Thursday, July 17, 2008

St. Albert Gore's "moon shot" isn't -- but solar energy may not be as impractical as it used to be

Capture the wind, says St. Albert, and the sun and other "Earth-friendly" energy sources and produce every kilowatt of electricity used in the United States from these sources alone in the next 10 years.

St. Albert likens his proposal to another national commitment made, nearly 50 years ago, by John F. Kennedy, to put a man on the Moon.

These are not remotely comparable proposals.

Kennedy's was a visionary quest -- literally pushing mankind to boldly go where no one had gone before. St. Albert's is like a plan to remodel the kitchen.

That doesn't mean that Gore's idea is bad; indeed, like a lot of kitchen remodeling plans, it's probably long overdue. There are problems, though: Blades from giant fans harnessing wind power would need to be placed where the wind blows freest. Oddly enough, these are also pathways traversed by migrating birds. Large bird populations... giant whirling blades... it doesn't take much imagination to see the potential problem. And, of course, these giant fans will be giant eyesores wherever they are placed.

Solar technology, too, has long been more expensive and less efficient than the fossil fuel technologies that upset St. Albert so. But I recently heard, on the Osgood Files, a report concerning a promising new advance in solar cell technology.

Actually, it's not so much an advance as a return to a technology that was briefly considered, and abandoned, in the 70s. CBS Radio's Charles Osgood reports that Marc Boland, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, is leading a team of researchers there in the development of solar cells that consist of glass with a very thin layer of paint or dye on top of it. This, Boland says, "allows us to concentrate light onto a much smaller area of solar cells" -- using "off-the-shelf" materials and making more solar energy, more efficiently, without motorized moving mirrors.

This is exciting stuff -- not a "moon shot" by any means, but a wonderful, hopeful, idea. And energy plans using off-the-shelf materials sound a heck of a lot better to me than massive government forays into huge construction projects.

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