Most of us think we have an energy problem. That it is difficult to run our civilization on clean and renewable energy. Most believe that we cannot escape the conflict between the need for more economic growth–more wealth for more people–and the environmental destruction that we create to produce that growth.
I used to think we had an energy problem too.
I learned some numbers that told me that I had no clue about energy problems and–more importantly–about the scope for energy solutions.
Every year the sun sends 5.4 million exajoules of energy to Earth. About one third of this energy reverberates back into space. About a fifth is absorbed by the atmosphere. That leaves about 2.5 million exajoules available for energy consumption on Earth. That is about 5,000 times the current total annual global energy consumption.
In other words: As long as the Sun shines, we have plenty clean and renewable energy at our disposal. We don’t have an energy problem; we have a technology challenge. We just have to find ways to convert the free and clean energy that comes to us into systems that we can use.
Forty years ago the then oil minister of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Yamani, famously predicted: “The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.”
That is a perspective we tend to miss in much of the energy debate. We seem to ignore human ingenuity as the driver of civilization as we look at our future while only taking into account today’s technology.
We don’t have an energy problem. We have an enormous energy opportunity.