I saw this great presentation from professor Nocera, at MIT, which you should truly download and watch on iTunes. If there is anyone who doesn’t get the scale of the problem we are facing, professor Nocera really knows how to punch you in the gut with the reality of our global energy crisis. We used to debate the flip angle of his worry – that of climate change caused by greenhouse gasses emissions. People still claim we don’t know what the scope of the problem is, or when will the glaciers melt (some even have the chutzpa to say they are waiting for it to happen so we can dig for oil in Greenland…), etc. Professor Nocera has a much simpler view on it – we are running out of energy – and the clean energy solutions we have don’t scale - with the exception of solar (did I mention he is working on solar solutions at MIT...in particular recreating photosynthesis).
To summarize his energy math –
1. We will need 28 Trillion Watts as a planet in 2050 – 18 TW of which are not in existence today – even if we reduce our average level of consumption significantly below current US levels.
2. If we convert every plant we have to fuel plants we will get 7 Trillion Watts (we do have to give up on all food crops in that case). I heard some people argue a different number on this point
3. If we go Nuclear and figure out how to put a new safe nuclear plant every 36 hours we can get 8,000 nuclear facilities (we will each get a neighborhood nuclear plant) supplying 8 TW. In Israel, that will translate to roughly 5 new nuclear facilities…
4. If we catch all the winds in the world (and with it the birds) we will get 2 more TW
5. Finally, if we damn all the rivers we didn’t already put a damn on – we will get 1 trillion watt – putting us in a world without fish (which goes perfectly well with a world without trees, crops, birds, and your local nuclear facility).
On the other hand we do know that the sun pours 800 Trillion Watts on the planet at any point in time. Historically we lived entirely based on that energy – everything we grew, hunted and ate leveraged that energy source. Wind and waves resulted from the sun, we turned them to energy for transportation and mechanical drive through boats and windmills. What we didn’t use simply got into the ground and turned into fossil fuels over the years – that was our planet’s battery – and we filled it up over 300 million years. The battery held its energy in complex C-H bonds, until we became smart enough to figure out we can burn that bond and make things go faster, bigger, farther and spread our Icarus wings to get closer to the sun.
Well, the news flash is that we have used half of that battery in the last 100 years or so. At the rate we are going, we won’t have 100 more years to go, we probably have closer to 50 as we accelerate the burn rate. If we do not revert back to using the sun, and being very efficient at doing it, well we might simply need to figure out how to have less people or less burn. Neither option leads me to the comfort that we will peacefully figure out whose turn it is at the decision table when we decide on who owns the remainder of the global battery.
The urgency of that battery drain pace is daunting to me. I hear people telling me that the energy problem is solvable (on its own - was the claim) within 10-20 years for each of the issues we are facing. My view is that we have to do whatever we can to solve any aspect of it, as soon as possible, or we will simply drain what’s left before we have time to let the problem solve itself. 8 years of doing nothing amount to almost 20% of the time we have left on the most urgent global clock, it is ticking loudly and we cannot afford 8 years of doing nothing.
What we need is a portfolio approach, most of which should be focused on two time axis – long term focus on the disruptive solutions that can scale to meet our real needs; and short term solutions that drastically reduce the energy consumption of our current technology set. Some of the people, in particular VC backed companies, should focus on the short-term cycles – as the VC implicit impatience (and I do say that with the most positive sense – they have to be impatient to sieve out the bad ideas quickly and redirect the money towards the successes.) The long-term solutions need to get different kind of money – patient money that does not want short-term returns, but is looking for long term mega-profits, with big social impact. I call it “mission money”.
I am glad to tell you that as I am going through the funding process I am more than impressed with finding the “money missionaries”, they are around, they are smart, they want to do good and they sign up. If the world splits the efforts – VCs will buy us more time, missionaries will buy us a way out – I believe there is a way to address all these points at scale and allow us all to keep going faster, bigger, farther, only this time not at the expense of our children.