Rock Solid Solar

The energy source of the 21st century is buried in the ground.

Columns From: 1/3/2011 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Peter Zelinski

Gardner Publications, the publisher of this magazine, is considering installing solar panels on the grounds of its headquarters. The reason doesn’t have to do with preferring one form of power to another. Rather, government incentives might make the move profitable. The plan is still being reviewed, but my coworkers and I might well end up with alternative energy in our midst.

Meanwhile, on a vastly larger scale, a different energy-related investment is moving ahead. Caterpillar recently announced it would buy Wisconsin-based mining equipment maker

Bucyrus International for $7.6 billion. The move says something great about American manufacturing. While neither company produces exclusively in the United States, the move highlights the success and future prospects of two American industrial firms whose products are in demand around the world.

Yet the move also says something striking about energy. Government incentives such as the ones my employer might obtain almost always focus on a vision of energy that emphasizes solar panels and wind turbines. By contrast, when a major company, Caterpillar, took a serious look at the macroeconomics, that company was willing to bet billions on the future of coal. With good reason, Cat thinks the power demands of growing economies won’t be answered by “alternative” sources, but instead will require a whole lot more coal to be mined.

To be sure, the future is solar. However, it’s worth pointing out that the present is solar, too. As one who cares about the precise meanings of words, it bothers me to hear the mechanism of light hitting electricity-making panels referred to as “solar power.” The phrase means nothing more than “power from the sun,” so our society is already solar-powered! The sunlight simply hit the earth in the distant past. Organisms captured it and decomposed, beginning the process that led to fossil fuels. Using solar panels would more accurately be described as “photovoltaic power,” which is a less efficient variety of solar power than what fossil fuels provide.

In the far future, orbiting satellites with panels like sails will capture solar energy unimpeded by air or clouds, wirelessly transmitting the power to the surface. I make that prediction with confidence, because this model would be the most straightforward way to tap into the sun. We just don’t have the technology yet. Getting there might take 150 or 200 years.

In the meantime, it is truly a wonder that our planet comes with high-power solar batteries in the form of oil, gas and coal just waiting to be used. It is a wonder, and likely it is enough.

We can and should develop alternative power sources toward the levels of technology they will one day realize. Yet as Cat’s move suggests, the push to widely install these technologies as they exist today might represent wasted effort. At best, those technologies can’t meet more than a sliver of total demand. Meanwhile, there is still an abundance of fuel to be mined. In fact, as extraction technologies improve, there is quite likely to be plenty of fuel to get us to the time when alternative energy truly comes of age.

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