Have you ever thought that we all are walking talking forms of sunlight? Yes, sunlight. We are all derivatives of the earth’s primary source of energy, the sun. Each day the earth receives 120,000 terawatts of sunlight; world wide, our energy consumption is .012% of that number. But instead of directly consuming this abundance of sunlight, we use its dirty ancient remains, fossil fuels. Fossil fuel is nothing but buried sunshine; hence it would be fair to say that our lives are now derivatives of ancient sunlight. The sunlight that fell on earth millions and millions of years ago converted to biomass and then to fossil fuels after various forms of chemical reaction. It is now our primary energy source, but could well turn out to be the nemesis of our runaway growth.
Using this finite source of energy we have created industrialized economies. The stock of this energy is dense and thick. But our rate of consumption is far outpacing its rate of regeneration. Globally we are consuming 500 years of photosynthetic energy (in form of oil) in a span of 12 months. Soon the past millennia of fossil fuel creation will run out, and with it the fuel itself.
Artificially capturing and storing sunlight is the next generation of thinking. But the idea that we can continue to live our lifestyles the way we currently do may be too good to be true. Solar energy has been proposed as a major piece of the renewable energy puzzle over the last few years, as the energy itself is renewable and virtually infinite. But how renewable is the means of processing that energy? That’s where it gets complicated.
The resources required to capture and store solar energy are finite. The time frames over which they regenerate themselves are not useful for human consumption. We are going to run into a decline of production for some of the most critical resources required to maintain technological progress. Take Hafnium or Indium for example. They are required for manufacturing computer chips, solar-cells and LCDs. They are expected to reach their peak production in 10 years.Silver, used in industrial catalysts and solar-cells, will run out in 15-20 years.Uranium, required for nuclear power-stations? 30-40 years.So, where will this leave us?
Peaking of minerals is going to be the major limiting factor for us towards developing alternate forms of energy, primarily solar power. World primary gold production peaked in 2001; Lead and Mercury production globally are in a decline as compared to their historical levels. It will be difficult and time-consuming for us to find substitutes for these precious metals.Precious because they are inseperably tied to not only our “growth” and “progress”, but also simple technological functioning of our society.
“Renewable Energy”, I hear someone say? Renewable forms of energy consume a lot of energy for their production and subsequent usage. Mining, manufacturing and transportation are energy intensive activities. They have a very high primary energy footprint. This means it’s not always guaranteed that they will pay back the total energy consumed in their production. Mining and production of steel, aluminium, copper, zinc, lead and nickel consume an equivalent of 8% of world energy (5.88 billion barrels of oil annually) . All these metals are of great significance to the energy industry. Their exploration and mining is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, primarily oil, for their mobility and transportation. It follows that when oil peaks, a mineral production peak may soon be on the way. Solar energy is renewable, are the means of producing and distribution so? Food for thought.
The serious limits on alternative forms of energy to become mainstream suggest an even more urgency to develop solar energy infrastructure before oil becomes prohibitively expensive. Where are we, as a society, on this?
- Mihir Mathur