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Live from UC Berkeley, the Coming Age of Alternate Energy, made possible by many a grant from the Stimulus Package.
I must admit I was surprised at the beauty of the Berkeley campus. I’ve always imagined it as a huge pavilion of protesting students shouting slogans as sixteen types of studs and rings dangle from their cheeks and ears.
Instead it is a forest of junipers, redwoods and other Western conifers that give it the air of a mountain resort. Even though buildings are chockablock, the winding pathways nestle so gracefully around the mountain stream that you always feel you’re lost somewhere in the woods.
Berkeley, after all, has many identities. Besides being the epicenter of the student protests it is also home to the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and eleven Physics Nobel Prize Winners in Physics, including the current Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. Four of the transuranic elements — Californium, Berkelium, Lawrencium, and Seaborgium — are named after accomplishments at Berkeley.
So it wasn’t at all surprising that, in the midst of the hullabaloo about windmills, solar power and the Coming Age of Alternate Energy, the Berkeley Energy and Resource Collective at the Haas School of Business invited me and a few others to sit on a panel, “Advancing Nuclear Energy,” at its annual Energy Symposium last week.
The conference was overbooked by more than 1,000 entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, and business students all eager to exchange business cards. Alternate energy, as you must know, is the Next Big Thing in our economy, with California as its spawning grounds. “I’m on my fourth company,” said one ponytailed, tall-and-tan outdoor type as we chatted over wine and cheese at the rooftop reception. “I sold most of my interests in the 1990s and made out pretty well, but this energy stuff has got me going again. Starting a company is a hard habit to break.”
Indeed, even though the Golden State has a $40 billion budget deficit, 10 percent unemployment, and is driving every major manufacturer into the hinterland, the denizens of Ecotopia believe their moment has finally arrived. The big reason, of course, is the arrival of Obama and The Stimulus.
“We’ve got a much more friendly administration in Washington now,” announced University Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, in leading off the conference. “A lot of this Stimulus money is going to be coming right through this campus.”
Mary D. Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, could hardly contain her enthusiasm at the promise of leading the country into the Promised Land. “President Obama has consistently said that California has set the example for the rest of the country in pioneering alternate energy,” the Yale Law School graduate and former Naderite told attendees. Nichols served as CARB’s first chair under Jerry Brown in 1978 but was re-appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007 when he found himself under fire for allegedly dragging his feet on AB32, California’s own Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.
The premise of all this is that we’re on the way to an Alternate Energy Utopia and all we need is a few more subsidies and Renewable Portfolio Mandates to hurry us down the road. Thus it was only fitting that most of the presenters represented companies feeding off these subsidies and mandates to push technologies that wouldn’t stand a chance in a free market.
One panel, entitled “The Great Solar Debate,” was dedicated to deciding which technology — photovoltaics or “thermal solar” — is best for providing huge utility-scale solar installations. Photovoltaic panels convert sunshine directly into electricity while thermal uses huge mirrors to boil water and drive steam turbines the old-fashioned way. Probably neitheris best but that wasn’t an option being considered. California has mandated that utilities get 20 percent of their electricity from “renewables” by next yearand 33 percent by 2020. (It currently gets 12 percent, highest in the country. “Renewables” does not include large-scale hydroelectric dams.) It is also committed to banning out-of-state coal, which now provides 20 percent of its electricity, by next year. Thus anyone generating electricity from rats on a treadmill has a ready market.
“We’re studying a 22,000-acre plot of state-owned land in New Mexico for a 2,500-megwatt thermal facility,” reported Charles Ricker, senior vice president of BrightSource Energy, a thermal solar company. “We’re also ready to go with a 420-MW plant on 3,500 acres just south of Las Vegas but the Bureau of Land Management has been very slow about issuing permits. That’s what’s holding us up right now.”
Those 22,000 acres, in case you’re wondering, add up to 30 square miles. Two standard coal or nuclear plants generating 2,500 MW would occupy only two square miles. BrightSource’s numbers are an improvement over an article in Scientific American last year, which said 48,000 square miles would be required to power the entire country. That’s one-third of New Mexico, the fifth largest state. BrightSource’s numbers would cut the requirements to only 20,000 square miles. Remember, the system only works when the sun shines.
Photovoltaics, on the other hand, are decisively on the defensive these days because they are less efficient. “We’ve just gotten to conversions of about 20 percent,” said Ed Smeloff, senior manager of SunPower Corporation. Thermal plants can do as high as 40 percent. Both are insanely expensive — five times the cost of electricity produced by coal or natural gas — but California is pressing ahead under the illusion that “economies of scale” will somehow bring the price down. In fact, the only way to gather more solar energy is to scale things up. There’s only so much sunlight per square yard of earth.
So I asked the panel a question. “Since solar is good for meeting peak loads but can’t really provide base-load electricity, wouldn’t it be better just to market solar as peaking power instead of trying to pretend it can provide base-load electricity?”
“Well, solar is definitely best for peak loads,” replied Smeloff. “It’s strongest just when you need it, on hot summer days when everybody turns on the air conditioning. The ideal situation would be for people to put panels on their rooftop and sell electricity back to the grid.” Still, he admitted, at $30,000 per rooftop array it’s a pretty hard sell. So as long as the State of California is willing to mandate utility-scale installations, SunPower will go on building them.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online