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Powering the Future
AUGUST 2005
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In some cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.
Photograph by Suzanne Chisholm



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Powering the Future






    If you have any geek blood, alternative energy is a kick. 
    For me the best part of this story was how much it reminded me of putting together computers back when they were a pain too.
    I assembled my first computers in the late '70s. Ants shorted out a motherboard. A document took 15 minutes to save—on a cassette recorder. My first floppy disk held 41k. And the costs! I remember buying one megabyte of memory. The guy went away like a wine salesman disappearing into his finest cellar. He came out gingerly carrying a long tube with chips in it. "Six hundred dollars," he said. Ouch!
    It feels like that when you buy a solar panel these days, and there's no question that installing them on your home—as I did in the process of working on this story—is a hassle. After talking to battery gurus, for instance, I learned that keeping a big bank of batteries happy is more a matter of incantation than science. You find out that nobody has it all figured out. It hurts, but if you've been down that road before, it's also very exciting.
    Research for a wide-ranging story involves following far more leads than you'll use. But you don't know until later which parts are most important. So I went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to meet a man who is developing a mirrored dish that focuses sunlight to generate electricity.
He was a patient guy. He didn't even mention it when I was an hour late after forgetting about the time change between California and New Mexico. And his dish was impressive. I used up his day talking about it. I liked him, but when it came to writing the story, I cut him out. 
    The demands of putting an honest, accurate story together are ruthless. The writer must give space to the most important stuff and nothing else. There's no room to reward someone's patience or to repay friendship. The integrity of the story always wins. It must, or we fail National Geographic, the readers, and ourselves. 
    So, because my research showed that, at present, photovoltaic cells—not dishes—lead the solar revolution, I cut out the guy who had given me his patience.
    This happens every story. It's a price you pay for accurate, focused articles. But, personally, it's the worst.
     I'm a sucker for weird machinery, but some things are weirder than others. I was at a Danish company that makes blades for wind turbines. I'd come to see one of the largest in the world. It was 200 feet (62 meters) long, about equal to the wingspan of a Boeing 747. A photo of this blade is in the article; believe me, it's even more impressive when you're beside it.
    The engineering of blades is well established, but they still must be tested. In order to flex blades the way turbulent winds might, the company has a long building in which electric motors are attached to a test blade at points along its length. When they start, each yanks rhythmically up or down on the blade.
    I went into the building. The blade was going nuts. It was flapping around like a huge, disembodied whale flipper.
    I couldn't take my eyes off it. All this energetic waving gave the blade personality. It had a sense of rhythm, a flippant charm, a sort of eagerness and zest for the job. "Lemme get out there," it seemed to be saying, "I'm ready! I'm ready! Gimme some wind!"
    That blade was just plain enthusiastic. That's definitely weird.
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