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EDITORIAL: Solar eclipse

January 12, 2001 - Staff Editorial - The Technician - North Carolina State U.

(U-WIRE) RALEIGH, N.C. — According to researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo., photovoltaic units — or solar panels — spanning only 10,000 square miles could provide all the electricity the United States needs based on the current solar energy technology of 10-percent system efficiency. With next-generation 15-percent efficiency models, that land space would be decreased by 30 percent.

An area roughly equivalent to 1 percent of the continental United States could supply enough electricity to charge the world.

NREL senior scientist John Turner told Popular Science such panels could be distributed in practical places throughout urban landscapes — on rooftops, streetlights, highway soundproofing walls and especially capped landfills. Currently, capped landfills cannot be used for 20 to 30 years, a timespan roughly equivalent to the lifespan of a photovoltaic electrical energy system.

But there's a gray cloud around this silver lining. More like a black cloud: fossil fuels.

Oil, natural gas, coal and even wood are all, along with their various extracts and variants, so entrenched in our existent electrical grid and power infrastructure that their dissolution seems likely only when the last drop of oil has been burned along with the last lump of coal and the last splinter of timber.

With the help of fossil fuels' iron-handed grip on our economic and political landscapes, our society is simply unable to choose solar energy — or wind energy or tidal energy or hydroelectric energy — as a real challenge to the status quo. Such environmentally friendly options are often called "alternative resources," when the truth is that such alternatives are simply not offered.

Why would a giant industry like Big Oil want to undo itself? It's like expecting alcohol providers to push Prohibition. It will not happen.

The sad fact is that, no matter how much cleaner, cheaper and safer solar energy and its eco-friendly cousins become through technological advances, it'll be the squeaky wheel — the Big Oil lobbyists and the oil-dependent American public — that will get the grease.

(C) 2001 The Technician via U-WIRE