February 2009 News

01 Feb

One may assume that there is a good deal of thinking going on of what could be done on short notice with the seemingly abundant money that is either created out of thin air by the printing press or comes from foreign lenders to heal the ailing economy. So let’s join in with some thoughts. I quote one of the new government gurus, Larry Summers, the guy who was president of Harvard and claimed that women had less innate science abilities than men, and had to go in the aftermath of the

furor he created. According to this otherwise apparently wise man, the money should be used for marrying the twin imperatives of putting people back to work and doing the work that needs to be done.

An example of such a dual purpose project would be a massive investment program in green energy, such as wind and especially solar power. If the government would encourage every homeowner to install solar panels by using a part of the stimulus money to help finance the investment and part to subsidize paying it off by guaranteeing a price for the surplus energy, this could have a broad, relatively quick, and long lasting impact on the infrastructure, and possibly usher in a completely new technological approach of energizing homes. It would not only create a new solar industry for energizing homes, but it would also take pressure off the conventional energy resources, especially coal, the most damaging of them all.

Solar power seems uniquely suited for providing a distributed electrical energy source for homes. Every home has a roof that can become the site for an electricity generator. The U.S. is uniquely suited for solar energy with its entire expanse lying between about 25 N and 50 N. In comparison, Europe lies between about 40 N and 55 N and still they have taken on the solar energy challenge. Why they are ahead I frankly do not know. But one decisive factor is massive government subsidies in the investment and production phases of solar energy. But such money give-aways still make more sense than tax handouts. The government needs taxes, just as we need the government. We would be in total chaos by now without the interference of government and we

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are in the initial stages of it by the past government’s abdication of its supervisory role. One can say we are in throngs of incipient chaos brought on by a lack of government. Just think of what happened to the pension plans of millions of decent citizens that have been let down by this government failure.

Over the life time of the first cycle of solar equipment, say 20 years, a new solar technology would have hopefully developed thanks to these subsidized

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investments and solar roofs would be installed routinely as are shingle or tile roofs today. Thus, today’s investment would have financed a technological leap comparable to the one in the 1930s, when life styles changed from outhouses to water closets and

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A solar roof would not only produce badly needed electricity, but

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it would also save electricity from being squandered by fighting incoming solar energy with air conditioning. It would end the ridiculous and costly go around of the sun pumping heat into the house through a heat absorbing shingle roof and we pumping the heat back out by air conditioning.

But solar energy is highly unreliable and requires backup. I recently saw a picture of a large solar panel installation on the roof of a monastery building in Germany, a land not exactly blessed with solar energy. On this big roof they sometimes produce a mere 100 watts. This is what I can produce on a treadmill in the gym, but only for a very limited time, say 10 minutes, before I give out. Of course, if you have a house full of monks, they could be delegated to treadmill duty to bridge the typical solar energy supply gaps. But such dismal solar output, when it happens, is widespread, affecting not just one home but thousands of them. Therefore, solar as well as wind resources are inadequate without backup. This is where the TVA enters the picture.

Assume there is a million roofs with say 5 kW installed capacity of which momentarily about 2 kW are needed when the solar supply fails. A 2,000 MW backup installation has to kick in and take it over. In addition to TVA’s existing water power that can be called upon, East Tennessee has many potential pumped storage sites. One or two could be built on short notice, as preliminary investigations have been done many years ago. Hydraulic pumped storage is conventional, and can be installed completely away from rivers and lakes, so that environmental effects should be minimal. The TVA has ample experience in operating pumped storage. Such plants would be not only of local but also of national significance, as they would be integral parts of what also needs to be developed, a so-called smart transmission system that can meet power requirements wherever they occur.

In summary, solar panels, backup power, and a smart transmission systems would be investments that meet the dual purposes of putting people back to work and do the work that needs to be done. This is just one opportunity of turning the present malaise into a catalyst for change that will have to come anyway, and better sooner than later.

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