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Possible solutions

Tim Flannery addresses the sustainability crisis
There is an energy sustainable crisis. We’re using an energy base that is too polluting. It’s as simple as that. We need to move to a cleaner energy base. At the moment, it looks as if, you know, solar PV and wind are the two leaders in that area. And they will, I think, given the right government framework, lead to a pretty rapid transition. But taking a longer view, you know, when I look at solar PV, I think it’s sort of almost like the Edison light globe of clean energy. It’s the very beginning of what’s going to be a long story.
50 years from now, we will be using very high quality heat captured from the sun for industrial processes that we just haven’t even thought about yet. So I think we’ve got to look at this as a long journey. Yeah? It needs to be done hard and fast, but it is going to take a lot more innovation to get to where we need to get to to have that clean energy future.
Well, the truth at the moment is that no one knows how to solve that problem perfectly. Right? We can see the elements that we need to solve it. So we need some storage mechanism. And for very short term storage on, you know, nets, you can use things like flywheels for microsecond-type storage. For longer storage, you can use pump up hydro or batteries. You can use biomass, which can be accumulated and then burned when you need that energy. So there are ways forward. But it’s true to say at the moment that there’s no large industrialised country that has solved that problem. And that’s really only the first step. Then we got to go on to transport.
How do we create transport that is sourced sustainably if you want? So this is a long journey. It’s going to take the rest of this century to get on top of these sort of problems. But we see the urgency. We know we need to keep on experimenting and not be put off by the problems we’ll come across.

What are the possible solutions?

At present, we have an over-reliance on fossil fuels which in turn produce high levels of CO2 in our atmosphere. There is a lack of convenient and affordable energy in underdeveloped countries.

Professor Smalley stated that we need to find the “new oil” – a material or technology that will produce energy prosperity that is as enabling as oil and gas have been but without the accompanying environmental damage.

This material or technological solution will need to produce twice as much energy as we do today. Where could that energy come from? The future solution will likely see us become less reliant on oil, coal and gas with natural sources of energy such as solar, wind and geothermal becoming the main contributors.

There are many other energy sources that may also contribute such as biomass, wave, microhydroelectric and nuclear but until many of the technical and societal issues associated with them are resolved, it is unlikely that they will be major contributors. For example, biomass and hydro compete with food and water resources.

If we are realistic about nuclear power as a carbon-free solution to the Terawatt Challenge that requires about 40 terawatts more electricity by 2050, let’s do a calculation: The output of a large nuclear reactor is 4-8 gigawatts. We would need to build 5,000-10,000 reactors worldwide in the next 30 years or about 1 every 1-2 days. Planning for a nuclear reactor on average takes 5 years and they need to be based close to the cities they will supply. These issues along with safety and environmental concerns appear to make nuclear power as a contributor to solving the Terawatt Challenge an unrealistic proposition.

As can be seen in the image above the amount of energy available from the sun, dwarfs what we can get from any other renewable source or even finite non-renewable sources.(1)

Professor Tim Flannery suggests that PV (photovoltaic) solar cells and wind generators are the equivalents of the Edison light bulb; the start of a century-long process to “solve” the energy problem. In terms of raw energy, the sun delivers every one and a half seconds enough potential energy to power the global demand for a year. But how can we harness this?

Given this information and your own experience do you think you renewables could be the answer?

  1. Solar Energy [Internet]. 2019, 2019 [cited 15 October 2019]. Available from: Future for all
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How to Survive on Earth: Energy Materials for a Sustainable Future

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