Our options for solving the growing energy dilemma confronting modern civilization seem to fall into two basic categories: we already have the clean technology to meet our energy needs if we just had the political will to utilize them; and we don't yet have the necessary clean technology to meet these needs so we better start inventing them as fast as possible.
The first option calls for conservation, greater efficiencies in vehicles, lighting and appliances, the capture and utilization of wasted heat, the massive and rapid utilization of renewable energies such as wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and hydro -- some serious environmentalists even concede that nuclear is a better option than emitting more carbon dioxide. The dual problem of finding more energy while converting to clean energy can be solved by expanding and refining our existing low carbon technologies. This option is held by optimists, those who believe a concerted and heroic effort by individuals, corporations and governments can accomplish this challenging task.
The second option calls for research, huge expenditures of effort, ingenuity and money to find efficient and clean ways of producing and storing the astronomical amount of clean energy needed to run our modern civilization. Such a trust in the saving grace of future technologies suggests that we continue at our present rate of economic expansion while relying on newly invented systems to rapidly replace the old ones.
This option is also held by optimists because they, too, believe that human cleverness can get us out of the fix we have created for ourselves.
The issue is not academic. It is strategic and critical. The scientific consensus is that if we do not cut greenhouse gas emissions to halt and then reduce the rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, then we will reach levels of global warming that will be "catastrophic". This is a word that experts are now using commonly to describe the ecological consequences of global temperature increases of 2°C, 4°C or 6°C caused by reaching atmospheric CO2 levels of 450 or 600 parts per million.
With our present population of nearly seven billion, this means cutting fossil fuel emissions 80 per cent by 2050. But, with a world population expected to increase nearly 50 per cent by mid -century -- 9,000 people per hour, 80 million per year -- this means that emission reductions will have to be correspondingly higher. The challenge is staggering.
An energy chemist at the California Institute of Technology, Nate Lewis, calculates that even slow worldwide economic growth of 1.6 per cent per year and dramatic increases in efficiencies of 500 per cent above present levels will still create a doubling of our energy needs by 2050. If we are to meet the 80 per cent reduction target by then, nearly twice the total energy we produce today will have to be zero carbon (Newsweek, Mar 23/09).
Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal in 2006 provided merely 1.4 per cent of our present global needs, according to Lewis's calculations -- this amount has probably doubled in the last two years. Nuclear power provided 6.4 per cent. For nuclear to provide about half our energy needs by 2050, we would have to build 10,000 new reactors by then, or two every three days for the next 41 years.
Capturing one-fifth of the world's wind energy to provide just 10 per cent of our energy needs would require one million state-of-the-art turbines, plus some kind of efficient electrical storage system -- a system we still don't have. To get one-third of our energy needs from solar, according to Lewis, we would have to cover one million roofs with panels every day until 2050.
These statistics outline the staggering challenge we are confronting, the sobering task of trying to reconcile a rising population with increasing energy demands against the catastrophic consequences of emitting further amounts of carbon dioxide into an atmosphere to which we have already added too much of the stuff.
Given the threatening consequences and our limited options, the best strategy would seem to be vigorous conservation, the enthusiastic utilization of all present renewable energy sources, and a frantic search for new technologies that would both save energy and produce it.
We need smart electrical grids that will distribute power from multiple, diverse and intermittent energy sources. We need to convert primary transmission lines from alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC), a change that would reduce long-distance power loss by nearly half. We also need a new family of superconductors that can be made into wires.
So we need massive research, liberally funded by governments and made economically enticing to corporations by generous tax concessions.
This research should have two primary objectives. The first should be to specifically target energy issues -- anything that will create clean supplies and increase efficiencies. The second should be pure research -- Canada's Perimeter Institute is an example -- in the hope that someone might stumble upon a discovery with revolutionary energy applications.
The odds are against a winning discovery but the laser, transistor and nuclear energy were inadvertently found by this kind of serious play.
Maybe chemical fusion, superconductors, cheap hydrogen or ingenious methods of electrical storage await just over the horizon of our imaginations. In this age of hurried time and pressing urgency, we have a long way to go and a short time to get there.