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Future global energy prosperity: the Terawatt Challenge

Go to the original article (a 284KB PDF) for an incisive overview of energy issues by a noted chemist and physicist. Below are some excerpts:

...There are three core problems that I think the president ought to address, all of which are connected with and impinge on the major issue of energy prosperity: inspiring the next generation of U.S. scientists and engineers, developing replacements for the dwindling fossil fuel resources that have provided a majority of our energy in the past, and finding a solution to global warming.

Problem 2: Peaks in Oil Production ...At some point, almost certainly within this decade, we will peak in the amount of oil that is produced worldwide. Even though there will be massive amounts of oil produced for the rest of this century, the volume produced each year will never again reach the amount produced at its peak. This year, 2005, might very well end up being the historic date of that global peak. Oil, along with gas, is tremendously important. The history of oil is basically the history of modern civilization as we have known it for the past 100 years. As our principal transportation fuel, oil has been the basis of our country’s power and prosperity. What will we do when there is no longer enough oil and gas? We do not yet have an answer.

Energy Heads “Top Ten” Global Concerns Why is energy always preeminent? When we look at a prioritized list of the top 10 problems, with energy at the top, we can see how energy is the key to solving all of the rest of the problems—from water to population:
1. Energy
2. Water
3. Food
4. Environment
5. Poverty
6. Terrorism and war
7. Disease
8. Education
9. Democracy
10. Population ...

The Terawatt Challenge To provide the technology for accomplishing our energy goals, what we need to do is to find the “new oil”—a basis for energy prosperity in the 21st century that is as enabling as oil and gas have been for the past century. The sheer magnitude of the energy industry makes this an extremely difficult task....

Reversing Current Energy Trends By 2050, if we have solved the problem, the world’s energy breakdown will probably look like a reverse of what it is today. Oil, hydroelectric, coal, and gas (in that order) would supply the least amount of energy, with fusion/fission and biomass processes being somewhat larger players, and solar/wind/geothermal resources providing the majority of the world’s energy. This new breakdown represents a revolution in the largest enterprise of humankind, an energy industry that currently runs about $3 trillion per year. Getting there will be incredibly difficult...

Solar Solutions I do not believe that our energy problems can be solved through the burning of fossil fuels. Yet, these fuels currently represent our primary energy resources, the only ones we know how to use to our economic advantage. The energy sources that could genuinely respond to our future needs are all basically from nuclear sources, either human-made nuclear fission or nuclear fusion reactors, or the nuclear reactions resulting from the spontaneous decay of uranium and thorium in the rocks of the earth (geothermal energy). Then there is that great big hydrogen fusion reactor up in the sky, the sun. That is where the truly big resources can be found...

The Distributed Energy Grid ...How, then, around the year 2050, are we going to transport energy over vast distances while minimizing the costs and getting the amount of power we need? The best answer would be to transport energy as energy, not as mass. Instead of storing energy in some chemical form, keep it as pure energy. There are essentially only two ways to do that. We could microwave energy up to a satellite and bounce it back down, or we could run it along wires on the earth’s surface. We will do both, but mostly we will use wires.

Enabling the Grid: Local Energy Storage With this energy distribution model, the entire North American continent, all the way from the Arctic Circle down to Panama, would be wired together in a giant interconnected electrical energy grid. Indeed, we are already very close to that now, except that in the new grid, by the middle of the century, there would be two critical additions. The first would be local energy storage. Every one of the hundred million or so sites consuming energy in this grid would have its own storage unit—the equivalent of an uninterruptible power supply that not only gives a home computer a few minutes of power during an outage, but also can supply each of our houses or businesses with 12–24 hours of full operation.

Commercializing Local Energy Storage I believe that creating an efficient local storage solution should be one of our prime energy targets. Let us develop what effectively would be a new majorappliance industry. Since our proposed unit is very small, it could be easily marketed to each one of those hundred million or so energy customers who are seeking local storage. Since the unit would have to be inexpensive—a few thousand dollars at most—customers who were not satisfied could replace their units or trade up to a better model, as they do now with other technical products such as computers. It would be a way to “PC” this critical aspect of the energy industry. ... Then, every one of those sites in the electrical energy grid would be able to use one of these units to buffer the grid’s energy fluctuations. Real-time pricing for individual electrical power usage would give each customer the incentive to buy a unit that could absorb the power needed to generate 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity in the six-hour time period when energy is cheapest on the grid. ...

Basically, this local unit would solve the energy storage problem. With that solved, it would now be possible to get most of the energy on the grid from “unreliable” or episodic sources, like wind or solar.

Completing the Grid: High-Voltage Transmission Lines In addition to a local system, one other innovation is needed on the grid to make it work. We need the capability to transport electrical power in hundreds of gigawatts over thousands of miles. High-voltage transmission lines would be very efficient for this purpose...If, through new technology, we could figure out how to transport electricity over wires that would deliver power thousands of miles away from where it is generated, and do that for several pennies per extra premium, we could make the whole North American continent energy– self-sufficient.

Everybody Gets to Play That goal is not as impossible as it might seem. There are places on this continent that experience extremely intense solar radiation that is very reliable. There are also highly remote places that most people would not object to as sites for nuclear power plants—places that would not be in anybody’s backyard...

Richard E. Smalley is the 1996 Nobel Laureate in chemistry and a University Professor and professor of chemistry and physics at Rice University....

Editorial Notes: For the full six-page text, see the original article (a 284KB PDF). The article is also available via the MRS Bulletin. Smalley and his ideas were mentioned by Kenneth Deffeyes in a televised talk, aired August 22. More publications and information available at The Smalley Group (Rice University) Articles by and about Smalley available via Energy Bulletin: -BA

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