Powering the Planet

by Richard T. Stuebi

“Powering the Planet” is the title of an extraordinary speech that is regularly given by Nate Lewis, Professor of Chemistry at CalTech. It is a bit long and detailed, but very much worth reading, as it elegantly frames the scale of the worldwide energy/environmental challenges to be faced in the coming decades.

The gist of the presentation is that aggressive pursuit of energy efficiency is critical — but we still need to supply the remaining human energy requirement in some carbon-free fashion, which leaves us relatively few viable options:

  • Nuclear power, which concerns Lewis not for safety/security reasons but because of inability to expand nuclear utilization quickly/sufficiently to meet the world’s needs
  • Carbon sequestration of fossil fuel burning, which Lewis says may not be available in time or at the volumes necessary to have significant beneficial impact on climate change
  • Hydro, geothermal, wind and ocean energy, which are all fine in Lewis’ view, but inadequate in scope to supply global energy demands
  • Bio-based energy, which Lewis finds to be highly inefficient and therefore unlikely to be able to provide more than a small fraction of worldwide energy requirements

This leaves solar energy, which Lewis concludes is the best hope for the planet — technologically known to work, scalable with no binding supply limitations, at potentially reasonable economics with continued advancement. Then Lewis closes with the clincher: if we’re going to succeed with solar energy, our priorities need to change:

“In the United States, we spend $28 billion on health, but only about $28 million on basic solar research. Currently, we spend more money buying gas at the pump in one hour than we spend funding basic solar research in our country over an entire year. Yet, in that same hour, more energy from the sun is hitting the Earth than all of the energy consumed on our planet in that year. The same cannot be said of any other energy source.”

‘Nuf sed.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

2 replies
  1. Bill Womble
    Bill Womble says:

    May I suggest a certain rush to judgment as to the feasibility of solar energy to fulfill global needs.In your consideration of possibilities, you seem to rush right past geothermal energy. With just the small-scale approach of exploration that has been done so far, there is more geothermal energy produced and all of the wind and solar combined. Further, that amount should double in the next year or so.The high efficiency rate of 90% plus, 24 hours a day, makes it a dependable baseload power source. Solar on the other hand has a very low efficiency rate and is only available viewing a bright shiny day.Best, Bill

  2. Lee
    Lee says:

    Without personally knowing the exact benefits and negatives of solar power, I think have heard plenty of people praising solar power and predicting that it will become a main power source. However, it remains to be seen whether the actual uptake of this tech will make it so.

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