After criticizing Fred Clark, I want to point out the intriguing part of his post, which is a link to a ScienceBlogs post by Ethan Siegel, a theoretical astrophysicist. Siegel argues that with a solar panel array of just 125 square miles–35 miles on a side–in the Arizona desert, we could satisfy the energy needs of the whole United States.
Make a solar array about that size — 35 miles by 35 miles — and you can power the entire United States. Period. Day or night, winter or summer, rain or shine. No emissions, no pollution, no risk of radiation, no dependence on oil, coal, gas, no damage to the environment.
That’s a very intriguing thought. I just don’t have the time to dig into it very deeply right now, but if he’s right about the energy output, it would seem like an idea worth investigating. We certainly have space and enough to spare in Nevada (the area’s much smaller than many of our military ranges out there), and Nevadans would, I think, be much more welcoming to that kind of investment than they were to the now-canceled (at least for the time being) nuclear waste repository.
Of course Siegel assumes too much, and gets a bit silly.
if we invested in it and made it happen — I think it would fix a huge number of our domestic problems: the economic ones, the employment ones, the manufacturing ones, etc.
Sigh. Of course energy costs are an important input for the economy, but cheap energy doesn’t by itself suddenly solve all problems. And as I keep repeating, American manufacturing was at record levels of output just prior to the recession. Why, oh, why don’t people as smart as astrophysicists put their smarts to actual use before saying things like this?
But that (mostly) aside, here are the questions the idea raises for me.
- What would the cost of such a project be? How would it compare to continued investment in other energy sources? Would it actually provide cheaper energy (as Siegel seems to assume), and how long would the payoff period be?
- Could this be done via the private sector? Fred Clark seems to assume that it could only be done as part of a large scale government project. Is he right about that, or could it be done via a consortium of energy companies?
- Would we actually want a single such array, or would we want multiple ones with multiple owners to provide competition? I suspect some would see it as properly done in one array and operated by the government, to avoid the evils of a corporate monopoly, but obviously I would be quite as dubious about government management of it.
- If we did a single big array, what would be our backup source of energy, in case of accidents (whether terrorist, operator-caused, meteorite, whatever)? Putting all our eggs in one basket is, obviously, a risky choice. (But note that Siegel is just talking about total area needed to provide enough energy–he’s not necessarily saying we should bet everything on one single solar farm.)
Important questions, of course, but all merely technical questions, I think. That is, each can be potentially be satisfactorily answered. I’m somewhat skeptical, just because we too often hear people say “X is simple and can solve all our problems,” but I’m also intrigued, because I think a theoretical physicist just might know what he’s talking about in terms of energy output, even if he knows squat about economics. And I’m all for a dependable and non-polluting source of energy, if one is available.*
*OK, obviously it wouldn’t be truly non-polluting. There would be pollution involved in the production of everything needed for creating such a solar array, meaning that from a life-cycle analysis even relative clean solar energy is not truly non-polluting. But I am assuming, hopefully correctly, that such pollution would be no greater per unit of energy produced, than what results from the production of other energy sources.