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100 Miles of Mirrors

A simple, feasible plan for averting global climatic disaster.

BY Alex Carlin

Is the world on track to avoid climatic catastrophe? No. But a straightforward, actionable plan to replace coal by 2030 does exist.

As world leaders and delegations prepare to meet in Copenhagen for the two-week UN Climate Change conference beginning Monday, it’s worth asking two basic questions: How bad is global warming? And is the world on track to fix it?

To answer the first question: it’s more than just bad. It’s bleak. According to James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, we must stop burning coal to generate electricity by 2030. If we don’t, the West Antarctic ice shelf will melt with unstoppable momentum (PDF link), raising sea levels by over 25 feet within a century, and perhaps sooner.

Rises of that size spell doom for many island nations and American coastal cities, including Miami and New York. (Other scientists predict smaller rises, but a rise of only 5 feet would submerge huge swaths of the United States, including southern Louisiana and Florida.)

So, is the world on track to alter this trajectory? No. But a straightforward, actionable plan to replace coal by 2030 does exist: “100 Miles of Mirrors.”

By building 100 miles by 100 miles of solar thermal power in each of the planet’s key coal-burning economies–the U.S., Europe, China and India–we can replace coal-burning enough to give our coastal cities a chance to survive. Hence the plan’s slogan.

Now, these “mirrors” are not the same solar panels on your roof. Sunlight, reflected by rows of mirrors, concentrates heat onto tubes of water or oil. The resulting steam powers traditional electricity-generating turbines. Molten salt stores the excess heat, which is used at night or when the sun is obscured, allowing full power generation around the clock.

These desert solar plants would do everything a coal-burning plant does–but without the harmful byproducts that are overheating our planet. And because of the “low-tech” nature of the operation, the facilities can be built out in two to four years. In other words, we already understand the technology and know how to implement it; no scientific breakthroughs necessary.

The national advocacy organization Environment America confirms that the entire U.S. electric grid could be powered by an area measuring 100 by 100 miles (or 10,000 square miles)–space readily available in the uninhabited desert of the southwest.

That’s it: 100 miles of mirrors can get the United States to kick its coal habit by 2030. Meanwhile, both India and the western desert of China (PDF link) present ideal solar thermal conditions, while a small portion of the Sahara desert could generate and transmit enough power to supply all of Europe.

Financing this is feasible. A conservative estimate based on data from the 2008 U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook puts the cost at $4.5 trillion, or $225 billion per year for 20 years. However, by going solar we save money otherwise spent on fossil fuels during that same 20-year period, a savings of $75 billion per year. This lowers the overall price tag to $3 trillion, a cost comparable to the total price of the Iraq War. That cost is only about one-third of the defense department’s projected budget during the same period, and is less than half the bill for the current Wall Street bailout ($8 trillion).

Moreover, private investors and businesses would likely finance a large portion of the facility construction, not our tax dollars. And once built, maintenance and operation costs would remain low because mining solar power is free. Forever.

Yes, replacing coal by 2030 seems impossible. No specific plan to solve climatic catastrophe emerged from the UN Climate Change Summit in New York City this past September and the Copenhagen conference has no plan to replace coal by 2030.

Furthermore, some proposed solutions, like Al Gore’s commendable “Repower America” campaign, are too complex to take off. Others just don’t do the math, calling for targets that would fall disastrously short of solving the actual problem.

No doubt, diffuse and mind-numbing strategies keep us in the slow lane of change. It’s time to get up to speed with a feasible plan simple enough to spread by word-of-mouth. The goal is to create enough public clamor to force leaders–like President Barack Obama –to act in time.

The collective political vision and determination necessary for a climate solution will only be summoned by a plan regular people can understand, discuss and support–a plan with a catchy title that serves as both a catalyst and a call to action.

“100 Miles of Mirrors” can power this planet, replace coal by 2030, and save our cities. Other renewables and efficiency measures will surely contribute as well, but the time has arrived to focus on a plan that gets us off coal before it’s too late.

Are you willing to lose New York and Miami?

Alex Carlin serves as a Director of The Leo J. and Celia Carlin Fund. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, he lives in Krakow, Poland.

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