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Energizing the planet
Renewable energies, which for so long were seen as noncompetitive, are now on the brink of breakthrough parity with fossil fuels.
Here’s a status update from Andrew Beebe, who is in charge of global sales and marketing for Suntech, the largest photovoltaic manufacturer in the world: “PV production and installations have grown at 45- 50 percent per year for the last decade. … In 2002, when I got started in this industry, total capacity sold was something like 10 megawatts per year. This year, it’ll probably be 18 gigawatts. That’s nearly a 2,000-fold increase in less than a decade. … Four years ago, when I was buying solar panels for Google, it was $3.20 per watt. … Today the global price per installed watt is below $1.30.”
More breakthrough technologies are popping up all over the solar marketplace. IBM scientists are replacing rare elements used in solar panels with much cheaper ingredients like copper and tin. Engineers at MIT are adding carbon nanotubes as solar concentrators, with the promise of making solar panels 100 times more efficient.
New technology solar batteries that can store enough energy to power a house — or a whole neighborhood — are expected to be available and affordable in about a decade.
On another energy front, companies like Exxon Mobil are perfecting the use of algae, sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce a new generation of biofuels. Algae factories are expected to produce 10,000 gallons of fuel per acre. (Today’s corn-based biofuel yields only 18 gallons per acre.) A 2-square-mile algae farm could produce enough biofuel to power 26,000 cars for a year.
Food for thought
There are lots of new food possibilities involving greater use of genetically engineered foods, but that is a pretty controversial approach. There is a much more elegant solution waiting in the wings — vertical farming with hydroponics (growing food in a nutrient-rich water solution) and aeroponics (growing food in the air with nutrient mists.)
The possibilities are quite dazzling. Using “ponics,” a 30-story building could grow enough food to feed 50,000 people. One hundred and fifty such buildings could feed all of New York City. As the book points out, vertical farms can grow crops year-round and be independent of outside weather. Plus they can eliminate traditional fertilizers and fossil fuels that power farm machines.
This is just a small sample of what is on the way. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face in preserving and protecting life on our planet. “Abundance” injects a welcome jolt of hope and optimism. Given inventive minds and brilliant technologies, it seems possible that everyone on Earth can have a fair share of abundance without collapsing the system that sustains us.