State of the State of the Union's science

In this handy video, a team of editors from Scientific American offers some context and outside perspective on all the science that was name-dropped in the State of the Union address Tuesday.

One key reference: The promise that, with work, we could get 80% of our energy from clean sources by 2035.

The Scientific American editors point that, according to an article which ran in their magazine 2009, this idea is plausible. But I think they're being a little misleading. The 2009 article, after all, is looking at whether it is technically possible to construct and site enough wind, solar, and water power to supply all the world's electricity needs by 2050. But it's only really talking about whether enough sites exist, and whether we have the materials to construct the generators, themselves.

One thing that story doesn't address: NIMBYism—something that would affect not only how many of those needed wind farms, solar panels, and hydro power stations are actually built, but whether we could build the transmission lines necessary to carry power to the people. Historically, that's been a big, fat, hairy deal. Not only does it slow construction on these kind of projects, it makes them prohibitively expensive.

The second big problem: That 2009 article glosses over difficulties involved with re-configuring the electric grid. This is also a serious issue. Currently, our electricity system doesn't involve storage. Electricity has to be used as it's made, and made as it's needed. Combine that fact with variable renewable generation—which isn't always available when you want it, and is often available when you don't need it—and you've got issues. Scientists say that we can get somewhere between 20%-to-30% of our electricity from sources like wind and solar before we'll need a lot of storage, a lot more controllable connections criss-crossing towns and states, or (more likely) both. There are ways of pushing that cutoff line a little higher, but we won't get to 80% without some serious investment, technology development, and work—of the sort that doesn't realistically happen in just 15 years.

Now, I'm not saying that big improvements aren't possible. Or that we couldn't reach 80% eventually. But I've spent the past year researching a book about the future of energy. Based on what I've learned, I'm very, very skeptical of 80% clean energy by 2035. I could be wrong here, though. So I'm going to check around, and report back to you all, hopefully next month. In the meantime, keep two things in mind:

• There's a longer lag time between laboratory discoveries and commercial feasibility than you probably think.

• Changing the way we make energy will involve more than just building new electric generators.