Thursday, May 31

The Power of Sunlight

Summer is the season for fun in the sun - vacation time for many of us. It is also a time when humans become more aware of the power of sunlight. It has the ability to burn our skin, warm the ground we walk upon and change the air we breathe. It sparks the rebirth and renewal of plants, insects and animals. It extends our days and diminishes our nights. The sun is our energy source - a power in our lives. For me, solar energy is the most logical source to fuel and power our cars, our homes, anything that requires a battery or a charge and as a clean source of energy, it is our pathway to survival.

In the early, 1990s, General Motors owned a huge research and development facility in Burbank, CA. They were testing and producing their electric vehicle, the EV-1. Honda also produced an electric car and I test drove both versions. As explained in a recent documentary, "Who Killed the Electric Car," market and governmental forces combined to create a perfect storm of greed and stupidity that sabotaged this program.

I recall seeing Huell Howser, on a KCET, program showing brand new EV-1s being dismantled, compacted and sold for scrap. If you're familiar with Howser's California Gold series, you quickly get bored with his quest for clarity as he constantly repeats the comments of those he interviews.

"You mean these are brand new cars?!" he asked repeatedly as we watched them being crushed into metal rectangles. Like Huell, I was mystified at this unbelievable stupidity and was glad, for once, that Huell was as stuck as I am on this crazy fact. What is so sad is that Americans have the vision, the technical brilliance, the resources for creating wonderful things, but we lack the courage to change.

I say, "we", because consumers got close to buying and supporting this technology, but bailed out when faced with infrastructure inconveniences that only time, patience, government support and commitment can eliminate. The Department of Water and Power used these vehicles and installed charging stations. Even Costco started installing chargers in their parking lots. Given a few more years, most retail outlets, gas/charging stations, city/state/fed buildings (you get the picture) would have added to the grid. And, all of this structure would be on top of residential chargers.

Clean and abundant power was almost within our grasp just five years ago. This power source does not require acres of land and tons of water to support it as in bio fuel production. This power can reduce our dependence on Exxon/Mobile and their ever increasing prices. This power can stop our government's interest and interference in other countries energy production and consumption. It can and will end the pork barrel, energy policies of the Bush regime. My hope is that this energy dementia will end sooner or later, but it will end.

Why? Because, unlike oil, the sun is not going away. Solar power is the future, and, like Alun Andersen, former editor of "New Science," I am optimistic that this power source will save us sooner rather than later. Andersen said it best when "Edge - The World Question Center" asked him, "WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?" Here is his response:

"The Sunlight-Powered Future"

"I'm optimistic about…a pair of very big numbers. The first is 4.5 x 10ˆ20. That is the current world annual energy use, measured in joules. It is a truly huge number and not usually a cause for optimism as 70 per cent of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels.

Thankfully, the second number is even bigger: 3,000,000 x 10ˆ20 joules. That is the amount of clean, green energy that pours down on the Earth totally free of charge every year. The Sun is providing 7,000 times as much energy as we are using, which leaves plenty for developing China, India and everyone else. How can we not be optimistic? We don't have a long-term energy problem. Our only worries are whether we can find smart ways to use that sunlight efficiently and whether we can move quickly enough from the energy systems we are entrenched in now to the ones we should be using. Given the perils of climate change and dependence on foreign energy, the motivation is there.

Can it be done? I'm lucky that as a writer I get to meet some of the world's brightest scientists each year, and I know that out there are plenty of radical new ideas for a future in which sunlight is turned straight into the forms of energy we need. Here are just three of my favourites out of scores of great ideas. First, reprogramming the genetic make-up of simple organisms so that they directly produce usable fuels (hydrogen, for example). That will be much more efficient than today's fashionable new bio ethanol programs because they will cut out all the energy wasted in growing a crop, then harvesting it and then converting its sugars into fuel. Second, self-organizing polymer solar cells. Silicon solar cells may be robust and efficient but they are inevitably small and need a lot of energy to make. Self-organizing polymer cells could be ink jetted onto plastics by the hectare, creating dirt cheap solar cells the size of advertising hoardings. Third, there's artificial photosynthesis. Nature uses a different trick from silicon solar cells to capture light energy, whipping away high-energy electrons from photo-pigments into a separate system in a few thousand millionths of a second. We are getting much closer to understanding how it's done, and even how to use the same principles in totally different nano-materials.

But what of the pessimist's view that we can are just too entrenched in our current energy systems to change? There is a world-wide boom in investment in green technology already under way. And there are many transition technologies coming into operation that enable practice runs for more radical genome reprogramming and creation of new nano-structures. Although the consensus view is that the sunlight-powered future won't be taking over until 2050, I'd place an optimistic bet that one of the many smart ideas being researched now will turn out to be an unforeseen winner much earlier."

This essay and many others are available online at Edge. Check it out!

Update: Here's a winning solar idea: "Using Solar Roofs to Power Hybrids"
Here's another one: "Easy Solar Power" - thin film photovoltaic laminates
Uno mas: "GM Scorns Internal Combustion Engine "- at least they are back on the right track.