It only takes me a few minutes to say out loud, “Here they go again.” Every time I hear a politician, commentator or policy wonk tout the need for our country to become energy independent and develop “future” technology that doesn’t pollute, reduces green house gasses and makes us less dependent on foreign oil (and all the conflict that creates), I want to choke on their oratory fumes. They talk about it like a religious mantra, but never put it into practice.
The “future” technology and know how is already here and has been for some time. What’s lacking is the awareness of its existence, the fear of changing the economy and the will to transform our present infrastructure and dream big. We’ve done it before at home, with The New Deal and the space program. We’ve done it abroad with The Marshall Plan. We’ve done it repeatedly for unnecessary wars and wasted billions in defense contracts, instead of creating new energy and life-giving technology.
Ten years ago, when our family put solar panels on our home, I thought we’d found the answer, but it turns out that that was small potatoes. Even though solar energy is dropping in price and there are rebates and incentives galore, not everyone can afford the initial costs, nor is it easy to convince people to do so. People in the northern half of the U.S. can’t always use solar because it’s difficult to store and save the energy produced for a cloudy day. By all means, I hope individuals and companies continue to put ever more efficient panels on their roofs, buildings and parking garages and have dispersed energy sources, but not that alone.
Photovoltaic solar energy (panels on your roof), combined with wind, hydro-electric and hydrothermal sources, are all a big step in the right direction, but could take half a century to spread and be adopted nationwide. If we stop and look in the mirror, there’s been another alternative all along and it’s about to light up the world.
While searching the web for photovoltaic solar companies, I happened upon some sites that spoke about thermal solar energy. Like most politicos and environmental junkies, I didn’t have a clue to their existence, let alone know what thermal solar was.
Solar thermal works by using special mirrors that reflect the sun on to long pipes filled with water. The heat from the sun boils the water, which produces steam to turn turbines. The energy from the turbines is then transmitted to the electric company. The companies that have developed this technology have also figured out a way to store the energy produced for future needs (a rainy day). It turns out that there are several companies already building these systems and is placing them in the Nevada desert and have contracted with Pacific, Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and other large power companies in the U.S.
By using a 90 mile by 90 mile square area, these systems could provide enough energy for most of the country. Solar thermal facilities in the North African desert could produce adequate amounts of energy for most of Europe. There are similar desert areas in Asia, Australia and South America. Since China, India, the U.S. and Europe are the leading emitters of green house gasses, it makes sense to first convert their energy sources (oil, nuclear and coal) to thermal solar so the rest of the planet can breathe and adapt the same technology for their countries social and material needs.
The beautiful thing is that there is no pollution, nor emission of green house gasses in the process. It works with our existing infrastructure and could be improved in the near future by building new transcontinental power lines. The parts for these power plants are being built now. They will be soon be up and running. Combined with the use of all-electric vehicles, which can (by this time next year) get up to 250 miles per charge and charge in minutes (due to recent battery advances), our nation could be oil free within a few decades.
These essential changes in how we produce and utilize energy can accelerate if (and the “if” is the part that is so maddening and beyond my control) politicians, media moguls and large businesses are willing to get fired up, transform the job market and put their financial and political will behind a new Marshall Plan for U.S. energy. It will take much less time to change the source of energy for a few power plants than it will to change the habits and availability of new energy sources for millions of Americans.
Having realized that photovoltaic energy is a drop in the bucket, compared to thermal solar, has given me hope and perspective. When I arise in the morning and look in the mirror, I am reminded that the simple combination of sun upon glass can literally save our planet. If we can only get the politicians and those running for office, to stop talking about “future” energy independence and start talking to those who already have the technology out on the table, we can make these dreams a present reality.