The sun irradiates onto the land masses of the earth every 30 minutes the amount of energy required by all of humanity in a whole year. Some sources, giving a wrong impression of accuracy, say it’s 88 minutes, and some even claim it’s merely one minute. This one gives traceable calculations and arrives at 90 minutes. In any case the earth is not in danger of running out of “steam” by a big margin. Photosynthesis is the main method used by nature to harness energy for splitting CO2 and Water, use the Hydrogen and Carbon to build up biomass, releasing the O2 to the atmosphere. Plants are “only” 3-6% efficient as they do this. Our current mono-crystalline PV panels are up to 18% efficient. But plants obviously serve other very important functions of air filtration, climate regulation, erosion prevention, shade, beauty and more!
In any account, energy scarcity is man-made, and digging fuel up from underground or smashing atoms should be totally unnecessary. Why would we dig up the ground or drill holes into the ground or the ocean beds and take combustible stuff out and split atoms and try hard to fuse them and explore all sorts of crazy ideas for alternative energy? If we really need more than what the sun gives us, there’s wind and water as well that naturally moves around and we can slow down this movement in places and take some kinetic energy from it for our mundane purposes. Or harvest and burn up some biomass if we have to. So where is the shortage?
We use far too much energy to produce all the stuff that drive our consumerist society and our demands for heated swimming pools and tumble dryers. So demand reduction is clearly the first most logical step – energy efficiency and “waste” reduction.
“Renewable” types of energy:
- everything directly fed by solar energy - solar PV, solar collectors, solar-thermal power
- everything tapping into kinetic energy brought about by the sun driving photosynthesis and the hydrological cycle: wind, most hydro, biomass
- everything driven by the moon: tidal power, and maybe some rather remote wave or ocean current power that could also be partially driven by the tides rather than by hydrology.
- geothermal power. (Note that ground source heat pumps don’t use geothermal power but work on the effect that the ground is a heat sink and buffer, i.e. stays warmer in winter than the air above, and also cooler in summer compared with the atmosphere. This is why useful heat is extractable from the ground in winter, and some installations even drive the
heat pump in reverse in the summer to
cool the building while replenishing the heat source.)
Nuclear power is deemed a safe and low-carbon generation method by some, by others a bridge technology toward a fully renewable energy future. Uranium is mined, itself with severe consequences on local populations, and not being replenished, so it is not renewable. The elusive fusion, if eventually working, would also not be “renewable”, though there is no foreseeable shortage of hydrogen.
There are now some innovative nuclear (fission) reactor types that can use Uranium-238, that’s the isotope that makes up 99% of uranium as mined, and still makes up 99% of what we today consider nuclear “waste” (or “depleted uranium”, i.e. depleted of the U-235 isotope that’s used by today’s reactor types). One example is the Traveling Wave Reactor, the development of which is supported by Bill Gates - mentioned toward the end of his multi-faceted TED talk “Innovating to zero” from 2010 available at www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates.
There are risks with nuclear power. Now risk is always a question of who is willing to take, or deny, which sorts of it, for how long, and for what price. The new German nuclear phase-out is a good example. After the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011, some studies were re-evaluated showing that most German nuclear plants will not withstand an earthquake of magnitude 7 (Richter scale). Tsunamis are not a frequent site on Germany’s shores, and it is also not in an earthquake danger zone, but earthquakes have happened and can happen every couple of couple of decades. Even if they statistically only occur once in 1,000 years, it is a risk, because it is impossible to predict exactly when the next one will happen. This was one of the major reasons that led to the decision to abandon nuclear power in Germany. (There also have been some embarrassing incidents e.g. in the Krümmel plant near Hamburg, where a transformer short-circuit caused a fire in 2007, big fuss, transformer repaired, everything checked, finally plant re-started in 2009 and lo and behold, another short-circuit causing another fire! Since then the plant has been shut down and will now not be re-started.)
If a risk is small, but the potential consequences catastrophic, risk assessments would generally consider it high priority. The UK however would have none of this German paranoia. A graduate at the London School of Economics called John Moore even called it a “misguided and potentially damaging interpretation of the precautionary principle”.
The German government was not willing to take the risk. And why would they? Renewables are now so competitive in Germany that they’re taking big steps toward phasing out the hugely effective guaranteed feed-in tariff law (Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz), much to the chagrin of environmental organisations that argue that it’s too early and caused by government listening to the conventional fuel fossils.
Over 1,000 new coal-fired power plants were in planning stage worldwide, and China is on average commissioning one every 10 days. China is also rapidly expanding renewable energy.
The International Energy Agency predicts energy demand to go up two thirds (66%) by 2020. Whether that’s realistic is another question. Peak oil is imminent or has already occurred, only with a couple of decades of hindsight will we be able to tell. Maybe we’ll start fracking on a large scale and actually trigger an earthquake that gives us the next nuclear disaster. Why can’t we stop before that and look up to our central star supplying us with a multiple of our energy need, and start focussing much more on harnessing that, including distribution (cue Desertec) and storage (cue hydrogen economy), or even better, start with what we have available locally instead of making ourselves dependent on long distributions chains, multi-national agreements and global markets?