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Monthly Archives: February 2015

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The Flea on the Behind of an Elephant

Scroll backwards in time to the early 1970s. US President Richard Nixon appointed the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to produce a study of recommendations on “The Nation’s Energy Future” based on advice from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Requesting the AEC for energy prognoses is akin to asking a tiger for dietary recommendations; there will surely be no vegetables on the menu! Dr. Dixy Lee Ray, chair of the AEC, predicted in her summation of the report that “solar would always remain like the flea on the behind of an elephant.” In the early 1980s I knew another eminent researcher, Dr. Thomas Henry Lee, a Vice President for research under Jack Welch at General Electric, who often stated that nuclear power would produce “energy that is too cheap to meter,” essentially free.

The AEC study, when it was published, proposed a $10 billion budget for research and development with half going to nuclear and fusion, while the rest would be spent on coal and oil. A mere $36 million was to be allocated to photovoltaics (PV). Dr. Barry Commoner, an early initiator of the environmental movement, was intrigued that the NSF had recommended such a paltry amount for solar. In the 1950s he had successfully lobbied for citizen access to the classified results of atmospheric nuclear tests and was able to prove that such tests led to radioactive buildup in humans. This led to the introduction of the nuclear test ban treaty of 1963.

Dr. Commoner’s own slogan (the first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else) prompted him to question the AEC’s paltry allocation for solar PV, especially since he knew some of the members of the NSF panel who advised on the recommendations. He discovered the NSF panel’s findings were printed in a report called “Subpanel IX: Solar and other energy sources.” This report was nowhere to be found among the AEC’s documents until a single faded photocopy was unexpectedly discovered in the reading room of the AEC’s own library. The NSF’s experts had foreseen in 1971 a great future for solar electricity, predicting PV would supply more than 7% of the US electrical generation capacity by the year 2000 and the expenditure for realising the solar option would be 16 times less than the nuclear choice.

Clearly, the prediction of 7% solar electric generation has not yet happened, but current efficiency improvements in photovoltaics and battery storage technologies point the way to an energy future far beyond what the NSF predicted in 1971. Fifty years from now, it is nuclear power that is likely to be the flea on the behind of a solar elephant.

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Volunteering for a one-way trip

Image: courtesy mars.nasa.gov

Image: courtesy mars.nasa.gov

Two years ago I wrote a short story called Enigma. It was a rather bleak story of a group of adventurers who volunteer for a space mission to the Red Planet, knowing fully well that they might never return. The story was prompted by a news report that more than 150,000 people had volunteered for a one-way trip to Mars, offered by a group that calls itself Mars One. At the time I wrote it, the story seemed (even to me) hopelessly fatalistic, but I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of space travel, so I included it, with some hesitation, in my last collection of short stories (see The Ironwood Poacher and Other Stories). I tried to put a positive spin on the fatalistic elements of the story by hinting at some kind of a superior intelligence or presence that shows that the indomitable nature of human striving is not futile, that it is a quality to be nurtured; a quality that has rewards beyond death as we know and fear it.

Imagine my surprise when I read an article in Time magazine this morning entitled “Why I’m Volunteering to Die on Mars,” about a young woman named Sonia van Meter. Sonia is one of the Mars One finalists (100 have been chosen from more than 200,000 applicants in the third round of the selection process), and she gives her reasons for wanting to go on a one-way trip to Mars (planned to depart every 2 years, beginning in 2024).

Here are some of the reasons Sonia (who is married and has 2 step-children) gives for volunteering for this mission. Space exploration is worth a human life. Every astronaut that has ever flown has known the risks they were up against once they strapped into that ship. And there’s no guarantee that I won’t be crushed by a collapsing roof tomorrow or diagnosed with a terminal illness next year. Some call this a suicide mission. I have no death wish. But it would be wonderful if my death could be part of something greater than just one individual. If my life ends on Mars, there will have been a magnificent story and a world of accomplishment to precede it.

To know more about why Sonia, and hundreds of thousands like her, who volunteer for such a mission, read the Time article here.

See more books by this author here.

Fossil Fuels are for Dinosaurs

Maybe I’m just prejudiced, but an estimate made by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) in 2008 (George Bush was President) said “just 140 MW of total utility-scale PV solar capacity would be installed by 2015.” In fact, before end-2014, there was more than 8,100 MW actually installed. Obama has been President in the intervening years. Was this the difference? Could government loan guarantees instituted by his administration have made such a difference?

To be fair to the EIA, the Paris-based IEA (International Energy Agency, an important institution in the international salad of energy agencies) has also under-estimated the growth of renewables worldwide: “the International Energy Agency in 2000 projected 34 GW of wind power globally by 2010, while the actual level reached was 200 GW.”

Image courtesy: www.dinoleaks.com

Image courtesy: http://www.dinoleaks.com

Are these honest errors? Wrong question. This is not a question of honesty, but of views, ideologies, and implicit, unquestioned assumptions on which expert opinions are often based. An executive in a corporation with billions of dollars, pounds, euros, or ringgit locked up in an existing technology naturally thinks: why meddle with a model that has proved successful for a century? Young (mostly), hungry entrepreneurs risking their life savings and livelihoods to usher in an age of new technologies might lose out in the short run but will prevail in the end. This clash of views has nothing to do with honesty, but merely proves the wisdom of the old adage. “Where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit.”