I see a major downside to the current approach to renewable energy.
Our society is pouring huge amounts of money into projects using current technology. These are inefficient, damaging to the environment in so many dimensions, are viable only because government agencies demand utilities buy their output, and produce very expensive electricity even after massive subsidies. Worse yet, these are locking today’s technology in to many multi-billion dollar megaprojects.
Here is a hint, just a hint, of what could happen if we were to put those billions into research.
8/2 – The Economist – Picking up steam – carbon-based material gives solar steam-power a boost.
Remember seeing that a thin layer of water on a street gets turned into steam by the sun? That doesn’t happen on a lake. The reason that happens is the water below the surface of the lake is a heat sink, preventing the conversion to steam. Researchers at MIT have a demonstration project that takes that concept to generate steam for electricity. Long ways to go, but this has promise.
The payoff is that sunlight only needs to be magnified by a factor of ten to get the steam conversion. Researchers think this could be reduced to a factor of three. This looks to be running at about 85% efficiency (I don’t grasp the impact of that stat at all).
Look at the contrast, according to the article. Solar thermal towers, like Palen, magnify the sun’s rays by a factor of 1,000. Parabolic troughs concentrate by a factor of 60 to 80.
The efficiency is 24%. I’m not sure that is a good comparison to the 85% mentioned earlier in the article, but it is the only stat mentioned .
If this research proves out, and if it is commercially feasible, and if who know what other hurdles can be cleared, it would produce electricity much cheaper than current technology options. Seems to me the environmental damage would be a small fraction of what we are seeing today with solar tower and parabolic trough technology.
I am hoping for a breakthrough in technology that does for solar power what horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing did for gas and oil.
When that happens, solar will give natural gas and oil a really good competitor. A couple of rounds of massive breakthroughs might shrink our use of oil.