Friday, October 23, 2009

Alternative Energy: Beware the Gee Whiz Factor

There are several areas in the United States that lead in energy research. Three that come to mind are Massachussetts, California and North Carolina (see last post). If we are to deal with the real threats of fossil fuel depletion, increasing pollution and global warming, we not only need useful new ideas and technology, we also need to see those ideas implemented in the real world.

I would like to think President Obama gets it when it comes to the need for alternative energy. Earlier today, he gave a speech on alternative energy at MIT. The Boston Globe has the story:
“Extraordinary energy research is being conducted at this institute,’’ he said, mentioning windows that generate electricity, viruses engineered to build batteries, more efficient lighting systems, and “innovative engineering that will make it possible for offshore wind power plants to deliver electricity even when the air is still.’’

(snip)

“From China to India, from Japan to Germany, nations everywhere are racing to develop new ways to produce and use energy,’’ he said. “The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy. I am convinced of that. And I want America to be that nation. It’s that simple.’’

Obama has already done far more for alternative energy than his predecessor. Of course that isn't saying much since both the previous president and vice president were oil men with a narrow view of the universe and little interest in science.

But I guess I'm becoming a worrier. The end of the Boston Globe article ended with a paragraph that might be called the gee whiz factor:
Today, the state is on track to have roughly 30 megawatts of wind generating capacity, or enough to power nearly 7,900 homes, and 40 megawatts of solar generating capacity, enough to power from 6,000 to 8,000 homes, installed by the end of Patrick’s term.

Okay, I have to admit I'm a sucker for gee whiz statistics. Nevertheless, a reality check is necessary here and I'll get to it in a moment. I just want to point out that installing wind turbines and solar farms is important whether it's a single homeowner doing it or a major corporation. Every bit helps and I mean that. No matter what happens in the next five, ten, twenty years, every new alternative energy project will add a resilience factor to our nation.

But here's the problem. Let's say Massachusetts manages to go the extra mile and installs enough power for 16,000 homes in four years. That's power for 4,000 homes a year. The population of Massachusetts is about 6.5 million people. Let's fudge and say there's a million homes in the state. At that rate, it's going to take over 200 years to wean the state from fossil fuels to alternative energy. That's way too long.

Our nation needs to get much more ambitious.

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