A quick thought today on science — specifically solar power

First, check out this story in the LA Times today, which I think we can trust because it doesn’t have anything to do with obsessive fanboys in jail:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Southern California Edison plan to announce today the country’s largest rooftop solar installation project ever proposed by a utility company. And on Wednesday, FPL Energy, the largest operator of solar power in the U.S., said it planned to build and operate a 250-megawatt solar plant in the Mojave Desert.

The projects would help California meet its goal of obtaining 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010. In 2006, about 13% of the retail electricity delivered by Edison and the state’s other two big investor-owned utilities came from renewable sources such as sun and wind, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Energy experts were struck by the size of the two projects, which would bolster the state’s current total of about 965 megawatts of solar power flowing to the electricity grid.

“Five hundred megawatts — that’s substantial,” said spokesman George Douglas of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “Projects of that size begin to show that solar energy can produce electricity on a utility scale, on the kind of scale that we’re going to need.”

The Edison rooftop project will place photovoltaic cells on 65 million square feet of commercial building roofs in Southern California. The cells will generate as much as 250 megawatts of electricity — enough to power about 162,500 average homes, based on the utility’s estimate that one megawatt would serve about 650 average homes.

This excites me for a lot of reasons, so to backtrack a bit — in the late seventies, perhaps the last (and only?) time there was a sense of general societal alignment all around on the matter of energy efficiency and renewable resources, solar power was present but for a lot of reasons didn’t get the traction it should have done. Saying Reagan’s administration killed off a lot of the enthusiasm overstates but not by much — in contrast, I remember writing for and getting a kid-friendly ‘Welcome to the White House’ brochure in 1979 or so, which contained a photo of Carter showing off a solar panel that had apparently been installed in one area of the building itself.

Meantime, there were a few Disney tie-in comics around the time — the kind of gently cheap and cheery things that the company did pre-Eisner — where Mickey and Goofy encountered Enny, a sunlike creature whose name was short for ‘energy,’ of course, and he taught them about doing things like not washing one sock at a time. (Goofy was apparently prone to doing just that, the poor sap.) Then there was Sunshine Porcupine and…well, I could go on.

For me, this is all part and parcel of the general sense of dreamy sf/utopian wonder that to me was just part of how people thought at the time, at least from my eight year old or so perspective. I mean, who wouldn’t want O’Neill-style space stations and mass drivers on the moon? With time I can look back both with fondness on it all and how my thoughts (and the many dreams put forward) were only so much conditional evanescence, as much driven by the impulse of getting out of dreary reality into a future that was still heavily Star Trek-centric in the mass mind as it was based in serious considerations.

However, sometimes that intertwining is necessary — I’ve been reading an excellent book, After Sputnik, which is the tie-in volume to a Smithsonian exhibit covering fifty years of the space race since the launch of said satellite, and a bit of trivia was discovering that the original serious rocket pioneer, Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, credited his initial explorations into such matters due to a mass media smash hit of its day, Jules Verne‘s From the Earth to the Moon. The question of art inspiring science inspiring art etc. is its own one but it was intriguing to realize how the cycle had been in placed from the start — as was noted with Arthur C. Clarke’s recent passing, he credited the pulp fiction of his own era for driving his own impulses forward, and similar stories can be told on a variety of fronts.

Solar power is by default a much more grounded affair — gathering the energy from the sun we orbit around and converting it into use here — but like many things sf dream has become simple and basic reality (as I think I remember reading in a piece some years back, we are all nerds now — my getting the iPhone was just me waiting for the best level of nerdery to come along, really), and seeing that this project is about to launch makes me pretty thrilled. It’s not a magic bullet, but it is a concentrated step forward that we’ll see repeated more and more — one of my friends was seriously considering a solar panel installation at his house a few weeks back, and there’ll be other stories to come.

And right now it’s a beautiful day out. Perfectly appropriate timing!

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