The technology is dangerous, expensive and hard to find.
That was the conclusion of a panel convened by the U.S. Navy in the 1850s to determine whether the fleet should switch from boats powered by sails to ones that run on coal, according to Ray Mabus, the current Secretary of the Navy. Nonetheless, the switch took place, and in a few years' time, coal ruled the seas.
In the 1890s, a new generation of experts argued that a switch from coal to oil would be cost-prohibitive. Think of all that money spent on coaling stations! And in the 1950s, the critics once griped that nuclear-powered ships and submarines were an impractical fantasy. Now, all of the Navy’s carriers and submarines run on nuclear power.
Can the world rapidly jump when it comes to solar, wind or alternative fuels? Energy technology, from a day-to-day perspective, seems to move at a snail’s pace, particularly when compared to things like TVs or electronics. Back in the late '80s, only billionaires had cell phones and they were the size of small shoeboxes. Twenty years later, the cellular industry can brag about having billions of subscribers worldwide.
Over that same time 25-year span, the gas you put in your car hasn’t fundamentally changed.
New discoveries, technological shifts and geopolitical concerns, however, can give birth to sudden tectonic ruptures with the past. And when energy does shift, so does the whole of society. When scientists learned how to unlock the energy embedded in coal, the result was the industrial revolution. By 1880, coal overtook wood -- a popular source of energy that got us through four ice ages -- as the number-one source of energy worldwide. By then, relatively new phenomena like trains, steel ships and skyscrapers were commonplace.
On August 27, 1859, Edwin Drake struck crude in Pennsylvania. At the time, whales were the primary source of oil: a three- to five-year sailing voyage might yield a few thousand gallons. By 1866, Pennsylvania was supplying 3.6 million barrels of petroleum a year and demand continued to escalate.
Cars and planes followed in the wake. The world now consumes roughly 80 million barrels a day. A trip to a foreign country previously was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (My grandfather called it immigration.) Now it’s the basis for annual family vacations.
Solar, by contrast, has experienced more of a history of false starts. Archimedes arguably invented solar power in the third century B.C. He proposed using bronze shields to focus heat from sun onto enemy ships to set them on fire. Although the Athenians probably never adopted the concept in battle, a modern-day test by the Greek Navy proved that it works.
In 1839, 20 years before Drake started pumping oil, Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect while experimenting with an electrolyte cell. It proved electrons could be extracted from sunlight. However, silicon solar cells wouldn’t be invented at Bell Labs until 1954, 115 years later. Wind has had a similarly protracted percolation time: Charles Brush created the first electricity-producing turbine in 1888 in Ohio.
Solar and wind combined, however, only provide 5/1000th of the world’s total energy diet, according to Ripu Malhotra of SRI International, co-author of the book A Cubic Mile of Oil. Wave power, invented at the University of Edinburgh in the 1970s, is still stuck in the lab.
Is that game over for renewable fuels? Not necessarily. Look at it from a different perspective. The first solar cells could only convert 4 percent to 11 percent of the sunlight that struck them into electricity -- and those early prototypes cost hundreds of dollars each.
Now, scientists have come up with solar cells that can convert more than 40 percent of the light that hits them into power and use the leftover power to heat water for your home. Solar modules in 1980 cost $21.80 a watt. Now, the cheapest solar modules cost less than 75 cents to make. By contrast, oil has risen from $11 a barrel to over $100 in that same period and even oil companies agree that new deposits are more expensive and more difficult to find than ever before.
Sun power is also relatively untapped. The world’s annual energy diet is equivalent to the amount of energy in three cubic miles of oil. Three cubic miles of oil would cover the island of Manhattan 450 feet deep in crude, or fill 9,000 sports arenas, says Malhotra.
The sunlight that strikes the earth every year contains as much energy as 22,000 cubic miles of oil. A tiny fraction of that light could provide more than enough energy for all the biofuel crops and solar panels we’d ever need.
Put it another way: if you could bottle the next hour of sunlight, you’d have enough energy for the entire globe for the next 14 months.
Biofuels and batteries haven’t made as much progress as wind and solar, but some of the results are intriguing. Thirty years ago, Brazil ran on petroleum. Now, over 93 percent of the cars in the country can run on pure ethanol and over 17 percent of its transportation fuel comes from plants.
Declining prices, ample supplies, improving technology, economic opportunities. Add these benefits to the mix: renewable power also alleviates the need to drill for natural resources or to string power lines across miles of land. When peak oil drives prices up, will people give up cars, or decide that biofuels are really the way to go? Algae advocates claim that they will be able to squeeze 8,000 gallons of fuel from an acre of algae each year. An algae farm just slightly smaller than the state of Oklahoma and its sagging oil fields would satisfy all our needs. (For the math, start with 21 million barrels a day consumed.)
The Navy has set a goal of cutting getting half of its energy from renewable sources in 10 years. It already has a hybrid ship and is experimenting with biofuels for planes.
Who knows? Maybe the critics are wrong again.