Back in the late 1980s, only billionaires had cell phones and they were the size of small shoe boxes. Twenty years later, the cellular industry could brag about billions of subscribers worldwide. Over that same 25-year span, the gas you put in your car hasn’t fundamentally changed.
The clean economy is growing quickly, although actual adoption of solar, wind or alternative fuels seems to be moving at a snail’s pace—particularly when compared to other technologies like cell phones, TVs, or computers.
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.
In the 1850s, the US Navy convened a panel to determine whether the fleet should switch from boat-powered sails to ones that run on coal, according to Ray Mabus, the current Secretary of the Navy. The technology was deemed dangerous, expensive, and hard to find. Nonetheless, the switch took place and in a few years coal ruled the seas.
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.
In the 1890s, a new generation of experts argued 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 the Navy’s carriers and submarines run on nuclear power.
Cars and planes followed in the wake. The world now consumes roughly 80 million barrels a day. A trip to a foreign country was previously a once-in-a-lifetime experience, more commonly called “immigration.” Now such travel is the norm for yearly family vacations.
In 1839, twenty 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 long percolation time: Charles Brush created the first electricity-producing turbine in 1988 in Ohio.
Today, solar and wind combined only provide 5/1000th of the world’s total energy diet, according to Ripu Malhotra at SRI International and a 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.
So is the game over for renewable fuels? Not necessarily. Look at it from a different perspective: the first solar cells could only convert 4 to 11 percent of the sunlight that struck them into electricity and they cost hundreds of dollars. Now, scientists have come up with solar cells that can convert more than 40 percent of the light into power and use the leftover power to heat water for your home.
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.
The sunlight that strikes the earth every year contains as much energy as 22,000 cubic miles of oil. Put 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.
Algae advocates claim that they will be able to squeeze 8,000 gallons of fuel from an acre 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).
These advances show that while some remain skeptical about the future of renewable energy, the potential for growth is boundless. It wouldn’t be the first time the critics got it wrong.