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Powering the Future
AUGUST 2005
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Powering the Future @ National Geographic Magazine
By Michael Parfit
Photographs by Sarah Leen
Where on Earth can our energy-hungry society turn to replace oil, coal, and natural gas?

Freedom!

I stand in a cluttered room surrounded by the debris of electrical enthusiasm: wire peelings, snippets of copper, yellow connectors, insulated pliers. For me these are the tools of freedom. I have just installed a dozen solar panels on my roof, and they work. A meter shows that 1,285 watts of power are blasting straight from the sun into my system, charging my batteries, cooling my refrigerator, humming through my computer, liberating my life.

The euphoria of energy freedom is addictive. Don't get me wrong; I love fossil fuels. I live on an island that happens to have no utilities, but otherwise my wife and I have a normal American life. We don't want propane refrigerators, kerosene lamps, or composting toilets. We want a lot of electrical outlets and a cappuccino maker. But when I turn on those panels, wow!

Maybe that's because for me, as for most Americans, one energy crisis or another has shadowed most of the past three decades. From the OPEC crunch of the 1970s to the skyrocketing cost of oil and gasoline today, the world's concern over energy has haunted presidential speeches, congressional campaigns, disaster books, and my own sense of well-being with the same kind of gnawing unease that characterized the Cold War.

As National Geographic reported in
June 2004, oil, no longer cheap, may soon decline. Instability where most oil is found, from the Persian Gulf to Nigeria to Venezuela, makes this lifeline fragile. Natural gas can be hard to transport and is prone to shortages. We won't run out of coal anytime soon, or the largely untapped deposits of tar sands and oil shale. But it's clear that the carbon dioxide spewed by coal and other fossil fuels is warming the planet, as this magazine reported last September.

Cutting loose from that worry is enticing. With my new panels, nothing stands between me and limitless energy—no foreign nation, no power company, no carbon-emission guilt. I'm free!

Well, almost. Here comes a cloud.

Shade steals across my panels and over my heart. The meter shows only 120 watts. I'm going to have to start the generator and burn some more gasoline. This isn't going to be easy after all.

The trouble with energy freedom is that it's addictive; when you get a little, you want a lot. In microcosm I'm like people in government, industry, and private life all over the world, who have tasted a bit of this curious and compelling kind of liberty and are determined to find more.

Some experts think this pursuit is even more important than the war on terrorism. "Terrorism doesn't threaten the viability of the heart of our high-technology lifestyle," says Martin Hoffert, a professor of physics at New York University. "But energy really does."

Energy conservation can stave off the day of reckoning, but in the end you can't conserve what you don't have. So Hoffert and others have no doubt: It's time to step up the search for the next great fuel for the hungry engine of humankind.

Is there such a fuel? The short answer is no. Experts say it like a mantra: "There is no silver bullet." Though a few true believers claim that only vast conspiracies or lack of funds stand between us and endless energy from the vacuum of space or the core of the Earth, the truth is that there's no single great new fuel waiting in the heart of an equation or at the end of a drill bit.

Enthusiasm about hydrogen-fueled cars may give the wrong impression. Hydrogen is not a source of energy. It's found along with oxygen in plain old water, but it isn't there for the taking. Hydrogen has to be freed before it is useful, and that costs more energy than the hydrogen gives back. These days, this energy comes mostly from fossil fuels. No silver bullet there.

The long answer about our next fuel is not so grim, however. In fact, plenty of contenders for the energy crown now held by fossil fuels are already at hand: wind, solar, even nuclear, to name a few. But the successor will have to be a congress, not a king. Virtually every energy expert I met did something unexpected: He pushed not just his own specialty but everyone else's too.

"We're going to need everything we can get from biomass, everything we can get from solar, everything we can get from wind," says Michael Pacheco, director of the National Bioenergy Center, part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. "And still the question is, can we get enough?"

The big problem is big numbers. The world uses some 320 billion kilowatt-hours of energy a day. It's equal to about 22 bulbs burning nonstop for every person on the planet. No wonder the sparkle is seen from space. Hoffert's team estimates that within the next century humanity could use three times that much. Fossil fuels have met the growing demand because they pack millions of years of the sun's energy into a compact form, but we will not find their like again.

Fired up by my taste of energy freedom, I went looking for technologies that can address those numbers. "If you have a big problem, you must give a big answer," says a genial energy guru named Hermann Scheer, a member of the German parliament. "Otherwise people don't believe."

The answers are out there. But they all require one more thing of us humans who huddle around the fossil fuel fire: We're going to have to make a big leap—toward a different kind of world.


SOLAR: FREE ENERGY, AT A PRICE

On a cloudy day near the city of Leipzig in the former East Germany, I walked across a field of fresh grass, past a pond where wild swans fed. The field was also sown with 33,500 photovoltaic panels, planted in rows like silver flowers all turned sunward, undulating gently across the contours of the land. It's one of the largest solar arrays ever. When the sun emerges, the field produces up to five megawatts of power, and it averages enough for 1,800 homes.

Nearby are gaping pits where coal was mined for generations to feed power plants and factories. The skies used to be brown with smoke and acrid with sulfur. Now the mines are being turned into lakes, and power that once came from coal is made in a furnace 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) away.

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