How to ensure an adequate supply of electrical energy for the Earth's growing population?

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Discuss what actions should be taken in the future to ensure an adequate supply of electrical energy for the Earth’s growing population.
include factors: social, economic, political, environmental, cultural, ethical

3 Comments

  1. Hi there,
    Electrical energy currently comes from a number of places – burning fossil fuels (this includes coal, oil, and natural gas), nuclear power, and renewables (e.g. wind, hydroelectric, and solar). Currently, fossil fuels accounts for at least 2/3 of power generation in the U.S.
    Out of all of these methods, renewable energy sources is the only one with truly huge potential for development.
    There are no more revolutions to be made in discovering more fossil fuels, and we all know that burning them is bad for the environment.
    There is strong public opinion against building more nuclear power plants – not to mention the fact that we could run out of uranium, and the dangerous nuclear waste generated by nuclear power.
    The amount of hydroelectric power that we could get by damming all of the rivers in the world is actually quite small – and the environmental impact is again huge.
    The total wind and solar energy resources (especially solar), on the other hand, dwarf the world energy consumption. The main problem is that the existing technologies for generating electricity from wind and solar is not very good, and the incentive for developing these technologies isn’t great enough, because fossil fuels are still cheap.
    In the end, solar is going to win. There are many times more solar energy on this planet than all other energy sources put together. Solar energy was the choice taken by Nature in order to provide energy to sustain life, and it is the silver bullet for solving the energy problem.
    To make the argument more solid, here are some numbers. We usually think of world power consumption in terms of terawatts (trillions of watts). For perspective, the human body needs about 100 watts to stay alive, a microwave oven uses 1000 watts (1kW), and one car consumes about 100kW when you drive it. Currently, the total power consumption of the world is about 15TW.
    Renewable Energy Type : Total Energy Available: Energy Utilized
    Hydroelectric power (rivers), 7.2 available, 0.7 utilized
    Hydroelectric power (tides), 3.7 available, 0.3 utilized
    Solar power, 86,000 available, 0.1 utilized
    Wind power, 870 available, 0.1 utilized
    To the responder below, my father’s also a geologist. Water supply is an incredibly important problem that’s receiving far less attention than it should – arguably, it’s just as important as the energy problem. The responder above mentioned desalination of water, but it’s very expensive.
    A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that with reasonably efficient desalination technology (20MJ per m^3 of water), it would cost 80EJ to desalinate an amount of seawater equivalent to the world’s freshwater needs (4 x 10^12 m^3). This is about 20% of the world’s total energy consumption and equivalent to all of the world’s electricity.
    This is actually a lot lower than I had thought – am I missing something?

  2. The answer:
    Sustainable/renewable energy. Wind, solar (both absorption and reflection), wave, geothermal. It sounds like a cliche, I know, but it’s the answer. Proper sustainable energy fields generate more than enough electricity to power anything that we need, including heavy industry, large cities, and their suburbs. What if every house had some south-facing solar panels and a small wind turbine in the yard or on the roof (which is very realistic, both in idea and combination)? We’d have enormous amounts of electricity on top of the large state and municipal electrical sources. Not only are they nice because they’re clean (you don’t even have to believe in or give a damn about greenhouse gases – wouldn’t you rather have a cleaner environment anyway?), but because yes, eventually, we will run out of useful oil, coal, and gas reserves. That’s just a fact. It might be in 10 years, it might be in 100 years, but those energy sources are not recreating themselves on any time scale that we humans will see in the future (meaning millions of years, if it happens at all, which it very well might not).
    The answer is NOT nuclear energy. A single sustainable energy source, properly built, designed, and efficient field generates the same or even more power than a common, standard light water fission plant of today. Sustainable energy is also incredibly cheap, and compared to the threats of a nuclear facility, they have zero danger, unless perhaps a wind turbine falls over and you’re too dumb to get out of the way.
    Finally, it is actually easier to build a small sustainable facility somewhere in the middle of armpit-India to power what is essentially a third world country in the middle of that subcontinent, than it would be to build a coal- or oil-fired plant (plus, you’d have to build infrastructure to maintain a fuel supply for those fossil plants).
    As a last note… the real problem with our growing population isn’t electricity. We can all live without electricity. Our lives would be very different, but we could live without it. The problem is going to be freshwater. That is something that we can’t live without, and our global supply is already near the tipping point of failure to sustain any further population. It doesn’t help that our freshwater supply for agricultural irrigation and manufacturing is being used up at an alarming rate. That’s how to deal with energy – but water is the most precious commodity.

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