One of the interesting observations I’ve had over the past few weeks is that no matter where on the political spectrum our readers are, they all believe we have to get off our oil addiction. Some of you have sent me some very cool articles on alternative energy and it now appears that both solar and wind could contribute a lot more to our power needs at a reasonable price. And in keeping with my belief that the solutions to our innovation puzzle will be regional, its obvious that every part of the country has different needs and capabilities. There is no Centralized,Top-down solution to moving away from OPEC. But as the Scientific American states, the potential for these clean energy solutions is vast.
Well-meaning scientists, engineers, economists and politicians have proposed various steps that could slightly reduce fossil-fuel use and emissions. These steps are not enough. The U.S. needs a bold plan to free itself from fossil fuels. Our analysis convinces us that a massive switch to solar power is the logical answer.
Solar energy’s potential is off the chart. The energy in sunlight striking the earth for 40 minutes is equivalent to global energy consumption for a year. The U.S. is lucky to be endowed with a vast resource; at least 250,000 square miles of land in the Southwest alone are suitable for constructing solar power plants, and that land receives more than 4,500 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of solar radiation a year. Converting only 2.5 percent of that radiation into electricity would match the nation’s total energy consumption in 2006.
In the Times article on the massive growth of wind farms in Texas, you can feel the wildcatter energy. Oil man Boone Pickens is jumping in with both feet.
“I have the same feelings about wind,” Mr. Pickens said in an interview, “as I had about the best oil field I ever found.” He is planning to build the biggest wind farm in the world, a $10 billion behemoth that could power a small city by itself.
When John Wesley Powell was sent to explore the Colorado River in 1867, he emerged in the Utah Territory from the terrifying ordeal of running rapids the size of a house in a small wooden rowboat. When he finally wrote his report back to the government he stated that the southwest part of the United States was uninhabitable desert with biting winds that did not have enough precipitation to sustain human communities. That of course is exactly what would make the Southwest the center of the alternative solar/wind energy complex.
To the skeptics who will point out that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, the solution is obviously storage of energy. The Scientists have figured that out to0.
Compressed-air energy storage has emerged as a successful alternative. Electricity from photovoltaic plants compresses air and pumps it into vacant underground caverns, abandoned mines, aquifers and depleted natural gas wells. The pressurized air is released on demand to turn a turbine that generates electricity, aided by burning small amounts of natural gas. Compressed-air energy storage plants have been operating reliably in Huntorf, Germany, since 1978 and in McIntosh, Ala., since 1991. The turbines burn only 40 percent of the natural gas they would if they were fueled by natural gas alone, and better heat recovery technology would lower that figure to 30 percent.
Studies by the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., indicate that the cost of compressed-air energy storage today is about half that of lead-acid batteries. The research indicates that these facilities would add three or four cents per kWh to photovoltaic generation, bringing the total 2020 cost to eight or nine cents per kWh.
Obviously building such massive infrastructure is expensive at first, but cheaper to maintain. I still think that Tom Friedman’s Patriot Tax on gasoline is the best idea for financing it. Phase in over two years a $1 per gallon tax on gas which would generate $146 billion in revenue. Let 85% go to the states to finance local public-private alternative energy projects like wind and solar farms. Allow States to fast track small nuclear plants if they choose. The other 15% would go to the National Science Foundation to finance research on Next Gen Hydrogen and other clean fuel research. Gas would be a bit closer to the price paid in Europe and Asia and so the move towards more efficient automobiles would be market oriented rather than mandated.