Food for thought: beyond meeting demand

Usually when people talk about converting to renewable energy, the conversation covers what it would actually take to replace fossil fuels. It’s a good conversation to have, and a lot of good work has gone into working out how much surface area would need to be devoted to wind and solar, what other sources of power could be used, how much it would cost in the short term, and how much it would save in the long term. The end result of all this is that converting the United States – one of the highest per-capita energy consumers in the world – to renewable energy is entirely doable. The only thing lacking is political will.

That said, why stop at what’s needed?

Most estimates say that we could supply all the power the U.S. needs with less than 1% of the country’s surface area. While we need to be careful where and how things like PV, solar thermal, and wind power generators are deployed, it’s worth noting that as of 2009, somewhere around 3% of the country’s surface area is urban land, and on top of that we have roads, rural homes, and so on.

Technology has reached a point where there’s an awful lot we can do, given enough energy. Since we know what it would take to meet our current needs, what could we do if we doubled that? If we devoted 1% of our country’s surface area to generating power from the sun and the wind, and threw in power generation from sewage and other waste, plus some geothermal power, and a country-wide push toward high-efficiency construction, what are the possibilities?

A few ideas spring to my mind. First of all, it would remove any doubt about whether we could store enough power for when we needed it. Even without the continued advances in battery efficiency, we’d be able to store large amounts of power despite what’s lost in conversion from electricity to chemical, potential, or kinetic energy. Powering rail-based public transit would be a whole lot more feasible, as would the notion of large-scale indoor farming, both as a way to have food production in cities, and as a way to have farms that aren’t subject to the whims of anincreasingly unfamiliar climate. Indoor farming is pretty energy intensive, but in this scenario, we’re generating something like twice what we need, and that opens doors. It could even free up farmland for things like restoring natural habitats.

I guess what I’m asking is, what could we do if the amount of electricity we generated wasn’t based on demand, but on how we could use that power to make life better for people living here and around the world?

The concept art shows an unusual skyscraper in New York City that appears to tower over the Chrysler building in the foreground. The huge building is shaped like the sail of a small boat. It's roughly triangular with one side of the triangle standing perpendicular to the ground, the


  1. cag says

    Every time I take a bath, especially in the wintertime, it bothers me that the energy in the water is just wasted. That energy should be extracted in some way, perhaps equivalent to HVAC heat recovery or to heat the floor.

  2. lorn says

    cag @1:
    I assume you are talking, more often than not, of taking a shower. Baths, filling up a tub with hot water, is a great way to relax but it is highly inefficient in both energy and water used. As an occasional indulgence it isn’t terrible, and there are ways to make baths more efficient, such as insulating the tub and using the water to water plants, but showers are inherently easier on the environment.

    The other thing about showers is that the constant flow of water open up options for increased efficiencies. The hot water going down the drain can be exploited. There are heat recovery devices, a heat exchanger, that can be installed in the drain line that will pull out some of that waste heat and use it. That recovered heat could be used to, most commonly, to preheat the water going into your water heater, or used to heat the house. The first option is more of an option in mixed or hot climates, the later in cold climates.

    It can be somewhat complicated, and expensive, to get right but in theory significant savings can be had. Unfortunately once you add a few controls, custom built parts, the cost of engineering the design, and professional installation the return on investment is typically slow, to nonexistent.

    But then again if you are good with your hands, like tinkering, and can justify the cost as less of an investment and more of a hobby it can be worthwhile.

    There are also sometimes unexpected bonuses. In one case a PV array was figured to provide a small but steady ROI but actually provide almost double the estimate. Turns out that solar panels positioned on a roof in Florida act as sun shades and reduce the need for air conditioning. A bonus that hadn’t been included in the design.

  3. says

    Thanks for the link into that Science Daily thing, I’ll have to look into that.

    I was recently reading “Sustainable Energy: Without All The Hot Air”, which focused on Europe, and was written in the mid 2000s. I like looking at the big picture to see what is worthwhile and what isn’t, and what the best ideas are.

  4. says

    Sciencedaily has been a boon in my life. From what I can tell, they do great work sticking to the conclusions of the research they link, and the comments of the researchers. Thus far, I haven’t caught them making any errors that I was able to detect.

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