Environmental Arithmetic with Dr. Harry Atwater Environmental Arithmetic with Dr. Harry Atwater
The Planet

Environmental Arithmetic with Dr. Harry Atwater

by Casey Caplowe

December 15, 2008
Last night, I had the good fortune of attending a Townhall Conversation on Sustainability we hosted here at GOOD. It featured the very smart panelists: Dr. Harry Atwater, director of Caltech's Center For Sustainable Energy Research, Steve Glenn, the founder and CEO of LivingHomes, Nate Hanson, a VP at FPL Energy (the world's largest provider of renewable energy incidentally), and Noah Long, a policy expert from the NRDC. We filmed the event and will make sure to get the video posted as soon as we finish that up. In the meantime, here's some pretty amazing stuff I learned from Dr. Harry Atwater, who has the fantastic ability to make the big and complex seem so simple:Atwater explained that the power needs of the entire U.S. could be met by solar panels filling a square approximately 100 miles on a side. This is 10,000 square miles-about the size of area between Phoenix to Tuscon.
While a fairly tiny speck in the overall dimensions of our country, this would obviously seem huge if you lived next to it. The good news is that we can distribute solar panels pretty much anywhere we want.
So, to understand the space requirements differently, Atwater suggested we think of our country's road system. Since the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, we've built around 46,800 miles of highways, and overall maintain around 879,000 miles of public roads. Imagine, he said, if we ran solar panels down the median strips and/or along the sides of all these roads.We'd soon be getting close to coverage we need to produce all our own energy from the sun. Atwater made sure to note this might not be technically the most feasible, or most efficient route to go, but it shows that with some clever thinking and simple arithmetic, we can break new ground on how we approach the problems in front of us.It's fun to imagine Ben Fry's map of all the roads in the country as one of all our solar panels as well.UPDATE: Changed "CalTech" to "Caltech." Thanks, anonymous.
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Environmental Arithmetic with Dr. Harry Atwater