Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Solar power: still the best choice

Thanks to Gar Lipow, I've been hip to solar thermal power and heat storage for a while now, and today I see Joe Romm (former Clinton administration official and blogger) thinks it could save humanity from climate-induced megadeath.

I'm not wild about the idea of covering massive amounts of desert with solar farms -- deserts are ecosystems too! -- but humanity is in survival mode at this point, so desert solar farms and offshore wind (anything that doesn't eat up valuable farmland) are the order of the day. And in any case, the amount of land taken up by solar farms would be less than we currently eat up with oil, coal, and gas infrastructure. Let Appalachia go back to forest, and make Nevada the new Kuwait of solar power.

A corollary to the potential for solar thermal is that Canada really needs to get out of the oil business, now. All of the largest future consumers of oil either have abundant amounts of solar potential within their borders or within 1000km or so, short enough distances to use HVDC cables. China has massive deserts in the west, India is pretty sunny to begin with -- though they might prefer to buy CSP-electricity via a submarine cable from the Arabian desert. Europe is conveniently located just a bit north of the planet's largest desert that isn't dark 6 months of the year, and the US has massive amounts of solar in the southwest. South America has the Patagonian and Atacama deserts, which while smaller deserts could still power 20 America-sized economies. Electric cars are coming, one way or another, and CSP will deliver clean electricity that's cheaper than gasoline. Why we would expect anyone, anywhere to continue to want the dirtiest fossil fuels in existence from Alberta, when there's such an abundant alternative available escapes me.

And of course, we won't have to pave the entire desert with mirrors and steam boilers, because CSP will be only one of many technologies at work -- rooftop solar, offshore wind, (maybe) some biomass. The point remains that 20 years from now, all of our subsidies for tar sands oil will seem like the biggest white elephant in Canadian history. So stop now, and save ourselves the cost.

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