Monday, October 12, 2009

Solar vs. Fusion

Back around the turn of the century, Edison was locked in a heated battle with Westinghouse over whether the United States should set up an infrastructure based on DC power or AC power. AC power, championed by Nikola Tesla and Westinghouse, was far more dangerous to humans than DC power, but could be transmitted over vast distances. DC on the other hand, was safer (lower current) but dissipated quickly, and Edison proposed power generating stations on every block, feeding that block DC power. Westinghouse wanted to set up huge AC power stations in remote areas and then feed the power, via long high voltage lines, to the nearby cities. As history shows, Westinghouse won the battle. Centralized power generation turned out to be dramatically cheaper, and the dangers of AC power were overstated.
Anyway, whatever, right? History long gone.

But then again, I'm seeing a parallel emerging in the "green energy" industry. On the one side are the scientists who are pushing for vast wind farms, or development of fusion generators to replace existing coal and fission nuclear plants. On the other side are the microgenerator advocates, who are pushing for solar panels on every home, windmills in every yard, so that each home or business becomes its own standalone, "net-zero" power facility.
Each side has its arguments against the other. The microgenerators argue that infrastructure to build power lines from windy areas is expensive. They argue that fusion research isn't yielding productive power plants. They argue that fusion power involves radioisotopes...and therefore must be a terrorist magnet.
On the other hand, large power plant advocates argue that solar panels aren't efficient, that we will never move to net-zero as a society so pushing for that is already a lost cause, and that windmills in every yard are a painful eyesore.
In a way, each group is right, and each group is wrong.

And so we are in this green war, if you will, between those who want everyone to change their behavior and become responsible, and those who want the utility companies to change their behavior and be responsible on our behalf.

For my part, as a cynic, I see fusion as the only real option. Solar panels just aren't efficient enough to become a viable solution, and even if you could develop a photovoltaic diode capable of capturing 100% of the photons that hit it, and even if it could then transfer 100% of those captured photons into a usable current, and even if you covered your roof with those solar're in trouble on a cloudy day, or at night, or if you get baseball sized hail. And let's not forget that solar panels only come with a 10-year guarantee...and cost $100 per square foot.
Fusion, on the other hand, is still far back in the research phase. There isn't a functional fusion reactor (that isn't classified...?) that is producing positive yield yet, and various methods being tested are still in the scale up phase. But the promise of clean, limitless, safe energy is too big to pass up.
To those that assume "nuclear" means "death" consider this: nuclear fusion, as currently predicted, uses zero of the same materials as a currently running nuclear fission plant. Nuclear fission plants use enriched uranium to produce power. Nuclear weapons use enriched uranium and plutonium to produce death. A nuclear fusion plant would be very unwise to use huge heavy elements in its reactor. Most nuclear scientists believe the best choice of materials is a combination of helium and tritium/deuterium, which are both almost harmless forms of hydrogen. Should terrorists bomb a nuclear fusion plant, they'd simply stop the reaction within. The "nuclear material" that would blow into the atmosphere in this "nightmare scenario" would be tritium gas and helium gas, both of which already occur in Earth's atmosphere (and have since Earth formed), and both of which you are probably breathing right now as you read this. And yet you are not dead. And terrorists who were to "break in to steal material for a dirty bomb" would be disappointed to find that the nuclear material in a fusion reactor will not detonate. How frustrated those terrorists would be! They would have better luck if they started stockpiling ionizing smoke detectors...
By the way, Federal Government come I can't buy two boxes of cold medicine at the store without being tagged by the FBI, but I could buy 30,000 smoke detectors containing Americium-241 without you people batting an eyelash?

In any case, fusion power, once developed fully, would create for humans a nearly limitless supply of power. Solar panels, on the other hand, are limited by the surface area upon which they can be placed times the amount of energy from the sun that reaches Earth. That number is very finite. If I were a stock broker, you can bet in which technology I'd be investing.



Benjamin Dueholm said...

As I understand it, some of the limitations of solar power are a consequence of the grid. A better electric grid would solve the cloudy day problem by basically allowing the holder of the solar panels to sell the electricity to the utility (this is what Deep Springs College does with its massive solar array). Also, the panels will likely get cheaper and more efficient over time. They're already much better than they were ten or twenty years ago, right?

Also, I think someone in the federal government would take notice if you bought 30,000 smoke detectors. They track a whole lot of data.

M. Simon said...

Solar panels will not work out until they build some that can collect dark energy.

I like Polywell Fusion.

The Abstracted Engineer said...

Doesn't a Polywell fusor look like the antimatter containment unit on the U.S.S Enterprise?