Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Solar Energy Myths and Challenges

The peak oil community owes a debt of gratitude to King Hubbert, Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrere, Buz Ivanhoe and others in the petroleum industry who brought to light the challenge which humanity faces. And of course it is only logical that they were among the first to ask, "What next?!" It is also logical that when all you know is a geologist's pick, you respond by swinging that pick. The first solution that comes to mind is: find more oil. Trouble with that, of course, is that eventually this algorithm fizzles out, and another has to take its place. Since petroleum industry folks don't necessarily consider themselves to be in the energy business, it is not surprising that most of them would have little knowledge or appreciation for the potential of solar energy solutions.

In fact, it would not be surprising if petroleum people were to bring prejudices to the party and find fault with renewables:

Solar (wind) is intermittent.
  • Good point. I guess we will need to hire intermittency engineers.
  • Better than exhaustible.
Solar is diffuse.
  • Same as highly distributed. Lots of people (countries) got cheated out of oil, but everybody gets enough sun, even the penguins.
  • Okay, so match your energy conversion device to the conditions: Thin is in. (Go hire diffusivity engineers.)
Solar isn't efficient enough.
  • As I pointed out before, your car is < 1% efficient, even after 100 years of refinement.
  • Solar panels are 20% efficient and getting better. Sounds like the pot calling the kettle black!
Solar can never match the energy density of gasoline.
  • Gasoline is a dangerously flammable liquid. Solar energy is a flux. I can make better devices that run with flux than you can with liquids. There is no comparison.
  • I grant you that oil is pretty magical stuff but using it for energy is like burning the furniture to keep warm on a cold winter night.
  • So we had better keep as much of our oil as possible.
  • In a pinch we can make solids, liquids and gases from sunlight (e.g., for airplanes and rockets).
Bottom line, if you are designing an energy-something that has never been built and you aren't a solar engineer, I recommend you hire one.

And it might also be time to start asking some questions.

Since we use most of our oil for transportation, the first question might be, "How do we engineer a transportation system based 100% on renewable energy (that isn't compound stupid)?"

Now at least we have a definition of what we need to do next. If instead of building more energy-efficient cars, we get busy designing and building solar transportation, it might take fifty years, but we won't be wasting our children's inheritance.

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