Friday, May 23, 2014


I just saw a thought provoking Youtube video that's had a million views . . . 

Solar Freaking Roadways 

which got me thinking . . .

The former Saudi oil minister, Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, once warned his OPEC colleagues: “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.” Few technologies actually become obsolete because they no longer work. Instead, they are displaced by something better. The Stone Age ended because of better tools, bronze in particular. Then the Bronze age ended with the Iron age which was eclipsed by the Industrial Age. If Neal Stephenson's sci fi is, as I believe, prophetic, the Industrial Age will give way to the Diamond Age.

I believe that the Carbon Age will end long before we have used up all the coal, oil and gas in the ground because it will be replaced by better (cleaner, more sustainable, ultimately cheaper) forms of energy. This will be accelerated as we begin to face the "hidden" costs of our profligate use of carbon:

1. The increasing costs of exploration, production, transportation, utilization of carbon fuels exacerbated by exploding global demand . . . the risk of getting so much of our energy from potentially adversarial countries . . . the immense transfer of individual, corporate and national wealth to carbon fuel producers . . . cleaning up the by products of exploration, production, production, utilization that have been dumped into what we breather, drink and eat . . . bearing the costs of their adverse effects on quality of life and productivity of business. In this regard, if our use of carbon has in fact contributed to climate change, the cost is practically incalculable.

I firmly believe that we should have an aggressive national goal, like JFK's "a man on the moon by the end of the decade," for achieving a sustainable energy supply. It should include aggressive public policy with economic incentives for R&D and even commercial deployment (just as carbon and nuclear energy have had throughout their history).

As to the solar roadways concept, there is certainly a huge amount of real estate (and growing) tied up in roads and highways. However, I'm not familiar enough with the technical / economic parameters of converting roadways to solar arrays to know whether this represents a feasible solution. In particular, what are the economic / performance penalties for having to design the panels to be able to withstand the mechanical challenges of traffic on the panels? What are the power transmission / distribution routing issues? Would it be more economical / productive to equip existing rooftops, parking lots, utility rights of way, railroad rights of way, airport rights of way, other otherwise unusable public and private lands? Would other renewable energy sources be preferable . . . hydrogen based fuel cells . . . some hitherto undiscovered technology (quantum energy generation)?

By the way, I don't think that the Carbon Age will be replaced by a Nuclear Age because burning uranium results in deadly wastes that last essentially forever. If the recent events at WIPP in my hometown are any indication, there is no certainty that they can be safely sequestered on earth. There is also the potential for irreparable damage from events like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Even if the waste were benign and/or could be safely sequestered, the economics of huge, central station generation plants (the only way that nuclear power is economically feasible at present) are increasingly nullified by risks, not to mention that the grid is moving to economies of mass production at its edges rather than massive production at its center.

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