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Can we produce enough energy?

April 21st, 2008

earthlights Harsh Patel sent me an article written by Nathan Lewis, a professor at CalTech that gives Lewis’s view on whether world can meet its current energy needs thru burning fossil fuels, nuclear power or other sources.  It’s a fascinating read though perhaps a bit on the technical side.

I was intrigued by Lewis’s analysis of the world’s inability to use current methods to power our growth.  When you think of the (roughly) 600 million people living by “first world” standards (US, EU) and the 2.3 billion people in China and India that are just coming into the western way of life, it’s not surprising that the energy consumption model is not tenable with our current energy production methods.

Lewis spends a lot of time analyzing popular answers to our energy needs (carbon sequestration, nuclear) and quickly points out how we’d have to build a plant a day to keep up.  He focuses his answer on solar power (as it’s free and clean) and fully admits that it’s a big challenge.

I took three key thoughts away from the article:

  • What are we going to do to make the cost of “cleaner” energy cost competitive with burning fossil fuels?  Some combination of regulation, policy change and market incentives have to make investment and usage of solar power on the same price level as oil or coal.
  • What will humanity do when it comes to slowing our population growth?  So far all of history points towards exponentially increasing population with commensurate increases in energy usage.
  • How do we match the recent VC investment boom in energy with a similar boom in government R&D funding?

Links: “Powering the Planet” by Nathan Lewis via Engineering and Science, Nathan Lewis’s other presentations

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