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Earth Dr Reese Halter's Blog

NATURE'S BLUEPRINT

South Pacific

NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York calculated that the Earth’s temperature has been warming at a rate of 0.19 degrees Celsius per decade for the past 30 years. Moreover records from Antarctica ice cores show that the global temperature is within 1 degree Celsius of reaching the highest temperature in the last one million years. And human-induced CO2 levels have reached an unprecedented level not seen on the planet since the middle of the Pliocene, over three million years ago. Can science, technology and entrepreneurs slow down our globe from overheating? Yes.

At least that’s what British Petroleum, Royal Dutch Shell, four Japanese corporations, three German companies, one Taiwanese conglomerate and General Electric believe. They are all involved in the $10 billion solar energy-generation technologies providing cost effective energy to millions of people worldwide.

For the first time in the history of mankind we are faced with an imminent global crisis – global warming – and a decade or so to make necessary industrial changes to begin to slow down CO2 emissions. We have the scientific information, the media bombards us almost daily with record-breaking statistics and now collectively we will make a decision: business as usual or allowing human ingenuity, capital markets with some government reallocation of subsidies to steer us on safer path that our children depend upon.

In 2000 the National Academy of Engineering choose the electricity grid as the greatest invention of the twentieth century, surpassing even automobiles, airplanes and the computer in importance.

Energy rates that users pay vary around the world between 6 and 22 cents KWh. The U.S. is the largest energy user at 26 percent of the total world consumption despite having only 4.6 percent of the world’s population. Yet their average rates of 12 KWh are amongst the lowest in the world. In comparison, the rates in Japan and Germany are 21 cents KWh. Electricity from fossil fuels and nuclear energy in America and worldwide receive direct subsidies of $131 billion per annum. As a result, these electricity rates seen monthly on billing statements do not reflect the actual energy costs.

Currently, 66 percent of global energy is supplied by fossil fuels (40 percent coal, 20 percent natural gas and 7 percent oil). It’s these fuels that are made up of carbon along with global deforestation and 700 million automobiles that are causing the CO2 levels to rise. Nuclear energy supplies 16 percent of the world’s energy but there is no safe place to store its toxic waste.

Forty-five thousand hydro dams provide 16 percent of global power but at a tremendous initial cost to the environment in addition some rivers like the Colorado River and Yellow River of China no longer empty into the sea. Biomass, geothermal and tidal and ocean waves supply 9, 6.8 and 0.03 percent respectively to global energy markets.

In the last decade innovations with wind power have enabled it to capture and produce 1 percent of the world’s power. It has undergone explosive growth at more than 20 percent annually worldwide. Wind however is inherently unpredictable and limited by sufficient wind resources. Also, Europe and America’s tax credits designed to stimulate wind markets have lapsed or been modified.

Photovoltaic (PV) cells capture, on silicon materials, photons of light moving electrons from a positively charged layer to a negative one, creating an electrical current. There are no moving parts. PV cells last for at least 25 years and have been used in space-based satellites – the harshest possible environment – for decades.

Solar electricity can be made on site at individual homes or factories. Energy can be stored in batteries or sold to the power grid. Perhaps the greatest advantage of this clean renewable resource is that it can be utilized on the power grid during intermediate and peak periods which coincidentally occur during the sunlight hours. Solar power will replace the need for natural gas generators which are used more frequently to supply variable power needs as intermediate- or peak-load generators. Burning natural gas release methane a molecule that is 60 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat.

Solar-energy technologies currently provide 0.05 percent of the total electricity generated globally. The insatiable demand for PV cells in Japan, Germany and U.S. has driven the unit costs from $11 per watt to $5 per watt. Solar power is becoming affordable as unit costs continue to drop in price. The solar industry is growing at 20-30 percent each year and projected to climb even higher for the next 40 years.

About one third of the Earth is covered in sun-rich deserts creating a potential vast amount of energy resource. If 4 percent of those sun-rich deserts are harnessed the current world’s energy needs would be met.

Over the past 30 years the first silicon revolution has revolutionized out lives with computers, cell phones, e-mail and digital music.

We have just entered the second silicon revolution which will be transformed in the next decade or so with unstoppable solar energy superceding our dependency on fossil fuels for electricity and reducing global CO2 emissions. The only unanswered question is how many entrepreneurs will soon become solar billionaires.

Dr Reese Halter is a Science Communicator: Voice for Ecology, public speaker and and conservation biologist at Cal Lutheran University.  His latest book is The Incomparable Honeybee http://www.amazon.com/Incomparable-Honeybee-Economics-Pollination-Manifestos/dp/1897522606 He can be contacted through http://DrReese.com/

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