The universe is packed with tremendous energy ranging from the gigantic burning stars to the strong atomic forces in every substance. In reality, we are not short on energy. Rather, we have been obsessed with digging and burning fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution for over 300 years. This makes it difficult for us to think outside the box. Among the great variety of energy available, three fossil fuels are allowed to dominate our lives — oil, coal and natural gas accounting for more than 80% of total world energy use. Don’t we have a better choice? Where has all the human ingenuity gone? Are we so uncreative in the area of energy?
Fossil fuels carry two great advantages: portability and dense energy content. On the other hand, their disadvantages are taking over in recent decades such as high prices, pollution, greenhouse gases, limited availability, and volatility in the Middle East. All these disadvantages can be summed up in just one word – sustainability.
New energy alternatives must now be considered in the wider context of sustainability. The best sources should be renewable, cost free, and pollution free. That is not too much to ask if we appreciate the power and vulnerability of Mother Nature. Once we have identified those sources, the solution then turns to harnessing the energy and port it to the consumers.
If you care to look around, there exist plenty of renewable, cost free and pollution free energy sources that can be tapped directly. They are: geothermal, sunlight, wind, magnetic force, and gravity (waterfalls, river currents, tides and waves). All of them can be used to generate electricity. That is why electricity, a free gift of nature, is destined to become the best and dominant energy source when it is fully utilized.
The magic of electricity is that it requires only two natural forces to make it happen. You generate electricity by applying a mechanical force in a magnetic field. This is how electric generators work. On the other hand, you generate mechanical force by passing electricity through a magnetic field. This is how electric motors work. In fact, the electric motor is the reverse of the generator, because electricity is consumed in the former and created in the latter. Another magic is that electricity can be created by chemical reaction such as in the hydrogen fuel cell where hydrogen and oxygen are mixed together to yield water. A third magic is that electricity is created by sunlight striking a surface made of silicon or other photovoltaic substances. This is how solar cells work. The possibilities do not end there if we care to investigate the wonders of nature.
The biggest challenge remaining is portability, that is, how to bring the electricity generated to the consumers. The answer lies in two areas – the grid and the battery. The electric grid is an expensive infrastructure connecting utility companies with buildings and cities that poor countries can ill afford. The battery is invented for movable objects of all sizes ranging from electric watches to automobiles. I think the key to electricity portability rests with the battery more than the grid. In the years to come, technological advances will continue to produce batteries that are lighter, smaller, cheaper, and able to store more electricity. Perhaps you can bet on some revolutionary breakthroughs once a while. The truly revolutionary invention is wireless re-charging. We’ve already seen this happening in some cell phones. There is also talk about building massive solar farms in outer space, and beaming back the electricity generated using microwaves. When wireless re-charging is fully developed, the problem of portability will be eliminated once and for all. Imagine driving your electric car when it is being re-charged wirelessly on the road.
Due to the technological advances and price drops of solar and wind, a new trend has developed that may render the grid less important. This is especially beneficial for poor countries whose electricity grid is either absent or unreliable. The new trend is called distributive system or independent production. If a building is equipped with solar or wind, it has the capacity to generate its own electricity without relying on outside supply. This can be scaled up to a neighborhood or a bigger community. The distributive system works for developed countries, too. In that case, the building equipped with solar or wind pays less to the utility company for electricity consumed. Better still, any surplus electricity generated can be sold to the utility company via the grid.
We should free ourselves from the slavery of fossil fuels, and start to think about the possibilities of electricity. Without a change in the direction of thinking, we will be obsessed for another century with how much fuel to dig out and how much to burn. The technologies are already here for the mass adoption of the best energy alternatives that are renewable, costless and pollution free. It’s only our mindset that imposes all the limits. If our minds fail to recognize the realities and potentials of electricity, we will not be able to create a better energy future.