Thursday, August 04, 2005

Solar energy?

SOLAR ENERGY: Is It Time to Shoot for the Sun? -- Service 309 (5734): 548 -- Science:
Ask most Americans about their energy concerns, and you're likely to get an earful about gasoline prices. Ask Nate Lewis, and you'll hear about terawatts. Lewis, a chemist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, is on a mission to get policymakers to face the need for sources of clean energy. He points out that humans today collectively consume the equivalent of a steady 13 terawatts (TW)--that's 13 trillion watts--of power. Eighty-five percent of that comes from fossil fuels that belch carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Now, with CO2 levels at their highest point in 125,000 years, our planet is in the middle of a global experiment.

To slow the buildup of those gases, people will have to replace most, if not all, of those 13 TW with carbon-free energy sources. And that's the easy part. Thanks to global population growth and economic development, most energy experts predict we will need somewhere around an additional 30 TW by 2050. Coming up with that power in a way that doesn't trigger catastrophic changes in Earth's climate, Lewis says, "is unarguably the greatest technological challenge this country will face in the next 50 years."

Clearly, there are no easy answers. But one question Lewis and plenty of other high-profile scientists are asking is whether it's time to launch a major research initiative on solar energy. In April, Lewis and physicist George Crabtree of Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois co-chaired a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) workshop designed to explore the emerging potential for basic research in solar energy, from novel photovoltaics to systems for using sunlight to generate chemical fuels. Last week, the pair released their report on the Web (, and the hard copy is due out soon.
I don't know if this is available outside the academic network. I'll post more if people can't access it.

The DoE estimates that $50 million per year (vs. $10-13 million right now) would be enough to spur rapid developments in solar power.

It's an interesting piece.