Friday, April 22, 2011

Sobering Thoughts on Earth Day

Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
On December 2, 2004, Richard Smalley, the 1996 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, gave the Frontiers of Materials Research presentation at the Materials Research Society Fall Meeting in Boston.  An edited transcript of the talk entitled Future Global Energy Prosperity: The Terrawatt Challenge was then published in the Bulletin of the Materials Research Society.  I don't recall how I came across it, but since I can't seem to find it online (even in the BMRS online web site), I'm making it available here for your Earth day reading pleasure (or perhaps displeasure).

Although the intro is somewhat dated and contains some political banter that you may or may not like depending on your political persuasion, it contains a very sobering assessment of the energy challenges we are facing.  In particular:

  • In 2004, average global energy consumption was about 14.5 terawatts, or the equivalent of 220 million barrels of oil per day.
  • Most (~80%, ) of this energy is generated from oil, gas, and coal, although nuclear fission, hydropower, and biomass contribute.
  • Solar, wind, and geothermal account for only ~0.5%.

That's where we were just recently.  Global energy demands are expected, however, to double by the mid-21st century and it is estimated that it will take 60 terawatts of energy production to bring 10 billion people to the level of energy prosperity of the developed world.  Current projections put the world population between 7.5 and 10.5 billion by the year 2050.

Now, if you are like me, you probably don't have any idea how big a terawatt is, but Smalley does a nice job of putting it into perspective.  A large nuclear reactor produces about 1,000 megawatts of power.  To produce 10 terawatts of power requires adding 1,000 megawatts of power generating capacity, or the equivalent of one large nuclear reactor, every day for the next 27 years.   This power production doesn't have to come from nuclear, but the analogy helps put the scale of the energy challenge into perspective.

So, let's get real.  If we wish to dramatically reduce global carbon emissions and make a significant dent in future global warming, we're not going to accomplish much with incremental improvements in efficiency or lifestyle changes such as riding bikes and driving hybrid cars.  There are good reasons for doing those things, such as improved personal health and urban air quality, but, as Smalley argues, we should not be distracted from the overarching need to produce "cheap, clean energy in vast amounts." In other words, innovation is needed to make a quantum leap in how we produce, distribute, and store energy.  That is the challenge facing us this Earth day.

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