Etam: Solar Power’s Massive Potential

As we slide inexorably into the clutches of Soviet-style cultural narrative control and thought prevention courtesy of ‘fact-checking’ institutions and their oddly subjective ‘fact books’, I offer the following conundrum […]
Published on October 17, 2023

As we slide inexorably into the clutches of Soviet-style cultural narrative control and thought prevention courtesy of ‘fact-checking’ institutions and their oddly subjective ‘fact books’, I offer the following conundrum as a hurled wrench into the cogs of the greasy gears of the thought police:

Solar power could soon become a wonderful thing for humanity.

As a heretical writer on an oil/gas centric website – most likely soon to be flagged by governmental decree and definition a writhing pit of misinformation or disinformation (take your pick – bill C-11 & spawn won’t split hairs) –  yes, I offer a ringing endorsement for solar power.

Not as a blanket solution of course; I may be heretical but I’m not insane. And not as an olive branch to those that think solar can become some kind of backbone of the electrical system. The enthusiasm herein for solar is in reference to the technology as a potential building block for a whole other aspect of civilization that is more desperately needed by a factor of ten than the current collective spastic heave that is our war on carbon emissions.

Solar power may prove to be an excellent solution to one of the world’s most considerable problems: a lack of potable water.

Water desalination from the sun is not exactly new technology, it likely has been around longer than the world’s oldest profession. (Hard to pin that point in history exactly but hey it gives context that perks up the ears of most people. Suffice it to say that solar distillation has been around for thousands of years.)

My inbox, spanning email and social media (looking at you Twitter) seems to be filled with one of two things these days – some modern form of prostitution (aw, look who started following me…wait a minute, is it necessary to show everyone that…) or something to do with renewable energy as a solution to emissions. Both have mastered the art of PR, both make shocking claims, both promise a good time for next to nothing, and both are going to get you in trouble.

However, out of that morass did actually appear some eye-catching information (not the porn – it might be an eyeful but it’s not information). A Saudi Arabian firm named Acwa Power is one of the many that peppers me with news releases, and one of them somehow stood out in the flow: Acwa Power announced the Hassyan sea water desalination plant that will use solar power to produce 180 million gallons of desalinated water, per day.

Big wild numbers are difficult to contextualize on their own, so here’s a visual: an Olympic sized swimming pool, 165 feet long and 56 feet wide, holds just under 500,000 US gallons. This Acwa Power project could fill 360 of them, every day.

Of even more significance is that the price of such desalination has been tumbling. In 1970, the cost for reverse osmosis desalinated water was about $5 per cubic meter. By 2005, the cost had fallen to about $1/m3. The Acwa Power project pegs the cost at $0.37. My recent City of Calgary water bill shows a water cost of $1.42/m3 which is about $1.03 US, or triple the price that Acwa is supplying water at.

Consider that falling cost structure along with Acwa’s total desalination capacity. The company can now produce 7.6 million cubic meters per day, or two billion gallons – enough to fill 4,000 Olympic size swimming pools, every day.

This is pretty fantastic news for humanity. It’s true that vast solar fields aren’t exactly environmentally friendly, but given that many regions short of water have vast tracts of marginally useful land (fly over much of the southwestern US and look out the window, for example) that might be a fantastic home for solar power if the trade off is to fill a bunch of swimming pools every day, or, who knows, maybe even grow some vegetables or irrigate some trees.

Imagine if in future vast pipelines are built from coastal areas inland, carrying enough water for cities in desperate need, all at low cost. Maybe the pipelines bring sea water inland for desalination, where vast stretches of nearly empty land could be utilized for solar desalination.

Solar could be utilized exactly as it works best – by providing a service not tied to the persistent timing demands of customers. Other fuels couldn’t touch it, assuming Acwa’s economics are sound elsewhere.

Such is the path forward for the ‘energy transition’; that is how we are going to make actual progress in utilization of renewable energy. In fact, the term ‘energy transition’ should probably be junked, because it has become so loaded and politicized that it is like a rusted out junk-heap smoking down the freeway.

We aren’t really transitioning away from any particular form of energy; several centuries after coal appeared as a major industrial fuel, the world now continues to set annual consumption records for the stuff. Same as oil. Same as natural gas.

You don’t have to be serious student, only half-interested will suffice, in energy history to quickly grasp the reason for the rise of coal, and what that cheap/easy fuel allowed humans to accomplish; to quickly grasp the significance of oil, and what it allowed humans to do; to quickly grasp the significance of natural gas as some sort of miraculous heating fuel that allowed mass settlement in very cold regions, that allowed manufacture of countless things…and on and on. Maybe solar power has found its niche where it can be of vast benefit to humanity.

In a nutshell, that’s the story of energy – the obvious massive potential of new developments that move humanity forward not in tiny steps but in large strides. But those strides don’t come about by abolishing the existing systems, unless the new technology is so vitally advanced that it renders obsolete any demand for the previous. Notice the nuance there; a transition happens by a draw to the new, not an abolition of the existing. The adoption of automobiles didn’t require the execution of horses.

Despite the airplay given to opponents in the media, there is no grand villainy in the energy world. The fact that every single person relies on hydrocarbons to the extent they do (which is fully and completely) is quite clearly the consequence of the utility of those fuels over time, not a nefarious scheme for world dominance by producers. In fact, if any technology could have supplanted large quantities of hydrocarbons, it would have been nuclear power – but many of the most fanatical anti-nuclear people are also anti-hydrocarbons (Greenpeace, for example), while I know very few oilpatch people that campaign against nuclear.

Every single consumer would prefer to have cheaper, cleaner energy, but not at the expense of reliability. No threat is more instinctually horrifying than the thought of running out of fuel when we need it most. Elements of the WEF crowd are even acknowledging this; Bill Gates recently pointed out that “If you try to do climate brute force, you will get people who say, ‘I like climate but I don’t want to bear that cost and reduce my standard of living.’ “ And that’s here in the west; in the developing world, the conversation is far more abrupt than that.

Any ‘energy transition’ has to be built around those cold hard realities. Governments need to stop trying to quash certain industries just because they’ve been led to believe that doing so is the path forward. It isn’t.

You might wonder whether this animosity towards hydrocarbons is more imagined than real. Consider this: Covering Climate Now is an affiliation of over 500 news outlets, organizations, professional howlers, and every group of rag-tag semi-employable grad students that has come together under the climate banner. The organization includes such media pillars as Reuters and Newsweek.

On their Projects page is a project called: Climate crimes – investigating “big oil’s complicity in the climate crisis and attempts to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable.”

Hmm. Ignoring the incredible mental deficiencies and dexterities required to refrain from cataloguing the benefits brought to humanity by hydrocarbons (that is, almost all of them), one has to wonder why they aren’t going after “Big Coal”. Is it because the developing world would, if in a good mood, throw them out on their ear?

We remain silent on this bullsh*t at our peril. Not just as an industry – the antics of these clowns will only make reserves more valuable when demand is obviously so high – but as humanity. It is the less well off, the non-Tesla drivers, that will take it on the chin when our existing hydrocarbon supply chain is pummeled into oblivion.

Please contrast their witch hunt with the fact that there is no issue with speaking on an oil and gas-centric website of the benefits of solar (and hydrogen, and nuclear, etc.) because those things aren’t the competition most make it out to be. Seven billion people are striving to live like the other billion, and the foundation upon which they will make progress is affordable, reliable energy.

Add in the west’s newfound fascination with AI, and data centers, and air conditioners, among many other power-sucking accoutrements, and it is clear that we need all forms of energy, in as much quantity as we can provide.

It is safe to take this idea one step further. Consider that the oil patch has a waste water problem; many oilfields have high water cuts, and that impure water incurs costs to transport and dispose. What if solar power could be harnessed to distill much of that waste water – the process could provide very valuable new potable water sources in the parched prairies, could lower transportation and disposal costs of waste water, and could reduce emissions associated with transportation, processing and disposal of all that waste water.

I would bet that the oil patch would wholeheartedly embrace the concept of utilizing solar energy long before the Guilbeaults of the world could embrace the value of natural gas and harness it to full potential.

It should be up to the wisdom of our leaders to remember the miracles of the division of labour, and apply it to energy. Not everyone in a village should be a boot maker; not every country should try to be master of all industries; and some forms of energy will work wonders in one area but not in another. Solar power is a decent supplement to a power grid, up to a very limited point, but might be a game-changer in the field of desalination. Find the best use for each niche. EVs might be fantastic city delivery vehicles/cabs/etc. but might never work in the cold rural heartland. So what? It’s not an issue at all, except that governments are having a phenomenally difficult time accepting the reality that blanket climate initiatives are doomed to fail, in a very painful way.

Sooner or later we will start coming to our senses policy-wise, but there are going to have to be some wake-up calls along the way before we get there.

 

Terry Etam is a columnist with the BOE Report, a leading energy industry newsletter based in Calgary.  He is the author of The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity.  You can watch his Policy on the Frontier session from May 5, 2022 here.

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