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How Far Could $68B Go in Securing Our Energy Independence? Pretty Damn Far.


After hearing President Bush beseech members of Congress for $68B more dollars for the war in Iraq tonight, I got myself to thinking. If we’re already spending $120B a year on this war and we simply decided to bring our troops home, how far could we get in meeting our nation’s energy demands solely with sunshine and that extra $68B dollars? Well according to an article in the Green Wombat last month, a solitary solar thermal plant sized at 92 x 92 miles could take care of our entire energy demand. That’s the size of land that purple square takes up in the above map. Granted, for security purposes it would be a dumb idea to go and build a lone solar plant like this, so let’s do some more realistic math. The land area cited in that article was 92*92mi = 8464sq. miles. Let’s say we intend to create 16 solar thermal power plants and scatter them about really sunny areas of our country such as the southwest, Texas, and areas of Florida. 8464/16 = 529sq. miles for each solar thermal power plant. It just so happens that the square root of 529 gives a clean 23! So we are in search of sixteen 23 by 23 mile plots of sunny land to power the entire country. We’ve got $68 Billion dollars to spend on all of them, or $4,250,000,000 for each one.

Since the Nevada Solar One project cost roughly $240,000,000, produces 64MW of power and amounts to 1 mile by ½ mile (pictured above – thanks to googlemaps) of concentrating thermal solar, let’s just say we use that extra war money to purchase as much solar energy as we can afford. Pictured below is the Nevada Solar Two plant (which I created in MsPaint.. Long live MsPaint!). As you can see, this hypothetical solar thermal plant is about 3 miles by 3 miles, is constructed of 18 Nevada Solar Ones, would produce 1,152MW and would cost at most $3.2B (200 million * 18). I say “at most” here because you’ve got all the equipment going to one place and there are bound to be efficiencies with economy of scale, etc. to bring the megaplant’s cost down a bit from the original $240M to $200M.

But we have enough cash from the proposed war spending to build about 20 of them ($68B/20 = $3.2B). So we’re at 9sq miles * 20 Nevada Solar Twos = 180sq miles of solar thermal energy and 23,040MW. That’s a bit of a far cry from the 8464sq miles needed to satiate the demands of the entire country. We’re just over 2 percent there. While this might sound like a marginal amount of energy, consider that 23,040MW of energy is equivalent to the amount produced by 19 nuclear power plants (1,200MW apiece!)! 23,040MW of energy could power 14,400,000 homes. That’s the number of households in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago – combined!

If you really want to shake things up, consider that since the Iraq war began, we are now roughly $9 Trillion dollars in debt. Many people, including myself, don’t have any concept of how much money that really is. Well, that’s $9,000,000,000,000 dollars. Remember those 16 plots of 23×23 miles we needed to satiate the nation’s thirst for energy? Well 9 Trillion dollars would be enough to purchase about 2,813 Nevada Solar Twos! That’s 9sq. miles * 2,813 = 25,317 sq. miles of solar thermal energy – more than triple the land area in solar power plants to satisfy the energy demands of our entire country!

It truly is depressing to imagine what the other 2/3rds of that $9 Trillion could have been used for. Universal health care? Education? Ugh!

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49 thoughts on “How Far Could $68B Go in Securing Our Energy Independence? Pretty Damn Far.

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  2. Nevada Solar One required 1.5-million man-hours of work to complete during 14 months of construction. Also 3500 tons of Aluminum in fabricated shapes. One solar two would be 63,000 tons per array. The entire output of aluminum is 5mil tons a year for the US. Your arrays would NOT be cheaper as the cost of Aluminum, already in shortages, is driven up.

    Not to mention you need 21 man years to produce each solar 2. Just saying power plants aren’t built in MS paint :P

    Please explain why solar companies keep going bankrupt?

    Obama has already invested 90 billion. Where’s my giant power plant in the desert?

  3. Daniel says:

    This is a great idea and makes too much sense. But think about it. If we went ahead and used the $3Billion in creating this electrical independence ,we would then turn around and spend $5 billion a year in unemployment payments from all the layoffs of individuals that depend on the electrical industry that would have to shut down. So we would be securing our energy independence and on the other hand providing an affordable utility that no one can afford.

  4. I’m all for more solar power and yes, it could easily be done with the money now being spent on the pointless Iraq war.

  5. varadan says:

    there any Solar off Grid and Solar Street Lighting projects in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    I have developed very good contacts for solar Generators, wind mills, solar street lighting and solar home/office lighting

  6. Anas says:

    That’s a very good article. I just stumbled upon this article because I’m researching everything about Solar so that I can start shipping Solar water heaters, Solar PV and other items to Iraq to sell it there and have the Iraqi people enjoy more electricity because they only get about 4 hours of electricity a day from the national grid and the rest is from generators that adds to the pollution and sound noise in the neighborhoods. The electricity situation in Iraq is horrible, I know because I’ve been working in Iraq for the past 4 years as a contractor with the Army and although the Army has some micro funds that do support the Solar initiatives, it’s minuscule compared to the general use for the population because it’s only deployed at already safe areas and smaller scale. It’s amazing how old is this article yet getting so much buzz…thank you.

    1. Dan Hahn says:

      Thanks for the compliment Anas! Good luck with the rest of your research and your extended efforts to power up Iraq. Keep us posted and be safe!

      Cheers,

      – Dan

  7. kayla stutler says:

    i need help for answers

  8. Stephon says:

    I for one am appalled at how much (or how little to be more precise) solar technology has advanced. I tell this one phrase to every intelligent person I converse with and I hope you will repeat it; THE SUN IS OUR PLANET’S SOLE SOURCE OF ENERGY. Bar none. Period. Without the sun this planet would not exist to begin with. So why not invest in harnessing this awesome, virtually limitless supply of energy. Current PV technology has terrible efficiency levels, but that’s not because technology has peaked. I would personally say that our biggest priority would be to research this part of energy production even further to bring PV down to a reasonable cost/efficiency relationship.

  9. J. Altman says:

    I’m as appalled by the cost of the Iraq war as anyone, but you exaggerate the impact of the war on the national debt. The debt was already around $4 trillion when the war started.

  10. gosolar says:

    Its not the only night capable collector there are also solar towers that can generate 24 hours a day from continued updraft of hot air from the already heated earth, turning turbines. Also another system with molten salt that is heated throughout the day by giant mirrors and can also continue to provide heat at night to power steam turbines. Both such stations already exist.

  11. gosolar says:

    http://www.gizmag.com/researchers-developing-solar-technology-that-works-at-night/8574/

    Here is a solar technology that collects energy even at night from the infrared energy radiated back from the earth at night, has 80% efficiency and costs as much as a cheap carpet to print. Also has an astonishingly high frequency current which should be ideal for any long distance transmission I think….

  12. bob!! xx says:

    hii! :) use more of the solar panels!!

  13. james says:

    I quite agree that we need a national renewable energy grid. We also all need to reform our lifestyles. Just by changing our patterns of consumption, we can all reduce our energy use by at least 1/4, if not more, and maintain or improve our standard of living.

    Read how one family is doing it, including links to the most cost-effective options for fluorescent bulbs, the best high-psi, low-flow showerheads, high-efficiency appliances and more at

    LIVING GREEN, LIVING WELL

  14. Olivier says:

    Thanks a lot for this article.

    Olivier

  15. ryan says:

    well the answer is internet democracy. some countries already have an internet party that bases its decisions on its members vote. Wiki has buildt a very good model for internet democracy using the wisdom of crowds. First we get political power, become participants, and run this mother.

  16. ColdWeatherRevolution says:

    Just a thought…
    …an easy way to turn 68 Billion into hundreds of Billions in development. There is no reason for the government to completely pay for all of the development costs of these facilities. in the same way that the government does not actauly outright buy all of americas oil and gas, they just HEAVILY subsidize the industry. what if the government told the power providers that they would give MASSIVE LONG TERM tax credits to renewable energy production. This would make an already “almost competetive” alternative into the obvious solution. as a result the providers could develop the renewable facilities in each area that are preferable to that geographic region (Tidal, Solar, Geothermal, Wind, etc.)

    …just a thought

  17. Denny says:

    The only problem is that we don’t have all that money. It is all borrowed from anyone who will lend it to us. All we have is a big no principal loan!

  18. Will says:

    Good idea, but with Solar power, I wonder “what about the albedo effect…?” You’re still absorbing a lot of energy from the sun that could be reflected back out to space…

  19. Andrew Weiszmann says:

    Thank you for showing us what is possible with solar. I have visited both Solar 1 and 2 and always wonderd why cant we build more. The answer was well it only delivers useful power about 6 hours a day.

  20. I’m surprised energy companies haven’t cottoned on to the fact that their consumers all could have energy producing panels put on their properties. In exchange for lower priced energy I’m sure most of us would jump at the chance of becoming part of the national power system!

  21. Realitybytes says:

    Oh. Storage is NOT a problem. I’m not an expert, but in principal I can think of several cheap low tech solutions for extra energy storage during peak times. For instance, during peak energy times store extra energy by pumping water to an uphill reservoir, to be later used as hyrdoelectric power. Or how about huge weights that are lifted up, and then dropped pulling cables that spin generators. Batteries… huge flywheels… Hell I’m NOT an expert, and without trying I can think of a dozen ways to make it work. I’m tired of hearing that storage is a problem.

  22. Realitybytes says:

    The powers that be (big oil) won’t let this happen. Your talking about taking the junky into rehab, and the dealer won’t let that happen. The government has different priorities for it’s money. Of course it makes sense. Of course it’s possible. Will the politicians allow it? Of course not.

  23. wheazel says:

    and what does that have to do with solar power?

  24. Irfan says:

    I am really confused to understand the way American public think about different issues. America donates more money than any other nation to help poor around the world while at the same time America spends 1000 times more on starting and continuing wars around the world. Its a paradox that I am just unable to understand.

    I think what American needs is a new political party that will let democrats and republicans know that it is not their inherent right to switch the political power every four to eight years.

  25. B. Burland says:

    The New World Order calls for extermination of 80% of the world’s population, they are not interested in any kind of energy conservation.

  26. Dan Hahn says:

    Thank you all for your interest in this post. It’s been a pleasure to read many of your reactions and ideas. Tochol, I’m not an expert on long distance power line losses. Though for now, I’d refer you to Kurt’s link above. Additionally, I do know there has been some talk of employing more efficient solar fed capacitors in these plants which would have the ability to store and distribute power more effectively.

    Inel, you make some excellent points. You all have a voice in this matter. It’s up to all of you to go ahead and use it. Write your legislators. Show up at a town hall meeting or two and let them know these issues on your mind and you expect them to deliver real solutions to them.

    As for Wal-Mart and any other big box store, I’m pretty sure you’ll see many of them employing larger scale solar systems in the coming decade. It simply would be foolish for them not to. In the long run they’ll be locking in a lower set energy price and a system that large will pay for itself in about 6-7 years. However, since many Wal-Marts are open 24/7, and Wal-Mart is not in the business of selling power, there isn’t going to be much left over energy that will be fed back into our electrical grid.

    The real answer to getting more solar up on roofs lies with feed-in tariffs. Cloudy Germany has taken the lead in this area and their country has the most solar installed per capita in the world.

  27. Tochol says:

    Dear Dan Hahn:

    Great post. One question. What about tranmission line losses? Isn’t most of the power generated lost during transmission to the end users?

    Is it possible to have a wider disbursement plan that had smaller production of power but better transmission?

    Granted the massive plants would be great at producing huge amounts of power and easier to fund and build.

    But I think it would also be useful to encourage smaller systems that are not as optimum in power production but usefully scattered around closer to end users.

    Just a thought.

  28. Dick says:

    Use less.

  29. wheazel says:

    rooftop commercial solar–I smell business tax credits, government incentives can go a long way if it increases a business’ bottom line, they’re flat, wide-open, and unless your walmart is smack dab in the middle of high-rise heaven, no one ever sees what’s up there anyway. don’t let the energy companies get wind of that one tho–it might cut into their subsidized business plans.

  30. inel says:

    Thanks for the link to Green Wombat’s article. (I had missed that one, but always enjoy Green Wombat.)

    It is good to think outside the box, and I applaud you for doing that in this post. Even though there are practical limitations (such as equipment shortages and the need to redesign distribution infrastructures), it is worth throwing ideas out there without restrictions to shake-up people’s assumptions about what can and cannot be done with alternative energy.

    My preference tends more towards local microgeneration of a basket of alternative energies, rather than relying on one source and technology exclusively. However, I can see that solar-sourced power is a no-brainer in California, Florida, Texas, Greece, Spain and Italy … and so on. Even in London, there is plenty of sunshine to go around, if only we could figure out how to catch it, convert it, and deliver it efficiently to each place at the time we’d like to use it!

    I have one link for John N. about Wal-Mart, which shows that the company is at least responsive to the need for renewables, and you can search inside walmartstores.com for up-to-date info on their solar, wind (and hydro?) projects.

    The message coming across loud and clear from European businesses is that they do care what consumers think about them, and we do need to demand they stay ahead of the climate curve. So, customers need to demand that Wal-Mart and other companies in America tread as lightly on our planet as possible, and achieve their smaller carbon footprints as quickly as possible. As consumers, we can do that through purchasing less, and choosing American-made products. As share-holders or concerned individuals, we can write to companies and request information on their operations, products and services as far as sustainability and emissions are concerned.

  31. Frank says:

    If you guys are going to whine, look up the contact info for your congressman and senator. They are debating an energy bill. Think Renewable Portfolio Standard and increased gas mileage for cars. It’s not as good as an oil tax to pay for this war, but it’s a start.

  32. brian says:

    I don’t think it’s a dumb idea to put it all in one place. Look at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. It’s a 310 square mile nuclear facility that has it’s own zip code, police department, fire department, army, etc. I think grouping it all together makes security easier. =)

  33. Darwin says:

    One seems to forget that they “drive” everywhere, just give up your personal vehicle and that will save heaps. Have you given thought to the countries’ info structure, which is based on agriculture and the oil industry. What will you do with all the “oil workers” and those industries dependent upon them?
    Oh, by the by global warming is a fact, but the earth is in it’s warming cycle, not to worry everything will return to what you call normal.

  34. John N. says:

    Im an engineering student at MIT, and the idea of placing solar panels atop every wal-mart sounds very tantalizing to me. I am going to see what i can do to get that idea rolling. there is already a wal-mart in every nook of this country, why not use that space wisely.

  35. James,

    You are correct. We do have to defend ourselves sometimes, and remain prepared all the time. But, if we were to achieve energy independence then our foreign policy would no longer be distorted by our addiction to oil. The current priorities are heavily influenced by the fact that a lot of people make a lot of money from the current state of things. It’s going to be hard to change, but the first step is for We the People to want to change.

  36. James says:

    Using solar energy would definitively advance some of our problems. However, this adspace makes an assumption about the cost of the war. The assumption is that it isn’t necessary.

    While I wouldn’t dare to pretend there aren’t problems with the way we have conducted ourselves in this crisis, I would certainly be willing to hear any well thought reasons we shouldn’t be at war. But, the fact of the matter is that we must at times spend money to defend ourselves. If we don’t then the amount of “cheap energy” we have will not matter at all.

    I, of course, realize that there will be message posts condemning me for being a conservative or war monger or whatever ad hominem attack that can be directed towards those who dare to disagree. But, I ask those of you who would automatically censure defense spending to think about what you would do if put into the position to make these decisions for an entire nation without deluding yourself to the scope and responsibility of such a task.

  37. Kurt says:

    Actually wheazel, electricity transmission over long distance is pretty cheap and done all the time. New York City buys a lot of electricity from Canada.

    Check out http://www.geni.org/globalenergy/library/technical-articles/transmission/cigre/present-limits-of-very-long-distance-transmission-systems/index.shtml

  38. Kilgore Trout says:

    This country uses approx. 2 terawatts of power per year. It would be feasible to place
    solar plants throughout the southwest to power that area. It would also be possble to place solar and especially wind generating plants throughout the midwest to power that area. As for the coastlines, definitely more wind power.

  39. wheazel says:

    This is a great concept. Practical application limits its viability. Generating electricity in Nevada is fine for Nevada, but it is difficult to transport that generated power to an area like the northeast, or California because of energy loss over distance. The only way to make it work would be to follow a power distribution grid, similar to what we already have, with regional plants supplying regional power. Solar generated power anywhere beyond a desert is terribly inefficient these days, so that money would actually be better spent in the short term developing new solar collection technologies that boost capacity beyond the minimal conversion rates we have now. But beyond that, you run into the NIMBY syndrome, where everyone is all for alternative energy, until they realize that 90 acres of prime shopping mall space would be sacrificed for the greater good. Just look at the wind generator fight in Nantucket sound.

    A better choice would be to develop minimal distributed power generation networks–solar on every Wal-Mart roof–now that would be giving back to the community.

  40. tom says:

    Maybe we could use some of those farms we subsidize NOT to farm and cover them with Wind and Solar generators…or would that be too logical??

  41. Irreverant Musings says:

    Great article.

    Oh, to those who commented before me… ALL CAPS doesn’t reflect well on your maturity or intelligence.

  42. Doomsdayrock says:

    Seems to me like its more important to kill women and children Than to try to save the planet. Life is already short for people.The life of one child is more important than money.Soldiers can kill each other if thats what they like.
    What an awful world we live in all this money and people going without,makes me sick.Look where our education has brought us……. Shame on us all.

  43. Bob Smith says:

    The evil unleashed by today’s Republican party is truly staggering. And were it not for the weak, wimpy, complicit Democratic leadership (Pelosi, Reid, etc.), we’d be in the midst of war crimes trials, our troops would be home, and we’d be turning our attention to our energy needs, as described in this excellent article. Our worthless politicians deserve our complete contempt. Damn them all.

  44. bigcloud says:

    THIS INFORMATION IS SO FANTASTIC!!!!
    WHY IS THIS NOT ON THE FRONT PAGE OF EVERY NEWSPAPER AND EVERY COMPUTER EVERY FREAKIN DAY OF THE YEAR UNTIL SOMETHING IS DONE????
    there are people in power that could
    AT LEAST do this with their $$multi-billions$$

    1. Because it’s a though experiment with no backing in reality.

      That 9 trillion would take the ENTIRE aluminum supply of the US for 35 years.

      The comments about locality are great also. So, the US Fed builds them and the southwest gets free power while the East pays to build them?

  45. bigcloud says:

    I have been interested and involved in wind, hydro and solar power for years
    and I am a nobody on this planet.
    THIS INFORMATION IS SO FANTASTIC!!!!
    WHY IS THIS NOT ON THE FRONT PAGE OF EVERY NEWSPAPER AND EVERY COMPUTER EVERY FREAKIN DAY OF THE YEAR UNTIL SOMETHING IS DONE????
    there are people in power that could
    AT LEAST do this. if this small thing cannot be accomplished how can anyone expect anything meaningful and or useful from the retarded peoples that run this circus(USA) they are only interested in
    the $$$$cha-ching$$$$

    this web site in in serious need of a FORWARD TO A FRIEND BUTTON a BIG one!

    I have spoken so if anything happens to me you know they came and took me out.
    they are gonna get you too.
    bigcloud

  46. Levy says:

    Security isn’t the only reason you can’t build a 92 x 92 mile solar panel in the desert. You can’t get electric energy from Nevada to New York without storage cells. And if you are transporting storage cells across the country constantly all that work will be for nothing.

    It’s a great idea, and something I’ve pondered myself, and it should be seriously looked at by smarter people than me.

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