Green Energy May Be Coming Sooner Than Expected to the World
As Yogi Bera said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." Predicting the future world energy system is particularly difficult.
Hopefully, that future will not be powered by hydrocarbon fuels. Unless climate science experts are dead wrong, we cannot afford to keep on burning these fuels.
And we cannot stop using huge amounts of energy. Although some conservation is possible and should be done, a future without energy would destroy human civilization even faster than global warming would.
We will want to minimize reliance on atomic reactors, though they may be the best option during the transition. It is crazy to shut down existing reactors until they can be replaced without increasing carbon emissions.
Serious research is now under way for ways to supply electricity wirelessly from highways to cars and trucks as they are being driven.
What, then, will replace our current hydrocarbon fuels? In the next ten hears, hydrogen fusion research might get somewhere. But success in ten years has been predicted for the last fifty years!
We shouldn't hold our breath awaiting this breakthrough. A well-functioning fusion reactor already is producing immense amounts of energy 93,000,000 million miles from earth —the sun!
And PV panels converting sunlight into electricity are becoming inexpensive. Their cost has plummeted nearly 90% in the last decade.
The biggest problem with solar energy is that it is highly intermittent. Therefore major research is seeking to develop better batteries to store electricity for use at night and during bad weather.
Batteries may play a role, but we shouldn't exaggerate their importance. They might be able to handle daily fluctuations. But it will be impossibly expensive to store enough electricity to handle seasonal changes in the sunlight availability. The panels on my roof produce only one fifth as much monthly electricity in the winter as they do in the summer.
Fortunately, sunlight is only undependable at the local level. The sun is always shining somewhere.
We could theoretically rely 100% on solar energy without using any batteries by connecting the whole world into a single electrical grid. This would allow moving electricity from where it can currently be produced to where it is needed.
A worldwide grid was already proposed by Buckminster Fuller back in the 1930s, and I have been promoting the idea since I (wrongly!) thought I had invented the idea in 1972. By 2015 the idea of wiring up the world had been put forth seriously by grid expert Clark W. Gellings in the IEEE Spectrum, published by the world's largest organization of engineers.
Recently, interest in a worldwide grid has skyrocketed. Led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a movement under the slogan "One sun, one world, one grid" (OSOWOG) has received support from many governments around the world since November 2021.
Transportation requires lots of energy, and many details of our electrical future in this sector remain uncertain.
There may be a continuing need to use small atomic reactors to run ocean shipping, which cannot be plugged into the electrical grid. And we might have to discontinue most air travel, since planes cannot be plugged in, atomic reactors are too heavy for aircraft, and batteries are too heavy for long flights.
It is widely assumed that electric cars and trucks will dominate the future, an additional reason for research to develop better batteries.
The expected need for tons of new batteries has intensified prospecting for the materials needed to produce them. But we might not need as many batteries for cars and trucks as currently assumed.
Serious research is now under way for ways to supply electricity wirelessly from highways to cars and trucks as they are being driven. The expense of such installations might limit them to major intercity routes.
Power from vehicles' batteries would be needed only on back roads and around town. Much smaller batteries would therefore suffice.
It will be interesting to see how our energy future develops. A green world may be coming faster than anybody expects!
Paul F. deLespinasse