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Making solar the new 'Big Oil'

May 25, 2008|By ROBERT GARY

Any energy source that's going to replace oil will need to have the same advantages upon its entry that oil had. It's a combination of technology, policy, law and regulations that gets a new source of energy online.

It's not just a matter of price theory in a so-called free market. Big Oil had a huge amount of help from the government getting big, but the point is that it's not realistic to expect a new energy technology to come into use full-grown on the first day with no help from anybody but the free market.

Big changes require that the whole society get behind them. We've been behind Big Oil for 50 years - fighting wars for it, regulating to make way for its pipelines and refineries and keeping sea lanes and trading markets open to allow the oil to flow where it's needed.

We must do some similar things for Big Solar. It's not just a matter of finding better solar panels. The basic technology of Big Solar would work like this - huge solar farms, probably on non-arable federal lands in the West, would gather and convert the full solar spectrum, using the newest thin-film photovoltaic multi-layer system.

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Energy would fed into very large water dissociation plants, which separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. These gases are compressed into huge underground tanks.

So far it's just engineering, but here's where the regulations come in. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) creates a rule whereby energy grid managers are compelled by law to buy energy from the solar farms first, if they have it available, during peak hours, and at peak prices.

It's like a right of first refusal - the solar farms get first dibs on selling power to the grid at peak demand periods. This should be a little bit like a patent - a special right that the solar farm would have for 20 years, after which it expires. This gives the solar farm a leg up, but doesn't create permanent dislocations in the market.

All monopolies and special rights create dislocations - that's why they should be limited in duration. Patent holders benefit society, so they get special rights, but for a limited time. Solar farms should probably be federally chartered corporations, and the federal courts should give them limited tort immunity - specifically immunity from class-action lawsuits.

Solar farms should be free from state and federal taxes, and should operate on a not for profit basis. They are a kind of public service utilities because they supply needed energy during peak load periods, thus reducing the need to build more power plants and lowering the cost of electricity to the ratepayers.

Solar farms should also be allowed to accept charitable donations. The donors get a tax deduction. They would be treated like a college, a church or a hospital. These utilities operate for the benefit of society, not just on a price theory model, but also in an effort to liberate the U.S. from an unhealthy, unstable and disruptive dependence on foreign oil.

Back to the process: The hydrogen and oxygen get fed into huge high temperature fuel cells and these produce to peak-load, high-priced power that feeds the grid and gets wheeled wherever it's needed.

In the meantime large fleets of cars and delivery trucks, and many private cars are trickled-charged at night using the cheapest possible off-peak power. These would be four large lithium ion batteries (about 48 inches by 6 inches diameter) per car, plus a spare.

Delivery trucks might require eight batteries. They would run all day, then get charged at night. The home charger for these could be supplied by the solar farm on a security deposit basis. Fleets could buy their own charging systems that would handle 500 or 1,000 batteries at a time.

The point is that the batteries would be charged with the cheapest possible power, and the solar farm gets paid for the peak-priced power because that's when it helps prevent brownouts or system failures.

The hope, of course, is that even without the privileged seller status they would keep their supply arrangements, not because FERC forces the grids to take their power, but because the grids want that power and are willing to pay top dollar for it when it's needed.

There is no land issue here, for two reasons. Solar farms are built on federal land leased for $1 per year on 99 year renewal leases from Uncle Sam. This is land in the West that nobody else has a right to - and it's non-arable land.

It's great for solar farms and growing cactus, but not much else. You can think of about four states that are replete with such land. So let the General Services Administration lease it out, while retaining the sub-surface mineral rights, and the right of eminent domain, in case roads need to be put through.

Solar farms would make their money on the "float," on charitable gifts they receive, and on patents they obtain for solar and battery related technologies, including improved thin films, software for power controls, battery developments they invent.

A lot of scientists would work at these solar farms. A lot of philanthropists would give them money. A lot of corporations around the world would license their patents. You combine that with federal charters and some legal immunity and regulatory rights and you've got the makings of a viable business that could power a third of the vehicles in the country and free us from having to go the Middle East and buy our oil from OPEC.

Total greenhouse gases produced - zero. Total environment impact - as small as reasonably achievable - probably very close to zero. Number of countries saved: One, but it's a very important one to this author. Number of planets saved: One - just a little blue one, the third rock from the sun, on which is situated the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Robert Gary is a retired attorney who lives in Hagerstown and writes for The Herald-Mail.

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