Sunpower: the Benefits of Foresight
A 2025 Sustainable Energy Scenario
Dr. Aviva Brecher
Ed. Note: This rosy 2035 scenario is based on the assumption that todays research and technology options for renewable energy generation, conservation and storage will be widely implemented over the next decades. Successful adoption of new energy technologies requires also stricter energy efficiency standards and tax incentives to favor "green" technologies and materials. Web resources linked to the Climate Change Information Network and US Joint Implementation program (IUEP) at http://www.ji.org
and the DOE's National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) National Center for PhotoVoltaics at
http://www.nrel.gov/ncpv illustrate state of art US photo-voltaic (PV) and solar energy power generators, and show the diverse international uses of solar power. The technology options mentioned below are being deployed all over the world TODAY!
A Summer Day in Techachapi Pass, Death Valley-2035
Death Valley is lovely at this time of year in our sci-tech retirement community, Evergreen. There are about 50 of us, retired scientists and engineers here, who live in a sustainable community in the Tehachapi Pass areaNow in my mid-eighties, I sleep lightly: At 5 am I woke to the whirr of the solar concentrator mirrors, as they started tracking the Sun; then, the whisper of cool fresh air came on in response to the climate control thermostat. . On this June morning, I rose early to enjoy the rosy glow of sunrise over the desert piped into my quarters. The birds in the greenery above my see-through ceiling came to life.
We live underground, in a warren of interconnected tunnels and caverns of the many abandoned gold and silver mines scattered over Death Valley, which we have stabilized, reinforced with plastic fiber composites and connected with a forest of light-pipes to the surface. This helps us stay cool in the summer and warm during the cold nights year-round. With this energy-efficient architecture we can get plenty of sunlight, though the light is filtered by the fiberoptics piping it into every corner of our living quarters. Scanning vidicams light up our walls with ever-changing views of mountain peaks and desert valleys, so National Park scenery is scrolling along the corridors and walls no matter where we are during the day.
I love my life here because I chose it when I joined Evergreen upon retiring from my power engineer job about the turn of the millennium. At that time, there were several renewable alternative energy production units being tried out here, including geothermal steam, solar-electric and wind-power demos. Here was the largest wind energy field in the world in the late 90s, producing 650 MW of power for the booming Nevada and California energy markets
Walking into my bathroom I enter a cylindrical spray-shower using recycled brackish water, also used for our hydroponic farming. The brackish deep water and channelled winter flash floods of Death Valley are budgeted and husbanded for myriad uses. Even our native blind pupfish found here in underground caverns thrive on it: our large fish-farming operation supplies protein for several neighboring communities. We can always supplement our reservoir with water pumped through underground feeders from Lake Mead or Salt Lake Desalinated, but we are pretty much self -sufficient.
I put on my light home-weaved hemp summer garb. The hardy hemp has become our high carbon and high fiber crop of choice: we use the stem fibers for clothing, carpets and baskets. Hemp leaves are harvested by Vegas Mega-Pharm, a pharmaceutical conglomerate that replaced the gambling casinos and nuclear waste storage as the cash industry of Nevada. These days, the Yucca Mountain nucwaste repository harbors a thermal co-generation plant, producing steam for our winter heating and for turbines powering the myriad regional small industries.
I switch on my tele-wall, where diffuse-light panels are now scrolling today's news headlines and Evergreens planned events. I just picked a few fresh strawberries for my osteoporosis-control hi-calcium breakfast mix. They grow uptop, in our hydroponic fruit-and-veggies farm, putting our recycled wastewater to good use. Ken, the agrotech in our complex, was already working and marking the patches ripe for today's picking, to shield tomorrow's crop from early risers like me. No more coffee either: our chicory-roast mix is better for the environment. The hi-protein soy and quinona bread is already baking and toasting in our solar-powered oven outside in the plaza. There is little milk these days, since energy wasteful and environmentally damaging cows and pasturelands are long since gone in the West. Our decarbonized economy nurtures only bio-efficient feed cycles for poultry and fish farming.
I walk over with my strawberries and cereal mix to join my friends, Ruth and Ellen, for breakfast. They too are aging "baby boomer" scientists, who joined the Evergreen coop-community in the early days of the new millennium. We spent a lot of time then coaching local industry start-ups free of charge, supplementing at nearby schools traditional teaching with our hands-on laboratory of social unit reinvention. We are still both dreamers and doers, active in daily communal work and electronic lobbying for the Gray Panthers, now the most powerful lobby in both the State and the Union Congress.
We chat, relax and plan our days together in supportive friendship, looking forward to the upcoming annual visits from our grandchildren, about to be let out of school for the summer break. We plan to run a science camp for our young relatives at Evergreen; and also teach desert survival and closed-cycle industrial arts. It's a short summer break, since schools now go on year round. No wonder, since there is so much more to learn these days!
I dial-up on the tele-wall viewer the live-link for Furnace Creek Ranch, the solar furnace industrial plant where my son is the chief engineer. With its miles of Photo-Voltaic arrays and mirrors, this solar energy plant powers half of Nevada. It also stores surplus electric energy in its Superconducting Magnetic Energy Storage (SMES) unit, to distribute by an underground High Temperature Superconducting wire grid to cluster- communities California, Nevada, Utah or Arizona. The solar furnace will be melting glass today for the road maintenance crews: glass top surfacing has replaced over the past 3 decades all petroleum- based pitch pavements after the end-of-century oil crisis. Next week the plant is scheduled to process thermoset fiber-composites for vehicles and modular housing. I know he is busy programming and checking out the concentrator, so I take no chances: I send an e-mail reminding him that he and the family are to come over for dinner tonight.
After breakfast, I will work on the "fun-experiments" for the summers science camp, designed to both engage and teach the children applied science principles. As I walk over to the teaching labs, I muse on the striking changes in the way we live and learn in America now in contrast to the early years. Much has happened since defederalization: the Union was transformed from a strong federation to individualistic, competing States. Within each State, regional compacts were established and a myriad small, but self-sufficient communities like ours sprang up. The decentralization and fragmentation of federal and State governments gave way to local governance, enabled by the diffusion of technical knowledge and by a strong infrastructure.
This rapid change was precipitated by the deregulation of the energy industry, which forced utilities to compete for local markets and to diversify. They quickly replaced the antiquated fossil power plants with a broad range of renewables: from wind turbines in the plains and on mountain tops, to geothermal power around volcanic belts and faultlines, from tidal energy along the ocean shores to hydropower in the Rockies, from solar houses in the old Sunbelt to saline solar ponds in Utah. The interlinked sets of compact generators trade on demand and enabled each region now to optimally exploit its own energy niche. Here in Death Valley, the mountaintops are sporting wind-turbine farms. Desalination plants irrigate the thirsty California farming filds and orchards.
Both Nevada and California are tapping into geothermal fields for power generation: steam is piped through thermally insulated tubing to both industry and homes, or used to store the energy chemically. Sun-belt States are now fully powered by solar energy, using direct-conversion PV technology. The PV arrays shine on the ground level roofs and above the roof gardens of ground-insulated sunken houses, which heat water, produce power for efficient diffuse wall- lighting, and can store energy for off-peak use. Stand-alone fuel cells are also widely used to power hospitals, plants and public buildings, using municipal wastes as primary fuels.
Not far from here, the Great Salt Lake has been converted to a saline pond for solar to chemical energy conversion and storage. The Badlands are now green-lands due to the major climate changes from greenhouse gases (GHG), which led to large-scale planting to remove and fixate excess carbon. Its true that global warming has caused so much upheaval these last decades, but it also brought decisive action and improved understanding of how to manage the downside and exploit the upside.
True, the global climate is still changing, but we can foresee and prepare for regional trends. Indeed, our local weather is unpredictable, but our superfast teraflop optical computers can handle better the complexity of 3-dimensional climate models. We have learned to test and deploy new energy technologies on a small scale first, to understand and improve them before large-scale applications reveal unforeseen and damaging environmental and ecological impacts. Scientists and engineers increasingly pay for our research as we benefit from new and profitable technologies; we no longer depend on government tax funding, which dried up gradually in the new millennium. So, lets face this brave new world of our own making!
I look beyond the Ranch Creek Concentrator plant and recall vividly what happened around our Death Valley: in the early twenties, mining was abandoned for construction. Sands were processed into pure silicon chips, strong ceramics and amorphous glass, doped glass semiconductors and durable PV's. All these can now be made at low temperatures. The prefabricated homes are now assembled from panels with embedded fiberoptic cable and wall-panel lighting electronics. The "smart panels" are assembled into a module, which can self-regulate temperature, lighting and ventilation.
At night, we no longer see the blinding, wasteful lights of Las Vegas that yesteryear could be seen from the International Space Station. This is the silver lining of the oil crisis, which hit America. We can now see the stars lighting the night-sky again. At Evergreen and across the continent the astronomers have recaptured the night skies for research. When we go out at night, we can wear night-goggles that allow us to see clearly people, animals and objects based on infrared signature from stored, residual, or body heat.
The noisy cars and trucks that once gridlocked our megacities roads and interstate highways are also good for my story telling to summer science campers. Even the automated people movers do not have lights to pollute the night-skies, but use instead infrared detectors and deter animals from encroaching on guideways with electromagnetic and subsonic pulses. We now ship freight in underground piping, slurried with CO2 gas. The iron-rich hulks of cars, trucks and diesel trains have long since been recycled. Noisy and polluting gasoline-powered engines have all been replaced by next generation clean and efficient powertrains and propulsion fuels: silent electric motors whirr on each wheel, fuel cells get refueled at the central stations. In Nevada and at Evergreen, the small shuttle cars sport PV-covered-roofs to provide auxiliary power. All workplaces and community centers provide fast and energy-efficient radio-frequency (RF) charging stations. Long distance highway travel is all but gone. . .In Alaska, they still use dogsleds in remote corners, but power-sleds use oxygenated fuels and lightcraft use compressed natural gas. Reformer plants and hydrogen cycle generators, which convert ocean water into hydrogen fuel and fertilizers chemicals, have sprung up along both the East and West coasts.
Oregon and Washington have long since burned out the old forests and now sequester carbon with new crops, which produce vegetable oils, pulp and fiber for energy fuels and a host of new furniture pressed pulp products. New England has really diversified its energy base to hydropower, wind and CNG: each home has a whirring wind turbine and solar panels on the roof. Canadas Sable Island natural gas fields fuel New England's convoy-trucks, but most vehicles for freight are turn-of-millenium hybrids, and the new urban commuter station cars use fuel cells. Cars are made these days from cold-rolled recycled metal or from light cast or preformed composites, but there are few who can afford them. The paratransit intelli-van service is on-call round-the-clock in the countryside, while urban megaplexes sport silent linear-motor cars on elevated guideways, fetching people to and from work in resurrected urban centers.
Later on today, the California-Nevada maglev train will drop our grandchildren from Las Vegas. From the terminal a programmed shuttle-bus will deliver them to Evergreen, riding on shiny, white glass-topped highways that do not absorb and store heat nor require frequent use of toxic tars. The UV shield should protect them from the sun damage, and the video-games built into the seats will keep them entertained. I wonder what their future will be like, since the technology we have developed in the last century would have never been applied without the great oil crisisof the 2010s. Oh, well, we can always count on the next energy scare to break the apathy and energy complacency we have faced in cycles for the past century and plan for the next generation of energy technologies.
Dr. Aviva Brecher
US DOT Volpe National Transportation Systems Center
55 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02142