Guest column: A manhattan project for solar energy?

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By Dave Trecker

Pelican Bay

Good news on energy seems to come in bunches.

On one hand, real progress is being made on renewables. On the other, countries are waking up to the risks of fossil fuels.

China, which opens a new coal-fired power plant every month, has agreed to work with the U.S. to install scrubbers and equipment to capture carbon emissions. Will the Chinese actually do it? Who knows. But at least they acknowledge there is a problem. That’s a start.

On the biofuels front, Ineos just opened a plant in Vero Beach to convert wood and vegetable waste to ethanol. It’s a small facility (8 million gallons of ethanol per year), and its economics are unproven. But the process is sound, and a scale-up of this size is always instructive.

Canergy, another biofuels start-up, plans to build a commercial-scale ethanol plant in 2016, using “energy cane,” a fast-growing grass, as the feedstock. On a life-cycle basis, carbon dioxide emissions would be one-sixth that of gasoline.

And more wind energy is on the way. One of the largest wind farms in the country is being planned in central Wyoming. It’s a private venture designed to generate 2,500 megawatts of electricity.

There’s progress in solar as well.

Chemists at the University of Colorado have demonstrated constant-temperature generation of hydrogen from water, using metal oxide catalysts and energy from the sun. This could lead to solar-powered fuel cells on a large scale. The discovery has been called “groundbreaking.”

A Swiss engineer recently developed a solid-state dye-sensitized solar cell that converts sunlight to electricity in 15 percent efficiency. This opens still another avenue for capturing energy from the sun.

The potential for solar power is enormous.

Naples Daily News guest commentator Hy Bershad recently wrote, “One hour of sunshine over the entire state of Florida contains enough energy to provide power to the entire state for one full year.” Columnist Ben Bova added, “Our planet Earth receives more energy from the sun in one hour than the entire human race consumes in a whole year.”

The challenge, of course, is to harness it economically. And it’s a big challenge.

Futurists David King and Richard Layard think we should take the challenge seriously. Writing in the Financial Times, they propose a massive international project “to enable bulk electricity to be produced more cheaply by solar power than by any fossil fuel.”

In other words, beat natural gas in the marketplace. Forget about subsidies for solar. Produce it so economically that everyone will want it. Coal, oil and gas will fall by the wayside, and we’ll have energy nirvana. Clean, renewable and forever!

Far out? You bet. But it’s intriguing. King and Layard don’t underestimate the effort that would be required. They envision another Manhattan Project or Apollo Project, but multinational. They posit global warming is such a threat that it justifies a ten-year program drawing on the world’s best minds.

Endpoint? One gigawatt supplied on a 24-hour basis to cities in America, Europe and Asia by 2025. In order to accomplish that, King and Layard say breakthroughs would be needed in conversion efficiency, storage and a host of other things.

Who would participate? The G-20 countries, led by the United States and China. Cost would be 0.05 percent of each country’s gross domestic product for ten years — a small price to pay, the writers say.

The proposal is visionary and, of course, will go nowhere. But it’s encouraging such thinking even exists.

Perhaps once we’re past the recession. Perhaps once the Middle East settles down. Perhaps.

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