Archive for May, 2014

Solar Roadways Would Be a Great Idea…Someday

Solar-Roadways-4

There’s been a lot of excitement recently on social media about this solar roadways idea developed by a couple of engineers (they’re actually a couple, who are both engineers). Their vision is infectious (though–why hexagons? Wouldn’t that waste a lot of edges?). Replacing roadways and parking lots with durable solar panels will turn all our empty asphalt into power plants. What’s more, we can embed sensors and LEDs into the panels to make them smart roads. It would be a huge infrastructure project that would create thousands upon thousands of jobs and pay for itself in free, clean energy.

Now, as an arch-leftist tree-hugger, I’m always glad to see people get excited over renewable energy…

You sense a “but” coming here, don’t you?

It turns out that roadways should be the last place we put solar panels, not the next.

You see, current technology only returns a tiny sliver of the sun’s energy back to us in the form of electricity, so it’s best to put solar panels in areas where they get maximum solar exposure. For us here in the northern hemisphere, that means up on roofs, pointed south.

These are my solar panels. There are many like them, but these are mine.

These are my solar panels. There are many like them, but these are mine.

On a road, much of the solar energy would be blocked by grime, debris, oil, shade trees, or just plain ole traffic. Though coating huge surface areas seems tempting, the actual gain might not justify the cost and the trouble of maintaining them. In short, given current technology, the roads might not pay for themselves as promised.

Smart roadways are tempting, and perhaps we could use an approach like this in some settings–the basketball courts and parks the video suggests might be interesting, as human feet won’t put as much stress on the panels as dump trucks and they won’t cast as much of a shadow, either.

Down the road, we might be able to make solar roadways worth the trouble. Every other week, university labs are cooking up new and exciting prototypes for new solar technology–from paint you can put anywhere to transparent cells that can be embedded in windows. The breakthrough to make power-plant bike paths practical could be one published paper away. So, maybe.

 

The bottom line, though, is that if we’re looking for places to invest in solar energy with today’s technology, then there are a lot of empty roofs waiting right now. Even smarter would be car shades with solar panels in parking lots. Turn those ungodly Walmart blacktop deserts into something useful for society.

solar_tx700

False Dichotomy

There has been a great deal said about inequality of late–a development that couldn’t please me more since I’ve been banging that drum for years–following the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Piketty’s book, which apparently concludes that the escalating inequality of wealth on the global scene stems from systemic imbalances favoring returns to capital, has predictably riled the Fox News set into a chorus of shouted “Socialist!” and the far-worse “Communist!”

Piketty is neither, of course. He’s just taking a clear-eyed look at what global capital is doing, and what it’s doing is propagating like mad–but only into the hands of those who already have it.

In short, the rich are getting richer and the rest of us are stuck in the muck.

Admittedly, I haven’t had a chance to read Piketty’s book cover to cover, but presumably Moisés Naím at The Atlantic has since he just wrote a critique of Piketty’s focus on capital growth exceeding economic growth as the engine of wealth disparity.

Naím, though, accuses Piketty of focusing too narrowly on capital growth. He argues:

Most of the roughly 20 nations from which Piketty forms his analysis classify as high-income countries and rank among the least-corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International. Unfortunately, most of humanity lives in countries where “c > h” and dishonesty is the primary driver of inequality. This point has not attracted as much attention as Piketty’s thesis. But it should. 

While Naím is right about the demographics, he’s ignoring the reality of an already unequal world. The twenty countries whose inequality is driven by capital growth are also the world’s richest economies–those most affected by the supply-side economics that have opened up this gaping maw between the 1% and the rest of the population here in the U.S.

More importantly, though, Naím misses the real point behind the conversations about inequality. He alleges that it’s really corruption we should be concerned about, but here is the truth that very few are really acknowledging, even as we seem more and more willing to attack the issue of inequality head on as a society:

Inequality IS corruption.

Naím calls for transparency while the United States is ruled by a oligarchical group of kleptocrats with unlimited access to the halls of political power, so much so that they meet in secret with our leaders and dictate policy to them.

No, Piketty’s warning doesn’t ignore corruption–it targets its most insidious form.

Estrangement

When he entered, crossing from the doorway toward the empty seat at the table just outside the open entryway to the kitchen, she could not be sure he was real.

She was confused for a moment by his clothing, which–besides looking nothing like what he had been wearing when he had disappeared three years earlier–seemed to be hewn entirely from rough, burlap-like cloth.

“Where have you been?” she asked in a gasp.

When he sat–like some creature from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story–he sloughed off a drizzle of vermin to twitch and struggle in the fibers of the carpet.

His voice, when it emerged, was dry and course. “It’s a fair question.”

She stepped toward him, still holding the soapy skillet that she had been washing when he had come in.

“What should I call it?” he asked, not looking at her but at the diffuse glow of the remaining daylight behind the crinkled venetian blinds. “A quest?” He shook his head. “I was tested, though. Given an opportunity,” he said with a nod.

Shaking her own head, she came closer to him, mouth agape.

“I was put in one of those situations when I had the chance to prove myself. A moment when all my beliefs and principles were tested, when I could demonstrate I was able to put others before myself, to rise above selfish, petty desires and serve the greater good. A moment,” he repeated. “To be more, to be better. A chance to do the right thing.”

“But,” she stammered. “It’s been so long…what…what happened?”

He ran his hand through his matted, gunky hair.

“I failed,” he said.