09.09.09

Prairie dog shade

Posted in Energy at 12:46 by RjZ

Smoke stacks and chimneys sprout frequently across the Chinese landscape and tourists passing in trains tsk tsk at the multi-hued gases streaming from them. While air pollution may have decreased in the United States and Europe over the last few decades, it’s primarily because we have exported it to China. The United States was a leading producer of steel, but doing so was blackening the skies around Pittsburg and the rest of the steel belt. Today, those cities are cleaner, but steel production, along with a wide range of heavy industries has departed for foreign shores, primarily China.

That’s likely part of the reason that instead of shaking their heads, or wagging their fingers, the Chinese people see all those stacks as one thing: progress.
Within 50 miles of my home in Colorado, there are recently three small fields slowly being covered by arrays of tilted aluminum infrastructure and black glass plates. Solar photovoltaic (PV) power. For now, all we notice are weedy fields they cover looking formerly fallow and unused, except by prairie dogs growing confused by the new shade above them. Drivers whizzing passed the new solar plants see one thing progress.

Today, fields of solar cells are shiny new beacons of a clean energy future, but their meager output will require them to cover field after field before they generate enough power to make a dent in our demand. The dirty little secret of photovoltaics, however, are the raw materials and processes it takes to make them. Thin film photovoltaics would cover every square inch of prairie dog towns across Colorado and still have trouble suppling enough energy for our state’s meager needs, and higher efficiency solar cells require rare earth metals and minerals. They’re not called ‘rare’ for nothing. Some scientists wonder if there will be enough of these elements on the entire earth to meet our needs. Better fund NASA’s trips to near earth asteroids soon

Let’s not forget that solar cells alone are no solution at all, unless, of course, you enjoy candle light dinners and never watch tv after dark. Solar energy, obviously, doesn’t make it to your home at night, and must be stored somewhere for use when it’s dark out. Several schemes exist (molten salt, pump storage, etc.) even if none of them are very promising from an economic viewpoint, but a new field alone, without storage, isn’t the progress it’s pretending to be. It’s barely a glass half full for a thirsty world.

Solar energy holds huge promise, of course. My roof would only look better with a few of these black panels on top, and I doubt anyone would care of the whole neighborhood, city, or state, followed suit. Home and other distributed sources of electricity reap a double benefit, sparing us the power distribution losses that steal as much as a quarter of the power we generate before it ever gets to our high definition televisions. Roofs everywhere aren’t being used for anything other than keeping the rain and snow off of furniture. Prairie dogs and farmers, and I predict, anyone who enjoys to the view may feel differently about all those fallow fields.

1 Comment »

  1. pk said,

    September 10, 2009 at 12:26

    You forgot to mention the benefits of rubber. Actually, I mean rubbers: “According to the report for the UK’s Optimum Population Trust, putting the brake on global population growth would be five times cheaper than any other method of tackling the world’s greenhouse gases.”

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