Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A 30 Year Energy Snooze

Back in 1978, I worked for a while as an optical analyst at Itek Optical Systems. Most of Itek's business involved military reconnaissance optics - top secret stuff (they started out working on the optics for the Corona program, the original US spy satellite). But I was working on less-secret optical analysis software and simulations.

One interesting project was for NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory). It was a solar concentrator project, simulating and analyzing large solar concentrators made from meter-size low-precision fiberglass panels (think boat hull fabrication). A bunch of these reflective panels would be mounted on an umbrella-like frame to approximate a parabolic reflector. I was studying how bad you could make and mount these things and still get useful solar concentration. It turned out they could be pretty bad. But so was Itek's business, so I changed jobs and moved to Pasadena, California (to work with other optical software).

This was a small part of the burst of enthusiasm for alternative energy back then, triggered by the 1973 "oil shock" (I had no car until 1977, so I never had to wait in gas lines). Jimmy Carter even put solar panels on the White House, but Ronald Reagan quickly took them off, and most of the alternative energy money dried up. We basically hit the energy snooze button for about 30 years...

Now $4 gas has set off the alarm clock again, and there's a lot of interest in alternative energy. While it's bad news for business as usual and for lots of people who have to figure out how to put gas in their SUV's and still pay the rest of their bills, the good news is there are lots of ideas being explored, and there is energy all around us if we can just figure out how to harness it effectively. We have solar, wind, tides, geothermal, algae, and many more possibilities. I picked up the July issue of Popular Science which has the theme "the future of the environment." It features an article on a possible future "eco-tropilis" (a green city that even has its own vertical farms) as well as "audacious ideas to save the planet" (from solar power satellites to turning pig pee into plastic). Of course it's not all smooth sailing - they talk about the pitfalls and perils too. It's quite a thought-provoking issue.

If you don't want to buy the magazine (save a tree?), has most of this material on line, some of it in Flash-driven interactive form. There's even a game. Cool stuff.

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