Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Solar Future?

Arnold Kling over at TCS looks at some of our current and potential energy sources, and some of the challenges and opportunities they might meet in our future.

He points out the fact that at the present rate of increase, solar powered electricity generatioon is doubling every two years. This means in twenty years, conceivably all of our power could come from solar - except for the dirty little fact that this current rate of generation is heavily, and I mean heavily, subsidized by our well intentioned but ultimately moronic bureaucrats. He points out that if solar is to ever become our primary energy source, it will have to become far more economical. It is probably possible for it to eventually be a major energy source but only in the very long term.

Our current hydrocarbon resources, coal, oil and natural gas, are also the currently the most economical - despite the best efforts of the environmental lobby to make them increasingly expensive domestically, and the depressing economic and security effects that the control of petroleum resources by dictatorships has on their supply and production. While their short term future is a certainty, their long term prognosis is probably dim as long as these two political forces continue to grow in strength.

Nuclear faces many of the same political opposition but the effects of these forces are weakening, both in response to the "science" of global warming and the possible impact of a shift from a primarily gasoline fueled transportation network to one powered by electricity. These might achieve the economic and political tipping point necessary for new plant construction in this industry. They key here will be the continued development of batteries capable of powering a vehicle with the same theoretical range as one powered by conventional gasoline, or around 4-500 miles or more. In addition, new plant designs with a decreased or eliminated risk of radiation release will also help convince an ignorant and skeptical public of nuclear's potential.

Kling also examines the possibility of biofuels, which are also being heavily subsidized before economic viability. However, he thinks the potential with this technology isn't so much with fuels as it is with the creation of organisms that can take advantage of the sun to generate electricity directly. Conventional bio sources like ethanol, in addition to requiring heavy subsidization, also cannot reach the necessary scale to replace convetional sources - although I say they can help bridge the gap to the time when these might be replaced.

In addition, he explains his reasoning behind leaving off one of the other oft mentioned possibilities, hydrogen. He doesn't believe a distribution network that can parallel the conventional gasoline distribution can be achieved, although he does not discount the potential that might be found in hydrogen fuel cell technology. I tend to agree with him that hydrogen poses some substantial challenges, but some recent breakthroughs I've discovered (and mentioned in previous posts) might make hydrogen a player with the electrical powered transportation transformation that appears to on its way.

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