Featured image is the experimental ITER fusion reactor built in France.

In southern California, I see vast areas of the Antelope Valley being carpeted by Solarphotovoltaic farms. The hills to the north are forests of tall windmills. My concern is the effect on the environment. The air above the panels is 4 degrees C hotter than the open ground would be. We already have a warming problem as it is.

Underneath those panels, we have bare soil in permanently shaded areas that are also partially shielded from rain. That can’t be good for the desert ecology. The larger windmills extend into the Pacific flyway and kill hundreds of thousands of birds on their migrations. I suppose it is slightly better than spewing vast amounts of carbon from fossil fuels.windy

If we were serious about carbon emissions, every south-facing and flat roof in the country would be covered in solar. There is no part of solar cells that cannot be recycled. We could mount small wind generators on the roof to increase your electrical surplus, small enough that bird strikes won’t be an issue. If you have a commercial parking lot, I guess you’ll be required to provide shade on which to mount solar cells. (I see this in many primary school parking lots where I used to sub.)

parking
Imagine this over every shopping center.

Supposedly the entire energy consumption of the US could be provided by 10,000 square miles of solar cells. There are 3,500 square miles of just parking lots in the US. Maybe twice as much rooftop area. Mount them above roadways and railways for thousands more square miles of power production. Even if those number were generous, we could still be well on the way to carbon free energy if we utilized most of that wasted space.

No carpeting of the desert. No huge windmills high enough to impact migratory birds. Solar panels won’t be any hotter than the pavement or shingles they’d cover and the shade would keep your car cool. Europe could get a quarter of its energy just from rooftops.

In a few years we should be able to apply solar paint to produce electricity from any surface. Not quite there yet.

If you have a Tesla car, a Powerwall, and your local government allows it, you have the perfect storage medium for all that power. Sell the extra back to the utility at market rates for industrial/commercial use and for the folks undergoing a long cloudy spell.


But we aren’t serious. The reason is a bias towards centralized power production. There’s a lot of money in cranking out electricity. Public utilities are really just extensions of government. Often they are the tail that wags the dog.

If all those rooftops and parking areas were generating, the need for power plants would be far less, as would the load on our transmission lines. We’d be far less susceptible to power outages. No mid-East oil shocks to fear. OTOH, the power companies wouldn’t have the enormous profits and political clout they do. Oil and coal companies would have to scramble for other ways to make money. So instead we have solar that carpets deserts and wind that massacres migrating birds.

Solar and wind can’t produce energy all the time nor in every location. Some centralized power production and long-range transmission are still likely to be needed under the best of scenarios. We can minimize the need for them to be carbon fueled.

nuclear

In the near term, we’d want a conservative nuclear power program that failed safe rather than depending on active cooling and outside sources of power to scram. Standardization on one stable design. As operating time and experience increases, any issue found in one could be looked for in all and fixed. Over time a safe system would become even safer. Today’s power plants are mostly one-offs. It makes them expensive to build and lessons learned from one aren’t always transferable to another. OTOH, aircraft carrier reactors have outputs of a half gigawatt and have to meet extreme reliability standards. It can be done safely.

The existing commercial nuclear power industry is held hostage to designs from 50 years ago and doesn’t want to change, much like American auto makers of the 1970s. (The result of that was American auto companies were almost crushed by foreign imports.) All existing commercial nuclear reactors in the US will have to be phased out in the next few decades. We can do better.

I’d go with a Thorium process, tho it is not the only good prospect out there. Thorium is really cheap. The byproducts don’t last for millions of years. Then reprocess the waste to continue to extract additional energy until the energy density became too low to be economical. This would be a short term solution until we could get economical fusion or space-based solar extraction.

Of course fusion is the holy grail. Economical fusion power is only 30 years away. And has been since the 1950s. But there is finally reason to hope. An experimental reactor is coming on line in France that will finally produce more energy than it consumes. It is a prototype and will be used to work the kinks out and hopefully make fusion economical. Or not.

There will continue to be a need to burn some fossil fuels for a long time into the future.

I don’t see shipping and trains and aircraft and commercial rocketry nor the military eliminating fossil fuels any time soon. The cost of electric cars needs to drop quite a bit before most Americans can afford them. Industries that use carbon fuels will be slow to change because change is expensive. Even if the technologically advanced countries manage to go fully to renewable energy sources, there’s the second and third world to consider.

Plus there is the problem of all the excess CO2 that’s already out there. There are a few ways to do this. Some of them use a lot of energy to do so.

By increasing non-carbon energy, not only can we stop the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, we can create enough surplus to start sucking it out so as to compensate for the remaining fossil fuel use plus some extra. We can return the CO2 levels to what they were before climate change became so serious.

I am guardedly optimistic. Getting close to carbon free can be done without bankrupting the country, it just takes the political will to do it. And unfortunately, where ever there is a will, somebody will raise up a won’t.