Live blogging from the Greener Gadgets Conference.
"People often talk about how we need a Manhattan Project-like investment in renewable energy, but what we really need is more like the massive retooling of industry that we saw during World War II. Only this time America, Britain and France aren't against Germany and Japan, we're all on the same team," Dr. Saul Griffith told the audience at the 2009 Greener Gadgets Conference.
Griffith has been working most recently on wind energy, but he is an accomplished inventor with multiple patents in textiles, optics, nanotechnology and energy systems. He has multiple degrees in materials science and mechanical engineering and got his doctorate in something called programmable assembly and self-replicating machines from MIT. He is in the National Inventors Hall of Fame and has co-founded numerous companies, including Low Cost Eyeglasses, Squid Labs, Potenco, Instructables.com, HowToons and Makani Power.
In his own words, Griffith is "obsessed with energy," and it shows: he recently did a detailed analysis of all the energy use, including embodied energy in products and services, in his own life. He has embarked on an ambitious plan to radically decrease his own energy footprint, from limiting the flying he'll do to eliminating red meat from his diet, restricting himself to one glass of wine a day and other factors.
Griffith spent a few minutes pointing out the very real dangers of global warming facing the planet, and included some power point slides of rising CO2 levels. He pointed out that if humanity converted half of the fossil fuels thought to still exist in the Earth to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the planet would warm up quite uncomfortably, bringing on massive sea level rise.
Griffith pointed out the massive discrepancy in CO2 emissions between developed and developing countries ("so low-lying countries can see who to blame when they go underwater"), and he admitted to the audience that he felt like a "planet f**cker" as a result. "We're all planet f**ckers," he said, to uproarious laughter. One side note: "People think Americans are the worst energy users, but actually Canadians are," said Griffith. "They're basically Americans but somewhere colder."
Griffith then spent some time describing the challenges ahead in ramping up the world's supply of renewable energy. He said:
***Even if we harvested all the energy available from flow of all the rivers in the world, it would only supply half of humanity's current energy use.
***Even if we harvested all the energy available from the actions of the tides around the world it would only supply 1/5 of humanity's current energy use.
***In order to roll back global warming we'd have to build 100 square meters of solar cells every second for 20 years, or 50 square meters of solar thermal capacity every second for next 25 years.
***Or for wind energy we'd have to install one of the most efficient (and therefore largest) turbines every 5 minutes for 25 years.
***If we tried to use nuclear power (which many experts say is impractical, too expensive and too dangerous), we'd have to build one nuclear power plant a week for 25 years. (In comparision, the U.S. hasn't opened any new nuclear power plants since the 1970s.)
***For geothermal energy we'd have to install 3 massive steam turbines every day for 25 years.
***For biofuels we'd have to cover essentially the size of Idaho and Wyoming with genetically engineered algae.
Daunting numbers indeed. However, Griffith pointed out that history and current capacity actually shows that these numbers are quite reachable, if we get priorities straight and the right factors of leadership and incentives. For instance, he pointed out that a serious dent could be made in the solar thermal sector (to the tune of 200 gigawatts of installed capacity) if Coke and Pepsi simply cut open the 110 billion metal beverage cans they make a year, and shape them into mirrors to concentrate solar energy to boil water and turn a turbine (like the plants that are already in the U.S. western desert).
On the other hand, according to Griffith, if you told Nokia, AMD and Intel they had to make solar cells instead of their current products, they could turn out enough to get us to the numbers we need to slash global warming. Yes, there is currently a bottleneck in the amount of refined silicon available, but the element itself is widely plentiful, and over the next few years we could ramp up the number of refineries. Similar challenges in other fields could be similarly addressed.
Griffith pointed out that America successfully did a rapid transformation of much of the economy to get ready for World War II, during the days that Frigidaire made war planes instead of refrigerators. Over the last 40 years we went from 5 to 15 terawatts of energy capacity, a massive gain. "So we can do it, and we will do it, but we just have to do it differently. Not with pipes and oil," said Griffith.
Griffith also pointed out that although 90-300 watts per square meter of solar energy hit the Earth's surface, the currently recoverable amount is quite a bit lower for renewable technologies. He said we can now harvest 10-20 watts per square meter of land with solar power, 1-2 watts with wind, 3 watts per square meter for biofuels or hydro. That means we'd need the 7th biggest country in the world to supply our current human energy needs -- or 8 times that if we all had the American standard of energy use across the world.
That's why it's so important for all of us to conserve energy, as much as possible. Hence Griffith's own life accounting. He also pointed out that we need to think more seriously about reuse, fixing things instead of tossing them (which can also create employment), and getting back to "heirloom products," that last a long time. Although that's especially difficult with consumer electronics, Griffith said even that sector could go a long way to reduce planned obsolescence.
The goal, said Griffith, is "design for the age of consequence," with "cell phones that will last for years, or a the laptop that I'll pass on to my son." (One way of imagining this could be expandable components, so that you replace only the key boards of a computer over time, or parts that break, while keeping parts that don't need to be changed out.)
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