“The New Age of Energy” trumpets the cover story in U.S. News and World Report this week. Illustrating the revolution is a photo of what looks like a carpenter’s level stuck in the ground after just arriving from outer space.p>In fact, it’s a real facility — the PS10 Solar Tower just erected in Spain. Writes U.S. News editor Marianne Lavelle in a breathless report: br> /p>
Solar energy may be poised to make the leap from the rooftop down to the floor of the desert — where some advocates say it needs to be if it’s going to take its rightful place as a member of Big Energy….Instead of using semiconducting material to convert energy to sunlight — those familiar black photovoltaic panels — [the new technology] will use nothing more complicated than mirrors, lots of them, to concentrate some of the highest-intensity sunlight in the world. The arrays will heat water to drive turbines just as in an old-fashioned power plant.br> The Power Tower, in fact, produces only 11 megawatts — about 1 percent of a conventional utility plant. In order to do this it occupies nearly one-fifth of a square mile.
The angle of the story, however, is that all this excitement has attracted the interest of Silicon Valley. Vinod Koshla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, and Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google, are all investing. “[This] vanguard of entrepreneurs and financiers…believe their Silicon Valley success stories can be repeated in green energy,” says Lavelle. “One estimate is that venture capital funds nearly tripled their investment on green energy last year, putting $2.4 billion to work.”
Invoking the Valley’s experience with microprocessors and telecommunication, Koshla promises, “All the innovation came from little companies that had breakthrough technologies….You should have a thousand points of innovation and for sure you’ll get a breakthrough.”
So are we headed for a future of clean, green energy funded by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs? Don’t bet on it. If I were investing, I’d short every one of these ventures.
HERE’S A LITTLE BACKGROUND.
In 1980, the Sandia National Laboratory, with the help of the newly formed Department of Energy, erected Solar One, a central electric power station, in the Mojave Desert near Barstow, California. It consisted of an array of computer-controlled mirrors focused the sun’s rays on a 15-story tower, which raised its temperatures to 1500o C. The tower contained a synthetic heat-transfer oil called “therminol,” which does not boil at 1500o C but passes its heat on to water, which does. The steam drove a turbine to produce 10 MW of electricity.
Solar One operated until 1988, when it was no longer deemed practical. The flow of electricity was always interrupted when the sun went behind a cloud. Over the next few years, however, the facility developed a method for storing power in molten salts and reopened in 1996. Solar Two sold electricity to the grid until going offline again in 1999. The new tower in Spain — subsidized by the government, of course — has almost the same dimensions, occupying about one-fifth of a square mile to produce 11 MW. To get to 500 MW — the size of a small commercial plant — it would have to cover ten square miles.
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