Aggie: I guess this is where we will have to agree to disagree. I'm not an engineer, but have spent the last three years studying our energy situation and from what I can see, we're quickly headed towards a giant cliff. One that if we don't make some major changes, that we are going to drive right off ala Thelma and Louise!
Climate change is for real and actually carry's with it the possibility of disrupting global food supplies which can lead to political unrest and mass starvation's. If you examine the worst case scenario, it might even be capable of leading to our extinction as a species.
Ocean Acidification is also a very real phenomina that has the potential for wiping us out or at least making things turn very ugly as people fight over food.
Lastly, there is Peak Oil, which as I pointed out above, nobody truly knows how close that we are to the 1/2 way point in consuming the world's economically available oil, but we do know that day will come eventually. And even if it's 100 years from now (I believe that we are there now, btw), our global energy demand is HUGE and totally intertwined with our food production system (see the example of the tomato that I gave above), so we need to start NOW in making the switch.
The question at this point becomes, "The switch to what?"
We've got nuclear energy, but the current light water reactors create a fair amount of waste that nobody seems to want to deal with and even if we were to find a safe place to store it, has to be transported to that/those facility(s). Plus, uranium is also a finite resource that to a large extent is controlled by countries that don't necessarily like us. Oh! There is also the fact that no matter how hard we try, we can't see to get a good handle on the whole safety thing in regards to these reactors and when they mess up, they mess up big!
Other nuclear technologies are close to being able to come on line, such as breeder reactors, as well as Thorium reactors, but we can't be sure when they will be available and what kinds of problems, such as the danger of nuclear proliferation and expense that they will bring with them.
And that leaves renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Now, as you pointed out, these sources come with some downsides of their own. The wind is fickle and the sun disappears over the horizon every night, as well as experiences cloudy days from time to time.
They are also, as you pointed out, not as energy dense as what we have become accustomed to. For the first time in human history we are faced with the prospect of moving from a higher density fuel source to a lower density fuel source and undeniably this fact leads us to some issues that need to be addressed before renewable energy can step up to become a major source of energy for our species.
The first step in addressing our energy future is to grab the low hanging fruit. That fruit is conservation. Now, I take a little bit of a different tack on this issue than most other "green" business people. I like my toys! I don't think that we have to do without in order to be responsible caretakers of our planet. But in order to do that we need to stop being out right wasteful! And right now, that's what we are being, wasteful! From our consumer packaging to the way that we get to work, we could make major strides in using energy more wisely without major disruption to our lives.
The second step would be utilizing renewable energy where we can to lessen our dependence upon fossil fuels. Solar Thermal technologies are wonderful examples of this. Aggie, while you say that solar energy isn't energy dense enough to make a major contribution, solar thermal is a case in point as to why you are wrong!
Each year approximately 8.2 quad-btus of solar energy hits the planet which is about 20,000 times the amount of energy that humans consume each year. While not all of this energy can be captured due to it hitting out of the way places such as the middle of the ocean, etc., most of this energy is wasted.
With a solar thermal system installed in the right set of circumstances, a company or a family can reduce it's consumption of fossil fuels by more than 60% (one could theortically replace 100%, but the payback period generally goes out too far for most people to consider it to be economically a viable option). Now, not every property or situation is suitable for a solar thermal system, but for the ones that are, the economic payback period can be less than 2 years!
So, while solar energy isn't as energy dense as fossil fuels, the fact that these systems can replace such a high percentage of fossil fuels being burned is proof that solar energy is energy dense enough to be usable. Earlier I teased you about putting your tongue to the wires coming out of a wind turbine if you didn't think that renewable energy was energy dense enough. Now, I would challenge you to take a shower that has the water heated via the sun. I'm willing to bet that you would mix in some cool water in order to make it bearable!
If you did nothing else other than install solar thermal systems in 1/2 of the homes and businesses where it made economic sense, we could shut down a good percentage of the coal fired power plants that are currently killing us!
Solar Photovoltaic (PV) is another way of harvesting power from renewables sources. I know that you don't think that solar is energy dense enough to make a major difference, but I have installed solar PV systems on to some modest sized homes and then watched the electric meter spin backwards! To those homeowner's, solar PV was definitely able to make a difference! One lady that I knew in California actually subsidized her mortgage payment by selling her excess electricity to SDG&E.
So again, here is proof that solar energy can displace fossil fuels and when you consider the number of roof tops that are indeed suitable for solar panels, we could displace all of our electrical generation needs in theory. Practically, we will always have a need for base load generation, but the fact that distributed generation "could" take on such loads is an indication that solar energy is and is going to only grow as a source of power for our society!
So, while I respect your training and experience, I think that you're dead wrong when you say that, "renewable energy won't amount to much in the energy mix". Will it be a hassle for you EE guys? Yeah, at first, but I'm confident that you are and will continue to rise to the occasion and make it work!
Bob "The Clean Energy Guy" Mitchell