Jun

17

John Tierney, in another great article in Science Times. "The Future is Now? Pretty Soon, at Least", includes energy predictions from scientist Ray Kurzweil, "Solar power may look terribly uneconomical at the moment, but with the exponential progress being made in nanoengineering, Dr. Kurzweil calculates that it'll be cost-competitive with fossil fuels in just five years, and that within 20 years all our energy will come from clean sources."

We have heard similar predictions before, but now oil over $100 a barrel is deploying billions of smart investment dollars into both alternative energy and new oil exploration and drilling. Billions of dumb investment dollars are flowing too, with government subsidies and tax credits pushing wind power, ethanol, and other projects that distort markets and wasting scarce resources.

Solar and hydro power are another matter. Some solar installations spend millions to physically move solar panels to follow the sun across the sky. But new solar membranes will grab all solar radiation from all angles and wavelengths, transforming them to electricity. The race along dozens of separate solar technology pathways will decentralize and localize solar power. Just as computing innovations brought low-cost, high-power computers into the home (and five into my home), low-cost, high-efficiency solar technologies will feed better, cleaner power into home electronics and soon, into plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars.

Just five years? Well, five years for solar energy to be cost competitive. Another five to ten for wide distribution of local and home-based solar technologies and significant percentages of plug-in cars. I live in Seattle, and if the climate here keeps cooling, solar for us will be further in the future. (It snowed here last week!)

Bloomberg reports yet another large oil discovery in Brazil. With the Saudi's agreement to increase output, new output due soon from Iraq, and increases from many other sources, the question is whether deep and expensive oil from Brazil will come on-stream in time to sell at high prices. The answer may be yes, since expensive and sophisticated solar, hydro, and nuclear installations that will be widespread in the U.S., Japan, and Western Europe may stay out-of-reach for most of China, India, and Latin America.

But once the billions of dollars have been spent on deep sea drilling and build-out of infrastructure, well, these sunk costs will be twice sunk. Just as billions spent to build homes now empty, or billions spent earlier on fiber-optic cables long dark, this boom-time infrastructure can serve future consumers, if not current investors.

My short-term prediction is half-price oil within six months. I figure the current President or the next is likely to release Strategic Oil Reserves after announcing we have an extra supply, thanks to major foreign policy successes. The current President can claim stability in Iraq makes the world safer and less in need or extra-large U.S. oil reserves. The next President can claim that vast reserves of high-quality oil available free to the military would encourages foreign adventures. Plus pundits can claim the reserve was a plot by a President too-friendly with oil companies, to help his oil buddies. Whatever cover is offered, releasing a hundred million barrels would push prices down and make politicians popular. The strategy may be to wait until new drilling is approved in the U.S. and off-shore, before releasing reserves that in a few years, with higher domestic supplies, will seem as necessary.

As for hydro power, the key insight is that water is a lot heavier than air, and flows downhill all the time while wind blows only some of the time. Unfortunately, private property rights don't exist for U.S. rivers and streams. State and Federal government claim authority to mismanage these resources, so private firms are both unable to restore salmon runs and habitats, and unable to generate safe and clean power from fish-friendly, in-stream turbines.

HydroVolts, a "Micro-Hydropower" company, offers "Hydrokinetic Turbines" for generating energy from modest stream and irrigation flows (the only flows sometimes privately managed). The turbines float from anchors and generate power from river or tidal flows. A proposed 16 MW tidal power project for Tacoma Narrows was not approved, but the technology works well for smaller rivers and streams. Right now though, lack of property rights frustrate most efforts to deploy this technology.

At least with solar power, government are less able to regulate or block the sun (much to the the dismay of candle makers both in France and the U.S.).


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