Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sprawl and the solar energy space problem

I've been fascinated by solar energy since the late 70's, but I recognize that there are practical problems associated with using it to replace fossil fuels right now. Efficiency of photovoltaics, cost, storage... ok, yeah. But there's one problem that has had me scratching my head since I moved to the Southwest: finding a place to put the panels.

The arguments seem to assume that the energy must be produced on land that's currently open space, disrupting the ecosystems more than a coal mine. But I look around me and see the ecosystems disrupted anyway... by shopping malls and big box stores and parking lots. And I've wondered: why couldn't all those rooftops be used to generate electricity?

Well, it turns out that they can be.

According to the New York Times, stores as diverse as Wal-Mart and Whole Foods are installing solar panels on their roofs. The efforts are concentrated in places with major tax incentives (which include New Jersey and Connecticut, which don't strike me as the best places for solar power) - the panels are still too expensive to compete with coal and natural gas. But if the costs change... Arizona and New Mexico, I'm looking at you.

And if that works, you know, they could cover those acres of parking lots with roofs, if they want more space.


BrianR said...

That's cool ... I always notice how much roof space there is whenever landing at an airport that goes over urban/suburban areas.

I'm absolutely convinced that we will effectively harness the sun by the end of this century. It's so obvious that it is the answer (or at least a huge part of it). A century is a long way to go ... would ramp up for several decades.

Out here in Silicon Valley, the greentech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are buzzing w/ excitement over the future of solar. I wonder if in 30 years our kids will be complaining about Big Solar?

hypocentre said...

Actually you don't have to cover the parking lots - you can just put heat pumps straight into the asphalt.

See Road Energy System

Kim said...

The Road Energy System is a great idea. I've heard about heat pumps using the ground to store and release heat, but I didn't have a good idea of what was involved.

Thanks, hypocentre!

Silver Fox said...

These are really neat (and timely) developments. I'm glad to hear about them.

Joe Kopera said...

I still maintain that the real problem here isn't the cost of solar energy / finding space for it / developing alternatives to fossil fuels.

The problem is that we're using way too much energy, and using it wastefully. Period. I rarely see anyone talk about conservation and efficiency anymore... Attic insulation and turning air conditioners off are just not very sexy (unless you live in Maine or Vermont).

The cure to the problem of an insatiable appetite is not more food.