Limitless solar?

One of the things I have been almost continuously talking about in the realm of renewable energy is the need to diversify our sources of energy. Another is the need to beware of people who preach that there is One True Solution. It was thus with great interest that I read about an upcoming paper in the Proceedings of the IEEE.

In this paper, Derek Abbott of the University of Adelaide argues that solar, and in particular, solar thermal, is the Ultimate Answer to the world’s energy problems.  In fact, according to Physorg, he claims that solar thermal can last us for “the next billion years.”

Despite this claim, the quoted numbers in the article and the conclusions are actually pretty reasonable in general. Solar thermal is the most cost-efficient (although certainly not the most space efficient) renewable technology in terms of energy yield.  However, stating that solar thermal by itself is sufficient for the next “billion” years is rather unreasonable.

Either Abbott presumes that the rate of growth of energy usage on the planet will slow down to nearly nothing or that we will eventually fill near-Earth space with solar collectors and ship either hydrogen or microwaves back down to Earth. No other possibility can justify his statement. As I calculated some time back, at modest growth rates, there is a much-closer horizon of about 500 years before we start running up against the limits of solar power.

There are also other issues in the article that should be addressed. The first is the cost, both capital and variable, of transmission lines in his scenario. If, as he suggests, we convert 8% of the desert land in the world to energy production, we are faced with the challenge of either building transmission lines to the hinterlands, which are on average about 30% efficient, or according to his scenario, generating hydrogen, liquefying it, and shipping it. I don’t know the efficiencies of electrolysis of water, or of hydrogen liquefaction, but in any case, there are three lossy steps here, before that hydrogen is either burned or passed through a fuel cell to make electricity.

Don’t get me wrong: in large part I agree with Dr. Abbott. Both my numbers and his point to the same conclusion – that solar must be a part of any renewable future. My primary concern about this article and others like it is that they will serve to skew the funding and research environment in renewable energy the same way that the biofuel craze has. We have a good way to go before we can replace fossil fuels in their entirety and it seems clear to me that as we transition away from a fossil fuel energy monoculture, we would do well to avoid another one.

World Crisis Index

Intrade, the Ireland-based prediction market, has launched a World Crisis Index. This index is a sum of the prices of 8 current markets Intrade is making in the area of global crisis, including a markets on recessions and growth rates in industrialized countries, US unemployment rates, the possibility of new US military action, and other issues. This sum is then normalized and reported. The Intrade markets first came to my attention via an email from Robin Hanson, who is arguably the world’s leading expert in prediction markets. Intrade had a good deal of success in predicting the outcomes of the last election cycle.

I followed the market fluctuations in the electoral issues pretty closely last year, specifically through Intrade’s partnership with Rasmussen Reports. What was interesting to me was how well the markets predicted changes in press coverage, from positive to negative or more interestingly, from sparse to dense and vice versa.


For a long time, I’ve struggled with Habitat for Humanity as a charity. On the face of it, the premise seems pretty worthy: help folks find affordable housing. Over the years, as I’ve thought and researched the subject, I’ve reached the conclusion that on the whole, Habitat for Humanity is likely making life worse for the people it is trying to help.

First and foremost, it appears that Habitat focuses on single family detached dwellings in suburban and exurban subdivisions. While this may not be true of all Habitat affiliates, it appears from my research on local Habitat affiliates and the national website to be generally true. I see this as a cruel prank of sorts on the future homeowner. At a time when it is becoming less and less affordable to live so far outside the city center and less desirable to become more dependent on a car for living, Habitat is offering to folks the false promise of economic independence and middle class lifestyle.

Many writers and publications have taken on this subject, including The Atlantic Monthly and Worldchanging, and the implications are pretty clear. The rising cost of living in suburbia are slowly making these areas unlivable for the people who could just afford to live there. People, like those who are being ‘helped’ by Habitat for Humanity will fare far worse, since they could not have afforded to live there at all.

The opportunity costs that Habitat incurs are high as well. By spending the money and using the land to build low-density housing, they prevent those resources from being used to build more efficient, high-density housing that could have a larger effect on the overall housing market in a region. If Habitat were to make it more affordable to build up the population density in former suburban areas, they could essentially drive the growth of livable, walkable neighborhoods, something that could possibly also make the difference in the cost-effectiveness of public transportation as well.

Further, Habitat focuses on traditionally-built homes. As far as I could tell, no Habitat affiliate makes any particular effort to build highly energy efficient homes. This is a further disservice to the people whom they are trying to help. I would have thought, in particular, that in areas with extremely depressed home prices (e.g. Detroit) Habitat would be working hard to buy and renovate marginal homes to make them more livable and efficient. I saw no such evidence of that on the Detroit affiliate’s web page, at least.

Considering these missed opportunities and disservices, I truly wonder how Habitat continues to attract donors and volunteers. Certainly, there are many opportunities for them in this economic downturn and housing crisis if they can change their model to address them. It may be more difficult for them to make these sorts of changes due to their affiliate structure, but by the same token, that structure might provide a way for particular affiliates to lead the way on their own.

Dennett and modern positivism

Philosopher Daniel Dennett contributed an essay to the John Brockman edited collection What Are You Optimistic About? about the role that modern information technology might have on the growth of rationality and consequently, an increase in secularism and atheism. The essay, like most of the essays that Brockman solicits, is thought-provoking. Alas, the first thought it provoked for me was something along the lines of, “Clearly, Dennett has no faith in humanity’s ability to be stupid with greater speed and efficiency than before!”

The existence of technology will no more prevent religious fundamentalists of either the Muslim or Christian stripe from acting irrationally, anymore than the technology of the first Industrial Revolution caused an expansion of Enlightenment rationality as the 19th century positivists believed.