how this project will affect that over time.

"Existing plants prove that concentrated solar power is practical, but costs must decrease." (emphasis mine)

For a project this size, I would expect the exact opposite to happen. Look at the tar sands. As the price of their output has risen, so have the costs of their inputs risen even faster. Now that whole thing (which was touted as savior) looks like a big debacle that everyone who can is pulling out of. It's also not a good sign that the no doubt colossal maintenance requirements of this proposed solar farm are handwaved away in half a sentence.

"Adding 48 billion gallons of biofuel would cover the rest of transportation energy."

Where is this going to come from? It should be pointed out that, they're trying to bring back the hydrogen economy. That has its own very serious technical difficulties, but it's here treated as a modular component easily dropped into the plan. In 2100. For the spring and summer. What would we use in fall and winter? How do they propose phasing out the gasoline-powered fleet of vehicles and replacing it with electric ones? This is half a solution at best, and the article's light treatment of it is less akin to a detailed proposal and sounds a lot more like Popular Mechanics-esque cheerleading. This is not a plan. A plan would have more and better numbers and would envision obstacles. This is a rah-rah article. Come back when you have more analysis, guys.
posted by adamdschneider at 1:52 PM on February 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


fwiw, what does iraq cost?

and btw ultracapacitors! or there will be blood :P
posted by kliuless at 1:55 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


A recent TV news story featured a man who erected a wind tower in his yard. He is now on the grid and sells his excess energy to the power company - he has negative power bills. Before REA, I believe windchargers were used in remote sites like farms. They used the same principle as windmills with the aim of creating electricity rather than pumping water or grinding grain.
Restrictive covenants being what they are, a wind tower in every yard might not be feasible, but perhaps they and solar panels might be placed on apartment and office buildings. Gradually, lower utility costs might make home installations more welcome.
posted by Cranberry at 2:05 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Because anti-war people who turned out to be right about Iraq like to rub pro-war peoples' faces in it

If I could interrupt the resident rightists' pity party going on here, I think the issue goes a little deeper than that. There are a group of people in this country -- for lack of a better term, let's call them Present-Day Conservative Republicans, who "turn out to be" WRONG about damn near every public policy issue this country has faced, for the past 50-odd years.

Wrong about Segregation. Wrong about Cuba. Wrong about Vietnam. Wrong about the Draft. Wrong about Interracial Marriages. Wrong about Gay Rights. Wrong about Abortion. Wrong about the Energy Crisis (the first time). Wrong about Ketchup being a vegetable. Wrong about Evolution. Wrong about Global Warming. Wrong about deficit spending. Wrong about Iraq. Wrong about the present Energy Crisis.

There is no "getting through to" or "common ground to be found with" these people, for they are forever the ~25% deadenders this country. Our only hope as a nation is to keep them contained in their chosen Party host until they die off and their children become a bit more progressive and join the fight to take back this country from corrupted powers that control it.
posted by panamax at 2:07 PM on February 17, 2008 [19 favorites]


Brian B.: "A few related ideas:

Energy today is wasted on standby modes.

The Sahara would be a better place for this idea as a trial.
"

I can certainly relate to the article about vampire usage. The Kill A Watt tool mentioned is outstanding. I got one this past xmas and using it prompted me to replace my old HTPC, which drew 130 watts at idle, with a new one that draws 70 watts.

Also found out that my fairly modest home theater setup draws 65 watts even with everything powered off.
posted by aerotive at 2:16 PM on February 17, 2008


Wow, I always thought DC transmission was less efficient than AC transmission. According to this PDF [HTML link here] I'm wrong.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:23 PM on February 17, 2008


It would be interesting to see if the money would be better spent on research for better solar and other technologies.

Bjorn Lomborg suggests that the best response to global warming would be for the developed world to spend 0.25% of GDP on renewable energy research or about 25B a year. This is more than the proposed plan here, but that is a global figure.

Perhaps some of both would be the way to go.

Why is everyone picking on the costs of Iraq alone? Don't forget the costs of the Bush tax cuts and the increase in general military spending. The US is now spending about 50% of global spending on defense, compared to around 25% under Reagan in the 1980s. For a country with two friendly neighbours and water to the east and the west this is quite something.
posted by sien at 2:25 PM on February 17, 2008


Flywheels in California's energy industry.

As far as new ideas go, it seems that solar panels first belong on rooftops where they provide shade and extra power closer to the demand. Recumbent exercise bikes generating power could also be plugged in, along with windmills in windy areas, with home computers monitoring household energy waste. I don't think that large scale grandiose schemes would ever help the average person with so much construction cost and transmission waste, but the typical response by some consumers is to think that private energy companies are trying to lower their bills.
posted by Brian B. at 2:27 PM on February 17, 2008


From the article:

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.


I would go a little deeper than that and suggest that it's the lack of a long-term perspective and our collective inability to address problems that we might be facing three or four decades hence, that pose the biggest obstacles to this project.
posted by jason's_planet at 2:35 PM on February 17, 2008


adamdschneider:For a project this size, I would expect the exact opposite to happen. Look at the tar sands. As the price of their output has risen, so have the costs of their inputs risen even faster.

I don't think there is a lot to be gained by comparing a very-energy intensive mining and refining project to a renewable energy project. The former has large capital costs and large ongoing costs (which tend to increase after you skim off the easy to get to stuff) and the latter has large capital costs and very small ongoing costs.
posted by ssg at 2:57 PM on February 17, 2008


An interesting quote from the article for those who object to the land requirements:

Although this area may sound enormous, installations already in place indicate that the land required for each gigawatt-hour of solar energy produced in the Southwest is less than that needed for a coal-powered plant when factoring in land for coal mining.
posted by ssg at 3:00 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't think there is a lot to be gained by comparing a very-energy intensive mining and refining project to a renewable energy project.
posted by ssg at 4:57 PM on February 17


That's fair, but I think it's disingenuous of them to act like there's no way things could turn out differently from their scenario. What if the simple act of gathering the raw materials for this massive project causes the price of those materials to rise precipitously, imperiling the project's economics? These heavy metal thin films still make up only a small fraction of PV panel production, I believe, and it's not clear to me whether or not the resources exist to scale them up to the extent discussed here. More research needed.
posted by adamdschneider at 3:27 PM on February 17, 2008


just saw this in the nytimes :P
In 2006, Vinod Khosla, a veteran venture capitalist best known as a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, discovered an obscure Australian company, Ausra, pursuing solar thermal. He persuaded the management of Ausra to move to Silicon Valley and helped it raise money.

Ausra recently signed a deal with PG&E, the big California utility company, to supply a large solar plant. “The best work in solar is happening in Silicon Valley,” Mr. Khosla says.
cheers!
posted by kliuless at 3:30 PM on February 17, 2008


So the gist of the above seems to be: we can't do anything because anything we do will have consequences. So by all means, let's not do anything, because, y'know that's worked so well up to now.
posted by nax at 3:50 PM on February 17, 2008


This is a nice article. Especially like that some attention is finally being brought to the underfunding of research on renewables in general.

As far as the concerns about solar PV materials shortages (obviously not talking about silicon/sand here), the researchers I am aware of already take into account the abundance of the materials and scalability of any process as a prerequisite for working on materials they're developing (i.e. meh).

Just remember energy (coal/natural gas/nuclear/oil) is the biggest Business in the world at the moment, expect mis-information about alternatives.

For more info about these issues, some pretty good talks are here (LBNL).
posted by peppito at 4:16 PM on February 17, 2008


adamdschneider wrote: Look at the tar sands. As the price of their output has risen, so have the costs of their inputs risen even faster. Now that whole thing (which was touted as savior) looks like a big debacle that everyone who can is pulling out of.

I'm not doubting this, but do you have a source? Last time I heard, there was enough oil in Alberta for 10 bajillion years and everything will be fine. (?)
posted by Avenger at 4:44 PM on February 17, 2008


Well, it looks like I spoke out of turn about the pulling of investments, however...

http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2915

http://canada.theoildrum.com/node/2931

http://money.cnn.com/2006/10/04/news/economy/oil_sands/?postversion=2006100700

There are some articles about the lowering of output expectations, the delays and cost overruns, etc. Generally, it seems like things never quite turn out as good as their boosters say they will.
posted by adamdschneider at 5:10 PM on February 17, 2008


The huge amount of land needed will certainly shrink as time goes on and solar cell technology improves. But why put our eggs in one basket? Wind and geothermal sources (among others) will also certainly improve, so the govt. should reward the technologies that show the most promise. And the private sector will follow.
posted by zardoz at 6:25 PM on February 17, 2008


I don't understand the objection that says because we have gasoline powered cars now, and a plan calls for electric cars in 40 years, the transition is impossible.
How many 40yr old cars are on the road today? Surely everyone driving a classic 2008 Hummer in 2040 will be able to have enough gasoline, as the numbers will be tiny.
In Australia over the last decade or two we have seen a migration to liquified petroleum gas (which we produce in Australia) for transport.
Currently, it is about half the price of gasoline and gets better than 80% of the mileage.
Right now just about the entire nations taxi fleet runs on it, as do many buses and a growing number of private cars, particularly those drivers doing high mileage.
The infrastructure change is a large above ground high pressure tank installed at normal fuel stations, and either an extra pump or an existing pump converted. The pumps look identical except the fuel nozzle screws onto the car fuel tank inlet instead of just sticking it in.
Already, a lot of fuel stations have these LPG tanks, but not all - it isn't necessary to make every piece of infrastructure available from day 1.
Similarly, several popular types of cars (including the best selling family size sedans and SUVs) can be purchased with in-built LPG systems for a couple of thousand dollars extra from the dealer, and older cars can have the extra gas tank fitted for around $2500. I believe the payback for an average mileage driver is about 2-3 years.
These systems maintain the normal gasoline tank in most cases so if you are driving 1000kms in remote areas where LPG is in limited supply you can still fill up with gasoline.
This technology isn't cutting edge, but nor does it solve every problem, but it is an improvement over gasoline made from imported oil that is a step in the right direction.
Hydrogen, for example, has some trickier issues with transport and storage, but not exponentially more difficult. If the US can create national energy, from solar or nuclear or whatever, the transport sector can quite painlessly transform away from imported oil.
posted by bystander at 6:54 PM on February 17, 2008


I hope someone runs some serious tests about what would happen geologically if all these air-compressed-caverns, I don't know, did something.

and, re:
with home computers monitoring household energy waste
no lols? not a chortle? an "oh, therein lies the paradox?"
posted by DenOfSizer at 7:12 PM on February 17, 2008


Who said impossible? I said I wanted to see a real proposal, and I don't count this as one.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:19 PM on February 17, 2008


Iraq is about US "strategic interests" - OIL and American energy security. If we are willing to spend $500 billion to secure stable oil flow in the Middle East, the cost to create our own home-grown energy at home is a fair comparison.
posted by stbalbach at 7:59 PM on February 17, 2008


The global energy network semi conducting power lines circling the arctic.
posted by hortense at 8:12 PM on February 17, 2008


We also assume that energy demand will grow nationally by 1 percent a year. In this scenario, by 2050 solar power plants will supply 69 percent of U.S. electricity and 35 percent of total U.S. energy. This quantity includes enough to supply all the electricity consumed by 344 million plug-in hybrid vehicles, which would displace their gasoline counterparts, key to reducing dependence on foreign oil and to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

I like that they included plug-in hybrids as well - the ability to travel 40-50 miles on electricity alone would put a huge dent in the need for oil for gas. We'd still have other needs, fuel for semis, tractors, airplanes and what not. But its a huge chunk of our oil demand going away. Traditional unleaded gasoline slowly fades away.

I still think the biggest problem is scaling up. Nanosolar might be great, but they're only producing 430MW/yr over 20 years, or 8.3GW. And that figure is the theoretical max, I've found that the practical limits for traditional PV are really 75-80% of that figure (this includes losses due to DC->AC conversion). At peak, that 8GW can power anywhere from 2.5-5M people, depending on climate, demand, etc.

I'm of the mind that the US needs to start recycling the waste nuke material, preferably into something that we can again use for generating power. The reason why the government wants to dump it all in a cave somewhere is because they're a huge producer of nuclear waste - the Navy and Air Force with their nuke-powered subs and carriers.

Hydro + Nuke + Solar + Wind - thats what I think the power should be. And your preferred power source should be whatever works near you - I live in the southwest so solar is by far the best option. I wish my electric company would spend more money on renewable energy - start making deals with customers to put PV systems on their roof, the company owns and maintains the power, the resident gets power at a fixed rate (below the normal rate of course).
posted by SirOmega at 8:20 PM on February 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Avenger, if you're interested in pursuing adam's stats further, The Oil Drum is an excellent source of information. I'd add to the links that adam has already provided by pointing out that there there's a nice world production overview here that mentions Alberta's tar sands.

By way of summary, the production costs and energy inputs to scale tar sands production is huge. In KSA, you can sink another well to increase production, and the stuff comes out sweet and light; in Alberta, the tar sands need to be mined, carried off by dump trucks and "sweated" under a lot of hot water or natural gas (or both) to get the crude out. Scaling that up to 2.5 million barrels per day (which is equal to Canada's own demand) is going to be incredibly expensive. You have to mine several tons of tar sands to get a barrel of oil, and then somehow dispose of the waste. There's a reason they're worried about water shortages from the Athabasca and proposing we put nuclear power stations up there.

Can the stuff last? Maybe. There's certainly a lot of it there. But you can't get it out fast enough to match demand, and the costs - financial and environmental - are enormous. The only reason it's scaling up now is that crude is at $100 per barrel, making it profitable.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 8:24 PM on February 17, 2008


McKinsey consultants have a page with some solutions of theirs.

One way or another, the capitalist/socialist hodge podge system will come up with the answer, the Malthusian Doom lords will then have to come up with another reason why we are all doomed in 20-30 years.
posted by sien at 8:43 PM on February 17, 2008


at the expense of constructive discourse.

Since when has there ever been constructive discourse between the supporters of an ill-thought losing war and the detractors of said war?

Here is what happens. The supporters, who were shown to be utterly wrong, when faced with wasted life and untold suffering of their decisions, say:

"Hey. The past is over. We need to move on. Rehashing what was done does us no good."

"Okay." Say the anti-war people. "That's good. We need to reconcile. Put the past behind us. Let's maybe help rebuild this poor destroyed country so we ca..."

"HOLY FUCK! Are you stupid pussy commies out of your mind! Give those _____ (rag head, dinks, nips, krauts... etc etc) our frigg'n tax dollars! Fuck you!"

"Bu..."

"Hey we better bomb these other mother fuckers over here! I think they may be up to some kind of shit!"

"sigh."
posted by tkchrist at 8:44 PM on February 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


sien, just which one do you think is infinite: human ingenuity, or energy? Perhaps both?
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 8:56 PM on February 17, 2008


I'm not doubting this, but do you have a source? Last time I heard, there was enough oil in Alberta for 10 bajillion years and everything will be fine. (?)

Even with the price of oil rising and projected to rise so much more, the break-even point for getting to tar-sands oil is still too expensive for private oil interests to do all the needed infrastructure work and profitably exploit. here was talk of needing to build nuclear plant up there to provide the power to heat up the sands or some such. And then people figured out how much that would cost. I dunno. Maybe they will fool the Canadian tax payer into footing the bill. Then rip them off.

And, predictably, like every other magic reserve (the Gulf Coast, Iraq, and my god, Saudi Arabian reserves) on the planet it's capacity was much overstated. Because, obviously, it is in everybody in the oil businesses interest to overstate a reserve capacity... until they get to it. Hey! I guess there wasn't as much as we though. Guess we have to raise the price!
posted by tkchrist at 9:16 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


BHG: Neither. But there is an awful lot of both.
posted by sien at 9:26 PM on February 17, 2008


There is, sien. But eventually one, or both, is exhausted. The question is when. We've been very good, and very lucky, since the mid-17th century. (Or, if you wish, from the invention of fire). So far, it's gone wood -> coal -> steam -> electricity -> oil. But past performance is no guarantee of future success. We can't just hand-wave and say "the market will take care of it". That's as foolish as any prayer.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 10:04 PM on February 17, 2008


If most people seriously believe that oil is running out, the incentives the market provides will deal with it, because that is exactly the situation that markets handle best: the scarcity, real or perceived, of commodities. If people don't believe that oil is running out, how will you convince them to spend $400 billion on DC infrastructure? The problem is not market vs. non-market, but that people don't believe oil is running out.
posted by Pyry at 11:36 PM on February 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


BHG: Indeed. But the market, along with government on spending on long term research and some subsidies probably will.

A huge part of the solution may already be here, with CSP described in the article and the myriad of solar options out there really beginning to kick in. Have some nanosolar and also check out their competitors. It's really amazing stuff.
posted by sien at 1:21 AM on February 18, 2008


Storing any significant pressure of air in a natural cave is a fantasy. They typically form along fissures in layers of sedimentary rock. The fact that the fissures are there means you won't be able to pressurize the voids with any degree of efficiency; they leak. Further, in attempting to use caves for this purpose, you'd run headlong into the various Cave Protection Acts now in force, and the bat conservation efforts that now have the law behind them. Even if you could somehow make a cave airtight, if it had bats in it (and most do), you would not be allowed to, because it would kill the bats.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:53 AM on February 18, 2008


Kirth, I don't think they are talking about caves with bats and spelunkers, but the same types of underground caverns that are used to store pressurized natural gas.

"The first instance of natural gas successfully being stored underground occurred in Weland County, Ontario, Canada, in 1915."

Someone's great-grandparent in 1915 is compressing natural gas and storing it underground, but in 2008 we are told to quit fantasizing about future possibilities. Quite a contrast, no?
posted by dglynn at 5:32 AM on February 18, 2008


Energy isn't a commodity. It's not something you make, it's something you gain.

And on reflection, my list was poorly written. I apologize for that. It should have been: wood --> coal --> oil --> uranium.

Yes, nanosolar is wonderful. But how exactly does solar power help me here in Calgary, where the sun is not more than 20 degrees up in the sky right now, and lasts for about eight hours?
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 8:45 AM on February 18, 2008


I said I wanted to see a real proposal, and I don't count this as one.

Of course this isn't a real proposal: it's an article in a pop science magazine. No one is suggesting we go out tomorrow and do exactly what this article lays out. The article just pushes the idea that we could do something with large scale with solar a little further into the public discourse and gives an estimate of the cost. Of course more research is needed. It's just silly to bash something like this for not being detailed enough.
posted by ssg at 9:05 AM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


The issue I have with solar is every time I do some research into it there is a new technology, either a panel, new installation processes, auto "sun finding" solutions, state and federal deals to help some states afford solar etc. I have even read about a company that is basically printing thin sheets of solar material that is much cheaper than the old glass looking panels... I'm guessing I am not the only one waiting on the solar industry to settle down a bit. I would love to tie in to the grid here and reduce my electric bills but not having to finance a 20,000 dollar "after state and federal refund help" solar system that I hope and pray lasts the 5-7 years it takes for me to see any return on cost.
posted by Mardigan at 9:25 AM on February 18, 2008


*shrug*

Then why are we even talking about it? What good is it if it can't be questioned?
posted by adamdschneider at 9:26 AM on February 18, 2008


dglynn, those aren't caves of the kind BrotherCaine seemed to be talking about.
Once a suitable salt dome or salt bed deposit is discovered, and deemed suitable for natural gas storage, it is necessary to develop a 'salt cavern' within the formation. Essentially, this consists of using water to dissolve and extract a certain amount of salt from the deposit, leaving a large empty space in the formation.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:46 AM on February 18, 2008


all of these techno-fixes, even solar, need to be bracketed by the fact that Land Use change (aka deforestation, de-prairiefication, and destroying working ecosystems like wetlands and chapparral) releases the most carbon dioxide of any single anthropomorphic source.

I think it should at least be pointed out that the proposal involves building solar plants in places like the mojave desert, so it can't be directly compared to, say, clearing out a forest to grow corn for ethanol. no deforestation is going to occur, no wetlands would be destroyed.

now, granted, deserts aren't devoid of life, and they have their own ecosystems and their own balance mechanisms. But it doesn't necessarily follow that building a solar plant presents the same issues with deforestation and mass releases of carbon that building other types of plants encounters.

The amount of environmental challenges, lawsuits and media focus on families forced to move from grandpappy's ranch that will occur from a 19% land grab will be politically devastating.

Huh? How many ranches are there in Death Valley? The land they're talking about using is still mostly untouched by humans. Sure there's an argument that as soon as the land is identified for this use, its value rises, but the BLM owns enough land already that we're not talking about invoking eminent domain or seizing land from farms.
posted by acid freaking on the kitty at 12:03 PM on February 18, 2008


I hope someone runs some serious tests about what would happen geologically if all these air-compressed-caverns, I don't know, did something.

Have you thought about a job writing research applications?
posted by biffa at 1:30 PM on February 18, 2008


Huh? How many ranches are there in Death Valley?

Death valley is 9000 sq mi ^. The plan calls for 46000 sq mi or "19 percent of the suitable Southwest land". I would assume that "suitable" means relatively flat and accessible. The process of gathering that much land will be extremely difficult even if the BLM and military reservations are used. You can be sure that access issues would arise, and eminent domain would need to be used.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 2:55 PM on February 18, 2008


cool, thanks for the numbers, kuujjuarapik. This paragraph from the article still sticks out at me, though:
Some 30,000 square miles of photovoltaic arrays would have to be erected. Although this area may sound enormous, installations already in place indicate that the land required for each gigawatt-hour of solar energy produced in the Southwest is less than that needed for a coal-powered plant when factoring in land for coal mining. Studies by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., show that more than enough land in the Southwest is available without requiring use of environmentally sensitive areas, population centers or difficult terrain. Jack Lavelle, a spokesperson for Arizona’s Department of Water Conservation, has noted that more than 80 percent of his state’s land is not privately owned and that Arizona is very interested in developing its solar potential. The benign nature of photovoltaic plants (including no water consumption) should keep environmental concerns to a minimum.
80% of Arizona = 91,198 sq mi not privately owned... surely the state government can decree a sizable chunk of that to become solar power plants without too much hassle, right? (not trying to invalidate the access issues you raise, though. that probably does have potential thorns.)

also, i think it's worth keeping in mind that we can go a long way into the first part of this plan before we start to be committed past the point of no return. the above cited National Renewable Energy Lab has always said that the best way to attack carbon emissions is with the wedge model, where a variety of technologies add up to replace a much larger section of energy that used to be provided by non-renewables. Going down the road of this plan can ramp up the solar wedge, and doesn't have to come at the expense of the other wedges. If, say, 10 years into the plan it turns out that we can't get the amount of land we need, it doesn't mean the plants we built in the meantime aren't producing power anymore.
posted by acid freaking on the kitty at 4:09 PM on February 18, 2008


hey, another grand a small contribution to solar cell research! "Researchers propose that the efficiency of polymer-based solar cells could be improved by the addition of little inorganic crystals... the two authors of this paper do not work in the field of solar cells, so they are unlikely to demonstrate this idea themselves. I hope that someone who is in the position to try the idea out notices the paper and puts a student on it." :P
posted by kliuless at 6:48 PM on February 18, 2008


Lots of bats going to be displaced by saturating underground liquids, Kirth?

The objections you originally raised have nothing to do with what is being discussed. There are plenty of problems, and costs and associated compromises, but your initial dismissal was pretty flippant while not exactly relevant, agreed?

I just don't want to hear Rush babbling that the energy companies want to store energy in compressed air underground, but eco-nuts are worried about the impact on bats! Bats preventing hard working people from making a better world! Hippies are crazy!
posted by dglynn at 8:44 PM on February 18, 2008


You're not making sense. Did you not read what I was responding to, even after I linked to it? Kind of flippant of you to complain about my comment being irrelevant without bothering to find out what it was related to, eh.

Also, your hooting about "hippies" is a lot of meaningless noise. You don't know who you're talking to.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:03 AM on February 19, 2008


Surely nukes are the better option--an existing technology and infrastructure to deliver cheap power to our electric cars?

Not universally and not long term. As of last year uranium production only provides the industry with 65% of the fuel needed to keep reactors worldwide running - they've been living off of stockpiles for years now. Part of this has to do with limited investment in uranium mining due to the uncertain public opinion of nuclear power, but part of it is just that uranium is not a widely available element. We could certainly ramp up uranium exploration and mining to keep existing plants running well, but if the entire world converted to nuclear power, we would see a huge uranium shortage pretty quickly.
posted by chundo at 9:27 AM on February 19, 2008




Solar-paneled fence between us and Mexico!
posted by Eideteker at 10:26 AM on February 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


The Kill A Watt tool mentioned is outstanding. I got one this past xmas and using it prompted me to replace my old HTPC, which drew 130 watts at idle, with a new one that draws 70 watts.

It is quite likely that all you accomplished was to increase your energy consumption. Difference is that instead of withdrawing 130W at your wall socket, you withdrew tens of thousands of watts in China, where your new PC was manufactured.

It is entirely possible and perhaps even probable that keeping the original HTPC over its lifespan would have consumed less energy than replacing it will save.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:34 PM on February 19, 2008


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