Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Economic Growth that recognizes the Limits to Growth

I'm enamored with youtube as a medium for professional exchange.

That little video I made for the Environment and the Psychology of Behavior class I taught for Mercy College's On-Line Education Department-- the one showing environmental engineer Les Hamasaki talking about his Solar Air Conditioning System at the Debs Park Audubon Center in L.A., has now gotten 53,801 views, and despite a few new comments from those whom I laughingly "suspect to be nuclear lobby shills" insulting me, it has, on the balance, led to very uplifting conversations with people around the world about how we can work together to reduce our fossil fuel consumption through a sharing of technical expertise. Who would have thought it!?

I would like here to publish a couple of the exchanges in the hope that they will spark furthur dialog with our Solar CITIES associates:

First the bad news:

From a guy named dannyp1974:

"How ignorant are these guys?, the drunk that fatso al gore coolaid. until people like you start realizing that nuclear energy is the most efficient and cheap , we will all suffer high price of fuel, which if the wackos environtmentalist will allow us to drill out more of it will be as cheap as in venezuel , where it cost $1.00 (one) dollar to fill out a gas tank of a car
Go nuclear , like france and don't listen to propaganda that wants us to go back to be cave men.
Realista dude"

We don't take comments like this to heart on a personal level, but they disturb us in light of the nuclear accident at the Krsko power plant in Slovenia that occured the day before yesterday. We are lucky that no radiation was released (as far as they tell us). It is unthinkable to us that ill-informed people continue to spread the myth that without nuclear power we will somehow enjoy a reduced standard of living or that anybody wants us to go back to being cave men, when in fact it is a nuclear catastrophe that will plunge us into a new dark age. Those of us who have lived like kings living off solar and wind energy, those of who are part of a high-tech culture of advanced science and materials, and have never had to worry about our energy systems hurting anybody and have never had to worry about any accidents, ever, wonder how we get cast as the recidivist villains in this power play. As though we (and our rocket scientist friends who power space stations and robots on Mars with solar energy) were the troglodytes!

Anyway, you can read the comments thread at if you want to see the long answer I left for this self-embarrassing fellow, patiently addressing each of his accusations and insults (because unlike John McCain, I support Barack Obama's idea of engaging with people who think differently than we do and trying to understand and address their concerns, even when they position themselves as "the enemy" -- Jesus Christ gave us the model and the mandate to love our enemies:

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matthew 5:38-39)...Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. (Matthew 5:38-44)"

But this blog entry is not about how I deal with people who "despitefully use us or persecute us"; I'll leave that for the comments section of my youtube channel.

So here is the good news:

This blog entry is a celebration of a conversation that is evolving between us at Solar CITIES and a cool Australian guy named John who has a background in electrical chemistry and building science and wants to help developing household level solar cooling. John apparently believes (like us) that it is time we developed more "micro systems" to bring sensible energy solutions to the household level so that we aren't always dependent on massive infrastructural investments that are controlled by oligarchs and can be threatened by special interests or by terrorists (those of you who lived through the rolling blackouts during the Enron scandal that hurt California know very well what I'm talking about!).

This domestic-sized technology mission is what Solar CITIES is all about: Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Systems -- AT THE HOUSEHOLD LEVEL. (We left that part out because it doesn't fit the acronym "C3ITIES". It would make it C3ITIESATHL, and that is just wahnsinn! So we hope people will understand that that is what we mean by "communities"; we are intensely local, working down to the level of an individual family or group of families, as opposed to working at the city, state or federal level) Anyway, back to the latest community catalyst connection:

In the sunny land down-under, John has been building hybrid photovoltaic systems that are both grid intertied and grid-independent, his latest installations having 2 Kw of PV backup with 400 amp hour of storage, and apparently lit by 3000K warm glow LEDs (the same kind that we are installing in our apartment here in Germany -- no more harsh blue-white light, these LED lamps look and function just like halogens. They are a bit pricey just now -- 30 Euros a bulb, so we are only putting in three for the time being -- but that will change...).

Recently John and I have been dialouging about both the technical and the socio-political barriers to implementation of household size solar air conditioning , because any effort to implement a feasible technical solution must be packaged with a proper political understanding.

Let's face it - as Buckminster Fuller said back in the 1970s and is all the more true today, we really have all the technology we need to immediately move off of fossil fuels and nuclear power, we just lack the political will and we focus far too much on "centralized" "big solutions", ostensibly for economies of scale, but I suspect more for economies of the controlling interests.

So, here are some excerpts from our youtube dialouge about whether or not we can innovent a domestic Solar AC system by hunting around the internet and pooling expertise. Others of you might also find the exchange useful and might want to add your two bits to it:


"I wonder some times who runs the government.
With such big issues ahead why have we such small thinkers running the show? Oil companies hiding in the bush?
("Sorry that was a mistake" we had our own Howard (how hard) here in AU.)
As for the nuts and bolts if I can see its design /layout, yes I have access to the fitters/ artists that can make and improve it.

The installations I have put in over the years have one draw back,
they require little repeat work, so much so I have had only one call back for repairs to a system that went through a cyclone and thats in 20 years.

Have you any drawings to this heat exchanger to look at?

Hope to hear from you again Mr T.

"Hi John,

I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about the "draw back" of good engineering.

It seems our society is afraid of durable consumer durables.

In America I think we invented the institutional practice of "planned obsolescence" when our consumer durables really began to live up to their name.

I took a grad school class at UCLA where the professor basically blamed the "great depression" on the industrial revolution being too successful for the capitalist model -- he said we ended up with surpluses of everything and this destroyed the ability to get huge windfall profits from manufacturing. The laws of supply and demand stated that with an oversupply the bottom falls out of prices and the need for full employment vanishes.

So to "correct things" we had to create a policy of "planned obsolescence".

We had to create huge incentives for raising the population at home, making individuals superfluous and labor cheap. Give me your weak, your poor, your hard working immigrants, but let us keep them illegal so they can be worked to the bone without complaining (lest they be tossed out). We had to accelerate globalization and seek markets overseas . We had to make foreign populations increase exponentially, so we could increase the size of those new markets and the size of their labor pool.

Then we had to deliberately manufacture things that would break easily, that were inherently inefficient and that required constant inputs of fuel.

When all else failed, to keep a "balance" in supply and demand, we decided we had to destroy or sequester a lot of what our massively increased productivity was churning out. We had to encourage a "throw-away society" and burn agricultural surplus. And we had to wage ever more destructive wars (which rapidly deplete stocks and raise demand for goods. That is one reason that war is often a "good cure for a recession").

It's the economy stupid.

Right now in Germany the government is allowing the farmers to spray milk all over their fields to take it off the market. Every day on television we see them destroy surplus that could be used to feed the hungry while at the market they are raising the price by 10 cents a liter. Apparently with fuel prices going up the farmers are mad that they must sell their abundance of milk at last months market price when they can't afford next months fuel expenses. So they get to destroy food to bring the price up.

Of course one real good answer to that problem would be to give our surplus away to the poor and needy in other countries (which is what US AID is supposedly all about). Redistribution of wealth through redistribution of agricultural and manufactured goods overseas does help reduce domestic supply gluts.

However, while this seems logical and laudable, the greedy rich are terrified of letting such equalizing generosity go too far: since we depend on poor people to keep our labor costs down, the fear is that if they get too comfortable through our largesse they won't work as hard and for so little. We say it is for their own good -- as if people get dependent on basics like food and water and machinery the same way they get hooked on drugs. As though third world people who were healthy and had a chance to raise their productivity would lose all incentive to grow.

No, it is more likely that we fear that if "the poor" had free reliable food and water and clothing and machines they would not just have a comparitive advantage, but an absolute advantage that would erase the profits to be made from exploiting them.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes in Death Without Weeping tells the story of how the sugar plantation owners in North East Brazil used to destroy the workers home gardens and forbid self-provisioning. The argument behind this barbaric practice was that if they couldn't feed themselves they would have to accept working for miserable wages on the plantation and then buy food from the company store.

Yale professor James C. Scott makes similar observations in "Seeing Like A State" in which he talks about governments' need to "dummify" their peasants and proletariat so that they needed to work for the land and factory owners and could not take care of themselves.

Keep 'em dumb and hungry, right?

Why is the idea of well-fed, materially satisfied individuals willingly engaging in free trade for mutual advantage so frightening to people? What is wrong with the idea of an economy that grows in productivity without growing in sheer volume of output, an economy that can give everybody what he or she needs to be happy and fulfilled at low cost, and that grows not in physical size but in efficiency and expertise?

The rich (and those who are not rich but who have the ambition to be rich) seem to be threatened by the concept of a steady-state economy, even though great economists like John Stuart Mill and Herman Daly have argued for its net benefits.

But as you note, John, when you do too good a job there is little repeat work; and I think people are scared that unless the population is actively growing and creating new demand producers run the risk of driving themselves out of the market. At the same time, growing populations mean growing problems in dealing with scarcity in land and other non-renewable factor inputs.

That is the fear.

I think the long term solutions are evident though:

1) help families voluntarily limit population growth by giving them great education and health care and access to credit.

2) continually improve products and offer them in ever "sexier" packaging so that consumers want to "replace and upgrade" even when they don't have to (the "fashion" solution which also drives demand for new computer hardware and software) and most importantly

3) put our energy into expanding ecologically sensible civilizations underground, underwater and into space, striving to create sustainable biospheres that add value to their environments rather than destroy them (when life expanded from the sea to the land millions of years ago it was at no cost to the sea, but rather enriched the sea. William McDonough talks about this "Industrial Ecology" Model)

As for Solar Air Conditioning , whch is one component of this "eutopian" dream, the diagrams and explanations that I find easiest to understand are here:

Here is a reproduction of the explanation from their website:

Yazaki - Water Fired Chiller/Chiller-Heater

How They Work

Yazaki water fired SINGLE-EFFECT chillers or chiller-heaters have cooling capacities of 10, 20 and 30 tons of refrigeration and produce chilled water for cooling or hot water for heating in comfort air conditioning applications. The absorption cycle is energized by a heat medium (hot water) at 158°F to 203°F from an industrial process, cogeneration system, solar energy or other heat source and the condenser is water cooled through a cooling tower.

Absorption Principle

The Yazaki absorption chiller or chiller-heater uses a solution of lithium bromide and water, under a vacuum, as the working fluid. Water is the refrigerant and lithium bromide, a nontoxic salt, is the absorbent. Refrigerant, liberated by heat from the solution, produces a refrigerating effect in the evaporator when cooling water is circulated through the condenser and absorber.

Cooling Cycle


In the condenser, refrigerant vapor is condensed on the surface of the cooling coil and latent heat, removed by the cooling water, is rejected to a cooling tower. Refrigerant liquid accumulates in the condenser and then passes through an orifice into the evaporator.


In the evaporator, the refrigerant liquid is exposed to a substantially deeper vacuum than in the condenser due to the influence of the absorber. As refrigerant liquid flows over the surface of the evaporator coil it boils and removes heat, equivalent to the latent heat of the refrigerant, from the chilled water circuit. The recirculating chilled water is cooled to 44.6°F and the refrigerant vapor is attracted to the absorber.


A deep vacuum in the absorber is maintained by the affinity of the concentrated solution from the generator with the refrigerant vapor formed in the evaporator. The refrigerant vapor is absorbed by the concentrated lithium bromide solution flowing across the surface of the absorber coil. Heat of condensation and dilution are removed by the cooling water and rejected to a cooling tower. The resulting dilute solution is preheated in a heat exchanger before returning to the generator where the cycle is repeated.

Heating Cycle

When the heat medium inlet temperature exceeds 154.4°F, the solution pump forces dilute lithium bromide solution into the generator. The solution boils vigorously under a vacuum to generate refrigerant vapor and droplets of concentrated solution. Since the changeover valve is open during heating operation, the mixture of refrigerant vapor and concentrated solution flows directly into the evaporator. Some refrigerant vapor flows through the condenser before reaching the evaporator.


Hot refrigerant vapor condenses on the surface of the evaporator coil and heat, equivalent to the latent heat of the refrigerant, is transferred to the hot water circuit. The recirculating water is heated to 131°F. Refrigerant liquid mixes with concentrated lithium bromide solution and the resulting dilute solution returns to the generator where the cycle is repeated.

Looking forward to hearing whether you think it is feasible to do this on a small scale -- I don't know how big a "cooling tower" the Yazaki systems require.


These are the kind of dialouges, replete with audio-visual material, that are emerging in spaces like youtube, facebook and blogs. Former strangers who are part of the extended family of humanity, are connecting across the globe and tackling the big issues.

Even the hecklers out there are contributing something by directly engaging with the issues and going public with their ideas. Everybody has something to say, and we can't get it all on the table soon enough. We need to answer the question of how to acheive continued economic growth without continuing to grow our human population, our consumption of finite resources and our quantity of waste products.

We know we can't keep the terrestrial population growing and that we must recognize the "Limits to Growth" in terms of per capita consumption of non-renewable resources. Is this so hard to balance with our desire for prosperity?

Even the most elementary Economics textbook points out that economic growth is not the same as population growth -- in fact a growing economy can occur within a steady state frame. As Krugman, Wells and Graddy point out,

"The production possibility frontier helps us understand what it means to talk about economic growth. [We defined it as] the growing ability of the economy to produce goods and services... but are we really justified in saying that the economy has grown? Afer all, although countries produce more of many things than they did a century ago, they produce less of other things -- for example, horse-drawn carriages. Production of many goods, in other words, is actually down. So how can we say for sure that an economy as a whole has grown?
" The answer is that economic growth means an expansion of the economy's production possibilities: the economy can produce more of everything... what the economy actually produces depends on the choices that people make."

Economic growth is thus about POSSIBILITIES. Not production quantitites. Not consumption quantities. About Production Possibilities.

Paraphrasing the textbook's example (which talks about the tradeoffs in production of coconuts or fish on a tropical island by a character based on Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway) I will substitute solar air conditioners and Hummers in the appropriate places:

"After his production possibilities expand, Tom might not actually choose to produce both more solar air conditioners and more Hummers -- he might choose to increase production of only one good, or he might even choose to produce less of one good. But even if, for some reason, he chooses to produce either fewer solar air conditioners or fewer Hummers than before, we would still say that his economy has grown -- because he could have produced more of everything."

Krugman tells us that though this is a simplified model of an economy "it teaches us important lessons about real-life economics. It gives us our first clear sense of a key element of economic efficiency, it illustrates the concept of opportunity cost and it makes clear what economic growth is all about." (p. 25)

Economic growth is all about what you COULD HAVE done. Not what you actually DO.

So even the most basic economics text gives us the answer to the ridiculous fear-based question "how are we supposed to keep the economy growing if we don't churn out more and more and more automobiles, and burn more and more and more fuel, and put more and more and more people to work in factories"? Growth is here defined as "a growing ability, a greater efficiency, the ability to do more with less."

For example, my computer's power has grown even as it has gotten smaller. I can now play Crysis or Turok or Assasin's Creed or simulate my perfect city in CityLife 2008 on my MacBook Pro laptop computer. Its dual core processor uses much less energy than the larger older processors that could only handle a tenth of the power crunching. Similarly, we just installed a highly efficient and compact Brotje Eco-Therm Plus gas heater to replace the old Vaillant VRC C88 we had in the basement. It hangs neatly on the wall, takes up a third of the space of the bulky old one (leaving plenty of room for the solar hot water tank it connects to) and uses only 40% of the natural gas. Our home economy has grown, while the amount of fuel and space the thing uses has shrunk.

Of course, the new Brotje is so efficient and so well built that it requires less maintenance. Does that concern our installer or the company? Not in the least.

Will they soon be out of a job?

As far as our installer is concerned he has plenty of work to do upgrading every home in the city. That will last him a long while and there is still room for plenty of other people to enter the market. We can't replace inefficient burners fast enough -- especially not with Russia threatening to cut off our largest source of CNG.

What about after that, when the market is saturated?

By then, he says, this forward thinking company, which reinvests its profits in Research and Development, will have a heater that uses half the energy that this one does, one that is smaller, more attractive, enables more features (our new one lets us turn on and off the heat in our house in Germany from our laptop while on vacation in Spain!) , and one that will probably talk to you (and the other appliances in the basement, chatting away self-contentedly about Carnot Limits while their human friends are at the beach!).

But what happens when we do reach the theoretical Carnot Limit and when Moore's Law has run its course, and we can't make anything smaller or more efficient? What happens when we have tried out every color combination and design, and there is no way to improve anything on earth?

Will the economy have to stop growing?

No, of course not. But that is when we need to seriously start expanding our economy into space. Infinite and infinitely challenging space.

The final frontier that knows no finality.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

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