Orbiting New Jersey Newark, Redux

The Blogfaddah links to a study that suggests the U.S. could convert entirely to solar energy by laying down newfangled nanotech solar panels over 2% of the continental land mass. As N.Z. Bear notes, even 2% is an awful lot of land:

According to this page, the total land area of the U.S. is 3,537,379 square miles. Take away Alaska and Hawaii to get the continental U.S., and you are left with 2,959,005 square miles. Two percent of that is…

Fifty-nine thousand, one hundred and eighty square miles. That’s 59,180.

For perspective: Over half of the fifty states are smaller in area than 59,180 square miles. The closest in size to that number are Iowa (55,869), Michigan (56,804), and Georgia (57,906).

So: who’s for paving over Georgia?

Since I er, live there, allow me to be the first to say, “Not on my back yard.” More to the point, that kind of study is one of the reasons why engineers refer to solar power as “alternative energy for people who never had to take a physics class.”

Several years back, I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations on how many solar panels it would take to replicate a single nuclear plant. I assumed an orbiting platform using panels equivalent to the ones on the International Space Station, and 100% collection and transmission efficiency–even though the latter is physically impossible. Here’s what I came up with, at my old proto-blog:

[T[he Space Station solar panels are fairly large as such things go, about 8,740 square feet in area. At 64 kilowatts of power for every 8,740 square feet of solar panel, you’d need about 136 million square feet of panels to generate a single megawatt of electricity. Just for comparison’s sake, the Farley Nuclear Power Plant near Dothan, Alabama, can produce as much as 1,776 megawatts of power. That kind of output would require approximately 242 billion square feet of orbiting solar cells–about 8,700 square miles, an area larger than the state of New Jersey.

Bear in mind, terrestrial solar plants would receive far less energy than any orbiting platform, you’re getting into Monty-Python-very-silly territory by suggesting that the current state of solar technology is anywhere near capable of providing electrical power at any reasonable scale. I’m not saying they can’t be improved, or that it isn’t worth doing research on better collection methods, but right now, counting on solar power is as crazy as deciding to pave over Georgia… or orbit New Jersey.

UPDATE: In a comment, Lee Valentine of the Space Studies Institute at Princeton corrects my math:

[Y]ou have made an error of a factor of one thousand in your BOTE calculation. The area required to deliver one magawatt (10^6 watts) is 136,000 square feet. That would be a square about 370 feet on a side.

It appears the mistake was in confusing megawatts with gigawatts. A megawatt is one thousand kilowatts, NOT one million Kilowatts. (kilo=10^3, mega=10^6, giga=10^9) One million kilowatts (1 Gigawatt) is enough to run a moderate sized city. Unfortunately, the error means that the estimate of the area required for a 1.778 gigawatt plant is too large by a factor of 1,000. The area is actually about 8.7 square miles, while the sun shines. In actuality, you would need several times that area to compensate for clouds and haze and night. The correction factor for New Jersey is about eight, so about seventy square miles of solar cells would be required. Just the size of Newark, not the whole state.

Dr. Valentine is right, of course, and I both thank him for the correction and humbly apologize for never going back and checking my five-year-old calculations (damn those envelopes!). I should note that orbiting Newark would still be a rather significant effort.


60 Responses to “Orbiting New Jersey Newark, Redux”

  1. Sandy P Says:

    How about AZ and NM – then let mECHA reconquer.

  2. nobrainer Says:

    Let’s compromise and pave over New Jersey.

  3. Zendo Deb Says:

    You miss 3 things….

    1. the march of technology. Solar panels are better than they were, and they will get better still. Also, photovoltaics are not the only way or even the best way to use solar power.

    2. economics: Solar couldn’t compete when oil was 20 dollars a barrel, but then oil isn’t….

    3. decentralization. You can put enough solar panels on the roof of the average house to meet between 50 and 100 percent of the needs of that house. You haven’t paved over GA. You’ve changed the way we roof houses.

    Centralized solar power generation will make use of Stirling heat cycle engines and parabolic reflectors.

  4. Sebastian Says:

    …one of the reasons why engineers refer to solar power as “alternative energy for people who never had to take a physics class.”

    I had never heard that one, but it’s really true. They also don’t take into consideration that if you were to locate these plants in, say, the desert, you have to then get the electricity to somehwere people can use it… and the farther you transmit electric power, the more of it you lose in transmission. You also need some way to store energy when the sun isn’t shining. The electricial system is a tricky thing, in that you produce as much electricity as people are consuming. If demand picks up, your better pick up your generating capacity quicky, or very bad things will happen.

    Much like the bad things that will happen if we continue to let people who aren’t engineers (e.g. politicians) prattle about how to fix our energy problems πŸ˜‰

    Ethanol is another nutty idea.

  5. FloridaSteve Says:

    Gotta Go with Zendo on this one.

    First, I’m no tree hugger and I have a healthy respect for physics.

    Why are we always talking about massing renewable power generation on a single site and distributing it traditionally. I have an 1800 square foot house on a quarter acre lot in North Florida. I average about $160 per month (give or take) for my power bill. I’ve got plenty of unshaded roof area (an so do most neighborhoods in my area) to mount whatever panel/shingle arrangment might be appropriate. I realize it isn’t a complete solution to all out needs but neither are hybrid cars. Hasn’t hurt sales any though. Last I heard isn’t the US population migrating south?

    What I need is a cost effective system to displace as much of my current bill as is practical. It doesn’t have to pay for itself all in one year for crying out loud. And I’m sure my city would like to put off the expense of having to build more generating plants. Not to mention self sufficiency in times of crisis. How much does FEMA give away for generators every hurricane season??

    Sorry for the bad writing. Just a little free association.. πŸ™‚

  6. Paul Moore Says:

    How much of the U.S. has already been paved over by freeways and parking lots? If the paving surfaces were solar generating, that might help a bunch. No transmission problems either, since highways tend to cluster where the people are.
    Remember what they once said about heavier than air flight…

  7. Robin Roberts Says:

    Do you have any idea how much the industrial processes that manufacture photovoltaic cells pollute?

  8. West Says:

    Thanks, Robin, a point missed by many.

    Also, photovoltaics do not last forever.
    Giving a generous 20 year life cycle for panels, that means that once we have built all those solar panels, we will have to replace 5% per year – with the attendant financial and pollution costs – and dispose of or recycle the old ones.

    Paul – do you have any idea the stresses a road surface is subject to? A PV panel can barely take a hit by a slow moving tennis ball and survive, it will be a good long while before anyone can build one you can drive over once with a prius with a midget driver, much less a 40,000 lb tractor trailer. I won’t be hollding my breath on that one.

    For the Northeast, a better use of all the effort spent on photovoltics would be geothermal energy – pump heat into/out of the water table, all you need is energy enough to run the heat pump. The reason this does not happen is the same reason new houses in Florida are not roofed with PV panels – the initial outlay is high, and developers keep costs down by dropping in oil burners. The average homeowner today, after purchasing a house, is unlikely to have the capital available to install a geothermal system themselves – even though it would pay for itself over the lifetime of the house (or possibly even just their ownership), it’s the initial outlay that has kept both technologies out of the private sector.

    To replace every home HVAC system with either technology is a massive undertaking, and even if every new house were to be built with these technologies, it’d be 40 years before it became universal – and that’s just home heating, not industrial energy, which needs much more dense energy sources in general.

    I’m all for doing it, but the realities have to be considered.

    We will need 20-50 years of fossil fuels just to make the transition – if we started today.

  9. xex Says:

    Hmm, can we rescue the idea by appealing to thermodynamics? Assume we have 100% efficient solar to electrical conversion. If I was to cover my roof with such panels, not only would I be generating electricity, but I would be simultaneously reducing the cooling load on my structure, thus reducing my overall electricity needs. This ignores situations where one wants to WARM your structure. For cooler climates than what I am accustomed, perhaps on a seasonal basis exchange the solar panels with heat exchangers.

  10. Sharpshooter Says:

    Since roofs are designed for load bearing, anyone want to guess what the first strong wind and snow strom will do to a house with a PV roof?

  11. Chuck Pelto Says:

    TO: Will Collier
    RE: Solar THIS!

    Actually, I think I could stand to put such solar devices over 5% of my roof and be very happy, as we get quite a bit of sunshine where I live.

    Or, I could put 4% on and sell the excess back to the regular power grid.


    P.S. I’m still waiting for Mr. Fusion…..

  12. Chuck Pelto Says:

    TO: Robin Roberts
    RE: Pollution Factors

    “Do you have any idea how much the industrial processes that manufacture photovoltaic cells pollute?” — Robin Roberts

    Are you talking about current technology? Or the nano-tech?

    We don’t know what sort of pollution the latter will generate in the generation of solar cells. It could be more. It could be less.

    On the other hand, how much pollution do they cause? Or, in the case of coal-fired plants, eliminate?

    Indeed. Pollution factors must be considered, but I think you’re leaving out some data in the overall equation.



  13. Chuck Pelto Says:

    [There are advantages and disadvantages to every position you can take.]

  14. Chuck Pelto Says:

    TO: Sharpshooter
    RE: The Design Is the Thing

    “…anyone want to guess what the first strong wind and snow strom will do to a house with a PV roof?” — Sharpshooter

    It would depend on the design, I would think.

    Anti-Wind: Louvered.
    Anti-Snow: Steep.
    Anti-Hail: UV-proof, impact-resilient plastic covering.

    These should not be too much of a problem to overcome.



  15. JD Says:

    And so begins the hunt for the next Shipstone.

    It is said that the sky is literally raining energy soup – we just need to figure out a way to collect it rather than try to swat at the energy soup with a fork.

    Areas with steady sunshine for most of the year (*cough*centralvalleyofCalifornia*cough*) should have PV systems installed on all new home construction by law. There is no real logic against it. Putting PV in Tornado Alley beggars absolute stupidity, what with the frequent cloudy days, the November-to-March gloom, and such.

    I vote for “glassing over” much of central Nevada, and piping the generated power into Las Vegas – and let Hoover power go elsewhere into the grid.

  16. West Says:

    Chuck – now that you have filtered out the UV with your louvered, slanted(less impinging light, by the way), plastic panels, you have just taken out a significant part of the high energy light that would have otherwise been converted to electricity.

    I am not just trying to be a pain here, it’s just that I go through these excercises perennially, where every layperson has an easy fix for getting ‘free’ energy.

    If it were that damn easy, engineers who are 3 times as smart as you or me and twice as educated would have figgered it out by now. THERE IS NO QUICK FIX.


  17. jon Says:

    Solar is a good idea in many places (such as my home, Tucson), but it doesn’t make as much sense in Seattle. It’s the kind of thing that can supplement, rather than replace, other sources.

    Solar, cleaner coal, nuclear, wind, tidal, geothermal, and oil can handle our needs. It’s just a matter of where our needs are now, where they’ll be tomorrow, and who’s going to pay for the infrastructure. With our government seeming to be unable to competently handle big projects, I’m keeping my eye on solar.

    If it’s going to be every man for himself, solar looks more promising than an enlarged network of transmission lines paid for by energy-company profits that don’t make their way into shareholder dividends or stock options to the “brilliant” energy executives. The public interest isn’t in the plans.

  18. Bastiat Says:

    The article was referring to a next-gen technology that, if viable, is a leap in materials and application. They aren’t talking about current PV, people! (RTFA!)

    The Nano-dot idea has been proposed probably because it might be possible to ‘print’ them on to plastic sheets or something. This is dramatically different than PV because you would be able to wallpaper any surface with them, hence invalidating any problem roof load or wind damage and much of the snark above.

    There are an estimated 40,000 sq. miles of urban space in the US, just shy of the 59,000 sq. in the scratchpad calculation. JD goes a little overboard, but if the tech is viable and turns out to be cheap, why not include the coating as standard energy efficient material in new contruction?

    The point is that we don’t need 100% efficiency, or 100% coverage. If the new ‘cells’ are cheaper than the cost of heating and cooling, you’d be an idiot not to use them. Of course, time will tell if this is just pie-in-the-sky stuff like most enviro-tech is.

    However, I think there will be some viable set of ‘helper’ tech that allows the average person to reduce his draw on the national energy supply. It’ll will probably be a combination of cheap things that helps the average Joe avoid the mega energy bill; wind, fuel cell, solar, improved insulation, etc. Again, if it’s is cheaper that what may turn out to be insanely high energy prices, only the Neo-Luddities would refuse.

  19. Tom Says:

    Belittling alternative sources of energy by doing some math calculations with current patterns of energy use in the US is easy.

    The most intelligent and money-efficient way of dealing with the problem of energy production is to shrink the amount of energy consumed without shrinking the tasks it is used for.

    The current hot topic in solar energy research, where the US for obvious reasons could tremendously benefit, is solar cooling. Alternatives to electricity-powered air-conditioning would make a huge difference to the total amount of US energy consumption.

  20. Geoff Says:

    Just to ask a really stupid question:

    When I took economic geography a hundred years ago, they told us urban centers got slightly odd weather patterns because the large expanses of asphalt within the city absorbed more heat than the dirt and foliage of the surrounding countryside.

    If we built solar systems extensive enough to power major cities, would there be a consequence in terms of solar energy being absorbed, rather than reflected back through the atmosphere? Or would the absorption still be negligible enough compared to the amount of energy the sun puts out?

    It seems to me that paving over the whole of Georgia might have a climatic consequence or two, so I’d think anything else on this scale would have some cumulative effect.

    I’m one of those commenters who doesn’t remember much from physics class, so be gentle in correcting me. At the same time, every other topic has its share of alarmists, so why not some alarmist rhetoric about how solar energy might affect the distribution of the sun’s life-giving energy within the biosphere? Somebody call Al Gore!

  21. Chuck Pelto Says:

    TO: West
    RE: Perhaps

    “…now that you have filtered out the UV with your louvered, slanted(less impinging light, by the way), plastic panels, you have just taken out a significant part of the high energy light that would have otherwise been converted to electricity.” — West

    Do YOU know the capabilities of the nano-tech that you can say that will be totally ineffective?

    By the by…

    …current tech for solar cells are ‘slanted’.

    Louvered means it isn’t a SOLID WALL, i.e., like venetian blinds that would allow air passage; reducing the chance of damage by high winds.



  22. Chuck Pelto Says:

    TO: Jon
    RE: The Grid Man! The Grid!

    “Solar is a good idea in many places (such as my home, Tucson), but it doesn’t make as much sense in Seattle. It’s the kind of thing that can supplement, rather than replace, other sources.” — Jon

    True. But what about ‘sharing’?

    Seattle’s a LONG way from Tucson, but Yakima isn’t. I think we’ve got grids that cover that sort of distance.

    Other plants could be on used as back-ups. Or where they are more effective, e.g., the dams along the Columbia.

    I don’t think anyone is saying this possible technology of nano-tech solar power is a panacea. But if it can be done, are these nay-sayers here saying it isn’t worth it? How can they tell?



  23. Chuck Pelto Says:

    TO: Geoff
    RE: Weathering It

    “If we built solar systems extensive enough to power major cities, would there be a consequence in terms of solar energy being absorbed, rather than reflected back through the atmosphere? Or would the absorption still be negligible enough compared to the amount of energy the sun puts out?” — Geoff

    It’s not just something you heard. I understand Phoenix is a classic example of that now. Storm fronts roll up to the city and split around it due to the thermal plume rising from all the concrete and asphalt. Hence it’s record dry-spell this year.

    On the other hand, the solar energy is being absorbed and, to a degree, converted to electrical energy. But it is still, more converted to thermal energy by these ‘heat sink’ man-made structures.

    What the impact of the nano-tech is going to be, if they can pull it off, remains to be seen.



  24. curtis kreutzberg Says:

    How can you bring up physics and all that yucky stuff(never came up in transgendered studies).We WANT magic and we WANT it now. You guys kept the 150mpg carburetor off the market for all those years.I read all Steven denBeste’s energy posts,so complicated,you have to know and learn stuff.Eww yukky. I want my carburetor,and a pony.

  25. richard mcenroe Says:

    Dammit, I DEMAND solar power to run the Dean Drive in my flying car! Make it happen, Government!

  26. Mr. Lion Says:

    Sigh. Why must the professor du jour, who has absolutely no idea how power generation works, constantly spout off about this stuff?

    You can not generate base power with solar energy. It cannot be done. Period. This is because solar is not a controllable or static energy source. Base power must be generated by plants which can match demand load via controllable energy sources, like hydro, nuke and fossil plants. Without them, the power grid model falls on its ass and stops working.

    Until someone takes battery efficiency past all current bounds of physics, solar power is useful as a localized, independent generation solution on a small scale. Period.

  27. happyricardian Says:

    Youd think a buncha free market conservative libertarian types would have, you know, more respect for price as a signal.

    If Solar is mainly available during the day, then you know, utilities will charge less for power during the day (instead of MORE as they do now) and time movable, electricity intensive, industrial processes will adjust (how much they adjust will depend on the price differential) If power is going to be cheaper in desert areas, than, over time and at the margin, electricity intensive processes will be induced to move towards desert areas.

    I also dont understand why the magic goal is providing ALL energy needs? Why would the market ever respond by doing just one thing? Ya know what, opening up ANWR isnt going to solve all our energy needs either. And probably the numbers of nukes we’re realistically going to build wont either. So why not combine solar, principally for domestic heating and cooling, but ALSO for electricity where it works, with wind, with nuclear, with hydro etc?

    And with conservation of course.

  28. me Says:

    Are you the same Steven Green that killed 4 people in Iraq and raped a 15 year old girl before shooting her 7 year old sister?

  29. curtis kreutzberg Says:

    Holy shit, Steve is that guy. Take a look at the photo on CNN. Oh man, they must have framed him.

  30. curtis kreutzberg Says:

    Quit using my name,it ain’t all that common.Mr 3:08

  31. 15-year-old-pussy Says:

  32. Mr. Lion Says:

    Why couldn’t power companies charge less for power during the day, if using solar as a peak generator?

    Two reasons. The first, and most significant, is that solar generation is a tiny drop in the bucket, and anything less than a really, really massive array of panels would affect generation costs by fractions of a cent, if that.

    Second, electricity is a commodity, and as such is averaged and traded on a futures market. You can’t make cooking oil cheaper in the grocery store between 8am and 4pm for exactly the same reason.

  33. Sigivald Says:

    JD: They should, by law? Why? “Because I like the idea of other people having to use PV cells” isn’t a very good reason. Nor (for reasons of fundamental dishonesty in the statement) is “because I want to discourage people from building homes in central California by increasing the price”.

    People will put PV cells on the roofs of their homes when it makes economic sense for them to. Making them do so by law is essentially a tax on new homes and a subsidy to the PV industry.

    Ricardian: The one small problem with that is that industrial processes that need power also need workers, and lots of workers really don’t want to work swing shift if it’s avoidable; that increases labor costs as it decreases electrical costs. (In fact, right now the same thing applies simply because most industry is active during the day. Demand is already lower at night, but industry doesn’t seem to be swinging the balance by moving to nighttime use, though, as I understand it, the industrial clients do get lower rates for off-peak use… perhaps only the largest customers do so, like aluminum or steel plants?)

    Lion is absolutely right; solar cannot power the grid as a whole, because it simply isn’t capable of producing power the way the grid absolutely requires power be produced (controllably and at all times), though it’s fine for supplemental use. Home generation is probably the best use-case for widespread PV solar, and the cost/benefit is dubious there.

    Nuclear power seems to be the best fit for power generation.

  34. Joe Says:

    The cool thing about solar power is when it becomes cost effective. It will happen, people in the south will start putting it up on their roofs, and utilities will be buying power back from the houses and then shipping power north. The question is how long before this becomes practical and how much power for the country will this technology level off at generating

  35. Mikey Says:

    Dear Mr. Collier–

    Solar energy is dreamy and ever so environmental and stuff. It’s even better than putting magnetic tape around your car’s fuel filter, yo. All the cool kids will be using it RSN.

    For the rest of us, petro will “peak,” then there will be a Coal Age followed by a Nuclear Age.

    Just trying to be helpful,


  36. Ted B. (Charging Rhino) Says:

    Thirty years ago Ames Research and Prof. O’Neil did an extensive study of orbital solar power generation, and they figured that solar-furnace-fired helium or nitrogen gas-turbines would be more effective than photovoltaic at an industrial scale with microwave or short-wavelength laser power transmission to recievers on the ground. However, the practical technologies for harnessing “solar power” with today’s technology are wind-turbines and deep-water thermal transfer extraction.

    Montana already generates more wind-turbine electicity than it consumes. If you live in New England…remember it was the “liberal” and “Green” Kennedy family that blocked the Nantucket wind farm….so that it would “ruin” the view from their private Hyannisport compound porches.

  37. mikey Says:

    Yes, but imagine this…

    Solar myths

  38. . Says:

    Is that our Steven Green in the Solar Myths link?

  39. JD Says:

    Sigivald – I apologize if I went a bit overboard in my verbiage there.

    I guess I was trying to impart the fact that placing a $20K system on a $300K house that will easily pay for itself – especially if you are a PG&E electric customer – within the expected use lifetime of most PV systems (20 years +/-) might be a pretty good idea for certain areas, but not others.

    It’s all in the mix, fellas. Because of seismics and envirokooks, Nuclear will never get back off the ground in CA, so we’re pretty much stuck with hydro (with no new dams ever to be built), NatGas-fired plants, and the odds and ends (wind, biomass, Barbra Streisand’s breath, etc.).

    And yes, TANSTAAFL. But why not tweak the daytime consumption equation a bit? Neighborhoods in Modesto and Stockton and MetroSac with their PG&E/SMUD meters running backward on a 95-degree day seems like a pretty good idea to me.

    And the Governator is actually attempting to make new developments more aggressive about offering/selling PV systems.

  40. MoeJoe Says:

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  41. geekWithA.45 Says:

    Orbit New Jersey?

    Please do.

    The sooner we can send them, the better. Or tow them out to sea. Or something.

    Over here in PA, we periodically wonder if we’d be better off if we blew all the bridges and mined the Delaware river. πŸ˜‰

  42. Frank Borger Says:

    Real problem with solar:

    I did a quick calculation of the energy payback time for a solar panel system in my area, (SE Wisconsin.)

    Divide US GNP by total energy consumption, and you get a number that tells you pretty much how much energy it takes to make anything.

    I did a simple spreadsheet showing initial cost in kWh, yearly output, 1.5% degredation factor for the cells, and yearly maintenance costs shows solar hasn’t paid for itself after 30 years.

    For comparison, Nuclear, modern clean coal and gas plants have payback times on the order of 0.5 to 1 year.

    And the real problem is variability in output. You can’t control the damn system. The dang sun goes down at night, clouds come by, it rains. End result, you still need conventional plants spun up in standyby mode. DUH.

  43. David Says:

    It’s funny that solar power advocates care nothing for the vast heavy metal polution that making these things entail. Everyone that puts up active solar panels should be required to bury the polutants in their back yard.
    If we pave over Georgia with solar panels we need to choose another state to destroy with polution.

  44. Peter Jackson Says:

    What we need is a new grid. One that can cheaply have inputs or outputs anywhere, that has the capacity to store energy.

    You know, like the internet.


  45. sjv Says:

    In 44 comments, no one noticed?

    Your arithmetic is wrong. 242 *million* square feet, or 8.7 square miles. Not nearly as crazy.

    But what’s a few orders of magnitude among friends?

  46. Paul Moore Says:

    Bastiat- You said what I was trying to say, but you said it better. When I talked about using the highways as a power grid, I was assuming some as yet undeveloped nano- technology that would allow electrical generation via embedded micro chips. Not being a physicist, I’m not smart enough to know why it isn’t possible.All I know is that sober scientists have given us see- through concrete, windows that clean themselves, and green day-glo pigs this year. So I’m betting that anything I can imagine may be next.

  47. MMDeuce Says:

    You’re still looking at getting 8.7 square miles of silicon along with the associated support and transmission equipment into orbit. At $2k-$4k/lb to LEO that’s a significant outlay. And that just replaces one nuke plant. You’d need around 3000 of them to supply the energy needs of the US. Remember, we’re still assuming 100% efficient transfer, for a more realistic estimate we’d have to multiply that number by anywhere from 4-10.

    Then there’s maintenance. Nuclear operators aren’t cheap, but we work for a hell of a lot less than astronauts. One loose screw and Montana loses electricity, and it doesn’t come back until we can ship and install replacement panels.

    Solar isn’t going to be a major player in power generation. It will have a role, but along with wind, tidal, and the other “green” sources it will be minor. The future of electricity generation will be in coal, natural gas, and nuclear (fission and, if we ever figure it out, fusion). They’re the only methods we have for generating large amounts of electricity when we need it

  48. Chuck Pelto Says:

    TO: richard mcenroe
    RE: Demands….Edmands…

    “Dammit, I DEMAND solar power to run the Dean Drive in my flying car! Make it happen, Government!” — richard mcenroe

    Why am I suddenly reminded of that astute Japanese phyics prof who said that no super-conductor could ever be ‘green’?



  49. CujoQuarrel Says:

    Using the current technology (about a $1000 panel to generate 150 watts if I read correctly) solar is not feasable. (Assuming you use about 3kw per hour during the daylight hours and you only get good sunlight for about 8 hours a day that would mean putting about $20k worth of panels on your house to lower your bill about 1/3).

    But what if the price was lower? A factor of 100? Would you put $200 worth of panels to lower your current electricity bill by 1/3? $400? $1000?

    There is some price point in there where putting the suckers on becomes a money making proposition. If we say that the we need for it to pay itself back in 5 years then my back of the envelope calculations tell me that I need to be paying no more than about $3000 for the 3kw generation capability. (saving $50 a month off my $150 bill each month for 60 months).

    So we are only about a factor of 6 away from feasability. That’s really not too bad since there are all kinds of new technolgies percolating in the labs.

    Right now you can get about 10 watts per square foot panels. A normal house has at least 1000 square foot of space which would generatre 10kws if totally covered.

    This means we have one dimension that we could trade in for cost. Larger , cheaper, less efficient panels would still get us to our goal of having a house that is self sufficent while the sun shines.

    If I covered my own energy needs (or more) for the daylight hours that is less fuel that needs to be burned to generate power. There would still be a need for power plants but their fuel needs would go down and more fuel/power would be available to those for whom it would not be feasable to have solar panels.

    And I save money.

    Never underestimate the power of greed to get things done.

  50. Brett Says:

    You just can’t beat this fact:
    fossil fuels = efficiently collected solar energy (plants & animals that ate plants & animals that ate herbivores) + geothermal energy + pressure.

    It’s been distilled over millions of years into a (fairly) stable medium with incredibly high energy per cubic unit. There won’t be any cheap fixes. Well, maybe nuclear. But isn’t that just distilled gravitational energy?

    Our ideas for doing in minutes what takes the physical world eons just don’t work. Sure they’re more efficient. Just not 90 Billion times more efficient. (Approximately 90 Billion hours in a 10 million years.)

  51. peter Jackson Says:

    When I talked about using the highways as a power grid, I was assuming some as yet undeveloped nano- technology that would allow electrical generation via embedded micro chips.

    I just read a nanotechnology article in Scientific American where they discuss a photovoltaic nano-embedded paint. If we get the white variety, we can simply paint our highways and simultaneously lessen global warming by having our roads reflect more heat back up and out of our atmosphere. Ba-da-bing. πŸ˜‰


  52. tsohg Says:

    “Until someone takes battery efficiency past all current bounds of physics, solar power is useful as a localized, independent generation solution on a small scale. Period.”

    What about using large, underground flywheels for long-term energy storage? Can we _please_ get some flywheel love in here?

  53. Love Says:

    How about trading in the SUV’S for bicycles?

  54. That guy Says:

    Here’s a guy that’s doing it:

  55. Norm Says:

    I did my own calculation on Arizona and came up with an area roughly equivalent to the area south of I-10 to the Mexican border and west of I-19 to the Colorado River. Now there are few towns in the area (we could carve out enclaves for Yuma, Casa Grande, and the Phoenix metro area – relocating the rest ala the TVA). The Goldwater Bombing Range would have to relocated. Only a few national monuments (Organ Pipe Cactus and Ironwood Forest) would be destroyed. Of course, the Sierra Club would end up suing on behalf of the Desert Tortoise or the Mexican Spotted Owl and it would all come to nought.

  56. Randy Says:

    Love the blog, but I think the math doesn’t work here.

    First, if you’ve got 1000 kw per megawatt, that means you need 1000/64kw, or 15.625 sets of 8,740 square foot space station panels, or 136 THOUSAND square feet to generate a megawatt of power.

  57. Randy Says:

    Second, modern solar panels can get up to 17 watts per square foot at 20% efficiency (your model assumes 7 watts/sq foot at 100% efficiency).

    Thus, 1 megawatt of power per hour can be produced on 60,000 square feet or about the area of a football field including end zones (which is 57,600 square feet). Not terrible.

  58. Brian Macker Says:

    Now figure out how much power could be generated if every home’s roof was covered with solar panels. I’m too lazy.

    Assume 300,000 people, four per house, and 500 sq feet of roof space per house. That’s about what 1.345 square miles.

    How much of America’s energy needs does that meet?

    If you plug in the Blogfaddah info, claiming 2% of U.S. land that would be 1/50th, or about one state with N.Z. Bear claims is about 60,000 sq miles, you get that it meets .00224% of our energy needs. This seems way too low to me.

    Do you mean to tell me that if I covered my roof with solar cells they would only generate enough power to meet one five hundred of a percent of the total energy usage of my family. Somethings wrong here.

  59. Randy Says:

    Well, if a typical house uses 20 kwh/day, and gets 3 hours worth of usable sunlight per day, on average (adjusting for winter light, rain, etc. — number would be higher in the sun belt, lower in the midwest), you would need 7kw of rated solar panels (3×7=21kwh of daily production). At 215 watts per panel (Sunpower panels) you would need 32 panels for this output. At 13.5 square feet per panel you would need 432 square feet of roof space. That would be enough for most of the homeowners energy needs.

    The problem is not energy efficiency, it’s the current cost of the panels (at $1,500 per panel installed, this setup would be about $45k before subsidies — which are high in some states like CA and NJ). Prices will come down as we work through the current shortage of supply of polysilicon (the raw material used to make solar cells), and cells become more efficient. This is going to happen in a big way over the next decade.

    Solar won’t solve all of our energy needs, but as a distributed source of power it can take away a lot of the bite. Plus the panels last for decades (warranties are typically 25 years) and the energy source is free. What’s so bad?

    Keep up the blogging. Great stuff.

  60. Brian Macker Says:


    I wasn’t considering the cost. I’m a strong believer in the market and obviously if the panels cost more than the energy they produce that’s a net loss. In fact it shows that they require more resources than they save.

    What I was wondering is why when I plugged in the numbers from the article that I came up with the numbers I did. I know you can cover half your roof and generate quite a bit of electricity. The percent I calcuated based on the numbers of the article seemed way too low. So somethings wrong somewhere.

    I’m too lazy to figure out what.

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