Solar power and natural gas – if we’re going renewable, these two make a good pair

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It’s unfortunate that, on some topics, polarizing opinions often drive people into opposing camps, where the opponents are nothing but Neanderthals. It’s the same effect as in neighbouring small rural towns, where identical people become mortal enemies by living a few miles apart and developing different habits. Of course it’s not everyone that’s like that, it’s vocal minorities on either side that makes the noise, but that’s all we hear.

 

The most venomous debates were once reserved for religion and politics, notoriously attractive turf for the narrow-minded. Unfortunately this phenomenon has pervaded the field of energy. It’s become stark: if you can tolerate fossil fuels you must hate the planet, and if you’re passionate about the environment you are a socialist who hates everything except redistributing wealth.

 

It’s really too bad the debate has taken on that tone, because the future of energy most likely looks like an interracial marriage between the two camps. Better learn to get along.

 

For the fossil fuel crowd: sorry to tell you, but the days of endless petroleum usage are numbered. It will take a few years yet, but the day is coming. The world is not getting any bigger, and rigs have poked holes pretty much anywhere on earth that might hold hydrocarbons (except maybe the Marianas Trench (the place, not the band) and that’s only because it’s too hard on today’s poor little drilling rigs). The mega discoveries have been found, and we consume a lot of oil every year. Shale this and that is just a drop in the bucket, globally speaking. Consider that a big find now, one that makes the news, is several billion barrels. But the world consumes 35 billion barrels every year. Those two inescapable trajectories mean that we can’t rely on oil to fuel perpetual growth as we always have.

 

Natural gas is also a fossil fuel, but has a brighter future. For one, it’s much cleaner burning, which is not an insignificant fact these days. Regardless of one’s thoughts on climate change, the option of burning a cleaner fuel is one that should always be pursued where possible. We can also get along just fine throwing all our garbage in the back yard indefinitely, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Secondly, natural gas is at least in part renewable. Garbage dumps give off vast amounts, as does anything else that goes through a similar process of decomposition. So there are natural sources that may be tapped or exploited as well. (This brings up the legendary status of cows as natural gas emitters but probably best to exclude that as a reliable source; if anyone wants to try to capture it go right ahead. You will earn your place in environmental heaven.)

 

On the other side of the coin, solar installations simply aren’t up to the job of powering the life we have all become accustomed to. Neither is wind. Both are too intermittent and too feeble to generate the huge quantities of power needed for most appliances, never mind fast cars. For instance, this extremely pro-solar site points out that a Tesla can be powered by a mere 30 solar roof panels – if one only ever drives 25 miles per day. People don’t do that, they prefer fully charged cars thank you very much, which means 10 times as many solar panels. And that’s only for part of the year, when the sun has strength, and that setup only powers the car, not the rest of the household. So it’s just not that feasible, particularly since power consumption peaks (at a very high level compared to the troughs) at the times of day when solar output is not optimal. Without some fantastic new battery solutions, of which none are on the horizon, solar will remain only a supplement to the grid.

 

From this, we can glean that a solar (or wind) and natural gas combination is an excellent model to power the world for decades. Natural gas supplies are vast and becoming globally traded (which wasn’t the case a decade ago) so prices should remain somewhat reasonable for quite some time. This is unlike oil, whose price could go through the roof at the whim of some of the world’s most unstable governments.

 

There is a fly in the ointment – wherever the power comes from, there must be enough capacity instantly available to meet peak loads. In other words, if the peak load is expected to be 1 million megawatts at 6 pm, then there needs to be enough non-solar capability to meet that need because solar might be contributing zero at that time. So some might say why bother with solar at all, but that’s no fun. What we should be doing is finding new ways to store solar power for use at peak times, which would mean we wouldn’t need as much non-solar capability built in. There are numerous ways to store that solar power without exotic batteries, the simplest being to pump water uphill, where it can be released downhill to spin a generator whenever it’s required. Or something like that, I’ll leave it to the engineers to figure out something. Put that linear thinking to something useful.

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