6 Ways to Look at Renewable Energy Breakthroughs That Are Too Good To Be True

Sometimes it's easy to tell. | Photo: Pirate Johnny/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It's happening again: A new story promising huge amounts of energy from a "no brainer" invention has gone viral. Last month it was solar window sockets. This time, it's septuagenarian inventor Ron Ace and his solar traps that are attracting attention. How does a person keep up hope that we'll figure a way out of our climate mess without falling for what may well be bogus stories?

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The story that sparked the swelling social media interest, by McClatchy reporter Greg Gordon, is long on promise and ringing words:

A little-known Maryland inventor claims a stunning solar energy breakthrough that promises to end the planet's reliance on fossil fuels at a fraction of the current cost -- a transformation that also could blunt global warming.

Inventor Ronald Ace said that his flat-panel "Solar Traps," which can be mounted on rooftops or used in electric power plants, will shatter decades-old scientific and technological barriers that have stymied efforts to make solar energy a cheap, clean and reliable alternative.

"This is a fundamental scientific and environmental discovery," Ace said. "This invention can meet about 92 percent of the world's energy needs."

Read further into the article, though, and you learn that Ace's device exists only on paper, that it has not yet been vetted by his scientific peers, and that there's basically no description of the actual mechanism by which Ace's "solar traps" will work. The only real hint is in this short sentence by Gordon: "In his patent application, Ace wrote that his invention amounts to 'a high-temperature blackbody absorber' that is 'similar in some ways to an astronomical black hole.'"

Ace claims his breakthrough will allow harnessing of close to 100 percent of the solar energy falling on his "blackbody absorber," which if true could require a whole lot of laws of physics to get rewritten. Or maybe not. It's hard to tell, as there's absolutely no description past that StarTrek-style technobabble of how the solar traps might actually work.

Over at EarthTechling, ReWire's pal Pete Danko has saved us the work of analyzing Ace's claims in depth, and points out that this isn't the first time that Ace has offered to save the world with technology described in frustratingly vague terms.

McClatchy's Gordon doesn't do Ace any favors, following an attempt at skepticism:

Until Ace shares his secrets, produces a working prototype, licenses a major project or wins the blessing of a peer review panel, he may get little credence.

...with this remarkable pronouncement:

If Ace is making history, his invention may stand alongside the introduction of the steam engine 300 years ago that set the stage for the Industrial Revolution.

To be fair, without a more detailed description of the tech Ace has in mind, it's impossible to say that it won't work. That's kind of the whole point of publishing your results in a peer-reviewed journal: you allow others with the appropriate technical chops to pick your idea apart. Flaws are found, mistakes are corrected, good ideas are improved upon, and science and humanity advance.

But some bad ideas are hard to kill, especially if we really want them to be true. The promise of endless cheap energy from an amazing new breakthrough isn't a new one. We've heard one story after another from sources official and not over the decades, from the Atomic Energy Commission's 1950s promise of electricity "too cheap to meter" from nuclear power plants, to the old rumors about pills that turn water into gasoline that have been rigidly suppressed by the oil companies. Witness the current popularity of the idea that Nikola Tesla invented a way to provide broadcast electrical power free to all, a utopian sounding technology that has the minor drawback of not really working.

Ace's invention may prove to have some merit. We won't know until he lets dispassionate scientists who aren't his confidantes examine his ideas and share the results with us. But whether it's Ace or the next thing to come down the pike, we're likely to encounter a lot more great-sounding ideas that promise to save us all from human-induced climate change. And given how dire the threat of climate change is, we'll all want to believe a lot of them.

Some of these ideas, like that one student's solar "leaf" array or those other students' urine-powered generator will actually work, but won't offer real imprivements over existing technology. Others, like the solar window socket, are more along the lines of the gasoline pill you drop in the fueltank full of water: they can't possibly work.

And some, such as the graphene supercapacitor we reported on recently, may offer actual promise down the road someday.

How do you tell them apart? It's not always easy. But there are a few questions you can ask yourself that will help you sort out the hope from the hype.

1) How does it work? This is a tricky question, as scientific breakthroughs aren't always immediately accessible to the likes of you and me. And the coverage you read of an alleged breakthrough will often be shaped more by the journalist (or the university's Public Information Officer) than the researchers who did the work. Without a grounding in the sciences, a reader may have trouble distinguishing between technobabble and actual scientific description. But asking the question is the first step to understanding the claim, and a good journalist -- or university press release -- will offer links to peer-reviewed articles that will offer the typical reader far more explanation than they can possibly understand. (ReWire's eyes glaze over at pages of equations, for example.)

2) What are the obstacles? A good, hard-headed story on an actual real development will discus technical problems, social opposition, and other potential negatives for the technology in question.

3) Does this development offer the possibility of saving the world without my changing my lifestyle in any way? Particularly for those of us in the U.S. with our energy-profligate lifestyles, this is a seductive and probably illusory promise.

4) Does this development promise to completely alter society? Science works in increments. Solar panels become a percentage point more efficient at a time. Really big breakthroughs might offer bigger increments, like the above-mentioned supercapacitors cutting appliance charging times by 90 percent. There are certainly technological innovations, like the automobile, the internet, and nuclear weaponry, that have completely changed society. They're in the minority by a very large margin. Statements like Gordon's "steam engine" quote above should raise red flags.

5) Who made the breakthrough? It's certainly not impossible for a lone inventor to come up with a fantastic idea. There are brilliant lone inventors in the world. That said, there are many, many crackpots in the world as well, and they tend to be really persistent at self-promotion. The smart lone inventors get drowned out. While a development claimed by a team working with a university research lab isn't necessarily any more brilliant than one discovered in a basement by a latter-day Alexander Graham Bell, it stands a much better chance of having been fact-checked and argued against by its own promoters.

6) Who stands to profit? This question is related to the previous one, and it has to do with internal honesty. Ideally, the scientific method winnows out personal interest as an influence in announcing results. When a for-profit corporation announces an astonishing breakthrough in its product, that should add an additional level of skepticism to your reading. There are certainly good, honest, well-trained scientists working for corporations, no doubt. But the promise of sales, or of greater investment capital influx, or even of quelling political opposition to the company's continuing profit can exert a serious influence on the way in which facts are portrayed. A critical thinker should devote just as much skepticism to greenwashing claims regarding giant energy projects as she does to claims of new folding electric cars that fit in your pocket, run on air, and babysit your children.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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