Clean and cheap energy has been percolating in innovators’ minds for centuries.
Far longer ago, alchemists and wizards sought the source of ultimate power somewhat differently, calling it magic.
The economic consequences of cheap clean energy would be tremendous. Imagine energizing rural Africa or infusing India’s poorest neighborhoods with uninterrupted inexpensive power. All that brain power just waiting for an opportunity to connect with a money-making idea could make substantial changes in technological development, not to mention economic might.
So far, however, that pursuit remains unrealized. Recall cold fusion? How about the mythic magnetic power generator, a device that purports to produce “free” electricity.
Alas, it’s a crock. So far, anyway.
Pursuing clean energy
That doesn’t stop the pursuit of some nearly free energy source. Or the daydreaming. Or the bona fide research bringing existing clean energy technologies more in line with the cost of conventional carbon-creating fuels.
Writers regularly take on the challenge, imagining star travel as the likely result of conquering energy. Isaac Asimov’s universes were fueled by atomic power. Even Albert Einstein and Otto Stern envisioned a hidden source of power in all things. They called it Nullpunktsenergie, which was later translated to zero-point energy. Imaging that is one thing. Tapping it is another.
With this in mind, I decided to do some research. For mean that meant looking up the sci-fi masters. Of course, clean energy wasn’t the only thing on my mind. Reading offers equal-opportunity inspiration.
Back to the barn
Used book stores exude a musty eclectic chic. Often they’re stuffed with type-packed cast-offs just waiting for somebody to give them another look.
At the recently expanded and somewhat aptly named Book Barn in my town of Clovis, Calif. I tagged along as my high school English teaching wife, Peggy, scoured the shelves for teen lit. Werewolves, vampires, angst and drama. The usual stuff.
Meanwhile, I hit the science fiction shelves. I dug around in the recesses of my memory for authors I once read and scanned the carefully sorted titles. Good lord, Gardener F. Fox had a couple of books. He wrote in the style of the incomparable Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. Fox’s publisher didn’t have anything on the author in the series of skinny little paperbacks available, so it’s not surprising he’s totally out of print today.
I nabbed one, even though it read like something I had consumed before. Many times before.
Charlton Heston’s legacy
On the next shelf over, I found several by Harry Harrison, who startled my generation in 1966 with the story, “Make Room, Make Room,” which explores the consequences of unchecked population growth. Most recall the somewhat altered movie version, “Soylent Green,” starring Charlton Heston in the leading role of detective Thorn and Edward G. Robinson as his roommate Sol. It was to be Robinson’s final film.
Harrison has penned a number of novels in various sci-fi sub genres, and many contained themes of social commentary. Although not so much with the “Stainless Steel Rat,” a space criminal anti-hero who had a bit of a soft side. I believed I had consumed nearly all of his books but found a couple in the Book Barn that proved me wrong. “Invasion Earth” tells the story of an invasion by aliens by means of a high-stakes con job, and “Skyfall” outlines the struggles of a U.S.-Soviet (the Reds still had stamina in this 1978 novel) project to ship a deep space solar collector into the heavens to provide clean, cheap energy to the globe.
In “Skyfall,” the project isn’t easy. In fact, disaster lurks at just about every turn. Not surprising. Actually, the story is somewhat timeless, other than the Soviet connection. Swap CCCP characters for Russians and it could spark interest a decade from now when climate change is a freakish reality, sending residents of island nations and low-lying countries like Bangladesh into their neighbors’ garages and outbuildings.
“Skyfall” isn’t Harrison’s best. It drags. Its characters have all the zip of a lead brick. The pilot is an idiot chauvinist. The U.S. president is a jerk, not as “crooked as Tricky Dicky, but he’s craftier.” The Russian female pilot is underdeveloped and somewhat two-dimensional. The narrative doesn’t zing like most of the author’s work.
But the Prometheus Project sounds great. The idea is to deploy huge unfurling solar collectors where they could collect solar energy without nighttime interruption and beam it via microwave to points on earth. The cost is immense and the project massively controversial. The book’s antagonist is a Newsweek reporter who wants to write about nothing but potential doom.
Coretta Samuel, one of the crew, tells him at one point, “Just the physical reality that, at the present rate of consumption, we’re going to burn up all the Earth’s oil in a couple more years. So we’ve got to do something drastic about it.”
Doing something. Sounds great to me. Back when this book was published, I was thinking about earning gas money for my mini truck and enjoying the spoils of refined fuel while spinning broadies in the East High parking lot in Anchorage.
Current political discourse has all but ignored climate change. That’s an issue for our children, apparently. They will have to make the tough decisions because there will be no alternative. Most likely they will curse the previous generation for short-sightedness.
I know I would.
There is an alternative. Investment in a number of solar projects will reveal over time that there is money to be made in clean energy. There’s certainly economic development in clean energy. Spending on facilities that continue to generate money in the form of electricity offer a steady payoff as well as the initial injection of construction jobs.
Just as a wider road or bridge facilitates travel and movement of goods and services, clean energy facilities generate energy without the constant effort of the extraction of natural resources. Drilling will recover only what history has left. Mining for coal will get increasingly expensive as the easy-to-extract sources play out, while oil recovery is already tapping the tremendous technological talents of engineers.
Federal dollars should continue to be funneled into clean energy research. You never know what some grad student will pull out of a beaker after long nights and neuron-firing inspiration.
The National Space Society promotes the concept Harrison wrote about in “Skyfall.” Maybe it’s not far-fetched. It’s definitely massively expensive and would require almost worldwide coordination of resources.
Space Office study
An October 2007 study by the National Security Space Office says the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA have spent about $80 million over the past three decades study space-based solar. In contrast, it says the U.S. government has spent about $21 billion studying nuclear fusion.
The study concluded that space-based solar “does present a strategic opportunity that could significantly advance U.S. and partner security, capability and freedom of action and merits significant further attention on the part of both the U.S. Government and the private sector.”
The study also says while significant technical challenges remain, the concept “is more technically executable than ever before and current technological vectors promise to further improve its viability.”
Sounds a little like I read this somewhere. Oh yeah, in just about every book I consume. Hugh Howey is my latest favorite author. His “Bern Saga” series takes energy sources, space travel and future economic and cultural conflict and turns everything inside out. His concepts stretch my imagination, certainly.
Possibly, Howey and others writing quietly in their home offices will change the direction of mankind. For the better.