Breaking the Wall of the Global Energy Challenge

Breaking the Wall of the Global Energy Challenge

In the video, Lewis Nathan addresses the global challenge that is the energy crisis which he describes as currently a vague future scenario. In his presentation, he predicts an inevitable situation where the world will be marred by an energy demand that could surpass the available supply. The video talks of how the threat of an energy crisis has slowly been manifested over the past few years as witnessed by the public and the results from the science field. The presentation asserts that ‘roughly 80%’ (Lewis, 2014) of the world’s energy requirement is met through fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil. This figure is quite worrying knowing that fossil fuels are non renewable sources of energy that will at one time be completely depleted.

According to the presentation, the global demand in energy utilization is in the next 25 years expected to increase by 35-40% of the current demand. This increase is projected due to the impeding growth of emerging countries and the increase in per capita energy consumption that is spurred by rising living standards. The outcome of this increase in energy consumption is worrying, not just because of the lack of its supply but due to the implications of having high energy outputs. The levels of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere are already increasing at unprecedented levels and have hit a new high. In fact, the presentation cites a study which found levels of carbon dioxide pollution in 2013 to be higher than in any other year before. The question is no longer whether these emissions will result in global warming but rather a question of when. Despite varying predictions from different energy models, it is obvious that this warming will present itself to the world sooner than later, consequences of which will be shocking.

The vast experience that Nathan Lewis has in artificial photosynthesis and global energy makes his presentation factual and one that is consistent with the reality on the ground. The particular presentation stems from various studies that he has spearheaded at the research department at Caltech. In the presentation, he not only lays down the problem but also provides possible ways of solving the problem and preventing a crisis. The presentation is actually packaged in a way that calls on the many stakeholders to come up with viable solutions to the impending crisis. Members of the civil, political, scientific and technological fields are  urged to cooperate in facilitating the process of saving the planet. In fact, Nathan Lewis terms the process as ‘the only priority of our time’ thereby underlying its importance.

The presentation by Nathan Lewis is impressive coming from a person with so much experience and authority in matters to do with global energy. His mastery of the subject is evident all through the presentation and his way of presenting facts stands out making one to believe the facts unquestionably. The astute model in which he presents the problem is enough a call to make the relevant stakeholders jump in to offer solutions. In fact, the empathy with which he outlines the problem sounds like it is a personal challenge to himself and everyone else in the world. The possible solutions that he presents are interesting to say the least and banks on technological and scientific advancement in achieving them. The idea of artificial photosynthesis as an alternative source of energy is particularly interesting to me.



Powering the Planet

The video presentation is adept with the fact that solar energy is the most practical solution to the energy needs that the world anticipates both currently and in the future. The current energy consumption in the world is approximated at 13.2 terawatts with the United States consuming 3.2 terawatts of the total (Lewis, 2010). The global gross hydroelectric energy requirement stands at 4.6 terawatts most of which is sourced from unsustainable sources. Nathan Lewis presents two distinct types of energy: primary and secondary energy. Primary energy is one which is used directly as it appears in the natural environment. Examples of primary energy include solar, wind, wood and natural gas among other sources. Secondary energy on the other hand is energy sourced from the transformation of primary energy. As thus, it is not used directly in its naturally acquired form. An example of secondary energy is the treatment of crude oil obtained through mechanical conversion. Electricity is a form of secondary energy which is sourced from the conversion of either geothermal or hydroelectric energy at certain installations.

The current majority of the energy consumption is sourced from fossil fuels that are unsustainable in the long run. Most of the energy consumption is from carbon fuels such as coal and oil both of which have the potential of being depleted. The problem with fossil fuel is in the fact that they take millions of years to form and therefore the current extraction surpasses the rate at which they are formed. As thus, there soon will be a deficit in the supply of these fossil fuels. Moreover, fossil fuels have the potential of polluting the environment due to the elements release either during their transformation into energy or during their use. Carbon dioxide is one such element which leads to the global warming of the earth as it is a greenhouse gas. Carbon free fuels on the other hand are vast in quantity and do not deplete such as solar and wind energy. Nathan Lewis asserts that the world should change focus and concentrate on carbon free fuels that are highly sustainable and do not pollute the environment. Accordingly, the global energy requirement will be met for the long term, and little pollution is imparted on our planet.

It is quite obvious that the world will need to shift from consumption of fossil fuels to better alternatives if the global energy requirement is to be met. In this respect, the world is provided with many alternatives that provide carbon free fuels. The alternatives include solar, wind, biomass, nuclear power and water energy all of which are considered as clean energy. However, these alternatives have their shortfalls and some cannot meet the energy requirements of the world. The question then is which ones are most viable. One of the alternatives provided for solving the pollution resulting from fossil fuels is carbon sequestration which is basically capturing and storing carbon. The concept entails capturing carbon dioxide at the source of generation, say at power plants, then compressing it into liquids and injecting them deep within the land or in oceans. While this sounds like an easy and brilliant idea, the limitations are profound. First of all, the dilute nature of the carbon dioxide released makes carbon capture unrealistic. Moreover, the necessary architecture required for capturing the carbon dioxide is expensive to install therefore building them on a commercial scale is very expensive. Moreover, a quarter of the energy produced, say in coal production, is used in maintaining the process of carbon dioxide capture. The holes drilled for storing the carbon dioxide must also be monitored closely for potential leaks that could spell doom for the world. Ultimately, even if carbon sequestration were to happen, the world would run out of places to drill and store the carbon dioxide. In addition, it is not guaranteed that the carbon dioxide will maintain its liquid state eternally and that it will not escape into the atmosphere. Storing the carbon dioxide in deep oceans is also not a panacea to the problem as it may destroy sea life by choking the aquatic organisms with carbon dioxide.

Nathan Lewis asserts that most of the alternatives provided do not have the practical potential of meeting the energy requirement individually. In fact, among all the alternatives, only solar energy has the potential of meeting the global energy requirement. The reasons for this shortfall are in the practicability of their use. Nuclear power for instance has the potential of generating 10 terawatts of energy which falls short of the current energy requirement. In addition, the average output of one nuclear energy reactor is estimated at 1 GW. It therefore means that 10000 new reactors will be required to harness all the nuclear energy potential on earth. Uranium, which is most commonly used, is limited in its occurrence and there are 2.3 million tons in reserves. This limitation means that the energy from nuclear power can only last for 10 years at the current requirement. In addition, nuclear power generation is particularly risky and would need to be done in areas where there are no people. Hydroelectric power is also not technically viable because the gross output is estimated at 4.6 terawatts which is about one-third of the global energy consumption. The total continental potential for geothermal power is 11.6 terawatts and falls short of the current energy consumption in the world. Even if geothermal power were a feasible alternative, it cannot be produced in all countries and would require high transmission lines from one country to the other. In fact, only a limited number of countries have the potential for geothermal power generation. Wind, despite being one of the renewable sources of energy can only provide 2-3 terawatts which is way short of the energy requirement. Moreover, not all sites are feasible for wind energy generation. Biomass is also another alternative but is also short of being the solution at 7-10 and 1-2 gross and net terawatts of energy respectively.

Solar is a critical piece of any long term energy strategy. It has a practical potential of 600 terawatt energy potential making it an ideal option. Moreover, solar energy is almost freely available and is not limited in its availability. As long as the sun shines, solar energy can be harvested, and of course we do not expect the sun to dim. The cost of converting solar into energy is also generally low thus making it highly feasible. The energy produced from solar is also clean and does not pollute the environment. Solar energy has not been fully utilized in the current world due to a number of challenges. The world is still developing efficient methods of solar power generation and the necessary architecture is not yet in place in most countries. In addition, most countries have been accustomed to other ways of energy generation and have become comfortable to a point of not wishing to change. For solar energy generation to become more efficient and cost effective, improvements in technology have to be made. Inexpensive conversion systems and effective storage systems have to be put in place to ensure efficiency and cut down costs of production and storage.


Works cited

Powering the Planet. Dir. Nathan Saul Lewis. California Institute of Technology, 2010. Film.

Breaking the Wall of the Global Energy Challenge @Falling Walls 2014. Dir. Nathan Lewis. California Institute of Technology, 2014. Film.


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