• 06.20.07

PUSH the Future (2)

Second lesson from PUSH 2007: The energy problem is bigger than you thought.

Second lesson from PUSH 2007:
The energy problem is bigger than you thought.


James Kakalios is famous (well, anyway, he’s the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question) for calculating the force needed to actually “leap over the Empire State Building in a single bound.” He is a professor at the University of Minnesota who wrote “The Physics of Superheroes,” which considers cartoon superheroes from the standpoint of physics.

But Kakalios is also an actual physicist, a solid-state experimentalist who has worked to improve the conductive properties of amorphous semiconductors for solar power applications. And other cool stuff. Here’s how he thinks about the world’s energy crisis:

First, it is a crisis. World oil reserves will be exhausted within a single generation; we’re right at the peak of oil production. Meanwhile, world energy consumption is predicted to increase by 50% in next 20 years; China is adding the equivalent of the United Kingdom’s energy demand every year. The problem isn’t just about oil; if all the world’s power plants were nuclear, our supply of uranium would be exhausted in 10 years. Plus, atmospheric CO2 levels are the highest recorded in 400,000 years. Methane and carbon fluoride also increasing, and that may be worse.

Corresponding fact: World energy usage today is 13 terrawatts. And the sun continuously delivers 120 terrawatts. That’s an opportunity.

So, Kakalios sees three paths to energy sustainability:
–Solar or wind power via superconducting transmission cables. There are capacity and logistical problems with this. Basically, as it stands, we tend to put solar panels in places without much sun, and wind farms in places without much wind.
–A solar cell farm on the moon, with energy beamed to earth via microwave receivers. “This would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Of course,” he added slyly, “we’ve just spent hundreds of billions of dollars in the last year on something related to fossil fuel.”
Of these alternatives, Kakalios argues, only the third is feasible. I’m pretty sure he was serious about this.