Karl-Friedrich Lenz's Reviews > SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes And Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance

SuperFreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt
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Jul 30, 12

bookshelves: global-warming
Read in July, 2012

I bought this because a Google search with "solar panel" and "albedo" brought up a page discussing this book.

I liked reading most of it. The book basically is a collection of stories, which makes for easy reading. And most of them make sense to me.

That is not true for all their points in the chapter on global warming, which was the reason I bought the book in the first place.

At location 2898, they city Nathan Myhrvold with an interesting anti-solar talking point I haven't heard before. Myhrvold points out that solar panels are black, since they are designed to absorb light. And they only convert 12 percent of the energy to electricity, radiating the rest back as heat. So solar panels make global warming worse.

That's an interesting point. And the first thing one should actually do after hearing it is make sure that all other parts of the system (like frames) are painted white. One might also contemplate adding some kind of white sheet in all the spaces between the solar panels, if that can be done at reasonable cost.

Another thing would be to deploy more solar panels over water, especially oceans. Water absorbs 80 percent of energy; melting the Arctic ice will work as a feedback mainly because of that. If the area used has unfavorable albedo to begin with, adding solar panels won't change much. If you have white platforms for floating the solar panels, it might on balance actually be an improvement over open sea.

Yet another point would be that, yes, solar panels have unfavorable albedo, but mirrors don't. So this might be another advantage of concentrated solar power (besides the ability to deploy electricity any time the operator chooses, as opposed to only when there is sunshine).

Also, for albedo changes to make any measurable difference, a massive amount of solar panels would need to get installed first. The Earth has a surface of about 510,072,000 square kilometers (Wikipedia). Desertec is talking now about using 2,500 square kilometers of desert area for powering 17% of Europe's energy requirements (http://www.desertec.org/concept/quest...). Obviously, that kind of area use even for a very large project won't change much in the big albedo picture.

Myhrvold also pioneers dismissing wind and solar as "cute" (at location 2886), something found in similar language from Bill Gates later on (http://k.lenz.name/LB/?p=3802). He thinks it doesn't scale to a sufficient degree.

We'll see about that in the coming decades. Once solar beats coal on price, it will scale even faster than it is already. And there is no inherent limit.


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