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Mathematics is Focus of Two Grants C A M P U S C U R R E N T

Harmonizing Solar with Power Grid, Wildlife NELSON SERIES, POWERING THE PLANET–SUSTAINABLY

Solar energy is good for the environment —except when it jeopardizes the habitats of endangered animals, as some fear is happening in desert regions where massive facilities are being built. Economist Nancy E. Ryan, a member of

the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and that body’s Smart Grid policy development leader, was the bearer of this vexing news at the Oct. 29 Bruce J. Nelson ’74 Distinguished Speaker Series.

Wildlife placed at risk According to Ryan, a worry underlying the construction of solar electric-generating plants in California and elsewhere is the potential of these facilities to harm wildlife. “There are critters, some of which are endangered or threatened, that live in the same places that solar energy resources are the best,” she said. Ryan—appointed to her CPUC post in January after serving as the commission’s deputy

Nancy E. Ryan

executive director for policy and external relations—explained that a typical 500-megawatt combined-cycle gas-turbine plant has a footprint of about 30 to 80 acres, while, in contrast, a 500-megawatt solar-thermal plant takes up five to eight square miles. “You could put a lot of critters in [an area that size],” she lamented, mentioning specifically

the at-risk desert tortoise, San Joaquin kit fox, Mojave ground squirrel, Peninsular bighorn sheep, and kangaroo rat. “Somehow, we have to figure out how to get solar energy out of the desert while living in harmony with the various critters that were there first. This has been a big challenge, so far.”

Daunting process Ryan shed light on the business climate for solar energy, in particular, California’s top-down policies designed to spark demand for photovoltaic power. As a result of those efforts, California currently leads the U.S. in clean-energy innovation, with

solar technological advancement making big strides, Ryan said. “In the last two years, the solar component [of the state’s renewable energy sector] has just exploded. It really is the future.” But Ryan also sounded a few cautionary notes. For one, even though solar power is about as green

as green gets, generating-plant operators still face plenty of red tape in seeking permission to build. There is relief in view, though. Ryan said key government agencies have taken steps of late

to accelerate permit approvals for prospective projects. “Mostly over the course of the last few months, the [California] Energy Commission alone has permitted seven solar-thermal plants for a total of 3,543 megawatts,” she said, adding that federal stimulus funds are being applied to these ventures to help lower their start-up costs. While there are no easy answers, Ryan expressed confidence that solutions will be found—and

that it will be HMC-trained innovators who show the way. “[They will provide] the intellectual firepower to perpetuate this revolution and keep California at the forefront in terms of both policy and technology.”

Find talk synopses and videos at F A L L /WI N T E R 2 0 1 0 H a r v e y Mu d d C o l l e g e 5 – Rich Smith Bill Gross P08

On transitioning to solar energy solutions: “We really have to do it sooner because there will be big fights over resources if we don’t do it in two or three years. Basically, all of a sudden there’s going to be a rapid acceleration in the use of natural resources once the recession ends...and there will be big resource wars. You’re already seeing resource wars between China and Japan to go into cell phones, and cell phone demand is big, but it’s not as big as our energy demand.”

“How Renewable Energy Can Beat Fossil Fuels”

Bill Gross P08, founder and CEO of Idealab, chairman and former CEO of eSolar

C o l l e g e N e w s

NOTES & QUOTES from the Nelson Series

clean coal, or use nuclear power in a proliferation-safe way on a mas- sive scale, or to use the biggest energy source we have [the sun]. But it’s got to be really cheap and we better store it or we don’t have much. From a technical point of view, there’s nothing stopping us.”

“The only three big cards we really have are to sequester that CO2


“Where in the World Will Our Energy Come From?”

Nathan Lewis, George L. Argyros Professor of Chemistry, California Institute of Technology and chair of the Editorial Board for Energy and Environmental Science



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