Sunday, November 14, 2010


More thoughts on energy ....

I want to draw your attention to an advertisement.

It's not a bad ad. It's not misleading. I'm not about to launch off into another tedious tirade about Lies-From-Madison-Avenue.

But it is an ad that concerns me all the same.

You've probably seen it. It's been in a lot of the glossy print publications. At the top there is a large photo of a number of women—I believe they may be of the Tuareg people, but I'm not sure. Below that there is, on the left, the name of the sponsoring company, and, on the right, the following: "0.3% of Saharan solar energy could power Europe."

And that's what worries me.

Here's why. It lends itself to a kind of thinking that I encounter a lot among our decision-making elites. Specifically, it suggests that the energy crisis is a simple problem with a simple cure. All we have to do is [insert preferred solution here] and everything will be fine.

But there's the rub. That's not true.

Let's just take this ad. Again, I have no quarrel with the company that ran it. But that "0.3 %" which seems so quick and easy, is troubling.

There are a lot of unanswered questions behind that little number three. First, three tenths of a percent of the "solar energy" which falls on the Sahara might indeed power all of Europe, but can we catch it? What sort of collectors are we talking about? Are these solar cells? Mirrors focusing light on a boiler? Either way, what sort of efficiency is involved? Are the solar cells capable of turning 100% of all the energy that falls on into usable electricity? Last time I checked, the best of them does about 10%. That's good, but it isn't 100%.

But, let's say for the sake of argument that we can capture .3% of all the light that falls in the Sahara. Or that .3% is all we need even given the efficiencies of current technologies. If so, what does that mean in terms of construction? Do we put flat panel collectors or mirrors over .3% of the whole desert? The Sahara is about 3.3 million square miles. My math isn't good, but I believe that translates out to being about ten thousand square miles. For comparison, Rhode Island is about a thousand square miles.

Okay, let's say we are really going to cover all that territory with mirrors or panels. How are we going to pay for it? And, once we've done it, how are we going to keep them upright in a sandstorm? How are we going to maintain them? How are we going to keep them clean? Each time they get dusty, after all, their efficiency drops. Are we going to employ millions of Berbers to dash about the desert with squeegees?

Let's say we've got those problems licked. There are still lots of others to worry about—like, how do we store the energy we get? How do we transmit it? How do we protect the installations from sabotage? Particularly given the political instability of the region?

And on, and on, and on.

Now, this is not to say that these problems couldn't be dealt with. In fact, I notice that European scientists have indeed looked at all the issues and pronounced a Saharan solar facility "the size of Wales" quite feasible.

But it won't be a quick fix or a cheap one. And the same is true for any solution to the energy crisis that we can conceive. Clean nukes, controlled fusion, wind turbines, tidal power, rooftop solar…whatever.

But no one in power seems to be saying that. What we hear instead is that oh-so-seductive "all we have to do is X…" and everything will be just ducky.

Which is scary.

We are going to have to deal with the energy crisis. It isn't going to be easy. It is going to cost us big money. It is going to take a long time. Our standard of living is going to decline until we're finished. But it has to be done…for our children's sake, if not our own.

And having our leaders pretend otherwise is dangerous if only because it lulls us into the belief that we can delay action until some convenient time in the future.

But there will never be a convenient time.

So, let us act. Let us demand that our leaders confront reality and be honest about it. Let them know that they must speak the hard truth, or we will find someone who can.

We cannot survive anything else. We cannot again descend, again, into the delusions…the pleasant but deadly dreams…of a .3% solution.

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