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The greatest potential for rede ning energy use in the United States and eventually throughout the world comes from solar energy The eternal pipe dream of hippies, granola-crunchers, and lately a growing bet for venture capitalists and progressive politicians, sunlight should be thought of as an abundant global resource that could potentially help many poor countries that are wholly dependent on foreign sources for energy needs Given the United States impressive technology/ venture capital machine, one could see solar technology spur the next big wave of US economic growth and wealth creation, similar to the way the computing and communications boom has in the recent past The amount of energy that 40 minutes of sunlight on Earth produces is more than the world s annual total energy consumption Even better, the United States, given its large, temperate land mass, has huge sunlight reserves In parts of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and California alone there are 250,000 square miles of desert land suitable
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for constructing solar power plants86 A patch of land like that receives more than 4,500 quadrillion Btu of solar radiation a year Converting a small fraction say 25 percent of that sunlight into electricity would match the United States total energy consumption in 2006 Two-thirds of US electricity and one-third of total energy (which includes transportation) could conceivably come from solar power by 2050 Moreover, with proper scaling, this energy could be sold to consumers at rates equivalent to today s rates for conventional power sources, about ve cents per kilowatt hour87 With recent advances, including solar energy storage systems, the United States may already be technologically capable Of course, a plan to build this greener, safer, less energy-dependent US economy is neither cheap nor easy US public policy would need to change dramatically Currently, Japan spends six times more to promote solar technology than the United States even though the US economy is more than three times the size of Japan s To usher the United States from hydrocarbons to a renewable future, experts suggest huge tracts of land perhaps 30,000 square miles would have to be covered with photovoltaic (PV) panels and solar transmission equipment Although this area may sound enormous, the land required for each gigawatt hour of solar energy produced is less than that needed for a coal-powered plant when factoring in land for mining88 Studies by the US Department of Energy s National Renewable Energy Laboratory show that more than enough land in the Southwest is available without touching environmentally sensitive areas, population centers, or dif cult terrain89 In addition to PV farms to capture solar energy, a direct-current (DC) transmission backbone would also have to be erected to send that energy ef ciently across the nation Skeptics say solar has issues The ef ciency of photovoltaic cells (currently the world record set by a University of Delaware-led consortium is 428 percent) falls just shy of the 50 percent ef ciency goal set by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to make solar cost effective90 While production costs have dropped and ef ciency levels have risen signi cantly in recent years, more progress is needed for solar energy to become the backbone of the US energy supply But this is not impossible Why is this not a stated national goal, today s equivalent of sending a man to the moon Imagine a new Silicon Valley for energy a Solar Valley An entrepreneurial
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technology cluster that works together, along with venture capital and Wall Street money, to bring a new industry to life led by the equivalent of Bill Gates or Henry Ford could bring about a whole new way to live and work If the computer and other telecommunication advances have revolutionized life in the last two decades, isn t there even greater potential in a new energy paradigm Why not also create a Wind Valley, an Alternative Fuel Valley, and a Hydrogen Valley The major car companies including Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and BMW all see hybrids and hydrogen fuels as the auto technology of the future91 If hydrogen technology is fully developed, the United States alone could save 28 percent of all the energy we consume today92 The picture becomes clear: If biomass, geothermal, hydrogen, tidal, and wind sources were also developed, renewable energy theoretically could provide all of the nation s electricity and 90 percent of its energy by 210093 Like Eisenhower s national highway legislation, a master energy plan to build a renewable energy economy won t happen without government support Depending on the nal plan, most energy experts estimate the US government would have to invest $500 billion to $1 trillion over the next 10 years to complete this kind of paradigm shift Couple that with a comparable investment from private funds and industry, and a major revolution could be under way According to his election web site, President Obama planned to earmark an extra $50 billion for alternative energy research and development chump change compared to the costs of the Iraq War or routine defense spending And unlike the war, the payoff for the US economy and the world would be enormous For example, solar plants consume little or no fuel (like wind farms and some other renewables), saving billions of dollars year after year The Southwest solar infrastructure described previously just one of many viable plans oating around would displace hundreds of large coal- red and natural gas power plants Such a long-term plan could effectively eliminate all imported oil in roughly a generation, fundamentally cutting US trade de cits and easing political tensions globally Because solar technologies and other renewables are almost pollution-free, the plan would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 17 billion tons a year, far in excess of recommended cuts under the Kyoto Protocol With some shifts in automobile design,
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