Saturday, April 26, 2008

Thinking Deeply about Concentrated Solar

I always have Polya's How to Solve It on my desk.

There is this one little part of it that I think everyone ignores, at first, in the "Devise a Plan" section:

"If you cannot solve the proposed problem ... Could you imagine ... A more general problem?"

Inside, when we read that, we think, "Are you friggin' kidding me? A bigger, more general problem? HaHa! Ged ouuuda here! I'm a-simplifyn'!" and quickly skip ahead.

I think Divide and Conquer is the first algorithm that comes to our minds. But it makes us think small - we miss data and cannot apply economies of scope.

It's not like we planned to do that.

I think many people initially plan to look at problems through the end of the process, trying to consider all players, evaluating their historical behaviour and setting up a migration path for them, coming to some solution that takes into account as much data as is useful. (Some people might call this "systemic thinking")

But we get myopic too quickly. We get tired. We find an interesting bit and get focused on the minutia, or start arguing whether a given solution to one part of the problem is feasible or not, and we can't give it up.

I was feeling this way about Global Warming. I got bogged down in studying how amazingly unsuccessful activists are at manipulating governments. Turns out, that wasn't one of the more interesting bits.

And now we return you to our previously scheduled feature on Concentrated Solar:

As Jamais Cascio puts it, the Earth will be just fine, it's humanity that is screwed.

Humanity won't make it without quickly shifting to new forms of power. However, I think we now have at least one reasonable roadmap. You can read all about how this technology is can solve our energy problem lots of places.
Who could implement this the most quickly?

Oil companies and our current power monopolies don't want to be replaced. Want to avoid a fight with them? Give them an advantage in concentrated solar. Just get them the hell out of the way and start them working on this problem. No time for a fight, here.

More specifically, the world has enough sunlit land and money to solve this problem 100 times over. The first set of goodies (We include one 100-year land lease and one suitable tech grant per set (but no batteries)) goes to our current oil and power conglomerats. That should be enough to please any stock holder, line any pocket, and guarantee implementation.

The next 99 sets go to entrepreneurs, which should also help.

You win, oil companies. No one has to die over this. Nice big carrot for you. Just get it done.

Of course, if they can't do it, well, first your land lease will get pulled if you can't get a few PetaWatts to market inside 10 years, but more importantly...if you thought all humanities carrot was big...even weilded in our death throes, that stick has got to be devastating. And, frankly, we never liked you anyway.

I'll write my congressman for you! Good luck!


rsb said...

Some info on how the DOE and other governments are handling this from jcwinnie

With signifcant help from the U.S. Department of Energy and its National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Southern California Edison was able to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of a CSP (Concentrating Solar Power) installation competitive with traditional load-following / peaking generation. Now several other Southwestern utilities are investing in thermal solar, albeit using parabolic trough collectors.

Parabolic mirrors concentrate solar energy onto thermal receivers containing a heat transfer fluid. A heat transfer fluid is circulated and heated through the receivers, and the heat released to a series of heat exchangers. Parabolic trough solar technology thus converts sunshine into useful thermal energy and, by concentrating the heat, generate super-heated steam. The steam powers a turbine/generator to produce electricity.

There are two, parabolic trough, solar power plants located in Spain, each with 50MW capacity and one 500MW plant in Israel. (The Israeli company is building another plant3 in Spain.) Still, the United States and China are the more power hungry nations in the world and where the best, current opportunity is seen for CSP development.

rsb said...

I should also note that TREC is meeting sometime this week to discuss a solution for Europe and the Middle east. They propose to put a government coalition together, pump money into it, and get the tech implemented that way. I don't know. Call me cynical. Here's the paper:

rsb said...
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Anonymous said...

Great blog post.

I agree 100% with people becoming myopic and starting execution way to early. I am fortunate that I have been able to not succumb to that. I do my best to continuously think horizontally and vertically about problems.

I feel it's a sign of a good leader.