Don Gale: Solve climate change with creativity, not fantasy

Solar and wind power will not solve the problem of clean energy.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Soleil Lofts, a 600-unit complex at the southwestern edge of Salt Lake County puts it on the front lines low-pollution housing. Thousands of solar panels cover the roofs, delivering most of the community's energy needs and feeding power to batteries housed in each unit that will be tied to the power grid.

Let’s face it: Solar energy and wind power cannot possibly solve the real problem of global climate change. Those who give credence to that simple-minded solution should have paid attention in basic physics classes.

Can we install enough solar panels and wind turbines to handle our electric power needs? Theoretically, yes. Realistically, no. Because the sun shines only part of the time. And the wind blows only part of the time. That means for every kilowatt of solar energy we develop, we must also provide a kilowatt of traditional energy for standby – hydro, geothermal, coal, oil, or nuclear. And we must not only pay to develop standby energy sources, but we must also pay to keep them ready to generate electricity 24 hours a day. The low cost of solar and wind are not such bargains, after all.

A second reality is transmission. Electricity does not flow in both directions over the same wire. With wind and solar we must have two transmission systems – one to collect the power generated from a million or more sources, and the other to redistribute the power to millions of user locations.

Businesses that claim to operate entirely on so-called “clean energy” are not telling the truth. They may generate enough solar power during daylight hours to supply the business’s total 24-hour kilowatt load, but in reality they dump excess solar power onto the grid during the day and then draw upon traditional sources from the grid during nighttime hours.

It’s also true that when you move electricity through wires, you lose a few watts along the way. Ask anyone living near a high power transmission line. The longer the transmission distance, the more power is lost.

The laws of physics (and chemistry) apply to batteries, also. Batteries are great for powering telephones, laptops, flashlights and even short-range automobiles. But it is neither possible nor wise to rely on battery power for office buildings, factories, cross-country semis, airplanes, light rail or even homes. Batteries are dangerously flammable, and disposing of them creates horrendous environmental problems. Even now, depleted battery-operated automobiles stack up in some places because it’s too dangerous to dismantle them.

Another issue is balancing supply and demand. Solar panels and wind turbines produce energy even when demand goes down. We can turn traditional energy sources up, down or off. Not so with solar and wind. And we can’t dump excess electricity onto the ground the way we do with excess water. Already in some locations they have had problems disposing of nighttime wind power no one wants or needs.

Demand for electric energy is likely to double or triple over the next few decades. Today, wind and solar provide a small portion of U.S. power supply – about 10 percent. It’s possible (but not probable) that we can increase that to 20, maybe even 30 percent, before the realities detailed above call a halt to more development. Then what?

Climate change is a real problem, worldwide, a critical problem. In order to solve it, we must focus on realistic solutions – not simply in North America but throughout the world. Marching and demonstrating won’t help. Instead, young people should concentrate their creative energies and their talents on vital research.

How do we build nuclear energy plants that are smaller and safer? How do we make nuclear waste safe or reusable? Which sources of energy are we overlooking in this energy-rich world? Can we find ways to mimic trees, transforming carbon dioxide and other air pollutants into harmless components?

Focused research – lots of it – has a much better chance of solving the very real problem of climate change than pie-in-the-sky fantasies such as solar power.

Don Gale.

Long-time Utah journalist Don Gale recalls many breakthrough technologies that came from creative young minds.