The Energy Crisis

Statto‘s written a piece on solar energy and the energy crisis in general. I almost commented on it, but then I decided I had enough to say to justify my own blog entry. As I see it, here’s the plan to cope with Earth’s immediate energy needs:

  1. Use existing nuclear facilities – possibly new ones, too, while nuclear fuel can be found and while we can find places to bury all the waste (here’s a tip: Finland) – and, if necessary, start burning again the copious quantities of coal we’ve got just lying around while we suss out what to do next.
  2. Suss out what to do next.

Easy. I don’t know why anybody kicks up such a fuss about this whole energy crisis thing!

But more seriously; unless we can crack nuclear fusion… or we find an economical way to get nuclear fuel from elsewhere in the solar system, we’re going to have to find some sensible way of making lots of power quickly, and within our lifetimes. Here are some of the promising alternatives from the top of my head:

  • Geothermal energy is environmentally friendly but hideously uneconomic. The idea is that you dig a big two big holes and connect them at the bottom, then drop water down one of them where it boils and comes up the other one. Bingo: free hot water. It’s rarely hot enough to be useful turning turbines, so it’s basically a supply of free heat. Not so good. If we dug a deep enough pit we could probably make lots of electricity just from the heat of the Earth; but if we had the means to dig pits that deep within sensible economic constraints we’d probably have the resources to come up with something better anyway.
  • Wind farms are getting better, but aren’t great. They don’t make a lot of power, but designs are improving all the time. For some reason, people – particularly in rural areas – complain that the windmills are unsightly (I think they look fab!) or noisy (I’ve stood directly under them at full-tilt and they’re almost silent, in my experience), but if we started doing more local electricity generation I’m sure they’d prefer windmills to pylons. We do need better designs for them, though, if we’re going to make a sensible future out of those.
  • Solar power – at least under this atmosphere, as Statto talked about – is way out… perhaps if we could strip the atmosphere and live in little bubble cities, we’d be okay… That said, I’ve seen some fun and ambitious ideas to make solar panels better. My favourite of these is the following: stratolites! Stratolites are super-large helium balloons that float near the edge of space. Up there, the atmosphere isn’t such a problem (and, if they’re high enough, neither is wind), so just cover a few thousand stratolites with solar panels, and service them using robotic balloons. NASA’s doing some interesting work with high-altitude balloons (with not much success, yet), and they’re already a dab hand with solar panels: I’ll bet they could produce a usable prototype within a few years if they put their minds to it, and it’s certainly less far-fetched than using satellites for the same purpose. The minor issue is in getting the generated electricity back down here where it can be of some use, and I suggest that either long carbon nanotube wires (which might, sadly, be too heavy for the balloons, not to mention a hazard to aircraft) or “beaming” the power down in the form of microwaves (which will have the added advantage of supplying free pre-cooked poultry to nearby households) are the way forwards. In any case, meaningful solar power is a long way away.
  • Bioenergy’s an option, of course, which also helps to counter the problems with our diminishing non-renewable resources like fossil fuels. Basically, it comes in two forms: you either take something alive and burn it, or you take something alive and make a slave of it. Neither is typically popular with freaky lefty vegan types, but they could always keep their lights turned off. The former option has seen some success in trials, where sugar was converted to ethanol and then combusted, which may be considered a waste of perfectly good alcohol. In the end, this is just a glorified way of producing solar energy by using plants as solar cells, which is superior in many ways to manufactured ones as plants are able to make more of themselves. The second bioenergy option has been used for centuries in non-electrical ways: can you imagine how much energy we could save if we hooked up our homes’ power supplies to little hamster wheels and let rodents do the work in exchange for food. The conversations could be interesting, too: “I’m going to put the kettle on, dearie: would you go and prod the gerbils, please?”
  • Build a perpetual motion machine. After all, the laws of thermodynamics are just asking to be broken. The most interesting attempts to build these have actually succeeded… by cheating… but they cheated in interesting ways. Cox’s timepiece was a clock, built in the 1760s, that never required winding, because it drew power from the changes in atmospheric pressure. Nanomachines built on this and similar principles could theoretically supply all the energy that small devices could ever need: imagine if your mobile phone kept itself charged by changes in air pressure, eletrostatic charges, and – in case of emergency – miniscule inductors that produced a charge when you shook the phone, in a similar way to those everlasting torches. Of course, these aren’t strictly perpetual motion machines: they’re “stealing” energy from other sources, but if they’re only stealing energy from otherwise useless or renewable sources, then that’s a big step forward. In the same way as some new electric trains use “regenerative braking”, putting power back into the power lines through their pantographs as they slow down, all electrical systems could be designed to conserve and “steal” energy as they saw fit, using far less energy than they otherwise might.

So, that’s my thoughts – the impractical ramblings of a software engineer. How do you think we have to fix the upcoming energy crisis?