‘scientific american’ floats a solar grand plan

The magazine “Scientific American” is suggesting that, if we follow their solar road map, we can be practically energy independent by 2100. Here’s a clip:

…Solar energy’s potential is off the chart. The energy in sunlight striking the earth for 40 minutes is equivalent to global energy consumption for a year. The U.S. is lucky to be endowed with a vast resource; at least 250,000 square miles of land in the Southwest alone are suitable for constructing solar power plants, and that land receives more than 4,500 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of solar radiation a year. Converting only 2.5 percent of that radiation into electricity would match the nation’s total energy consumption in 2006.

To convert the country to solar power, huge tracts of land would have to be covered with photovoltaic panels and solar heating troughs. A direct-current (DC) transmission backbone would also have to be erected to send that energy efficiently across the nation.

The technology is ready. On the following pages we present a grand plan that could provide 69 percent of the U.S.’s electricity and 35 percent of its total energy (which includes transportation) with solar power by 2050. We project that this energy could be sold to consumers at rates equivalent to today’s rates for conventional power sources, about five cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). If wind, biomass and geothermal sources were also developed, renewable energy could provide 100 percent of the nation’s electricity and 90 percent of its energy by 2100…

It’s an ambitious plan that involves storing power for use during non-sunlight hours not in batteries, but in the form of compressed air, trapped in “underground caverns, abandoned mines, aquifers and depleted natural gas wells.” (A compressed air energy storage system has been in use in Huntorf, Germany since 1978.) As it can all be built-out using existing technology, the only issue, outside the oil and gas lobby, seems to be the price tag, which, according to their projections, would be $420 billion between 2011 to 2050… Coincidentally, it’s worth pointing out that, to date, our war in Iraq has cost us $495 billion. Kind of ironic, isn’t it? For the price of a war to secure what’s left of the earth’s dwindling oil supply, we could have made the transition to solar. What a hil-fucking-larious epitaph that would make.

[This post was brought to you by the Sunlight Foundation.]

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  1. egpenet
    Posted February 17, 2008 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    OK, there’s the off-budget waste of the war costs.

    Then there’s the so-called subprime mortgage waste … which is bringing down much of the financial world East and West as credit tightens all over the planet with an unyet known total waste of financial resources … some of the excesses are criminal.

    I fear we are not the ONLY the country in the world suffering from two generations of poor leadership, political and corporate, who have squandered much of the success and good faith of the post-WWII generations … leaving us and our children with a mountain of debt.

    Like I have complained about Michigan politics, the current Big 3 management and local issues … the A Squad (who promoted the B Squad) is retired, the B Squad (once in charge) is jumping ship in Ypsi and other towns and companies, and the C Squad, which is plenty talented but lacks time on the job and experience at the helm of the ship of state now have their hands on the throttle. Yikes!

    I mentioned the “credit crisis” above. Here’s a question: What does a city do when their bond lenders come to them and say that since your taxpayers will not approve a tax increase, how do you propose to pay your bond debts? I know of a New Jersey City whose bond insurer raised their premiums on some development projects from $100K month to $300K per week. No one trusts anyone at this point to pay their debts. And the price of civic trust has just tripled!

    “C Squad” challenge: What dom you know that we don’t know (yet)? And, where do we go from here?

    Another source of revenue is property tax. I’ll wait to bring up the decline in property assessments some other time. I need to get some sleep.


  2. Posted February 18, 2008 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    My inner Edward Abbey cringes a little to read things like,

    “To convert the country to solar power, huge tracts of land would have to be covered with photovoltaic panels and solar heating troughs.”

    presented as a good thing – it doesn’t seem all that much better than, say, mountain-top removal for coal mining…Or having that land end up under water from rising sea levels. I just can’t get excited by the idea of paving over 10,000 square miles of land in order to justify continuing our current profligate energy habits.

  3. Meta:
    Posted February 18, 2008 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    There are competing interests for those caverns. Some want them to store C02:


  4. Steph
    Posted February 18, 2008 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Conservation was not a part of the Scientific Americans plan. I think they even accounted for our energy usage to increase each year. All of their projections concerning land use would decrease with conservation. I have no problem with paving the desert with solar panels, but I don’t want to do it unnecessarily. We should decrease usage as we make the transition.

  5. John on Forest
    Posted February 18, 2008 at 9:14 pm | Permalink


    I had the same concern. What is the ecological impact of suddenly depriving 10,000 square miles of earth, and it’s vegetation and animal life, from sunshine?

    I think solar has a place to play, but why not on already paved over areas of the earth, say our house tops for example.

    Solar should play a big part in providing our energy; but, so should wind, water, geothermal, agriculture (which is also solar by the way), nuclear, AND fossil fuels. Just not so much fossil fuels!!

  6. Posted February 19, 2008 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    What we really need is less people on the planet.

  7. Tim
    Posted February 19, 2008 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Maybe we could use 25% of the 40,000 square miles of irrigated agricultural land in Arizona that is being used to grow crops that have no business being grown in the desert.

  8. Tim
    Posted February 19, 2008 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Actually that 40,000 square miles includes pasture land. But still…

  9. mark
    Posted February 19, 2008 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    Good point. Let me take it one step further, Tim. Why not just demolish Phoenix and replace it with a solar farm? There’s really no reason for a city to be there. And, as the world warms, it’s just going to take more and more energy to keep the dwellings there habitable. Replacing Phoenix would kill two birds with one stone.

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