What will make solar power go mainstream?


The last post here was overly critical of solar power to some, so as a tranquilizer here’s another side of the story. It’s not a counterpoint, because there is no counterpoint: solar power in itself has an environmental footprint like everything else. We can’t condone or ignore negative impacts of something because it’s being done for the greater good; that thinking gave us communism and the Soviet Union, which, while a goldmine for comedy, wasn’t one of mankind’s high water marks.

Solar power could very well become a major source of power over time if two major obstacles can be overcome. The biggest hurdle is battery power. Not the little AAA cells we purchase by the bushel at Christmas time, more like cutting-edge ones you haven’t seen unless you’ve been run over by a Tesla. We are going to need some serious fridge sized ones for our homes if solar has any hope. That’s because solar power is generated primarily for only a few hours a day, a time frame that inconveniently does not coincide with when we really need it. We need short-term energy storage solutions that can store energy locally for use when needed.

A typical home, even if covered entirely in solar panels, wouldn’t run all its gadgets for very long, and after the sun went down it would require either battery power or sit in the dark, useless. Companies like Tesla have made great strides in developing battery technology to the point where it is feasible to use it in a home. And it helps to remember that when Tesla started building cars, the industry experts said it couldn’t be done, that it was impractical, that lithium ion batteries like those used in laptops would overheat, and on and on in the timeless fashion perpetually displayed by those whose livelihood is about to be run over and made obsolete while they are looking the other way and shouting with great certainty.

The second hurdle to be overcome is the inevitable problem of placement, not just NIMBYism but ironically enough from environmentalists. We’re not just talking about property-value addled suburbanites here; desert vermin and their spokesmen are also slowing advancement. Some solar sites have been vetoed because of the disturbances they would create in local ecosystems, which seems hard to believe when you fly over some really sunny hot locations like parts of Nevada or California that look like Mars, without the water. Some solar sites are even blamed for igniting birds in flight, which I suppose is preferable to drowning in a pool of oil but nonetheless is yet another energy source that birds find little to cheer about. On the other hand, there is an (allegedly) ancient Chinese proverb that says “a man must stand on the side of a mountain a very long time with his mouth open before a roast duck flies into it.” The proverb points out that nothing comes without effort, however it might be proved false for those who look on solar farms with open-mouthed amazement.

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