Gore mentioned a few statistics that drove home the notion that we actually have the capability to be oil free with existing technology. If, he said, we were to build on a 90 mile x 90 mile tract of land in the Southwest a field of solar panels, we would have enough electricity to power the entire United States. So, why don’t we build it? What is stopping us?
Its kind of cool to think about – I always get excited about man-made structures you can see from space. When I think about this, my mind keeps jumping to the Sunflower fields in Larry Niven’s Ringworld.
So, is this feasible? Well, I was suspicious, since I live in one of the best solar sites in the world (Phoenix) and could not even come close to making solar pay on my house, even with 50% subsidies.
First, is it enough power? Well, its turns out the answer is "sortof." I looked around at solar panels, and decided to assume a 200 watt panel that was 13 sq ft and cost $900. Actually, you can’t quite get that panel today. You can get a 200 watt panel that is that cheap, but bigger, or you can have one that is that small and more expensive. But you will see soon that it does not matter. I assumed a third of the 8100 sq. miles would be dead space between the panels, roads, transformers, access paths, etc. I assumed you put the installation in the best solar sites in the southwest, which yield on average about 6 peak-sun-hour-equivalents a day. I assumed a 20% loss in conversions and transformers.
So 8100 sq miles x 2/3 x 200 watt/12sq ft x 6 hours x 365 days x 80% (with necessary unit conversions thrown in) yields 4.08 billion Megawatt-Hours of electricity, which is about exactly our current US generating capacity. (Way to go! Al got a number right!)
I say sortof for the following reason: This does not cover elimination of fossil fuels in the transportation sector. And it does not address the problem of how you store this power at night, which of course is a catastrophic problem for the idea.
Al doesn’t know what is stopping us. Well, other than the storage problem, one thing might be the cost. Using the assumptions above, and assuming that installation costs (with land acquisition, transformers, inverters, roads, mounting, installation, etc) is as much again as the panel costs themselves, the total installation would cost just under $21 trillion dollars. This is orders of magnitude more than a nuclear program of the same size would cost. And presupposes the environmentalists would let you cover 5 million acres of desert with metal and silicon.
Postscript: Al Gore thinks its the oil companies at fault (of course):
Well, he gave one possible answer – the oil companies. Apparently, according to Gore, the oil companies drive up prices reducing supply and then depress them in a telling pattern. As soon as the political will swells to a light boil, the companies reduce prices/increase supply. And we, really the pols that be, fall for it all the time and the political will it is vanquished
LOL. Environmentalists have one card to play – its the oil companies fault! – and they are going to play it every chance they can. Of course, the boom-bust patterns in oil are characteristic of nearly every other commodity out there, which therefore presupposes that if oil prices are the result of manipulation, then every other commodity must be as well since their prices demonstrate the same patterns. We see these patterns in commodities that politicians have never even heard of and in which they have never thought to exercise their "political will." (political will in this context defined as use of government force against a segment of the populace).
A reasonable person might suppose that the surge in prices followed by a drop a number of years later is better explained by the time delay in increasing oil production after oil prices spike. In many ways, Al’s theory is simply delusional. If your friend started trying to tell you, in all seriousness, that every action Microsoft takes is actually aimed at thwarting him personally, you would think him insane. But this is effectively Gore’s argument, showing the immensity of the politician’s ego. Oil prices move not because of supply and demand, but because of us politicians. Every tick up and down is carefully managed to thwart us brave Congressmen!
I had a long post here on why conspiracy and manipulation can’t possibly drive oil prices but for the shortest possible periods.
Update: Here is my spreadsheet if anyone thinks I made an error in the numbs. Download solar.xls