Global environmental challenges
A rocket man’s view of solar energy
After nearly 25 years in the computer science and aerospace industries, including a stint at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Doug Caldwell decided to pursue a career-long dream of putting his engineering skills to use for the environment. So the Southern California native left his own start-up, a company that builds cameras for spacecraft launch systems, to explore his options.
He didn’t have to look far, or for very long. Within months Caldwell had landed work on a solar power development project, recruited by an old buddy from his days launching model rockets in the desert. Perhaps more ironic is the company he ended up working for — Boeing Co.
Two years later, Caldwell, 47, is chief engineer of the project, which employs about 60 people in a $45 million endeavor to design a new type of photovoltaic solar technology for what would be a 20-megawatt power plant.
One thing he has learned from the experience is that renewable energy development is more of a dollars-and-cents proposition than building rockets. “It’s not about engineering. It’s about business and finance,” Caldwell says.
While space science is largely mission-driven, albeit within the confines of a budget, the paramount concern for clean energy is making it cost-effective and achieving a reasonable return on one’s investment. Moreover, he says, the history of U.S. energy development, and how closely it’s tied to the economy, will make the nation’s transition to cleaner energy especially tough.
Americans, he says, are “spoiled” by cheap energy prices that fail to account for the true costs of environmental damage wrought by extracting and burning fossil fuels, or the national security implications of maintaining access to foreign oil.
“Everybody wants to be green, but no one wants to pay for it,” he says. With sizable investments required to transform the energy sector, the development of low-carbon alternatives is going to be “very dependent on public sector incentives.”
Boeing’s solar project is a case in point; the aerospace giant dipped its toe into energy with the help of a matching grant from the U.S. Energy Department. But Caldwell says the company already is looking for an exit, deciding when the economy faltered to concentrate on its core business. He says Boeing executives now see little point investing in a power plant that will take a year or two to build, then generate in one year the amount of revenue, about $100 million, that an aircraft product line can churn out in less than a day.
That means Caldwell will soon be looking for another job. But that’s OK with him. He’s more interested in “smart” power grid technology and developing small-scale photovoltaic cells for urban rooftops, rather than sprawling solar farms that “require despoilment of large tracts of the desert.”
“I have a real problem with the idea that we’re going to save the planet by scraping large tracts of pristine land. I see that as fundamentally no different than lopping off a mountaintop for extracting coal.”
Caldwell also says the nation stands to gain more bang for its buck by investing in greater energy conservation, such as home weatherization and retrofits. But he acknowledges that solar power, while costly to produce and install, still has a special appeal.
“It’s very visible. If I put solar on my rooftop, I get to point at it and say, ‘Look what I did.’ And solar panels have that patina of being high tech,” he said. “If I insulate the roof or the attic, I don’t get to point to it, and it looks dreadfully low tech… It’s nothing more than a guy with a big hose blowing stuff in your attic.”
Spoken like a true rocket man.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Ho New ( An array of solar panels at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada)