Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Alternative Energy—Our Only Alternative—Part III

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future — Yogi Berra

Many, many, many years ago, while visiting relatives in Montreal, Canada, I was persuaded to seek a reading from a gypsy fortune-teller. Although my memories of the prophecies are dim, I do remember that she predicted that I would join the army — with a draft in progress, this was pretty much a given anyway — and that I would not serve overseas. I guess her crystal ball (she really had one) was partially cloudy that day since only the army part was right. Nevertheless, she did have a .500 batting average that for her profession must have been pretty respectable.

One inescapable prediction is that alternative energy sources will continue to grow in importance as the threat of global warming becomes increasingly threatening, and efforts to reduce the use of carbon emitting fossil fuels escalate. The continuing rise in the price of oil, as well as that of coal and natural gas, will ultimately be reflected in higher electric bills. This will result in the costs of generating power with alternative energy sources more price competitive. At the same time, new technology and new alternative energy initiatives will undoubtedly create energy systems that are also more efficient, and certainly less deleterious to the environment.

That this is already happening is reflected in a report published just two months ago by Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) titled, “Crossing the Divide: the Future of Clean Energy.” A press release stated, “Increasing public concerns about climate change — and its potential economic and political security consequences — are driving public policy and private investment to bring clean energy technologies from the fringes of the global energy industry to the center of activities as quickly as possible…” (It should be noted that CERA argues that Peak Oil will not occur until 2040 and oil supplies are actually three times higher than what Peak Oil advocates believe, therefore its advocacy of alternative energy is rather surprising.)

Some will recall the oil shocks of the early 1970’s when rising oil prices deflected interest to alternative energy sources, however, the excitement quickly subsided as oil prices fell all through the 80’s and did not recover until the year 2000. Daniel Yergin, the Chairman of Cambridge Energy explains that a return to low oil prices is unlikely since “Climate change and putting a price on carbon will change the dynamics of the energy marketplace.” He also noted that adding the exploding Chinese and Indian economies into the equation, “You need renewables [alternative energy sources] as part of the solution to meet this astonishing demand growth.”

Follow the Money

Speaking of predictions, the report projects that while investments in clean energy sources increased some 20 percent in 2007 to some $125 billion, by the year 2030, private and public investments could surpass $7 trillion. (Do you smell investment opportunities here?) The question then becomes, which of the following renewable energy options in the Cambridge report are most likely to satisfy the world’s future energy needs at a reasonable cost, in the most environmentally sound manner? — or do all of them have positive potential?

  • Biofuels
  • Wind
  • Geothermal
  • Solar
  • Ocean
  • Carbon Capture and Storage
  • Hydropower

Unmentioned by the Cambridge group are Hydrogen and Fusion. That raises the question as to which information resource is most qualified to recommend the ideal alternative energy source. This brings us to a group of individuals known as “futurologists” or “futurists.” Some describe them more unflatteringly as “crackpots.” In fact, over the years, there have been many noted scientists, philosophers, writers, and businessmen whose predictions have either never materialized or were dramatically wrong.

You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there — Yogi Berra

As a prime example, in 1899, the Commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents stated that “everything that can be invented has been invented.” In 1951, the famous science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, (2001: A Space Odyssey), who died about a month ago, foresaw a manned lunar base by 1995. In 1952, the legendary chairman of IBM, Thomas Watson declared “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Alexander Graham Bell predicted that one day there would be a telephone in every American city. Bill Gates maintained in 1964, that “640 kilobytes [of memory] ought to be enough for anybody.” Admiral William Leahy, referring to the Manhattan Project said, “The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.” The president of the Royal Society, Lord Kelvin, predicted, “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” It must be noted however, that mankind is not impervious to errors, and while striving for that which seems impossible may turn out to be unsuccessful, the seemingly impossible is often doable. Without far reaching goals, visions for the future will be diminished and mankind will suffer.

Speak your mind and fear less the label of ‘crackpot’ than the stigma of controversy: Thomas Watson (IBM)

That’s why visionaries like Ray Kurzweil are so influential. I wrote about Mr. Kurzweil in this column a number of years ago, terming him a creative inventor, a prolific writer, and technologist, and yes, futurist, known for his accurate science fiction-like prophecies. His latest predictions are doozies. At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held about two month ago in Boston, he predicted that machines will attain human intelligence by the year 2029. Beyond that he is emphatic in his belief that, “We’re already a human machine civilization: we use our technology to expand our physical and mental horizons and this will be a further extension of that.” Eventually , he added, man and machine will merge. “We’ll have intelligent nanobots go into our brains through the capillaries and interact directly with our biological neurons — [this would] make us smarter, remember things better and automatically go into full emergent virtual reality environments through the nervous system.”

Crackpot? Not according to his peers. Mr. Kurzweil had been chosen as one of just 18 members of a committee of influential thinkers and scientists that reported to the AAAS meeting mentioned above, on the “21st Century’s ‘Grand Challenges for Engineering,’” and how solving these challenges can dramatically improve the future of life on earth. The committee, chaired by the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, William Perry, included geneticist Craig Venter, Google co-founder Larry Page, Nobel Laureate Mario Molina, former NIH director Bernadine Healy, and professors from Harvard, Princeton, and MIT.

The Grand Challenges That Could Change the World

The group identified 14 challenges for the future that purportedly comprise the most important in the world if they could be solved. Three dealt with energy. (Another focused on access to clean water, a subject covered at length in recent articles herein). The energy related challenges cited were: providing energy from fusion; developing carbon sequestration methods to minimize carbon dioxide emissions from coal; and to make solar energy economical.

It will take many years to solve the challenges of fusion and carbon sequestration. However, these subjects will be covered later. The selection of solar energy as the principal system that could solve the world’s energy problems is interesting, but Ray Kurzweil’s analysis of the future of solar is fascinating. Here is what he says:

“I am confident that the acceleration and expanding purview of information technology will solve the problems with which we are now preoccupied within twenty years. Consider energy. We are awash in energy. We only need one part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on the earth to meet 100% of our energy needs. We are not very good at capturing it, but that will change with full nanotechnology based assembly of macro objects at the nano scale controlled by massively parallel information processes, which will be feasible within twenty years. Even though our energy needs are projected to triple within 20 years, we’ll capture that .0003 of the sunlight needed to meet all of our energy needs with no use of fossil fuels using extremely inexpensive, highly efficient, lightweight, nano engineered solar panels, and store the energy in highly distributed (and, therefore, safe) nanotechnology-based fuel cells. Solar power is now providing one part in a thousand of our energy needs but that percentage is doubling every two years, which means multiplying by a thousand in 20 years. Almost all of the discussions I’ve seen about energy and its consequences such as global warming fail to consider the ability of future nanotechnology based solutions to solve this problem. This development will be motivated not just by concern for the environment, but by the $2 trillion we spend annually on energy. This is already a major area of venture funding.”

Next month’s issue will elaborate on solar energy and delve into other alternative energy possibilities. As Yogi said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”


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