Why Solar?

Today I want to offer a clear, concise statement on why solar is the only solution to our world’s energy and pollution problems.

(1) Our Sun is an immense nuclear reactor. The fusion of hydrogen atoms occurring within its core releases an enormous amount of energy that radiates through the solar system. Only a fraction of this radiant energy strikes our planet, but so powerful is the energy source that each hour enough sunlight falls upon the Earth’s surface to meet all of civilizations’ energy needs for a year.

(2) The compound that allows us to harness the Sun’s energy and convert it to power is silica. Silica is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.

(3) The mechanism by which we convert sunlight to power – the photovoltaic cell – is a near flawless machine: PV panels have no moving parts and therefore are long-lasting and require minimal maintenance. They have zero emissions.

The energy produced by our Sun is free, abundant, constant, and inexhaustible. No other existing source comes even remotely close to matching its energy output. The raw materials to harness this energy exists in abundance. And we have the knowledge to turn this energy into power. And yet…

Always there is an “And yet” with us. We can muddle the clear and confuse the simple. It is a strange habit for a species so advanced.

The problems with solar in United States are political, not technical. Very soon we will overcome the obstacles of solar efficiency and energy storage (begin the video at 6:40). All that will remain is for us to overcome our resistance, our fear, our confusion. We have an energy source 1/10,000 of which can meet all of our energy needs. All that is left for us to do is accept it. The greatest leap forward for society since the invention of agriculture is within our grasp. Limitless, free, non-polluting power will liberate humanity in ways we can’t comprehend.


The Latest Entry in the Wind Farm Wars

It was only a few weeks ago that Simon Chapman called shenanigans on all the noise about wind turbines making people ill. Well not so fast Simon.

Wind farm noise causes “clear and significant” damage to  people’s sleep and mental health, according to the first full peer-reviewed scientific study of the problem.

Contra Mr. Chapman’s claim that anti-wind farm activists were the source of all the imaginary wind turbine-induced maladies, the authors of this new science say their findings “show [a] clear relationships between wind farms and “important clinical indicators of health, including sleep quality, daytime sleepiness and mental health”.”

We all know this won’t be the last entry in the wind farm wars. For now, I’m not taking sides. I’ll just try my best to keep you updated on where the fight stands.



Wind Farms and Public Health

I recall with fondness my time as a congressional staffer, fielding calls from home-state constituents about their concerns and complaints (rarely do people call their congressman with a compliment). One concern I heard from a number of callers over the years was a genuine, intelligently stated concern that high voltage overhead power lines could cause cancer, and what could the good congressman do about this please? I was never able to provide these callers with a good response

Well, Simon Chapman has a response, not to those concerned with power lines but rather to the growing chorus of those concerned with the modern plague of wind turbines. For a plague it seems to be, based on the number of reports from around the globe. I wrote briefly about this issue once, describing how the throbbing of the turbines chopping through the air was driving people batty, but little did I know that turbines were being blamed for far more serious ailments, including cancer, stroke, and even death!

According to Chapman, the cause of these wind farm maladies can be attributed to a single powerful and pervasive vector, anti- wind farm activists:

The European wind industry sees the phenomenon as largely anglophone, and even then, only in particular regions and around certain farms. Many sites have run for years without complaint. Others, legendary for their vocal opponents even before start up, are hot beds of disease claims. So if turbines were inherently noxious, why do they cut such a selective path? Why do citizens of community-owned turbines in Germany and Denmark rarely complain? Why are complaints rare in western Australia, but rife in several eastern Australian communities?

Opponents readily concede that only a minority of those exposed report being ill but explain this via the analogy of motion sickness: it only happens to those who are susceptible. How then to explain that whole regions and indeed nations, have no susceptible people? The key factor seems to be the presence or absence of anti-wind activists, generally from outside the area. (emphasis mine)

It certainly is an entertaining piece, and I have no doubt that it’s true for it’s part. Hey, I just went through a health issue where I didn’t know I was sick until my doctor told me I was sick, and only then was I aware of how really sick I was. But I certainly have no intention of blaming the doctor for bringing the issue to my attention. And while ‘activists’ aren’t by any stretch in the same league as doctors, I’ll withhold final judgment on Chapman’s condemnations until all the studies on wind turbines and health scares are in, right after all the public health studies on cell phones and WiFi hot spots land on my desk. Until then, stay healthy my friends!


Can British Engineers Produce Petrol from Air?

Via the ever-reliable Instapundit, I was awakened from my Friday cubicle-induced stupor by a report in The Telegraph that some blokes may have invented a technology that uses carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere to create petrol, or fuel if you’re on the downwind side of the pond.

A small company in the north of England has developed the “air capture” technology to create synthetic petrol using only air and electricity.

Experts tonight hailed the astonishing breakthrough as a potential “game-changer” in the battle against climate change and a saviour for the world’s energy crisis.

If true, this would be a game-changer; a technology that represents a leap forward in a current pattern of behavior. In this instance, a technology like the one described here could render obsolete our reliance on unstable and unfriendly oil regimes, overcome our stalled efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and turn politics on its head (never underestimate how wedded politicians and bureaucrats are to the status quo).

Now, if you will indulge my soapbox for a moment please, I want to point out the following passages:

The £1.1m project, in development for the past two years, is being funded by a group of unnamed philanthropists who believe the technology could prove to be a lucrative way of creating renewable energy.

While the technology has the backing of Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, it has yet to capture the interest of major oil companies. (bold mine)

I want to make three political arguments: first, profit motivation is a powerful incentive for challenging the status quo, and can (and often does) lead to socially desireable outcomes; second, a free and open market-based economy is the only means of overcoming stale, state-protected, dominant industries; and third, the importance of allowing the investing class (the “evil rich”) to speculate in innovative technologies/industries without fear of suffering punitive taxation is essential to our shared desires for a better world.  The state will never be more efficient or effective at supporting new technologies than the free market.

Rooftop Revolution: Book Review

My first Free the Commons! book review is the Kindle edition of Danny Kennedy’s “Rooftop Revolution: How Solar Power Can Save our Economy – and Our Planet – From Dirty Energy.” Rooftop Revolution’s author, Danny Kennedy, is the founder of Sungevity, a solar company that I consider to be innovative and unique. Mr. Kennedy is a social entrepreneur and clean energy activist and, being just about my age, I was very interested in what he had to say about rooftop solar.

Unfortunately, I found that Kennedy’s book failed on two big levels.

First, the positive: Kennedy does offer a lot of support for rooftop solar. Beyond the success of his own company – which he is not shy about promoting – he provided some solid fodder about the successful growth of the solar industry in general, and made a good effort to convince the reader that solar is competitive with other forms of energy. He offers some hope by describing the success of solar in Germany and Spain, where solar accounts for 25 and 35 percent (respectively, according to Kennedy) of total power consumption. If I were considering a business in the solar industry, I would take some encouragement from Kennedy’s book.

However, his failure as an author begins with what is notably absent from his book: any attempt to outline a real solution. Kennedy is a successful solar entrepreneur, and I approached his work looking for solutions to our solar problem. I had hoped, first and foremost, that Kennedy would offer some answers to arguably the biggest question about solar: how do we afford it?

I bought this book hoping to find a few new ideas about how we make rooftop solar widely affordable and therefore widely adopted. If solar is to become a major player in the energy market and ultimately replace our reliance on coal-based power, we need the cold-hearted truth about how much it will cost, and more importantly, how we make those costs palatable to the individual homeowner, the taxpayers, and society. My belief is that our current model for solar adoption – the one where we lazily provide a few tax credits and hope homeowners adopt rooftop solar due to home resale value or out of altruism – requires dramatic and revolutionary reconsideration. I wanted to read about that revolutionary model for putting solar on every house, and I didn’t get that from Rooftop Revolution.

My second big criticism of Kennedy’s book is that while I generally found the tone of his writing encouraging (hey, I’m about to open that business!), he counterbalanced any positive message with an antagonistic tale that I found discouraging, almost counter-productive, to the intent of his work.

Read the subtitle of his book to get an idea of what the content is like: Kennedy spends waaaayyy too much time in activist mode, leading a chorus of cheers against “dirty energy” and “King CONG,” (coal, oil, nukes and gas). His Greenpeace persona is out in full force not just in one chapter, which I could handle, but throughout his book. Demonizing the opposition, as Kennedy views the traditional energy industries and all their supporters, is a very poor way to advance your views and win converts. I found myself questioning some of his claims about subsidies and tax breaks for big energy, claims that should have had little to do with the book’s message but seemed to overwhelm all other content. His tone certainly interfered with any positive message the book did present.

My response to Kennedy and others is simple: We do not lack choir preachers; we need someone who can preach to the masses. The masses cast the votes, own the homes, spend the money, and ultimately are responsible for any rooftop revolution we hopefully experience. If what you’re after is making a big change, a big societal impact – if you are serious about planning a revolution – then you need to make a more compelling case for converting to solar. Kennedy failed to make this case, and because of that, I find that his book fails to advance the rooftop solar cause.

How Do New Technologies Emerge?

I’m thinking generally about the war on coal and the subsequent loss of generating capacity and what to do about it, and I’m trying to wrap my brain around the evolution of technology, and by what means and in what environments new technologies are most likely to emerge and replace existing technologies. Do we know how this happens in the real world? Is the creation and development of new technologies generally an organic event, or a planned event, or all happenstance?

We are feeding tens of billions of dollars in subsidies to renewable tech. Why are we doing this? I mean beyond the desire to replace carbon-based energy with clean renewable energy. I get that part. But what experience, what example, what pattern of tech creation are we trying to emulate?

Has anyone studied or written on this subject? You would think that with all the examples of technological advancements in the United States, many of which are recent and significant, that we would have a good grasp of the political, consumer, social, and financial environments from which most new technologies emerge and develop and become adopted. We could identify and nurture that pro-growth environment for the technologies that are really important to us as a society. Look at examples like computer chips and computing power, which is growing at an exponential rate. How did this happen? What about communications? High yield crops? Pharmaceutical advances?

I’d appreciate any advice, book references, literature, what have you, that can describe to me the model we should be following on renewable energy development and adoption. I really want to know.

Where the Federal Energy Subsidies Go

So I’m reading this Yahoo! News story titled “Decades of Federal Dollars Helped Fuel Gas Boom,” and I’m amazed not by the content but rather the tone of the article. The story recounts the federal role in the rise and current economic boom of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the innovative drilling technique that has both opened up vast new natural gas reserves and set off a raging environmental debate. But it recounts this history with a “see, see, oil and gas got subsidies too, so stop complaining about wind and solar subsidies!” snarkiness to it.

A little advice: if you’re going to write with a tone like this, you better be able to bring the goods, and as I’m reading I eventually get to the key paragraph:

But those who helped pioneer the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, recall a different path. Over three decades, from the shale fields of Texas and Wyoming to the Marcellus in the Northeast, the federal government contributed more than $100 million in research to develop fracking, and billions more in tax breaks.

Look, $100 million in research dollars and “billions more in tax breaks” over a 30 year period is a drop in the bucket the way Washington spends money ($10 billion each and every day folks). And as I read the Yahoo story it’s obvious that what they have is a mundane story that they are desperately trying to sex up with a political spin. I get the spin, but it’s really bad spin.

I have a reliable source that reports that our government will spend $150 billion on clean energy technology over the 2009 – 2014 time period. If you want to be snarky, $150 billion is a pretty good angle for dropping some attitude.

It seems that we can’t get away from the attitude and the political posturing in the news this year. So forgive me for calling out Yahoo! News on this story of theirs, because it’s pretty bad.