Thursday, June 23, 2011

Another letter to Revkin's blog

I need to stop writing responses to Andy's questions. The questions he asks are very interesting to me, but some of the other respondents are nuts.

But here's my latest missive, a response to this post here on the Obama pledge to "Put Solar on It" (the White House):

[Dear Andy:]

At the risk of seeming hypocritical (since the students who drove our original "Jimmy Carter" solar panel to the White House were from my institution), at the time of the solar road trip I suggested both to Bill McKibben and to the blogosphere that for various technical and architectural reasons the White House itself wasn't necessarily the best site for a solar array.

Instead, US-produced solar "trackers" might be mounted on various sunny sites around the Mall or the Elipse, or US-made utility-scale panels using US-proprietary thin film technology might be mounted on the roofs of the several very large government buildings in that area that have flat roofs, or some combination thereof.

I still stand by that compromise suggestion. I think it makes more technological and commercial sense.

But McKibben's goals, and the Administration's goals in agreeing to the installation, might not be the same ones I have in mind.

Or maybe they are and they just don't know enough about the technology.

If the symbolic and educational nature of this demonstration is the most important idea, trackers make sense and are architecturally interesting, and would be more visible in a public park at ground level than out-of-sight on the roof of a historical building. If producing power is the most important notion here, then out-of-sight utility scale panels make more sense, and are already cost-effective (ie, profitable) in slightly sunnier regions than DC. Since the thin-film technology is mostly US-owned, and since it's the best bet for, and already producing commercial scale, cost-effective solar electricity, this would be less of an attempt, or at least more patriotically defensible an attempt, to force a market "winner" than the original White House solar array.

Best compromise: have a few token trackers down on the Elipse where folk can see and appreciate them, but also put a decently-sized solar power station on the various roofs to actually make a sensible amount of power.

The problem with the original Carter panels is about the government "picking winners." They took about eighty pounds of copper, glass, steel, and aluminum to do what we do today with about ten (using evacuated tube solar thermal technology). They were not a market winner. As President Carter said might happen at the time of the dedication, they are now museum pieces. But those of us that were inspired by his vision went on to design better systems and amass new knowledge about renewable energy.

They were, therefore, an important "road not taken," at least by the mainstream the the president was attempting to reach, and important symbolically and educationally. It bothers me to think of all the money spent in the meantime to enrich petrostate dictators and to protect the flow of oil. If we'd taken President Carter's advice and stayed on that road and solved the technological problems sooner rather than later, we'd all be a lot better off by now.

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