Skip to main content.

Back to: >> Obama's World


A Wall Street Journal OPINION article began:

MARCH 4, 2009, 11:18 P.M. ET

"Let's Get Real About Renewable Energy.

We can double the output of solar and wind, and double it again. We'll still depend on hydrocarbons."

Mr. Bryce is quite correct--as far as he goes. He may even be correct that Obama over-reached in predicting a doubling of renewable energy sources in two years. Whether Obama is right or wrong, is not the issue. What is in store for us, is. If we do not get serious about renewable energy, if we do not shed our myopic view of the future soon, our descendants will have a lot of mean things to say about us.

If that doesn't fly in our thinking, maybe the real immediate danger will. We are in the Middle East for one big reason: America does not have enough energy sources to sustain itself. So we get it from elsewhere. That may be all well and good, except energy trade is grossly out of national balance. America and Europe have built modern economic empires to replace the obsolete political ones. Each serves the same fundamental purpose, economics. They differ only in style. Either way, the riches accruing to empires fester in the forms of humiliation and alienation of those exploited. These are the seeds that germinate terrorism, war and genocide.

Although Bryce is essentially right for today, his recipe is incomplete for the longer term. Nevertheless, he is more forward-looking than most in Washington. His message: "Let's Get Real" is certainly wise. However, it is not too early to begin serious planning and working toward balancing nature for the long term. The rest of this page addresses that issue.

In what follows, we look at the other side of the coin, which bears on those old instincts of humankind-- aggression, excessive obedience, and hierarchy that, when exercised, lead to humiliation and alienation. These in turn fuel terror, genocide, and war. See the section beginning on Peace Via Nature's Way for further discussion of how violence came about and what we might do about it.

Geologically speaking, at various times beginning about 360 million years ago, something unprecedented happened to the atmospheric carbon dioxide, CO2, that has always been in the atmosphere. It was reduced by proliferating plants via photosynthesis to create tissue, then, through geologic pressure-cookers, to become the hydrocarbons (coal, petroleum, and natural gas) we exploit today. During those times the atmosphere became more enriched in oxygen. Both events took hundreds of millions of years and is still going on. For the record, reduction of CO2 began eons earlier, but gathered steam by wide-scale photosynthesis only about 360 million years ago.

What happened is this:

Every chemist knows plants use solar energy to separate carbon from its lover, oxygen. Water is required for the process--hence the blanket-name hydrocarbons for the products.

What happened back then is that in the evolution of plants, nature found a solution to the CO2 problem--chlorophyll along with a hundred or so other chemicals that work together in photosynthesis. Chlorophyll and its pals converted light from the sun into the chemical energy needed to separate carbon from oxygen. In the process they produced organic plant tissue that eventually evolved to cover the earth with multitudes of "green species," the altered remains of which we exploit today. That process was extremely slow by human standards. Nevertheless, natural processes over some two billion plus years essentially created the carbon/oxygen balance we see in our biosphere today. In this way, the full carbon cycle as we know it evolved into being. For the record, no one knows for sure when photosynthesis began; what we can be sure of is that the process got underway big time some 360 million years ago in brackish and fresh water pools and tidelands where plant remains could be buried for pressure cooking in the buried-geologic kettle.

It might be possible to harness photosynthesis to produce fuel, but that process may take longer than we have time to perfect. Not all the steps are yet known. But it could happen some day.

However that plays out, humanity is now reversing the carbon cycle. It is doing so much more rapidly than nature did in creating the vast, but limited, coal and petroleum fields we exploit today. Nature took hundreds of millions of years to accomplish what humanity is reversing in a comparative blink. This is the new reality.

This reversal is moving too fast for evolution to catch up by natural means. At present rates, and because of the green-house effect of CO2, within a century or two, ice caps will melt and all present shorelines will be flooded under tens of meters of water, and the earth will be sweltering, its livable areas will shrink with migratory species moving north. This will surely happen if we do not change our ways before carbon fuels run out. What to do?

Let's look at the short-term first. With Silicon-based solar cells coming on very strong over the next two years (Multiple companies are building plants for manufacturing solar cells as this is written), Obama could have the last laugh.

Silicon cells rely upon a discovery by Einstein, the photo-electric effect, for which he won a Nobel Prize. He found that light has the ability to shake electrons free from their atoms. What Silicon does is capture some of those electrons and channel them to external circuits. Capturing all of them is not in the cards for several reasons. Nevertheless, enough can be captured to create useful amounts of power. All that is required is exposure to sunlight. This means desert locations are most-suitable for "farming" solar energy. Earth's deserts are large enough for solar energy to meet all of humanity's energy needs several times over for as long as our species is around. All that remains is the installation and delivery systems. That is no small task, but present technology is up to it.

Silicon solar cells have limitations and are costly to produce. Alternate materials could well be cheaper and/or more efficient than silicon in the end. Many firms are exploring several avenues. So we are very optimistic that solar power is on a threshold for a long-term exponential growth period. It may need subsidies for a time, but individual cell cost is coming down steadily. Asian nations in particular are ramping up to produce silicon solar cells. Germany is the present world leader in the production of solar energy; Spain is in second place.

The above technologies rest on the photo-electric effect for which Einstein received a Nobel Prize. There is another way to convert solar energy directly into electricity. This can be done by direct thermal conversion. A facility in the heart of the Mojave Desert has for some decades now been evolving that technology to the point where it will challenge solar cells. This technique involves arrays of mirrors to focus sunlight on a boiler which produces steam to drive turbines and generators. This is all conventional technology and is well understood. There are optional schemes in the details, and energy storage is an element that would allow surplus energy created during daylight to be used at night. It is all a matter of cost. At the moment, however, solar cells seem to be the best bet.

For the longer term, the main problem facing humanity is to live safely within the renewable energy budget. Nuclear power will be an important bridging technology until solar can take over. Since each of those sources has a natural limit, the only real long term answer for humanity will ultimately be to limit population to a safely sustainable level, large enough to survive a bolide or comet impact, yet small enough to get through hard times. Maintaining a healthy biosphere in balance with plenty of room for other species is a necessity. Other species provide us food; plant species summed together are needed in abundance to renew the air we breathe. At the moment, that renewal is increasingly and substantially falling behind. The balance is delicate, for it influences how much of the sun's energy stays behind. Trapped in the atmosphere, it causes global warming.

Solar power has two things going for it: The input "fuel," light, is free. Lack of pollution is the other. Solar is the cleanest of all power-producing technologies. Nuclear power, whether fission or fusion, is dirty by comparison, not to mention dangerous. Nevertheless, it is useful in bridging the gap until solar energy matures.

See: Solar Power for more.

"The balance between mouths and food
will be maintained in the future, as in the past,
by famine, pestilence, and war."
Thomas Malthus


No comments yet

To be able to post comments, please register on the site.