Energyshare blogPublished by Tony Juniper on Wed, 05/06/2013 - 1:04pm
In finding solutions to our growing energy challenges it is important to step back from our obsessive debates about different technologies and to take a wider view of the reality we inhabit. A good starting point is to remember how our planet is largely solar powered, and has been for a very long time. When it comes to the natural world the most visible manifestation of this fact is photosynthesis.
While we meet a small proportion of energy demand from current photosynthesis, in the form of biomass and biofuels, our economy is mostly powered along by past photosynthesis.
Coal, oil and gas were initially laid down by solar-fuelled ecosystems over hundreds of millions of years.
Vast swamp forests and the accumulated remains of dead sea creatures were crushed by rocks that accumulated on top of them and then ‘cooked’ under massive geological pressure. Not only was a lot of energy locked away, but so was a great deal of carbon.
As we seek out and burn more and more of these fossil fuels, so carbon is being re-released, and on a massive scale. In terms of planetary timescales its happening all at once. This is the major drawback arising from the fundamental dependence we have developed on fossil sunshine. In making the shift from geological solar energy a big part of our forward plan must rely instead on current sunshine.
There are several ways to do this. One is with photovoltaic technologies that convert light to power. Another is through the range of technologies that collect solar heat, including those that also convert that into electricity. The winds that flow in the atmosphere, caused by solar heating of the Earth, can be harnessed with turbines. There are technologies that enable ocean waves, whipped up by the wind, to be turned into energy we can use. Green plants can generate heat and power and be used to make liquid biofuels.
All these different means of converting solar energy into forms more useful to us can be augmented with tidal power (lunar energy) and gravity power (geothermal energy generated from hot rocks). Coming breakthroughs in energy storage technologies will render these energy sources more viable. Such low carbon sources of heat, power and fuel, if combined in different ways, and used efficiently, could power economies indefinitely into the future, and in ways that keep natural systems intact and functioning.
To embark on the journey toward this energy future will require us to adopt a rather different mindset to that prevailing now.
This is especially important in the realm of economics, as the main reason why it seems rational to perpetuate our reliance on fossil sunshine is down to the damage caused not being charged to anyone. Mainstream economics sees only the upsides of ‘growth’; not the rising costs caused by climate change impacts.
We have also not yet fully understood the potential for creating tens of millions of jobs worldwide based on a sustainable energy revolution. And while we put faith in technologies to extract ever more oil and gas, we seem blind to the economic opportunities that will accompany the rapid rise of clean energy generation and storage technologies.
But while the transition to the solar age will indeed rely on cutting edge technology deployed on an unprecedented scale, looking backwards into the human past might also provide us with some important inspiration. The builders of Stonehenge were among ancestors who appreciated very well the importance of our home star. They and their descendants gathered on midwinters day for to welcome the return of life-giving longer days. While they lacked technology and science, they did have a profound wisdom borne from a deep and daily connection with nature.
Putting ourselves back at the heart of the natural order in ways that will help ensure a long human future need not mean the sacrifice of our comfortable modern lives. It will, however, require us to appreciate the realities that we live within, and to use technology and economy in ways that reflect it.
This article was first published by Energyshare 5th June 2013.