Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The Future of Energy

by Oliver Gent

How we power our future will affect all of us, no matter how poor or rich, regardless of whether we want to be involved or not. It will affect our day-to-day lives and it will drive technology to new levels.

`How do we power ourselves?’ This is a common topic. We know that we should be focusing on renewable power and how non-renewable resources are damaging the environment. However, what is being done to develop energy technologies?

"More power from the sun hits the Earth in a single hour than humanity uses in an entire year, yet solar only provided 0.0039% of the energy used in the US last year." (Elon Musk, Tesla)

The total area required to power the world’s predicted energy needs in 2030 with solar panels is the size of Spain, with 20% efficiency. This removes the argument that solar panels will take up too much space, considering Spain's land area is 0.33% of the world’s entire land area, and 0.099% of the whole world’s area. Also the solar panels would be distributed evenly across the surface, to maximise efficiency in distribution. Using unproductive land like deserts would work very well.

Elon Musk, the owner of the company Tesla (and SpaceX), believes that solar technology is the solution to our energy problems. However, he thinks a large part of the problem is down to our inability to store the power effectively. Currently with reusable power, or any power produced at all, it has to be used immediately. This means energy companies have to base how much they produce on trends in our usage. This means any surplus power goes to waste if it's not needed. If we relied purely on solar energy there would also be the problem that during a cloudy period and at night the power produced is significantly reduced or not at all.

With Elon Musk's idea, energy would be available on demand because any surplus power produced would be stored and during low points of production, the extra power would be available. This means we need to accelerate the development of battery technologies to cope with these demands. Elon Musk is developing high-end super efficient electricity storage technologies for cars.

Elon also believes that every house should not rely on the grid. This means each house would have its own solar panels, with a house battery removing the problem of distributing power across the country, which is very expensive and inefficient.

This is not just an idea: the technology is available today and almost ready to buy for the consumer market. Tesla house batteries (called the power wall) are being released soon, costing between $3,000 and $3,500. With current household attitudes towards renewable energy, these systems could become common within the next 10 years. However if change is to be fast, people need to be able to afford the initial cost reasonably and understand the incentives to make the investment. 

Using wind turbines may also seem equal in potential but on a global scale is minimal. Perhaps in the UK and other countries with less sunlight there is a place for wind energy. However significant engineering is required to go into the structure of the wind turbine, which seems inefficient. These structures are very hard to transport due to their size and many are located in the sea which adds a lot of complexity. Winds can also be very temperamental, although there is energy potential during the whole day. Due to the height required, turbines are also a lot more intrusive on the landscape and they also produce noise. This means there is little or no potential for turbines to be used in a localised way on most homes.

Another important technology being developed currently is atomic fusion. This has the potential to release energy in the same way that the sun sustains itself. There are multiple research facilities which are able to produce a fusion reaction in different methods, however none have made a stable sustainable reaction which is anywhere near economically beneficial.

The technology has been in the process of development since the 60’s and relatively little ground has been covered. There is not enough funding for the technology to be viable in the near future. If we were able to fully use this source of power, the benefits would be vast amounts of energy with very little fuel. The best fuel for fusion is a material called Tritium, which is very rare on earth and currently costs $30,000 per gram with 400 grams being used worldwide each year (figures are not from 2016 however close enough to prove the point). The nearest good source is on the moon which provided there is enough interest and a viable method found, could start another space race to mine the material.

In conclusion solar energy is the most realistic and promising technology in the near future with companies like Tesla producing innovative and importantly affordable solutions to our increasing energy problem. Eventually we may even lose our reliance on energy giants. Maybe. 

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