In California, in Texas, even here in Southwest Florida, governments and private businesses are turning toward solar energy to produce more electricity for their communities cleanly and reliably.
Most exciting of all, there is also a plan afoot to orbit a solar-powered satellite that will deliver 200 megawatts to a California utility company.
Good news. There’s also some bad news about solar-power projects. But first, a digression.
Just about a hundred years ago, shortly after the Wright Brothers had demonstrated the airplane really worked, a group of distinguished financiers of the J.P. Morgan caliber wondered if they should invest their money in the newfangled gadget. They hired a committee of experts, including scientists, bankers and businessmen. The committee studied the airplane and its possibilities, then recommended to the financiers that they should not — repeat not — invest in aviation.
Why? Because to become economically profitable, airplanes would need airfields in just about every city in the nation. That would cost billions of dollars! Who would invest such vast sums in an untried contraption?
So the financiers did not invest in aviation. And thereby lost enormous fortunes of profits they might have made. In time, of course, every city and town in the land built airports. In time, airplanes pushed aside the railroads and steamships that had been the prime movers in transportation on land and sea.
Solar energy is in the same position today as the airplane was a hundred years ago. Solar energy works. Solarvoltaic cells convert sunlight directly into electricity. No fuel is burned. No machinery is needed. Solar cells have powered spacecraft from the grapefruit-sized Vanguard satellite of 1958 to the football-field-sized international space station. You have solar cells in your pocket calculator, no doubt, or perhaps your wristwatch or cell phone.
Solar energy is clean and abundant. More energy from the sun hits the Earth in one hour than all the energy the entire human race uses in a year.
At the latitudes of the 48 contiguous United States, sunshine drenches us with roughly a kilowatt of power per square yard. Any average-sized house could get all the electricity it needs from the sunlight falling on its roof, if solar cells become cheap and efficient enough.
Their efficiencies are improving, with the best of them converting more than 40 percent of the sunlight striking them into electricity. They are still fairly expensive, although costs will come down as the market for manufacturing solar cells grows larger.
And the market is ready to grow. Almost.
Last month the Texas state Senate passed a bill authorizing more than $500 million for subsidizing solar-power programs.
Texas, of course, has long been a leader in oil and natural gas. The state also generates more energy from wind power than any other state in the union. (Please, no jokes about Texan blowhards.)
The new bill provides $500 million over a five-year period in rebates to encourage building solar-power installations. The legislation also forbids homeowners associations from prohibiting resident members from putting up solar panels on their homes.
In Southwest Florida, developer
Syd Kitson announced plans to build a 75-megawatt solar power array for his Babcock Ranch development. But the plan depends on having the Florida Legislature enact financial incentives that would serve as state subsidies for the project.
The bad news about solar power is that it needs government subsidies, at this stage of its development.
A hundred years ago, the fledgling aviation industry needed government subsidies, too. And got them, thanks to World War I and — later — World War II. Massive government investments in aviation technology led to today’s globe-spanning commercial aviation industry.
The most stunning news about solar power was the announcement by California’s Pacific Gas & Electric it will buy up to 200 megawatts of power generated by orbiting solar-power satellites. The satellite system will be built by Solaren Corp. of Manhattan Beach, Calif.
Solaren plans to deliver the power to PG&E by June 2016. Solaren is a small high-tech company. Its spokespersons stress that nothing fundamentally new has to be developed for the solar-power satellites they plan to build. All the components already exist. It’s merely a matter of putting it all together and making it work.
Merely. Several rocket launches will be required to get all the necessary components of the power satellite into geosynchronous orbit, where the satellites will be in sunshine all the time except for a few minutes each day for three weeks around the time of the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Last year a small California firm successfully transmitted a microwave beam from a mountain on the island of Maui to a receiver on Hawaii, 92 miles away. That distance is comparable to the amount of atmosphere a microwave beam would travel through from a solar-power satellite to receivers on the ground.
PG&E and other privately owned utility companies are required by California law to produce 20 percent of their total electrical power from renewable resources by the end of 2010. PG&E already operates wind farms and geothermal generating facilities. The solar-power satellite program is a further step away from fossil fuels and nuclear power.
Solar power still needs government encouragement in the form of subsidies, tax breaks or regulations demanding renewable energy sources. But the day is coming when sunlight will power our civilization.
On the other hand, when a friend of mine queried his local power company about solar energy, he received this response:
“The development of renewables in (our) service area, including solar, geothermal and wind, is not considered feasible. Our geographic location makes it very difficult and expensive to develop these renewable resources.”
This from a power company in the Sunshine State.
We’re making progress, but we’re not out of the dark yet.
Naples resident Ben Bova is the author of 120 books, including “Powersat,” a high-tech thriller about building the first solar-power satellite. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com