An Open Letter to T. Boone Pickens, Richard Rainwater, Antonio Villariogosa


I am writing this letter because you are iconic figures representing three vital points of a political triangle needed to make a major energy revolution. T. Boone Pickens, you are a business deal-maker controlling billions of dollars who has recently cultivated a following among democrats and environmentalists to develop greater use of natural gas and wind energy. Richard Rainwater, you are an investments advisor and broker, also controlling billions of dollars. Moreover, you have strong contacts with a number of people in the Republican party, including the Bush family. Antonio Villaraigosa, you are the Hispanic mayor of a major Southwest United States city, short on electrical power but rich in sunlight and heat.
Together you three have the wild hairs to dream, the money to build dreams into innovation, the political clout to burst through walls of inertia, and the managerial drive & finesse to maintain the drive for transforming innovations into revolutions.
I am proposing that you show the world two innovation revolutions, two profitable revolutions. (There are many others, but any more would be too complex for the political community to follow … for now.) These innovation revolutions require support in business and both major sides of politics.
But first, what are the worries? One, two, three, they are limited hydrocarbon supplies, worries about global warming from burning those limited hydrocarbons, and a slow expensive transition to more ecological energy sources such as wind and photovoltaics.
Hardworking drillers may stave off “peak oil” for years or even decades; yet, the most convenient and compact energy source will inevitably rise in costs as wells go into deeper water, go into colder country, and use more exotic techniques to capture petroleum. At the same time, greater use of coal, petroleum, and even natural gas are increasing the possibility of warming from the so-called global greenhouse effect. This effect may have been exaggerated to date, but geometrically increasing combustion suggests that its possible future correctness is also increasing … yes, geometrically, and that warming could be Al Gore’s worst nightmare some decades hence.
The proposed solution to global warming is replacing fossil fuels with noncarbon-emitting energy sources, such as wind, and photovoltaics. However, these new technologies (as presently conceived) are generally two or three times the cost of conventional power, and even growing quickly they will still be only a few percent of the energy mix for several years. Worse, they cannot be counted on to meet demand peaks. Solar meets the greatest electrical peak of afternoon air conditioning, but it utterly fails on the two lesser peaks of breakfast-prepare-for-work and supper-early-evening. Wind (although cheaper) is a crap shoot of good production times and unpredictable calms. The present alternatives are inherently expensive and will require more expensive backup generating capacity. These problems could discourage the public unless some innovations come quickly and cost effectively (that is, provide a profitable return on the investments).
So, what are two quick, big, and (most importantly) cost-effective innovations to start the alternative-energy bandwagon? The first revolution is whitening building roofs, in particular, but also parking lots, roads, and highways. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu proposed increasing reflectivity to combat global warming … and to decrease air-conditioning costs. Indeed, for many structures in the Southwest, using a whiter roof can repay the investment and become profitable in several years. That also translates into less global-warming heat and less environmental cost of energy production. Cost benefits are even greater if the reflecting treatment also increases the insulation value of the surface. The cost-to-benefit ratio is outrageously good because a significant drop in energy use—and cost—is achieved with a coating rather than a major investment in moving parts, pipes, controllers, etc.
For entrepreneurs, this is a straight-forward proposition. Companies can front the whitening expense to businesses and residences in return for payback from electrical savings. For the political corner of the triangle, someone connected to the Democratic president and Congressional majority can push to have major amounts of “weatherization” funds apply not just to insulation but to whitening of structures. Handily, weatherization has been massively funded in the economic stimulus package.

Second, There are entrepreneurs seeking to market concentrating solar thermal electric power. Why should society go to focusing thermal solar?: First, focusing solar is cheaper than photovoltaics (solar panels) and may continue to be so for some years. Second, and more importantly, solar thermal does not only produce electricity during the noon solar peak. Being thermal power plants, any heat source can supply that additional heat energy to solar thermal power plants. Burning a small amount of natural gas to boost power production for a few hours would be a small increase to the cost of the units, but they would tremendously increase value to the grid, and consequently, the return on investment.
In a crisis, or for geographic load balancing, gas firing could augment the solar inputs around the clock. This backup firing capability would make such solar thermal generating facilities dependable, which would vastly increase the sales value of their power. Second, they would decrease the cost per unit of power produced because they would increase marginal production at a very small price compared to the land, collectors, base supports, maintenance, power conditioning, and cable connections to the grid.
The two most common designs for solar collectors are large lines of troughs focusing on tubular collectors and large arrays of mirrors focusing on a single focal point of a central tower. Both of those systems then heat a conventional steam boiler to spin a conventional electric power generator. The greater the collector area, the bigger, and more efficient, the steam turbine can be. As noted, these systems are more cost effective than photovoltaic panels, and they can contribute many kilowatts. Still such systems are largely impractical in the land-hungry Los Angeles Basin. Thus, they must operate at some distance and expensively transmit their electricity via power lines to urban demand areas, such as the Los Angeles Basin.
A more useful technology for Los Angeles consists of dispersed parabolic dishes (much like satellite dishes) of as much as ten meters (33 feet) in diameter. The focal points have air-cooled Stirling engines. Their roughly 25 kilowatts per unit power is less efficiently produced than in a steam turbine, but they are much simpler (and cheaper!) to construct without the steam turbine and its associated cooling tower. Moreover, as with rooftop photovoltaic panels, each unit is a separate little power plant dispersed among the electricity users . This, reduces transmission costs, transmission losses, and legal battles required to get power-line easements.
However, the 2009 energy environment also runs on politics. Solar thermal energy should get the same subsidies afforded to wind and solar photovoltaics. A modest (but long-term) subsidy should continue even with a small percentage of gas-fired heat input. That subsidy is the key for mass production to ride down the learning curve to
For Los Angeles, the local politics can make form follow function. Consider that the Hollywood sign could have three bullet points at either end. Griffith Observatory could have a couple solar dishes as educational demonstration units. The open land surrounding hillside water tanks in El Sereno could host solar dishes. The open ridge running toward downtown Los Angeles could hold dozens of dishes. Any number of parks could have shaded areas of picnic tables, each under the shade of the base for a solar dish. Flood channels and open ground under transmission lines would provide return from marginal locations … and block the temptation to put houses there. The buffer areas around landfills could have solar dishes.
For both reflective technologies and gas-fired boosting of solar-thermal energy, there must be three things. There must be major business investments. There must be a Republican and Democratic coalition able to pull these two out of the giant omnibus energy bill with its politically charged cap-and-trade that may delay it for years. There must be local government support to push for large-scale use of the innovations.
Breaking out these two winners from the maelstrom could demonstrate success and help other initiatives. You, and those like you, can make it happen.
Will you?


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