TCS Daily

The Silver Bullet Fallacy

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 6, 2006 12:00 AM

Regular readers of this column know that I'm a big fan of nanotechnology, and expect it to produce dramatic progress in coming years. So I was pretty excited to read this in

"Energy is one of the greatest challenges of the century," Claude Canizares, MIT's Bruno Rossi Professor of Physics, told attendees of the conference produced by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' (ASME's) Nanotechnology Institute. "We need significant breakthroughs in science and technology. The promise of nanotechnology provides fertile ground for such breakthroughs." . . .

MIT's Vladimir Bulovic said that nanotechnologies such as nanodots and nanorods are potentially "disruptive" technologies in the solar field. That means they could cause a major switch in a primary energy source, potentially proving more efficient than the silicon used in most solar energy devices today. Bulovic is fabricating quantum dot photovoltaics using a microcontact printing process.

Bring it on! On the other hand, a bit later in the same news story I ran across something that seems a bit like oversell, once you crunch the numbers:

"If 2 percent of the continental United States were covered with photovoltaic systems with a net efficiency of 10 percent, we would be able to supply all the U.S. energy needs," said Bulovic, the KDD Associate Professor of Communications and Technology in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Only two percent of the continental United States! Er, in other words, an area slightly larger than Georgia. That seems like rather a lot, and I'm pretty sure that the environmental impact statement for such a project would be, um, daunting.

If you covered all the rooftops, roads, parking lots, etc., with solar collectors, you'd get an area the size of Ohio, which might do the trick, but solar power cells would have to be awfully cheap, and awfully durable, for anything like this to work, and I don't see it happening any time soon.

But this actually illustrates a problem with these sorts of scenarios. Bulovic's example is a bit over the top, and from this it's easy to make fun of the potential for cheap solar energy. But, of course, solar energy doesn't have to actually "supply all the U.S. energy needs" to make a big difference. Even relatively minor contributions -- say 5-10 percent -- would make a substantial difference in pollution, and in pricing of other energy sources, which is influenced by demand at the margin.

What's more, if you couple cheap solar power with other things that nanotechnology is likely to bring to the market in the next decade or so -- like stronger, lighter materials, better computing, and maybe even better batteries -- the result may be additional energy coupled with cars and other devices that use energy much more efficiently. And the effects of producing even 10 percent of our electricity consumption (not even 10 percent of our total energy consumption) via rooftop solar would be quite dramatic. That point's likely to be lost when the overhyped example is deflated.

The truth is that substantial improvements in the efficiency of solar power will be very beneficial, even if they don't provide a silver bullet that solves all of our energy problems. You can say the same for a lot of other alternative energy proposals: Hydrogen, hybrids, biofuels, wind power, etc. None of these alternative technologies live up to the hype, but all offer some contribution to the problem. So does conservation, which doesn't solve the problem by itself -- and whose luddite boosters often render unappealing by their obvious enthusiasm for making others do without -- but which helps, too.

Technologies don't have to provide a silver bullet to be worthwhile, or even revolutionary. Silver-bullet claims can lead to unnecessary disappointment, while silver-bullet expectations may cause us to under-appreciate technologies that are truly revolutionary.

Glenn Reynolds is a TCS Daily contributing editor.



It ain't just the cells
I don't care how cheap nano technology makes solar cells, the problem with these systems is their size. You've got to make the frames, the wiring, the control modules, etc and that takes energy too. The solar manufacturers cheat a bit (er a lot,) when they talk about the energy payback time of the cells alone, not of the whole system, including periodic servicing.

Now if nano tech can come up with an efficient energy storage device (for when the sun don't shine and the wind don't blow,) then alternative energy might be a better deal.

Exactly the problem
If efficient energy storage was available wind alone to supply more than double it's present maximum capacity in terms of constantly available power.

The real problem with efficient energy storage will come if it is also affordable. Put a small windmill in your back yard, photovoltic cells on your roof and garage, add a smidge of ingenunity to save power (like LED lighting and LCD TV) and you could supply enough power to keep your house running at least 180 days a year (depending on where you live and exactly how much over-generation and storage you put in. Put in enough and you would never pay an electric bill again!)

The Power companies wouldn't be too happy with this system. Because of that alone, I don't ever expect to see the afforadable aspect in my lifetime.

Still, stoage is a big part of the answer to the alternative power equation.

Welcome to any techonology which improve the lot of mankind.
Sun energy is vast and ever available, but unfourtunatly our government and changesick public donot use it. I always welcome to any techonology which improve the lot of mankind. But I whole heartly oppose to that techonologies which are making slightest harm to mankind, exemple atom bomb, man`s cloning.

He's wrong about Wind Power, though
Wind energy has been kicking butt for the last ten years. Average growth rate is 29% during that time. There's wind power selling at long term rates around 1 or 2 cents per kilowatt these days.

Some of those turbines are taller than the Statue of Liberty, these days. Wind isn't to be scoffed at.

Batteries Not Included
Wind Energy Goes Mainstream with New Residential Small Wind Generator
Southwest Windpower, June 27, 2006

A new small residential wind generator from Southwest Windpower will give homeowners a new weapon in the fight against rising electricity costs. Skystream 3.7 is the first fully integrated wind generator designed specifically for the grid-connected residential market.

A combination of new technologies, developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, resulted in a product that quietly produces electricity for a fraction of the cost of current technologies. Skystream's low cost and low profile provides homeowners an affordable energy supplement that's appropriate for installation in many residential areas around the country. WITH NO BATTERIES, Skystream 3.7 connects directly to the home to supply power. When the wind is not blowing, the home is powered by the electric utility. Depending on the local utility, excess electricity can be sold back to the utility or used at a later date.

With a TYPICAL COST OF $8,000 to $10,000 to purchase and install, Skystream 3.7 can pay for itself in 5 to 12 years. This payback period will vary and can be much quicker in states with investment rebates. It's anticipated that Skystream 3.7 will save the average homeowner $500 to $800 per year, based on 4,800 to 6,600 kWh produced per year and a $0.12/kWh cost of electricity. This output would provide 40 to 90 percent of an average home's energy needs. In states like Hawaii, where the cost of energy and wind speeds are both high, Skystream 3.7 can pay for itself in less than 4 years...

If the savings is $800/yr and the installation cost is $8000 then the pay back is 10yrs without counting the time value of capital expense. Even if rebates are available someone pays for the rebate (taxpayers). Then there are maintainence costs. The 10yr NPV is less than zero. Not a very good investment yet.

Things that make you go hmm....

The site you reference says 3cents/KWh. I'm guessing this is production cost only and doesn't include sunk costs. The site offers no comparisons with other energy source production costs. And it also says that installation rate of windmills is highly dependent on status of subsidies. But, if it is profitable they will build it.

Only the beginning
More data

Residential windmill saves money, the environment
engadget, July 5, 2006

Just because this is fit for residential installations, though, doesn't mean that just anybody can pick one up -- Southwest recommends that you own an acre of land in an area that averages 10MPH wind speeds, and of course, that not-unobtrusive tower needs to comply with local zoning laws -- so the millions of us living in dense urban settings or gated communities will have to continue paying through the nose and destroying the environment in order to power our many gadgets.


New Wind Generator offers viable energy source for the home
gizmag, July 2006

Energy Chart

There's Wind Energies, and There's Wind Energies
The crucial point is that the wind energy that, "...has been kicking butt for the last ten years," is not the cuddly little backyard nostalgia wheels. It consists of large industrial structures that can almost (but not quite) pay their way without subsidies. With a few more years of subsidies, the even bigger windmills may be truly profitable
Meanwhile, it's hard to be outraged by wind subsidies when there are depletion allowances for fossil fuels and another power source that has government caps on legal liability.
Now, as for storage, that's the holy grail. Edison was neither the first nor the last to work on storage. (If he could have got more density, he might have gotten that upstart, Henry Ford, to work for him.) If there are major advances, it won't help just wind. Evening out the daily peaks and troughs would save tens of billions.

How much of that growth is due to govt subsidies?

How do depletion allowances differ from depreciation?

hidden northernguy

Once you have paid for the physical installation (or d.i.y) of solar or wind there are some other expenses that can be substantial.

If you are going to blend in your alternative energy source with the power grid so that you get a consistent power supply you have to integrate them. Meeting standards for such a task require specialists, subsequent inspections and increased insurance costs. If you value the safety of your home you will have make sure that alternative connection to the grid power supply to your residence is reinspected on a regular basis.

You might also discover that you simply cannot get home insurance at normal rate structures with such an arrangement.

Even more prohibitive is the much touted system where the residence based alternative energy source supplies occasional excess energy to the power grid on a resale basis. This is being advanced as a way of reducing much of the cost of alternative energy for the home owner. Such arrangements are even more technically challenging. So much so that most power grids won't accept them without being legally compelled to do so by the regulatory agencies.

Few if any discussions of alternative energy consider this aspect of what is a very dangerous process. Simply because the power grid _seems_ to handle it effortlessly doesn't make it a trivial issue.


More Comments About Big Windmills
The same comments apply about expenses on wind farms. However, "wind farms" are in cow pastures and corn fields, so there aren't as many cranky neighbors muttering about not in my back yard (NIMBY). There aren't housing codes limiting tower heights. If your machine gets set to throw a bearing, the beeves hear the squealing and wonder over to a quieter area. Finally, if you're the land owner, the windmill owners pay you money, instead of that once a year harvest crap.

Excuse me?
"WITH NO BATTERIES, Skystream 3.7 connects directly to the home to supply power. When the wind is not blowing, the home is powered by the electric utility. Depending on the local utility, excess electricity can be sold back to the utility or used at a later date."

No batteries, no "used at a later date". Sorry.

Not every state has laws in place that make this work…
also, the utility is still "polluting" at it's normal rate and can still raise rates to cover the losses.

Still, it is a good idea in the present energy climate.

But the answer for alternative energy is still storage. Until high effeciency, high capacity storage capability is economically available, alternatives will remain a small player in the power markets due to a lack of sustainability.

this is total hogwash
here is what you do.

find out the area of the usa. subtract lakes. subtract mountains. subtract rivers. subtract highways. subtract land used to grow our food.

you end up with about 1/3 of the land gone, conservatively

then add in transmission costs
then add in the real solar insolation, from NREL.

average is about 200 watts per square meter per day

no matter how efficient the cell is, it isnt going to take up any more energy ( by the way NREL numbers from three years ago where lower, they have boosted the solar insolation of the USA to make solar seem better, nice huh?)

at 5 percent overall efficiency at the wire coming out with 110 AC on it, which is a very high estimate because the no. 2 wire you have carrying the DC and the inverter 10 percent loss, and a little dirt on the panels all contribute on top of the panel efficiency which also decreases with time and higher temps, you would end up

needing about 12 to 15 percent percent of all the available land left in the USA to just barely supply 2008 AVERAGE power.

now take a look at PEAK load from the data at the EIA.

Peak load is 4 terrawatts now

So even with 15 percent of your land covered at a cost of more than the entire current capital base of the usa, everytime everybody turned on their a/c, the system would die

Solar is a marginally useful technology when placement is cheap and for primarily residential uses which are about 1/8 of our bill ocurring in mostly rural and suburban areas. its not going to help any city

At a dollar a watt, and with sufficient energy density area, you could amortize a roof system for new housing and make it OK. but this will supply about .05 percent of the power.

Germanies solar initiantive is going storng and supplies about .06 percent of the energy in germany

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