The Renewable Energy Future Has Been Solved

This is to call your attention to a remarkable paper titled “Hydrogen Without Tears: Addressing the Global Energy Crisis via a Solar to Hydrogen Pathway,” by Derek Abbott, in Proceedings of the IEEE, vol. 97, No. 12, December 2009, pp. 1931-1934. Abbott is in the Electrical & Electronic Engineering Dept., Univ. of Adelaide, Australia.

According to Abbott’s message, we should stop wasting time and money: Stop  constructing nuclear fission power stations, stop nuclear fusion research, stop large-scale wave, wind, hydroelectric, biomass, geothermal and solar cell power projects. Abbott writes “Using either large trough-shaped or parabolic-shaped mirrors, it has been demonstrated that focused sunlight can viably superheat water for generating electricity via a conventional steam turbine … This technique is called solar thermal. As little as a 500 by 500 km footprint is needed to supply the world’s energy needs—this is a tiny fraction of the world’s desert area.”

Solar farm embodiments which are 4 by 4 km in size should do the trick. Abbott points out that “there are a range of possible energy storage options for storing energy during the day for nighttime use.”

What’s wrong with present-day power supplies? Abbott’s text mentions disadvantages, including features that are frequently overlooked:

Oil: “… we cannot continue to burn these resources, as they are critical for embodying industrial products such as plastics , paints, tires, and a host of petrochemicals. We need oil to lubricate engines and machines for many centuries to come.”

Nuclear fission: The decommissioning cost of a plant is $8 billion. We only have economically recoverable uranium reserves to last a relatively short time. There are issues of safety, storage of waste, and proliferation.

Nuclear fusion: It is a technology that does not yet exist. The reactor will become irradiated with neutrons, requiring high decommission costs. Furthermore, fusion irrevocably transmutes lithium, a scarce resource.

Wave, wind, hydroelectric, biomass, geothermal: All of these display enormous conversion efficiency losses.

Silicon solar cell: This uses toxic chemicals, and the arsenic dopant is scarce.

Electric vehicles: The world reserve of lithium for batteries will rapidly become exhausted.

Hydrogen fuel cells: These use expensive membrane technology and exotic chemicals that will stretch the world reserves inventory.

Abbott continues: “So how do we power vehicles? The solution has already been demonstrated by BMW, Ford, and Mazda, where vehicles are powered by internal combustion engines on hydrogen. … electricity from a given solar collector farm can  be connected via the grid to a desalination plant for electrolysis…. the low-tech collector technology would cost less than all the decommission costs of all the nuclear power stations needed to generate an equivalent energy. … In summary, the dominant scaleable vision is a solar-hydrogen economy, where solar thermal collectors are preferred to solar cells. Also for mobile storage, pure hydrogen (liquid and/or gas) is preferred to both electric batteries and hydrogen fuel cells. Placing this form of a solar-hydrogen economy as an end vision on our energy policy roadmap is a situation where everyone wins.”

Many of the features Abbott advocates have been tested in small-scale projects. In my opinion, we should begin, ASAP, to design, construct, and test large-scale implementations of Abbott power supplies. It will revolutionize the renewable energy field. Perhaps Abbott will deserve to be awarded a Nobel prize!

(See also “Keeping the Energy Debate Clean: How Do We Supply the World’s Energy Needs?,” by Derek Abbott, in Proceedings of the IEEE, vol. 98, No. 1, January 2010, pp. 42-66.)

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