Thomas Edison, also known as America’s “greatest inventor,” is responsible for some of the most unsustainable products that humanity has used for over a century.
Based on its astounding list of 1,093 patents, it has long been proven that many inventions do not meet the Sustainable Development Goals. From the incandescent light bulb (a design he shared with other major innovators) to the formation of the first power station in New York City, Edison’s inventions helped make humanity a big polluter. But as his career developed and his knowledge deepened, he became embroiled in a different narrative.
A 1901 article on Edison in The Atlanta Constitution described how his unorthodox ideas on batteries could bring light to the then dark countryside: at night. “Edison drew pictures of a windmill to power a group of four to six houses, and in 1911 he was looking for manufacturers to build a prototype.
Edison’s alkaline batteries have also powered some cars and trucks. He worked with Henry Ford to develop an electric automobile that would be affordable and convenient, and The Constitution article discussed plans to allow people to recharge their batteries at hookup sites along streetcar lines.
Along with his more sustainable efforts, Edison gradually realized that fossil fuels wouldn’t last forever. In 1931, shortly before his death, the inventor told his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone: “I would put my money in the sun and solar power. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until the oil and coal run out before we tackle this. “
Well, the time for the depletion of fossil fuels is nearer than you might imagine.
Scientists now assume that we have consumed 40% of the world’s oil. At the current rate of consumption, we will run out of oil and gas in 50 years and coal in a century. The solution? Renewable energy. But can the WHOLE world embrace renewable solutions and move away from fossil fuels?
Can humanity rely solely on renewable energies?
Look to the sun, effectively.
Renewable energy refers to any energy resource that can be replenished quickly. Oil and coal take millions of years to be manufactured. Nuclear energy uses uranium, which is also non-renewable. Sun, wind and water, on the other hand, offer an inexhaustible option, and their capacity is enormous. For example, take the sun: according to Professor Xiao Yu Wu, an energy expert at MIT, the Earth receives 23,000 TW of solar energy, while the world’s energy consumption is 16 TW. So 100% renewable energy could be possible even if we capture only 0.07% of solar energy.
But it is not that easy. Otherwise, whole countries would already be on the 100% list, right?
Energy use encompasses complex local and global ecosystems, with various components that must be addressed to achieve the coveted 100% status. While politics, regulation and corporate interests are the real causes of impeding the transition, we will focus on other parts of the energy ecosystem.
Let us return to the solar example. With electricity powering everything humans do on a daily basis, having a sustainable source for it is crucial. With the sun radiating more than 10,000 times our current needs, an area of solar panels of several hundred thousand kilometers could power humanity. So why not launch global investments and build it?
Solar panels need to be located in extremely sunny locations to be able to transmit at full capacity. A huge field of panels could easily be built in one of the deserts of Africa, where space is plentiful. But what about the transmission? This is where we encountered the biggest obstacle. Today, power lines lose 6-8% of the energy they carry due to the wire materials used. The longer the power lines, the more energy would be lost.
This is where innovation and technology come in. In the case of efficient transmission of energy, superconductors could solve the problem, and discovering the following materials that would efficiently conduct electricity to large cities and populated areas is only a matter of time.
100% renewable energies are achievable
Researchers around the world are taking the time to prove that renewables and their additional supporting materials are here for the long haul. A study by LUT University and the Energy Watch Group opens up a new perspective towards a 100% switch to renewable energies over the next two to three decades. The described global transition path stands out as the first to present a technology-rich, multisectoral, multiregional and cost-optimal 1.5 ° C scenario.
According to the researchers, almost all of the energy supply will be produced using a mix of existing and locally available renewable energy sources, with an emphasis on decentralized energy sources deemed vital for a increased efficiency. They say that the replacement of carbon-intensive energy options in the electricity and heating sectors is possible by 2030. Solar and wind energy will lead the transition, potentially accounting for 88% of the total energy supply. . The report also predicts that a fully renewable global energy system will support around 35 million local jobs, with leading job creation in the solar sector.
According to research, 100% renewable energy is cheaper than the current energy system. The discounted cost of a fully sustainable global energy system will be a much more affordable option.
So if 100% renewable energy is achievable, why isn’t the whole world rushing to achieve this sustainable goal? We come back to politics and corporate interests. With big oil dominating entire political parties, the answer is often quite obvious. But even those interests MUST change as we get closer to the end of the line, when it comes to oil and coal. Even the most robust and powerful oil conglomerate will not continue production once the global supply is depleted.
The world’s population is expected to grow from 7.7 billion in 2019 to 9.7 billion in 2050. Total energy demand is expected to increase by almost 2% per year to keep up with a higher standard of living. Creativity, innovation, powerful incentives and a shift in interest from major conglomerates are required if we are to meet these demands.
Renewable energy is the future. Even Thomas Edison knew it 120 years ago!
The author is an entrepreneur and investor, leading sustainable businesses in Africa and the Middle East.