Life on Earth is maintained by the energy of the Sun and by a delicate balance between carbon dioxide consuming vegetation and carbon dioxide exhaling mammals. The plants consume carbon dioxide and water while producing food and oxygen needed by the humans and animals. As long as the balance between plant and animal life is maintained, the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere and therefore the temperature of the planet remains constant. On the other hand, if this balance is upset by excessive carbon dioxide emissions, this added CO2 blocks some of the solar energy from being reflected back into space and global temperature rises.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, both the global population and the per capita energy consumption quadrupled, resulting in a 16-fold increase in the carbon footprint of mankind. Today, the carbon dioxid concentration of the atmosphere is at the highest level in a half million year and is rising. Therefore major steps are needed to stabilize and eventually lower global temperature.
The scientific modeling of this process has been much refined and the model predictions agree that the continued use of fossil and nuclear fuels will cause a disaster, not only because of global warming, but because both of these energy sources are exhaustible. There is also agreement that it is the melting of the ice caps that slows the rise in temperature, because this melting takes up a large portion of the accumulating excess heat that the planet receives. Once this ice is gone, a tipping point will be reached as global warming becomes an irreversible, run-away process.
There is disagreement on how much time is available, before this tipping poiny is reached and also on how much fossil and uranium fuel remains on the planet. These numbers have been debated for decades and no agreement has been reached. This present stalemate is partly due to the resistance to change of powerful lobbies, – who’s financial interests favor the continued use of the exhaustible energy sources – and partly to the fact, that reliable data on the feasibility and cost of conversion is unavailable. This debate therefore will not end until a full size (1,000 MW) solar-hydrogen demonstration plant is built, proving that the cost of building such a power plant is cemtetitive with the costs of fossil or nuclear ones.
The reason why solar power plants require hydrogen storage is because solar energy has to be transported from places like the Sahara to the more populated parts of the globe. Solar-hydrogen power plants will be a means of reestablishing the global balance between the presence of human and plant life, because (just like plants) they use water and sunshine to generate the energy, fuel (hydrogen) and oxygen that are needed by us. A 1,000 MW solar-hydrogen power plant generates as much oxygen as does 10,000 acres of rain forests and therefore has as much impack on cutting carbon emissions as would the planting of that many acres of rain forests.
In less than an hour, we receive more energy from the Sun than maqnkind’s yearly need will be at the end of this century, when the global population hopefully will stabilize at around 10 billion and when the life style of this population will reach that of the West. (In addition to solar energy, gigantic amounts of free and unexhaustible energy quantities are also available from the moon – in the form tides -, from the rotation of the Earth – in the form of ocean currents -, from the thermal gradients in the air and in the oceans -, exploitable by heat pumps and wind turbines -, and from geothermal energy.)
I have published the detailed design of a 1,000 MW solar-hydrogen power plant. This plant would require a 6 to 10 square mile area in the Sahara or in the Mojave Desert. To meet the total global energy requirements of mankind at the end of this century, solar energy would need to be collected on 5-6% of the Sahara.
Now, let us look at the costs. Sir Nicholas Stern, former vice president and chief economist at the World Bank estimated that by 2020 the cost of continued reliance on fossil and nuclear fuels will reach 20% of the gross world product (GWP). In addition to this (approximately $10 trillion/yr) cost of inaction, there are social, environmental and “energy war” costs. On the other hand, for less than 1% of the GWP, we can convert the global economy to a clean and inexhaustible one by the end of this century.
I believe that the time for debating is over and the time for building has arrived. I believe that the power plants costs will not exceed the costs of the conventional power plants and I also believe that the cost of the electricity and hydrogen produced will be competitive with todays market prices. Yet, what I believe is irrelevant. What is relevant is that we must build this demonstration plant to end the debate on costs and feasibility that causes the present state of inaction concerning the transition to a renewable energy economy.
Market forces alone (cap and trade, increased fuel costs, taxation, etc.) will not give a permanent solution, will not sufficiently reduce carbon emissions, but can stifle global economic growth. On the other hand, the building of these solar-hydrogen plants and their associated infrastructure would create the greatest global economic expansion ever. To achieve these goals, to start the third industrial revolution will require vision and commitment, but so did the landing on the Moon. The scale of this effort will exceed that of the Marshall Plan, but it will do more for mankind than what the Marshall Plan did for Europe.
It is debatable how much time we still have or how much climate change we can live with. It is also debatable how much of our economic resources should be devoted to stabilizing and reversing mankind’s growing carbon footprint. What is not debatable is that eventually we will have to do it and that we should not give reason to our grandchildren to ask: „Why did you not act in time?”
Béla Lipták, PE
Author of „Post-Oil Energy Technology” and
Editor of the Environmental Engineers’ Handbook