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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Sense of Scale

On the left is a (modified) aerial of Kramer Junction (Google Earth link) solar electric generating station in Southern California; on the right is an aerial of Central Park (GE link, again) in Manhattan.


According to Nova's "Saved by the Sun," Kramer Junction powers approximately 150,000 homes, or the equivalent of just under two Central Parks at Manhattan's population density of 66,940 people per square mile. Or to put it another way, turning Central Park into a solar electric generating station, like Kramer Junction (assuming, magically, the same solar conditions as the Mojave Desert), would power approximately 8-10% of Manhattan's households. While I don't think this comparison deflates the solar potential, it helps illustrate the enormous areas required, with current technologies, to achieve a more suitable way of creating energy than burning fossil fuels. Of course, this comparison also ignores demand (what I see as a -- if not the -- key to the current energy "crisis"), in which case the 150,000 might actually increase in Manhattan's denser and more compact living conditions.


  1. the comparison also ignores the fact that these solar power generating station is located in a desert or remote area, not in a city and definitely not in a forest.

    Either we go nuclear or solar, burning coal and oil for energy is really bad for planet earth and the environment.


  2. Though the show was favoring the solar solution (with a brief mention of wind), don't forget geothermal & ocean wave energy are solutions too.

    Also, PV's are used in urban areas like Rafael Moneo who did a project using solar panels on the side of a bldg (featured on this blog). Also, as the show mentioned there were installations on the roof of a Whole Foods.

    Despite making the guy who was critical about the governments lack of involvment out to be the token critical voice, the show conspicuously slipped past the question altogether. Why hasn't the US done more, (he innocently asked)? I think we all know the answer to this one. There was also a subtle "oh, it's just technology that's holding us back" sort of attitude.

  3. I think we should just stop dilly dallying and go for the Dyson Sphere. Make no small plans!

  4. i am not sure i get the point. is it that solar takes up space so is not feasible? let's not forget all the roof space available in every city on this planet.

    out of curiosity how large is a coal fired plant or a hydro plant? my guess is they are even larger.

    my suspicion is that the real issue we are facing is cost. wihtout government involvement as in germany, the market has a hard time competing. that example of the pv on the roof of a supermarket seems great, but if there were really money in it many more people would be doing it. investors are not stupid, nor are they biased against non-traditional energy sources. but they are cautious. few serious energy specialists are silly enough to forget that in the energy markets it is usually the early-bird who loses his fortune (historically that was the case) i am guessing it is more a matter fo time and more people trying lots of different things that will eventually lead to a significant change in our energy production patterns. that is the way the market works, and apparently the us govt thinks that is fine. too bad, eh.

  5. just read that Iraq + Afghanistan will cost the US 2.4 trillion by 2017. Imagine (Lennon reference intentional) a world where 2.4 trillion was invested in alternative energies. Heck! Even half that amount and a lesser deficit would be a bold step.

  6. Echoing the sentiment of a previous comment: the more useful comparison seems like "if we put solar panels on the roof of every building in New York City, how much of NYC would they power?" Or, more to the point, "would they power the building they top"? Throw in panels down the sides of buildings (windows overrated), and you could certainly cover the need.

  7. Calvin - Yes, the comparison ignores location, though that was addressed by my "magical conditions" comment. Regardless, I don't think the solution is simply a matter of switching resources, though I would always lean towards renewable ones versus finite ones.

    anon - I must admit I came into the show late, so missed most of it, so you comment is helpful. The project I think you're talking about is by Pugh+Scarpa and not Moneo, the Colorado Court apartments in Santa Monica, featured on my weekly page four years ago. To now consider location, using the sides of buildings in New York City is not as beneficial as Santa Monica. It would make a statement to be sure, but it would be surfaces mostly likely in shadow by nearby buildings and a lot of money for little return.

    sideofwisdom - Why stop at the Sphere?

    will - I'm not making any assertions as to feasibility, rather I'm just showing the coverage required in what can be considered ideal conditions to power a small city or large suburb, in relation to the largest city in the United States. It's open to interpretation, and your comments on the sizes of fossil-fueled power plants (I'll try to find a similarly-scaled image to compare) and roof space being used for solar are really good ones. Of course, roofs in Manhattan would face the same restrictions as facades, mentioned in my response to anon above, and large solar plants would face the same NIMBY response as other plants; even wind farms are facing the same opposition, as is the case of one off the shore of Long Island that was stopped by residents who don't want their view spoiled. But what I take from your comment is the value of power sources at a variety of scales, from large plants to small, residential units, ultimately working together in some manner. And while I'm a bit uneducated on the matter, the thought of the market dictating energy production seems a bit misguided, though I don't see any US-gov't intervention, a la Germany, any time in the near future.

    SteveO - I had a dream where GW Bush completely re-oriented the US economy from war-spending to making the country sustainable (for lack of a better term), making the US an example for the world and the growing number of developing nations that follow this country's lead, for better or worse...and in most cases both.

    anon - My half-educated response to that question (from working on a LEED building in NYC that wished to do such a thing) is no. The coverage required to power lights, HVAC, water, and outlets would be much greater than the roof surface, and using them on the facade is more a statement than a practical application in the city. What typically happens is solar panels are used for one use, be it hot water, or lighting a certain zone of the building.

    What these comments make me think about is the importance of architectural and urban design in lessening the energy required to, say, heat and cool a building, or power lights. For the scale of the solar required to replace a fossil fuel source, it's not just a matter of one replacing the other; it must be combined with decreased demand via good architecture, low-energy appliances and fixtures, and people aware of their role in this energy spectrum.

  8. I think the comparison shows that solutions for energy need to be social changes as well. Centralized Solar Production looks like a failure if you try to apply it like a power plant, but imagine a subdivision in Orange county where every house is covered by PV and each neighborhood or community has its own mini grid.

    Centralized power, water and sewage treatment is as big a part of the problem as the funding!

    Near rant over.

  9. Manhattan’s density is unusual, so it may not offer a particularly useful perspective on whether solar power is viable. Does New York use the same amount of power as other urban areas? If not, then it would be more helpful to describe the relationship between the space used to generate solar electricity and the amount of power used by a community that is representative of national norms. Rather than offering the Central Park – Manhattan contrast, why not do the same for Central Park – Cleveland or St. Louis or Phoenix? We need to understand the relationship between a solar generation station and median density American cities or suburbs.

    New York City does not often represent a logical or accurate point of comparison to the rest of the United States. Because the comparison is inapt, so too are any conclusions drawn from it.


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