Once one understands that, then the question becomes: what is the most efficient way to access that energy? The answer is largely a matter of energy density, or how much power is contained in a given unit of a fuel. In providing us with coal, oil and natural gas, mother nature has been very kind to us. Fossil fuels have a very high energy density. A lump of coal is nothing more that the power of the sun, concentrated into a handy, compact and easily accessible form.
As we cross the line into forms of “green energy” we steadily sacrifice more and more energy density and thus efficiency in terms of both economic and power generation. While fossil fuels represent millions of years of solar power collection and consolidation, bio-fuels represent mere decades at best (when wood is the fuel) to about half a year at worst (in the case of ethanol). Wind is an even less efficient way to access solar power, because it doesn’t concentrate solar energy directly at all, but rather takes advantages of the diurnal (day-night) cycle that creates the weather systems that create the wind. That’s why windmills have to be so large and why there are so many of them in your average wind farm. When energy density is low, the collection and generation mechanisms have to be proportionally larger to make up for it. Still, wind does better efficiency-wise than solar. The average wind turbine generates almost twenty percent of the power it is capable of generating, on an annual basis. That’s not even close to what fossil plants and nuclear plants do, but it’s something.
At the bottom of the energy efficiency barrel there lies solar – the most inefficient, least reliable and expensive form of power we have. Directly converting the sun’s rays into electricity is a horribly inefficient way to generate power simply because the energy – in that form – is so disperse. The energy density, in other words, is very, very low. There is no way to change that fact, or the fact that the sun doesn’t shine all the time. Solar power is not and cannot be a major player in the direct generation of electric power. That is the simple, scientific reality. In claiming that solar power is the energy of the future, the President is rolling the clock back to the times of the medieval alchemists who were certain that they’d eventually find the Philosopher’s Stone that magically turned lead into gold. Relying on solar power to fuel the nation is about as unscientific a proposition as there can be.
The President is spewing nonsense, responding to rising gas prices and our energy woes with promises of pixie dust. It didn’t work in Spain and it won’t work here. Everyone who actually understands science and power generation knows that, but this Harvard-educated President apparently forgot to take General Science 101.
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