Monday, April 14, 2008

Concentrated Solar Power - Make hay while the sun shines

Writing in Salon, CAP fellow Joseph Romm makes a convincing case that solar thermal electric power is the key to stopping and reversing global warming over the next several decades, to say nothing of providing low-cost, carbon-free energy.

He calls it "the technology that will save humanity."

Clearly, the world needs a massive amount of carbon-free electricity by 2050 to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions. The industrialized countries need to cut their carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation by more than 80 percent in four decades. Developing countries need to find a way to raise living standards without increasing electricity emissions in the short term, and then reduce those emissions sharply. And, over the next few decades, the world needs to switch to a ground transportation system whose primary fuel is clean electricity.

This electricity must meet a number of important criteria. It must be affordable: New electricity generation should cost at most about 10 cents per kilowatt hour, a price that would probably beat nuclear power and would certainly beat coal with carbon capture and storage, if the latter even proves practical on a large scale. The electricity cannot be intermittent and hard to store, as is energy from wind power and solar photovoltaics. We need power that either stays constant day and night or, even better, matches electricity demand, which typically rises in the morning, peaks in the late afternoon, and lasts late into the evening.

This carbon-free electricity must provide thousands of gigawatts of power and make use of a low-cost fuel that has huge reserves accessible to both industrialized and developing countries. It should not make use of much freshwater or arable land, which are likely to be scarce in a climate-changed world with 3 billion more people.

Solar electric thermal, also known as concentrated solar power (CSP), meets all these criteria.
According to Romm, CSP is easier to store than many other forms of energy, which answers the skeptics who say, "solar power is great as long as the sun shines, but then what?"

But, let's say for the sake of arguemt that the skeptics are right, and that solar power is only useful as long as the sun shines. So what?

Who says that making the transition from fossil fuels to alternative forms of energy has to be all or nothing? Even if solar is only good as long as the sun shines, why not use it while the sun shines? For example, why not build power plants that operate on solar when they can, and on petroleum or coal when they have to? That would certainly be better than pumping carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air every second of every day. Less poison is less poison. Less global warming is less global warming. It is foolish to sacrifice the good for the sake of the perfect. Let's just get started. We'll get better at it as we go along. Eventually, the technology will allow us to power our homes, factories, and office buildings mostly or entirely with solar energy. But we have to get going, or we'll never get there.

We are suffering from an extreme imagination deficit in this country. President Carter tried to inspire us when he placed solar panels on the White House. Ronald Reagan could have followed the example and led us into a new age of energy independence, clean skies, and economic innovation. Imagine where we could be today. Imagine how far along solar technology could be if the government had given it as much support as it continues to shower on the coal and petroleum industries. Imagine how enlightened our foreign policy could afford to be if we didn't have to worry about a reliable flow of oil from the Middle East.

Instead, Reagan took the solar panels down, and thirty years later, "energy independence" means drilling for oil in ANWR. We have wasted so much time.

But there is no need to waste anymore.

We have the ability to begin moving away from our reliance on fossil fuels. It's time to start moving.

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