Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Carleton hosts talk by renewable energy expert

<st Thursday, Dr. Nate S. Lewis, George L. Argyros Professor of Chemistry from the California Institute of Technology, lectured to the Carleton community on the pressing needs and challenges of renewable energy technologies. In the opening remarks of his speech entitled, “Powering the Planet,” Lewis said, “we need daunting amounts of carbon-free power, starting today.”

Professor Lewis has been an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow, a Camille and Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar, and a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator. He is a leading advocate for change to global energy policies and as a distinguished expert in the field of photoelectrochemistry, Lewis was recently named 17th in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of “100 Agents of Change.”

“Energy is the single most important challenge facing science in the 21st century,” Lewis said. “Without energy you can’t plug in your laptops or cure poverty and diseases.”

In laymen’s terms, he laid out the staggering amount of energy that is consumed to power our planet and emphasized that the world has never used significantly less energy than the year before. With estimates of a world population of 10 billion by 2050, global energy demand for that year is expected to reach 28 Terawatts.

Lewis’s description of the sheer scale of this energy problem effectively debunked the media’s conventional message that we already possess all the technology needed to supply sufficient levels of carbon neutral power.

While his calculations indicate there exists enough fossil fuel energy to sustain the global population for the next hundreds of years, the environmental consequences of continued reliance on fossil energy suggests this would be extremely unwise. “Though no models can predict CO2 emissions with complete accuracy, we know CO2 levels will be off the charts and we know what we are seeing. We are seeing ice melt in Greenland and the oceans acidify. It is quite possible that at the current rate of coral bleaching, the only colored coral your children will see is in the movie Finding Nemo,” Lewis said.

Given the large-scale demand for energy and the harmful environmental effects of fossil fuels, it follows that the need for carbon free power from renewable energy resources is imperative. However, a technological breakthrough is needed to make such “clean energy” technologies economically competitive with the relatively inexpensive fossil fuel resources, and each option is problematic in some manner. For example, generating enough power to meet demand by nuclear fission would require construction of a new nuclear power plant every other day over the next 50 years. Sequestering carbon dioxide into oil and gas reserves likewise poses a host of problems.

Other renewable resources such as hydroelectricity or geothermal power do not seem to be any more feasible, as many resources simply won’t provide enough energy. Lewis thus asserted solar power holds the most promise, “because that is where the energy is.” “More energy from the sun hits earth in one hour than all energy consumed on the planet in an entire year,” said Lewis.

However, fueling the planet with solar power is also a daunting challenge. We need ways to store the energy in order to power the hours of the day with no sunlight and furthermore, the costs of such solar technology must be drastically reduced.

Lewis also posed policy related questions for the audience to consider. As investment in renewable energy technologies will come at a significant price tag, many argue that this endeavor is something that is simply too costly. Yet, the flip side of the argument says the global society cannot afford to fail. “We can’t do a cost benefit analysis on this issue because we do not know the costs or the benefits,” said Lewis. “If we spend the money, we wont’ know if we wasted the money or dodged a bullet.”

Ending on an optimistic note, Lewis remarked, “we’re good at developing technology.” Provided you get enough researchers to tackle the issue, “in 10-15 years, we could really advance in getting clean technology cheap. We just have to realize what the physics of our planet tells us about what the allowed solutions are.”

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *