Azara Blog: Cambridge has a one-day meeting on "sustainable energy"

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Date published: 2006/12/01

The Cambridge Philosophical Society and the Cambridge Energy Forum held a one-day meeting today on "Sustainable Energy". Being a scientific meeting, it largely ignored the number one problem of the world, namely over-population. As well as looking for technological fixes, all the countries of the world should also be aiming to reduce their future populations. That is not going to solve all the problem, but nothing is. Unfortunately this is the one issue that is always ignored.

Being in Cambridge, most of the people attending the meeting were old and are not going to contribute anything to the technological advances. This is one of the problems with energy research, making it interesting enough to attract the brightest and best youngsters, instead of having them waste their life, and the resources of the world, studying superstrings.

The first talk was by Daniel Nocera, from MIT. Being an American academic, he was entertaining, and, unusually, he was also informative, giving a view of the "Big Picture".

In 2000, the world energy "inventory" was around 13 TW (well, a Watt is a unit of power, not energy, and he did not say whether "inventory" was peak capacity or what, but it does not matter below, because it is the relative numbers that matter). This is with a population of around 6 billion people.

In 2050 the world population is forecast to be over 9 billion. And the forecast for the energy "inventory" is 28 TW or perhaps even 35 TW. If the whole world consumed at the rate of the US today, that would instead be 102 TW, or 84 TW at the rate of North America, or 45 TW if at the rate of Western Europe. Even if the world consumed at the rate of Equatorial Guinea today, it would be 30 TW.

Nocera falls in the camp of believing that the supply of oil and gas will not be a problem before 2050. But he also believed that is was alternative sources of energy that would largely make up the gap between the 12 TW and the 28 (or more) TW.

He said that if you converted all the existing agricultural land mass to grow biofuels, then that would provide a maximum of 7-10 TW (and nobody would get to eat). And if you had 8000 new nuclear plants, that would produce 8 TW. But 8000 nuclear plants between now and 2050 means a new nuclear plant should be being built every 2 days. (Of course nuclear power currently has waste problems, but Nocera believes those could be overcome.)

Nocera works on solar energy so his view, not surprisingly, was that solar was going to be the best long-term solution to the dual problem of energy supply and carbon emissions. (Well, during the question session he also agreed that nuclear fusion might be a good long-term energy source.)

According to Nocera, there is some fundamental chemistry research that needs doing in order to make solar power (with the associated storage problems) become the definitive new energy source. He even "promised" a Nobel Prize (or two) to anyone coming up with the answers. He said it would take ten years (at least, but the world also didn't have more time than that to wait).

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