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Solar Power: The Next Generation

Offline Diary: An old way of turning sunlight into electricity reinvents itself in California.
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Conceived by the ancient Greeks, refined by Leonardo da Vinci and successfully tested a century ago, solar thermal energy hardly qualifies as a cutting-edge concept. But given the current concern about climate change, a growing number of scientists, government officials and entrepreneurs are focusing on the ancient but ever-evolving technology, a potential source of clean, renewable energy (see "Did Archimedes Solve Our Energy Crisis?").

Not to be confused with photovoltaic cells, which directly convert light into electricity, the relatively simple solar thermal process uses concentrated sunlight to heat liquid and make steam, which drives a turbine. Energy suppliers that specialize in this method reached agreement with two major California utilities this spring, meaning the sun could be powering seaside sushi bars, yoga studios and, yes, tanning salons within three years.

In April, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric contracted with BrightSource Energy Inc. to supply power it plans to generate at three plants in the sun-drenched California desert. In June, Southern California Edison announced a similar agreement with eSolar Inc. to buy power from solar thermal facilities to be built in the Antelope Valley, north of Los Angeles. Both suppliers expect their first plants to be operational in 2011.

Traditional energy sources won't be eclipsed anytime soon. Edison and eSolar are talking about generating 245 megawatts (enough to provide electricity to 160,000 homes), while PG&E and BrightSource have agreed on 500 megawatts, with an option for another 400. But the potential for growth is astronomical. One telling sign: Forward-thinking, cash-rich Google has invested in both suppliers.

The power companies are particularly excited because these solar thermal plants will produce their peak output on hot summer afternoons — precisely when the demand for electricity is greatest. So if August afternoon blackouts and brownouts become history, sun-worshipping Californians will have even more reason to venerate their favorite celestial orb.

Creative Devolution

As a rule, creationists don't care for Charles Darwin's concept of survival through adaptation to a changing environment. They have, however, embodied that behavior in their ongoing struggle to include alternatives to evolutionary theory in public-school curricula. Having enjoyed only limited success promoting "intelligent design" theory, which critics call a back-door way of inserting Bible-based beliefs into science classrooms, they are now lobbying for "academic freedom" bills in a number of state legislatures (see "Legislating Uncertainty: An Evolving Strategy"). These bills purport to protect teachers who present the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolutionary theory to their students.

They have now taken that argument to a potentially influential arena: the State Board of Education in Texas. For the first time in 11 years, that board is preparing to update its standards for teaching science, with a draft report scheduled to be completed by November and a final vote set for March 2009. The notion of teaching evolution's "strengths and weaknesses" has been a part of the Texas curriculum since the 1980s, but creationists on the board have not had the clout to mandate a change in textbook language to more fully reflect what they consider its weaknesses. Their influence has grown gradually, however, to the point where seven of the 15 members are now "intelligent design" adherents.

Biologists and some educators fear that if that bloc becomes a majority, it could force the hand of textbook publishers, who will feel compelled to include more anti-evolution language in their material. And because publishers tend to reflect the wishes of the largest states — which are, after all, their largest customers — students all over the country may be stuck with textbooks that present a less-than-scientifically-sound explanation of Darwin's concepts.

Good Bill of Health

The plight of the 47 million Americans who lack health insurance has been debated at headache-inducing length in this year's presidential campaign. But it is on the state level that creative approaches to the problem are being tested (see "A Prognosis on Mandates and Guarantees"). The highest-profile experiment is taking place in Massachusetts, which implemented a complex mix of health care carrots and sticks in 2006. Residents are required to buy health insurance, with subsidized coverage available to the poor on a sliding scale. Employers are given tax incentives to provide coverage to their employees; individuals who do not have access to group coverage and fail to buy it on their own face modest tax penalties.

The first major study of the program, published in the June issue of the journal Health Affairs, reports it is "by and large quite successful," according to author Sharon K. Long of the Urban Institute. The number of Massachusetts adults without health coverage fell from 13 to 7 percent within one year of the law taking effect. Among lower-income households, the percentage of uninsured adults dropped even more steeply. The number of poor people who received preventative care increased from 65 percent the year before the program took effect to 70 percent during its first year of operation.

The prognosis was not entirely positive, though. A number of people reported having trouble finding doctors or making timely appointments, apparently because of the increased demand for medical services. And the amount of state money set aside for subsidies fell about $150 million short of what was actually needed. State legislative leaders are spending part of the summer attempting to craft a meaningful cost-containment program, and there is talk of higher co-payments. Nevertheless, Massachusetts has made significant progress toward universal coverage. If you live in another state, feel free to take a seat in the waiting room — until, perhaps, Jan. 20, 2009.

Ghost Vote in the Machine

The fear that electronic voting machines could malfunction or be tampered with was once confined to the conspiratorially minded. No longer (see "Faulty Machines Ready to Count Your Vote"). Last year, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified most of the state's touch-screen voting machines after computer-science experts from the University of California, Berkeley and UC Davis detected security flaws that hackers could utilize to change vote counts.

In May, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Utah Sen. Bob Bennett announced agreement on bipartisan legislation that will require electronic voting systems used in federal elections to produce some sort of verifiable trail, either paper or electronic. Their proposal, which will be introduced in Congress this summer, also mandates the establishment of stringent rules for audits of touch-screen machines.

If you doubt a computer error could change the outcome of an election, consider the strange results of May's primary for Arkansas' House District 45. In double-checking the results of that extremely close contest, the Faulkner County Election Commission discovered one machine somehow caused votes cast in an entirely different race — for Cadron Township Constable — to be "dropped into" the District 45 totals. When the error was detected and the votes were recounted, candidate Terry Fiddler lost a net 45 votes — enough to make his opponent Linda Tyler the victor by a vote of 792 to 764.

Fiddler conceded defeat but expressed dismay over the error and concern for the future. "This was a 1,500-person turnout," he noted. "What's going to happen in November when there's a presidential race and a 20,000 turnout?"

Offline Diary contextualizes and expands on stories posted to, where comments, complaints and questions are not just welcome but mandated by Congress.

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