Solar Energy Farms

Sunday, July 02, 2006
This all started at Instapundit, who quotes:

"Energy is one of the greatest challenges of the century," Claude Canizares, MIT's Bruno Rossi Professor of Physics, told attendees of the conference produced by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' (ASME's) Nanotechnology Institute. "We need significant breakthroughs in science and technology. The promise of nanotechnology provides fertile ground for such breakthroughs." . . .

MIT's Vladimir Bulovic said that nanotechnologies such as nanodots and nanorods are potentially "disruptive" technologies in the solar field. That means they could cause a major switch in a primary energy source, potentially proving more efficient than the silicon used in most solar energy devices today. Bulovic is fabricating quantum dot photovoltaics using a microcontact printing process.

... then follows with Truth Laid Bear:

Um, ok. Glenn notes "Two percent is a LOT of land", but that's understating the case a bit I think.

Let's do some math! (I was told there would be no math. Shhh!)

According to this page, the total land area of the U.S. is 3,537,379 square miles. Take away Alaska and Hawaii to get the continental U.S., and you are left with 2,959,005 square miles. Two percent of that is...

Fifty-nine thousand, one hundred and eighty square miles. That's 59,180.

For perspective: Over half of the fifty states are smaller in area than 59,180 square miles. The closest in size to that number are Iowa (55,869), Michigan (56,804), and Georgia (57,906).

So: who's for paving over Georgia?

Because unless I'm missing something, that is what we're talking about: literally paving over that much area, and I have to assume utterly destroying any flora, fauna, or other living things that are unlucky enough to have been previously occupying it. Unless they happen to, you know, not require sunlight.

Now that would be one hell of an Environmental Impact Study.

Professor Bulovic seems to have thrown out this statistic as a positive for solar energy, but he's obviously never negotiated with a local zoning board. If that's the best future we can hope for with solar as our primary energy source, I suspect even the most strident environmentalists will cry out, "Bring on the coal!"

... and I started to comment at the Bear, but decided why do it there when I can do it here?

First, 10 percent is pretty low efficency: that's less that the typical efficiency of multicrystalline Si (11-14 percent), and way less than the maximum observed efficiency of single-crystal Si (almost 25 percent). Get 25 percent and we're already down to a little less than 30,000; get 40 percent, which the new nanotube stuff is suggesting, and you're down to 13,000.

Second, the Bear is looking at little states. Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico alone account for 338,000 square miles. Add Kansas and Nebraska, another 112000 square miles roughly, for a total of about 450,000 square miles. There's lots more than 13,000 square miles of uneconomical farm land currently fallow in Kansas and Nebraska alone.

(I'll leave the desirability of paving over Nebraska as an exercise for the interested reader.)

Third, the solar collectors don't have to be over land: there's a lot of shallow water off the eastern US coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Caribbean.

And fourth, you don't need to pave over any particular piece of land of 13,000 -- or even 60,000 -- square miles in order to get a total of 60,000 square miles of collectors. You wouldn't even want to -- you would be at the mercy of a single cold front. But rows of solar collectors 10 meters off the ground, spaced 50 meters apart, across much of Kansas and Nebraska, would give you pretty close to 13,000 square miles of collectors.

Then let the land underneath go fallow. Reintroduce the buffalo.

How many barrels of oil does 25 percent of the US energy consumption replace?


David Thomson said...

I am convinced that some sort of new "disruptive" technology will become a reality before the midpoint of this century. The historical evidence suggests that the odds are on my side. And if nothing else, we already have nuclear energy. We only have to marginalize the deleterious influence of the radical left. It’s nice to think about future developments---but why aren’t we focussing on the viable here and now technologies?

terrye said...

We set aside a lot more land than that for state and national parks. That land already is fallow.

Syl said...

I think it would bring on another ice age.

All that sunlight not reaching the earth, instead being routed into our vacuum cleaners.

Yes, heat will come out elsewhere, but will it form the clouds we need?


Yes, The national parks! Cut down all the trees that breathe in CO2. Except that won't balance killing all the animals that breathe it out.

What's the surface area of the moon? Or half the moon, rather.

Rick Ballard said...

Hey, put it down on the border - electrify the wall!

Let's see, 1900 miles of wall needed so it would be a thirty mile wide strip running the entire length. Good climate for solar too. A real twofer.

Barry Dauphin said...

Can't we just use Joe Wilson's ego as a source of energy? It appears to be limitless.

chuck said...

But Barry,

That would be risking another Chernobly. Wilson's ego can not be made safe for peaceful energy generation.

Rick Ballard said...

"How many barrels of oil does 25 percent of the US energy consumption replace?

4,139,500,000 - give or take a pint or two.

Skookumchuk said...

If Wilson's ego won't pass the EIS, I vote for a "natural gas" cogen plant next to the NYT building.

Think of the revenues.

Barry Dauphin said...


I wondered whether it might be rendered safe if it were filetered through Dana Milbank's think skull--don't two megatives make a positive?


I'm all for multiple sources of energy!

Rick Ballard said...

I'd prefer to see the Times building used as an energy use test site rather than as a source test site.

Seneca the Younger said...

I am convinced that some sort of new "disruptive" technology will become a reality before the midpoint of this century.

Oh, hell yes. The "peak oil" people in particular annoy the hell out of me for just that reason: they are ignorant of the economics of it. Solar electricity has been on the edge of economic viability for years; if oil goes to $100 a barrel, it will be easily viable. At $70/bbl, tar sands and oil shale are pretty viable, and the only issue is the risk that it will drop again. (There are people predicting $40/bbl again in the near future, and won't Al Gore be PO'ed then?)

Seneca the Younger said...

All that sunlight not reaching the earth, instead being routed into our vacuum cleaners.

Syl, it really doesn't matter. It's like filling a bathtub: if you fill it directly, it fills up normally. If you run the water into a bucket and let the bucket overflow into the bathtub, it still fills the bathtub.

Seneca the Younger said...

Hey, Rick, I'd love to know how you arrived at that number.

chuck said...

Syl, it really doesn't matter. It's like filling a bathtub:

Put enough of those things up and you will affect the earth's albedo, then you will be sorry. Once Al Gore gets his act together the UN will pass a resolution banning solar cells while European magazines print essays about the selfish Americans stealing sunlight that belongs to the interstellar spaces ;)

Rick Ballard said...


I found better usage data that changes it by about 2% but the basic equation is 1 quad = 170,000,000 barrels of oil. Current total energy consumption in the US is around 100 quads. A quad is a quadrillion BTU. You couldn't really save 4+B barrels unless there had been a huge conversion to electric powered vehicles. The amount of oil used in transportation is simply too great.

Syl said...

Do you realize how SELFISH America is. We refuse to use OUR OWN OIL and thereby deplete everyone else's.

If I were an oil producing country I'd be angry. Well, their prices would lower a bit in the near term if we used our own, but their income would last a heckuva lot longer.

But in truth we're ignoring our own sources for purely aesthetic reasons. Yet we refuse to use more nuclear at the same time.

It's insane. No wonder we're ridiculed.

Skookumchuk said...


Coal liquefaction looks pretty good when long term oil is north of about $40/bbl. The Chinese are doing some pioneering work near Erdos, Inner Mongolia, at the Shenhua Project, which should come on line in 2008. They're doing it with Sasol of South Africa naturally but also Peabody, so if it is successful there might be a chance for us to see this technology on our side of the ocean.

And we have the BTU equivalent of what - 3.5 Saudi Arabias? - in coal.

And of course, we should be building nuke plants everyplace.

Four per street corner, just like gas stations. :-)

Seneca the Younger said...

Hey, I'm in. I'd like one of those little pebble-bed reactors like they're putting up in Alaska...

Skookumchuk said...


Toshiba to me seems on the right track, with a solution ideal for areas like Galena with low population densities. Plus you can hook 'em up together. I think the South Africans (Eskom?) and the Chinese and perhaps others are doing stuff, too. It could be a good solution for regions like Alaska, Canada, and the Intermountain West.

I mean if today Idaho Falls and Sturgis, SD and Billings Montana have Starbucks on every corner and little factories springing up making everything imaginable, imagine what cheap, safe, small nukes could do for those local economies.

I had initially thought that all this would have to wait until the last Boomer had gone to the Great Tie-Dyed Shirt Shop in the Sky, but recently I've felt more optimistic.

gumshoe1 said...

"Why solar energy won't work: you'd need to cover two states with solar collectors. YARGB did the math."

not saying there aren't parts of the USA unsuitable,but there's more than two state's worth of roofs in the Southwest/California.

as several ppl mentioned,
i wouldn't bet against a development of a material that gives a twofer in that direction.