According to Alun Anderson of New Scientist" (as seen in a post entitled "The Sunlight-Powered Future" in response to the question "what makes you optimistic, and why?" at Edge.org),
"I'm optimistic about…a pair of very big numbers. The first is 4.5 x 10ˆ20. That is the current world annual energy use, measured in joules. It is a truly huge number and not usually a cause for optimism as 70 per cent of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels.I've checked a few other sources (e.g., here and here, among others), and his "7,000x" assertion seems well within the ballpark, certainly precise enough for the point I wish to proffer here.
Thankfully, the second number is even bigger: 3,000,000 x 10ˆ20 joules. That is the amount of clean, green energy that pours down on the Earth totally free of charge every year. The Sun is providing 7,000 times as much energy as we are using, which leaves plenty for developing China, India and everyone else. How can we not be optimistic? We don't have a long-term energy problem. Our only worries are whether we can find smart ways to use that sunlight efficiently and whether we can move quickly enough from the energy systems we are entrenched in now to the ones we should be using. Given the perils of climate change and dependence on foreign energy, the motivation is there..."
Which is simply this: anyone arguing that we cannot relatively rapidly achieve a net aggregate large-scale solar energy capture-conversion-production-distribution efficiency rate of less than two one-hundreths of one percent (worldwide energy consumption per unit period divided by total solar energy accrual per the same period) is either ignorant or lying.
Yes, this 24/7 7,000x planetary solar energy input is unevenly distributed (both geographically and temporally), with much of it falling on the 3/4ths of the earth's surface covered by water. Of course. But, even that is subsequently transformed relentlessly planet-wide into the copious energy we see ongoing in weather, wind, and waves. Consider wave energy alone for a moment.
"Ocean waves have the highest energy density of any renewable energy source..."
Finavera is but one of the many companies moving ahead with such technology.
How about direct large-scale solar photoelectric conversion?
The above photo is of a 15 megawatt solar facility now coming online on 140 acres of desert proximate to Nellis AFB near Las Vegas where I live. Nellis expects to save a million dollars a year in electricity cost (not to mention the externality greenhouse gases that will not be emitted). Do a little arithmentic: 140 acres = 0.21875 sq. mi., so 15 megawatts/0.21875 = roughly 68.6 megawatts solar energy generating potential per square mile of desert.
Arizona Public Service Co. has even bigger plans than Nellis's:
PHOENIX (AP, 2/21/08) - Arizona Public Service Co. said Thursday it will build a solar-power plant with enough capacity to serve 70,000 customers.Consider also some of the work of BrightSource Energy.
The 280 megawatt Solana Generating Station would be the largest solar-power facility in the world if operational today, the company said.
Arizona Public Service commissioned Abengoa Solar Inc. to build the plant near Gila Bend, Ariz., 70 miles southwest of Phoenix. Arizona Public Service, a renewable energy provider, expects the plant to be operational by 2011.
Arizona Public Service estimates the value of produced energy to be about $4 billion over 30 years and said it will bring more than $1 billion worth of economic benefits to the state of Arizona. Solana will create about 1,500 construction jobs and employ about 85 skilled technicians when operational, the company said...
Examples are numerous, and increasing. Those living in Vegas may have driven past the two of these (below) now installed and operating along Flamingo on the north side of the UNLV campus: 25kW each, Stirling engine solar collector/concentrator generators.
So, Alun Anderson is optimistic. What of the pessimists, the naysayers? I find too much of the anti- green conversion crowd fixated on Perfectionism Fallacy straw men (i.e, 'that your proposed solution entails any arguable residual downsides whatsoever fully negates it'). Some of it, again, is ignorance. Some of it is vested interest intransigence. Many of those with significant financial stakes in status quo hydrocarbon/greenhouse gas emitting industries are frantically circling their rhetorical wagons (I'm sorry, "clean coal" is an oxymoron).
A CAUTIONARY NOTE
Nothwithstanding my enthusiasm for the "green" imperative, I have to recognize that a large scale transition will indeed not be "perfect," that, beyond the self-interest crowd's amply-funded foot-dragging, it will be rife with missteps, failed promise, and outright chicanery. Consider a recent article in Harper's, "The next bubble: Priming the markets for tomorrow's big crash":
...We have learned that the industry in any given bubble must support hundreds or thousands of separate firms financed by not billions but trillions of dollars in new securities that Wall Street will create and sell. Like housing in the late 1990s, this sector of the economy must already be formed and growing even as the previous bubble deflates. For those investing in that sector, legislation guaranteeing favorable tax treatment, along with other protections and advantages for investors, should already be in place or under review. Finally, the industry must be popular, its name on the lips of government policymakers and journalists. It should be familiar to those who watch television news or read newspapers.Yeah (read that entire article, very interesting). Still, we must, and we can move on and out of the fossil fuels epoch (and I would include in that its net destructive baby cousin "biofuels," e.g., corn-based ethanol). With all deliberate speed, I think. Change or die.
There are a number of plausible candidates for the next bubble, but only a few meet all the criteria. Health care must expand to meet the needs of the aging baby boomers, but there is as yet no enabling government legislation to make way for a health-care bubble; the same holds true of the pharmaceutical industry, which could hyperinflate only if the Food and Drug Administration was gutted of its power. A second technology boom—under the rubric “Web 2.0”—is based on improvements to existing technology rather than any new discovery. The capital-intensive biotechnology industry will not inflate, as it requires too much specialized intelligence.
There is one industry that fits the bill: alternative energy, the development of more energy-efficient products, along with viable alternatives to oil, including wind, solar, and geothermal power, along with the use of nuclear energy to produce sustainable oil substitutes, such as liquefied hydrogen from water. Indeed, the next bubble is already being branded. Wired magazine, returning to its roots in boosterism, put ethanol on the cover of its October 2007 issue, advising its readers to forget oil; NBC had a “Green Week” in November 2007, with themed shows beating away at an ecological message and Al Gore making a guest appearance on the sitcom 30 Rock. Improbably, Gore threatens to become the poster boy for the new new new economy: he has joined the legendary venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which assisted at the births of Amazon.com and Google, to oversee the “climate change solutions group,” thus providing a massive dose of Nobel Prize–winning credibility that will be most useful when its first alternative-energy investments are taken public before a credulous mob. Other ventures—Lazard Capital Markets, Generation Investment Management, Nth Power, EnerTech Capital, and Battery Ventures—are funding an array of startups working on improvements to solar cells, to biofuels production, to batteries, to “energy management” software, and so on...
UPDATE: "WASTE NOT"
In addition to the exigent imperative of a broad worldwide conversion to non-greenhouse gas energy sources, much more can readily be done in the area of industrial energy waste reduction. See Lisa Margonelli's article "Waste Not: A steamy solution to global warming" in the May 2008 Atlantic Monthly.
"Forty years ago, the steel mills and factories south of Chicago were known for their sooty smokestacks, plumes of steam, and throngs of workers. Clean-air laws have since gotten rid of the smoke, and labor-productivity initiatives have eliminated most of the workers. What remains is the steam, billowing up into the sky day after day, just as it did a generation ago.The United States, representing ~5% of world population, consumes in the aggregate roughly 25% of total energy production, an egregious excess that cannot long continue. But, the closer we look (if only we take the trouble), the more low hanging fruit we see right in front of our eyes.
The U.S. economy wastes 55 percent of the energy it consumes, and while American companies have ruthlessly wrung out other forms of inefficiency, that figure hasn’t changed much in recent decades. The amount lost by electric utilities alone could power all of Japan.
A 2005 report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that U.S. industry could profitably recycle enough waste energy—including steam, furnace gases, heat, and pressure—to reduce the country’s fossil-fuel use (and greenhouse-gas emissions) by nearly a fifth. A 2007 study by the Mc Kinsey Global Institute sounded largely the same note; it concluded that domestic industry could use 19 percent less energy than it does today—and make more money as a result.
Economists like to say that rational markets don’t “leave $100 bills on the ground,” but according to McKinsey’s figures, more than $50 billion floats into the air each year, unclaimed by American businesses. What’s more, the technologies required to save that money are, for the most part, not new or unproven or even particularly expensive. By and large, they’ve been around since the 19th century. The question is: Why aren’t we using them?..."
"...Ultimately, making better use of energy will require revamping our operation of the electrical grid itself, an undertaking considerably more complicated than, say, creating a carbon tax. For the better part of a century, we’ve gotten electricity from large, central generators, which waste nearly 70 percent of the energy they burn. They face little competition and are allowed to simply pass energy costs on to their customers..."
"...Technocratic changes to the grid and to industrial plants don’t easily capture the imagination. Recycling industrial energy is a solution that looks, well, gray, not green. Steel plants, coated with rust, grime, and a century’s worth of effluvia, do not make for inspiring photos. Yet Casten, pointing to the 16 heat-recycling contraptions that sit on top of the coke ovens at the East Chicago steel plant, notes that in 2004 they produced as much clean energy as all the grid-connected solar panels in the world. Green power may pay great dividends years from now. Gray power, if we would embrace it, is a realistic goal for today."