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Friday, July 29, 2016

WHAT IS RIGHT ABOUT SOLAR ENERGY?

Yesterday (scroll down to next posting) I asked:


Right or wrong, there is today no other option worthy of pursuit.  If global warming is as bad as scientists predict, and there is no reason to believe this is any kind of cruel joke, we need to wean our world away from all the fossil fuels, because when you burn them, they produce carbon dioxide, which causes a Greenhouse Effect, to increase the temperature of Planet Earth.

Solar energy is a kind of catch-all to include wind/ocean energy, biomass, and maybe geothermal...but not nuclear power, which is ironic, for nuclear fusion of our Sun and stars creates the energy that is radiated to our globe.  So, to be more all-inclusive, let us consider fusion, the fusing of hydrogen and its isotopes (deuterium and tritium) to produce energy, within the family of sustainable renewable energy options.  Fission, on the other hand, the kind of nuclear electricity produced today from uranium and plutonium (the equivalent of an Atomic Bomb) has serious problems with waste storage (maybe a million years or more) and dirty bombs.  Mind you, fusion is what the Hydrogen Bomb is all about, but there is sufficient fuel to support Humanity for millions of years.

Looking at the right column, note that solar in the table WORLD ENERGY PRODUCTION 2016 is but one quarter of one percent (divide 684,800 by 277,320,000, then multiply by 100) the energy used today.  But even this almost infinitesimal amount was sufficient such that 64% of new electricity in the USA came from the Sun in the first quarter of this year!!!  If this sounds impossible to you, click on that article and read the truth.

That publication goes on to say that sunlight is rather minor compared to hydroelectricity, wind energy and biomass, as reinforced by that table to the right.  So something is going right with solar photovoltaics and solar thermal power.

But a close analysis of all the solar potential announced shows flaws.  For example, Scott and Julie Brusaw have for a decade been touting converting just our national highways into energy-gathering panels.  Yes, apparently, it might be possible to drive on durable solar cells, which cover 28,000 square miles of U.S. lands.  Just the sun shining on our roads could generate three times the power of what we consume.  Cost?  $56 trillion, about 20 times the annual federal budget.  Much can be done about clean energy, but the costs are just not competitive.

Second, solar power is too diffuse.  While Solar Impulse 2 completed an astonishing journey, sunlight will never be able to replace our current air transport system.  If you are into data, read this article which describes why.

Here is a sober summary of solar energy, which comes with this useful energy availability graphic:


The reality, too, is that the Sun only shines a few hours/day, and our winds are inconsistent.  Most long-term studies show that batteries will not be able to serve as the storage medium.  Cost is but one factor.  The key is, then, to apply all the renewable pathways, including the ocean.

As important as energy is to our world today, decision-makers are just not treating this problem with any kind of priority.  Why did we spend up to $6 trillion (estimates by TIME magazine last year and Mother Jones three years ago) on those Middle East wars?  Sure, hindsight is easy, but you got to wonder how much better we would be today if that sum had gone into renewable energy and fusion development?

So what about fusion?  Surely, if all our stars use this process, we should be able to do the same.  I actually spent two stints at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory working on laser fusion.  Nearly forty years ago I came to a sad conclusion that the laser system to accomplish this task was beyond my lifetime...and I've been right.  So our decision-makers focused on something called inertial confinement, using a torus (donut-shape) device, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, now only known as ITER, in southern France.  This $14 billion embarrassment will not produce fusion until 2035, then designers need to think about building what will be stage 2, which will be at least 20 years away from commercialization, if you're optimistic.

Edward Teller successfully exploded a Hydrogen Bomb.  He decided that the way to control fusion was with a laser.  I went to work for him.  He passed away and left the National Ignition Facility.  They have yet to attain net-positive energy, and has just about given up.

Maybe it will take a non-conventional concept, such as at last check being pursued by my friends, Chuck Helsley and Bob Burke, who run Fusion Power Corporation.  How long does it take for a new energy source to attain reality?  Well, here is a fusion timeline, which goes back almost a century.  Helsley/Burke are included in this historical summary.  I'm rooting for them, and the our best minds doing their best.  If they all fail, you can only worry about the future of Humanity.

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Still a tropical depression at 30 MPH, this looming typhoon will strike northern Philippines this weekend, then head for Hong Kong:


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