On Wednesday night, The Agenda wraps up a series of programs from the Waterloo Global Science Initiative’s OpenAccess Energy Summit with a look at whether the world needs an “energy miracle.”
Billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates predicts researchers will “discover a clean energy breakthrough that will save our planet and power our world” within the next 15 years. The Agenda debates whether such a breakthrough is needed or if the world, with the right leadership, can provide clean energy for all with technologies already available. The Agenda airs at 8 p.m. and again at 11 p.m. on TVO.
If it turns out the planet does need an energy breakthrough, what might it look like? Here are some possibilities:
Build a better battery
A solar panel is of no use at night, but if batteries could store all power generated by solar panels and wind turbines for use whenever it’s needed, the idea of society relying mostly on renewable energy for electricity becomes much more plausible.
Unfortunately, battery technology has been slow to evolve since the first modern batteries appeared 150 years ago, so there is no way to easily store most of the electricity the world needs on a daily basis. However, a lot of work is going into changing that.
The most high-profile effort is Tesla’s Powerwall. From the company that wants to make the electric car an everyday sight, the Powerwall can store 6.4 kWh of electricity generated by solar panels during the day, which Tesla says is enough energy to power most homes during the evening. Energy comparison firm USwitch estimates that one kWh can power two days of work on a laptop or three hours of watching TV. (Tesla is happy to sell a second battery to people who use more electricity than average).
Of course, Tesla isn’t alone in the battery business. A number of companies around the world are engaged in developing the next generation of energy storage. Some are finding ways to make existing battery types more efficient, while others are experimenting with substances not normally associated with batteries, such as salt water. Ellen Williams, director of the U.S. government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, said last month that storage technology developed with her agency’s support could transform the electrical grid within five to 10 years.
Solar panels everywhere
Finding a good spot on a roof for a solar panel or a nice big field for a solar farm can be tricky. That’s why researchers are trying to develop space-efficient ways to capture the sun’s power.
Some are working on transparent solar panels that could turn windows into electricity generators. Scientists at Stanford University have created a “stick-on” solar panel that could cover the surfaces of entire buildings to capture energy. “Solar paint” works off a similar idea: it could be spread on walls to create electricity, and has captured the imagination of Bill Gates.
Waiting for nuclear fusion power is kind of like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin. One can wait year after year, but it never seems to arrive.
Today’s reactors run on nuclear fission, which generates energy by splitting atoms. Fusing particles generates much more energy than splitting them, so fusion reactors could create several times more electricity than fission reactors. Scientists say fusion reactors would also be safer and create less hazardous waste than traditional reactors.
So what’s the problem? Fusion is so technically challenging that scientists so far have only been able to generate productive fusion reactions on a handful of occasions — and even those few instances did not create enough energy to make the process close to economically competitive with other forms of power.
Nevertheless, scientists haven’t lost hope. Some of the more notable attempts underway include the ITER project, where a partnership of 35 countries (Canada isn’t one of them) is spending billions of dollars on building a fusion reactor prototype that is hoped to produce 10 times the amount of power that it consumes. China, an ITER funder, is also building a reactor even bigger than ITER’s model. The National Ignition Facility, a U.S. effort, is using 192 lasers to try to heat up tiny spheres of nuclear fuel the size of a BB-gun pellet to the point of creating a fusion reaction. Private companies are also trying to make fusion power a reality, and have attracted the interest of billionaire investors such as Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel and Paul Allen.
Some technologies on the horizon wouldn’t generate energy, but could make the world much smarter about consuming it.
Self-driving cars get a lot of press for their potential to significantly reduce traffic accidents, but they could also noticeably decrease energy use in transportation. Advanced navigation systems would allow autonomous cars to plan the most efficient routes. They would accelerate and brake more smoothly than most humans, further cutting down on fuel consumption. Self-driving cars even promise to move so precisely that they could cut down on wind resistance by travelling closely behind one another. And in a future where most or all of the cars on the road are self-driving, an interconnected communication network among robotic vehicles could mean entire traffic patterns would operate more smoothly.
Similarly, a report in National Geographic pointed to an automated revolution already affecting energy consumption in the home.
“Beyond the ‘learning’ thermostat Nest, which Google bought last year for $3.2 billion, there's the Nest Cam that uses motion sensors and night vision to keep an eye on your home when you're away and Keen Smart Vents that use Wi Fi to maintain ideal room temperatures by automatically opening and closing vents. Amazon’s Echo, a Siri-like personal assistant, controls connected home devices,” the report said.
Given that life is likely to only become more automated, the number of energy-saving devices available today may only be the tip of the iceberg.
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