BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Falling asleep in the sun ...

This is another book from the “Early Reviewers” program, and, unfortunately, after a string of quite good selections from LTER, this one is definitely back in the “meh” category. As you may recall, I also write a blog for the Chicago Tribune's “ChicagoNow” blogging platform, called Green Tech Chicago, so I keep an eye out for a lot of renewable energy stories, and I've come to expect a certain level of … well, interesting … which isn't front-and-center in Philip Warburg's Harness the Sun: America's Quest for a Solar-Powered Future. Since finishing reading this, I've been trying to “put my finger on” what specifically I found unappealing with it, and I think I've finally figured that out. In most material on “green energy”, there's a forward-looking aspect which promises great things in the future, often over-blown gee-whiz stuff, but hooks to get you excited about what's being discussed. This is true from GenIV reactors to mustard plants as a oil source, to tidal turbines, to solar satellites, etc. Those stories grip the imagination and pull you in to the tech involved. Not so much here.

For something subtitled “America's Quest for a Solar-Powered Future” (there I go again with taking exception with a book's subtitle), there's very little “future” focus here. Frankly, this reads like a series of very serious, diligently researched, but ultimately uninspiring newspaper stories … if not a collection of excerpts from quarterly reports from various industry players. The ten chapters here look at different applications of solar technology – as it's presently implemented – and anchors the stories by featuring individuals involved in those businesses. If this was a series of “investigative journalism” pieces on “the state of solar”, it would sort of make sense, but in this context they're just (to me at least) awfully bland.

Now, I will admit that I've probably read more about this stuff than most folks have, so things that are “new and exciting” to me are pretty thin here. I ended up with just two little bookmarks stuck in the book … albeit one of them highlighting a fascinating system of using molten salt (a combination of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate) to store heat:
Heated to more that 1,000 F, the molten salt flows in large steel collector pipes down to the base of the concrete tower. From there it can be channeled to a heat exchanger that uses the captured energy to create steam for a power-generating turbine – if there's an immediate demand for electricity. Alternatively, there super-heated fluid can be pumped into a 3.6 million gallon stainless-steel storage tank just few dozen feet from the tower.
And the tower in question is an indication on how huge that project, Crescent Dunes, is … it's as big as a 50-story building and stands at the center of 17,500 mirrors, each of which is about 140 square yards in size. I only wish there was that much “cool stuff” to note from every site the author visited.

Frankly, this might have been intentionally boring, as in the note sent out by the publisher with it, they say it's a pragmatic report on the current state of affairs, which would explain why there's so much stuff in here on government regulations (and give-aways by the current administration), supply chain and manufacturing issues, conflicts between the “green energy” folks and various environmental organizations (a lot of these installations have had to go to great lengths to make sure a wide array of critters didn't get disrupted), and assorted international political concerns (even going so far to suggest that having cheap Chinese solar panels destroy the American solar industry might be a good thing because it would accelerate the installed base of solar energy).

It could also be the case that the book just didn't appeal to me because its author is very likely the sort that I would dislike in person … he's an attorney, a “community organizer” (like somebody else I can't stand), has worked for various governmental entities, and has been a lawyer for a handful of Environmental NGOs … this is not a resume that speaks of “vision” – a Peter Diamandis he's not. If the phrase “written by a lawyer” has the same icky negative vibe for you as it does for me … you'll get the sense of what I see as wrong with Harness the Sun.

On the other hand, the material here is certainly well-researched, with a couple of dozen of pages of small-type footnotes supporting his arguments and assertions, and he includes a “selected bibliography” with over a hundred documents. If you wanted to have a “snapshot” of the solar industry today (it just came out a few weeks ago, so I'm guessing the info is as current as possible), this will give it to you. But … it's not exactly gripping. Perhaps tellingly, even though this is brand new, the on-line big boys have it at a substantial discount, and the new/used vendors have new copies going for about 10% of the cover price. If you are looking for an overview of the solar industry, this is the book for you … as it is an extensive look at pretty much all the types of operations in place in the US … but if you're looking for something to get excited about, maybe not.

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Tags: book review
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