Sometimes I’m so smart, I scare myself. Recently, I boldly predicted that all the world’s energy needs can and should be met by solar power. And now, just a few days later, the World Wildlife Fund has released a new report that reaches the same conclusion. It says that devoting just 1% of the Earth’s land mass to solar energy collection could meet 100% of our earthly energy needs in the future. The WWF thinks we could get to 30% by 2050.
Solar energy is not just covering the Earth with solar panels. If you have ever used a magnifying glass to burn letters onto a piece of wood, you understand the idea behind a new facility in Abu Dhabi. A lens concentrates the sun’s rays into a powerful beam that boils water into steam. The steam then powers a conventional electric generator. Scientists in Britain are searching for ways to harness the process of photosynthesis to create power.
“But wait!” I hear you cry. “The sun doesn’t shine 24 hours a day every day of the year. We still need coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear generating plants to supply our power when solar energy is not available.” That is true,but only partially so. In my prior post, I suggested that systems to store excess power will be necessary. One simple method is to pump water uphill during sunlight hours and let it flow back downhill when needed to spin turbines.
Son of gun. Those crafty folks in Belgium are taking my water tower idea and making it horizontal. They propose to build an artificial island in the North Sea filled with a fluid like water. During periods of excess energy production from wind farms, the water would be pumped from the center of the island to its margins. Later, the fluid would be allowed to flow back toward the empty center, driving turbines while doing so. Apple proposes to use excess power from wind turbines to heat a liquid. That heat could later be recaptured and used to turn generators. Whether the excess power comes from solar, wind or geothermal sources makes no difference. The idea of storing excess power for later use is exactly the same.
The field of alternative energy is bubbling with fresh, creative ideas which need to be pursued aggressively to free ourselves from the curse of fossil fuels. Tar sands, fracking and Artic oil exploration are all obsolete ideas designed to preserve the profits of global corporations pursuing an outdated business model. Sticking to the old ways will lead to more pollution of our skies, lands and oceans. Only solar energy will unlock a global future full of promise for all. Achieving independence from fossil fuels will be a long and challenging task, but as the Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step.” It’s time for that journey to begin.