California is asking people to prepare for the solar eclipse coming in August by, at that time, unplugging anything non-essential so their grid doesn’t barf all over itself when the heavily solar-powered state suddenly has no solar power for a short while during the day. Imagine if these people ever saw a cloud. They’d crap themselves.
Renewable energy irks me, not because I don’t believe it’s a good idea in principle but because it’s such a terrible idea in execution.
Solar power has its uses, and in places like California I think it has plenty more of them than where I live in the northeast. But it is not perfect. Efficiency of solar panels is still quite low, and will remain low until someone finds incredibly cheap materials and manufacturing methods that solve its problems while also being easily scaled to mass production. It should be added that maintenance isn’t a cost that can be ignored either. But the even bigger issue is that even at 100% efficiency, solar power doesn’t have the energy density to sustain modern living. If you actually look at the amount of power that covers a particular patch of land on Earth, it’s decent but it’s not staggering.
Nevertheless I do think well of solar in principle and think it’s certainly worth having for offsetting other sources, when it’s available. Using solar energy without top-class energy storage (which we’re still working on) and a strong backup solution (e.g., more conventional sources), however, is madness. And that’s where California is at right now. In August the sun will be covered for a little while, and their grid may not be able to cope. That’s a problem that should have been tackled clear-headedly instead of going all-in on solar.
Then there’s wind. Where do I even begin? Wind power is an absolute joke. It’s fickle and only works well in certain areas. Wind turbines are wildlife destroyers, dangerous to birds and bats and in some places even raising fears of endangering species. The turbines are expensive to maintain. Like solar it requires a lot of good storage to even out spikes in delivery, but even that isn’t really enough.
There used to be a TV show on either Discovery or the Science Channel—I forget which—where they did megaengineering projects as proof of concept. In one of them they tried a floating cylindrical turbine several hundred feet off the ground, where wind is more active. Ideally they wanted to get it 1,000 feet up where the wind is steadier but strong. This kind of thing might have some potential, and it would certainly be an interesting concept to try in large cities where you could attach these things to skyscrapers. Higher up you would avoid a lot of trouble with wildlife, and with stronger wind these things might actually earn their keep.
But for now, wind power is costly, unreliable, and dangerous. It’s stupid in anything like its current form.
Ultimately there are only two good options for supplying the power demands of the world: fossil fuels and nuclear power. Fossil fuels have a lot of obvious drawbacks, not the least of which is supply. But nuclear power is criminally undervalued, and feared for reasons that are no longer relevant to the modern world.
Whenever people think of nuclear power they tend to think of truckloads of waste being sent to Nevada or wherever else, to sit underground for thousands of years. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A lot of our current-generation reactors produce a great deal of waste, but the main reason for that is that the government didn’t want to have many more-efficient breeder reactors around that created things like plutonium as by-products. That was then. These days, many newer designs are capable of using much, much more of the fuel they’re supplied with, resulting in a very clean process. In fact some can even burn existing waste, allowing us to clear out storage sites and avoid the need for any new ones.
Also, newer reactor designs are orders of magnitude safer than anything that came before. We think about disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima, but not only were those rare cases, they’re not even possible with new types of reactors. In a molten salt reactor for instance, meltdown can’t happen. And with smaller sizes, these reactors are also exponentially less vulnerable to something as damaging as a tsunami, because they can be protected a lot more easily. Nuclear power has a pretty impressive safety record in the history it already has, with only one real worst-case scenario and a couple of less catastrophic failures (Fukushima was nowhere near that bad), and if new reactors are brought online with new designs, that track record will go way up.
And consider this: electric cars gotta get their energy from somewhere. In most cases that means coal. Coal actually produces more stray radiation than nuclear. I say that not to vilify coal, but to point out that nuclear really is that much cleaner—and in the future, the very near future if a lot of pointless red tape got cut, it can be cleaner and safer still. Nuclear power will never be fickle like the wind, nor subject to fear of clouds, or go out just because the moon sometimes gets in the way.
Even so, I still admire Elon Musk’s continuing investment in solar technology and have high hopes for it in the future. The main thing is, those hopes are not unlimited and as a realist I know we will always need a steady source. Solar power will be a heck of a lot better with a strong fallback.