Electrified: How Sustainable Electricity Can Save Civilization and Promote Global Health
by Mark Pendergrast
The industrial revolution of the last 300 years was based on the use of fossil fuels and electricity, but that brief moment in the earth’s 4.5 billion year history is coming to an end. We humans must give up or limit our use of fossil fuels in the very near future. In this century, we will run out of oil and natural gas, and coal is a dirtier source of greenhouse gases that exacerbate climate change. But if we can make and store electricity in sustainable ways, we may be able to maintain our way of life (albeit in modified fashion) while providing more hope and health for the third of the world’s population that currently has no access to electricity or safe water.
With current technology and deep commitment, scientists and entrepreneurs around the world are beginning to meet this challenge, but time is not on their side. We cannot continue to rely on fossil fuel, even if there were an inexhaustible supply, because its use is causing dramatic climate change through the emission of carbon dioxide and methane. The planet is heating up, and the scientific consensus predicts dire consequences if the current trends pf climate change continue – heat waves, droughts, tropical diseases spreading, food pests proliferating, wars over scarce resources, mass migrations away from drowned megacity slums as the oceans rise, extinction of thousands of animal species. A 2009 collaborative report from The Lancet and University College London called climate change “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”
The key to weaning ourselves from fossil fuel addiction is sustainable energy that can be converted to electricity. The race is on to produce sufficient “clean” electricity – through solar, hydro, wind, biomass, geothermal, and, as a stopgap resort, nuclear – and to store it for use in the electric grid or in vehicle batteries. This challenge features fascinating scientific innovations and quirky, obsessive personalities, but it also involves politics and economics. Unless we pass legislation to provide incentives for change, sustainable electric options cannot compete in the short term with coal or other polluting sources to generate power. By the time “dirty” energy costs climb over “clean,” it will probably be too late to avert devastating climate impacts.
Electrified will be the first book of its kind to explore all options for electricity in a fast-paced work of popular science that reads like a multi-faceted mystery thriller, but in which the final plot twist remains to be written. Perhaps Electrified will help to write that last chapter into a happy ending.
About the Author: Mark Pendergrast has written numerous books that have been recognized as the comprehensive works in their respective fields. Noted for tackling challenging subject areas, Pendergrast says (only half-joking) that he might have earned an honorary Ph.D. in epidemiology, public health, astronomy, physics, business, economics, psychology, and international relations for his disparate works. See www.markpendergrast.com for detailed information on his books. His work on Inside the Outbreaks led him to conclude that the biggest future threats to public health involve the issues he will address in Electrified.
Schedule and Travel for Electrified:
Researching and writing Electrified will take at least three years and will necessitate travel to Africa, China, and Japan, as well as exploration within the United States. Ideally, Pendergrast should also go to Europe, though time and expense may require him to conduct research and interviews through libraries, the Internet, and by Skype and email, or through hired researchers. The finished book will be 125,000 words.
The Market for Electrified: The problems that Electrified addresses will only become more obvious and acute over the next few years, as will the need for sustainable energy alternatives. Concerned readers – particularly those who care about the environment and read works of popular science – will buy Electrified. The book may become a talking point in major media such as Time, Newsweek, or the New Yorker, and on public radio shows such as Fresh Air or Marketplace, or All Things Considered (Pendergrast has appeared on all of these shows for other books). He might be invited to appear on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. He will also blog, Tweet, Facebook, and generally broadcast my message in any way he can. The book is likely to be picked up by many foreign publishers around the world.
Introduction: Blackout. August 15, 2084. There is a blackout across most of North America. Coal-fired power was banned in 2055 due to multiple heat waves and tornados associated with greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. There simply is not enough electricity from other sources such as solar, hydro, or wind. Oil and natural gas have run out. A surge of electricity to feed air conditioners in the 100-plus degrees that blankets most of the country triggered a cascading electrical failure that has now lasted for nearly a month. Generator-powered trucks hold bodies outside overwhelmed morgues. Will this be the kind of world our grandchildren and great-grandchildren inherit in 2084? Will it be a polluted, over-heated, disease-ridden chaos? Or will it be a green world in which healthy people work, play, and communicate? Much of the answer depends on how wisely we produce and use electricity.
Chapter 1: The Magic Electron. This chapter briefly (and entertainingly) reviews the history of electricity through the life and work of Pieter Van Musschenbroek, who invented the Leyden jar in 1745, followed by Benjamin Franklin, Alessandro Volta, Hans Chritian Oersted, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Nikola Tesla, and Thomas Edison. In doing so, the chapter explains what electricity is, how it is generated and stored, etc.
Chapter 2: Here Comes the Sun. This chapter explores various solar power alternatives to produce electricity. Most of the earth’s energy derives from the sun, either directly or indirectly (excluding tidal and geothermal energy). Photovoltaic cell arrays or sunlight concentrated by mirrors can generate power, though nowhere near the efficiency of fossil fuels. Also, sunlight is variable by season, time of day, cloud-cover and location. Nonetheless, solar power will be a part of a sustainable electric solution, in both developed and developing countries. Thin-film photovoltaic company Terra Solar, an American firm, was purchased by China Solar in 2006, part of a big Chinese push to develop sustainable energy. China’s biggest solar panel manufacturer, Suntech Power Holdings in Wuxi, has begun to sell in the American market and is building a factory in Goodyear, Arizona. However, First Solar of Tempe, Arizona, is still the world’s largest supplier. Pendergrast will visit both Chinese and U. S. solar plants and some of their installations and will interview solar scientists and First Solar president Bruce Sohn. He will also visit the inefficient pioneering Solar Two “power tower” near Barstow, CA, and the Kramer Junction, CA, solar trough power station, both in the Mojave Desert. He will go to SolarCity, which installs photovoltaic cells and electric car charging stations, in Foster City, CA. This chapter will also cover solar power in Japan, where Kyocera has developed a solar power system featuring the world’s highest energy conversion rating for homes. Panasonic Electric Works has teamed up with Nanosys to develop solar coatings that can be painted on roofs and walls. Using nanotechnology and conducting plastics, organic solar coatings are also under development at the University of Toronto and elsewhere. Pendergrast will also visit four Japanese cities that have developed solar power in conjunction with wind, biomass, and recycling efforts: Iida, Kitakyushu, Yokohama, and Tokyo. (These cities will feature in the following chapters as well.) Japan’s space agency plans to launch a huge array of photovoltaic panels into space by 2030, to beam energy back to the earth through microwaves.
Chapter 2: The Sun in Darkest Africa. While such high-tech efforts to tap the sun’s energy for electricity are encouraging, what about people who live in dire poverty in developing countries? Roughly a third of the world’s population currently lacks electricity or safe drinking water. In developing countries, electricity can be generated at the village level by wind or solar power, so that there may truly be worldwide Internet access, connecting educators, entrepreneurs, and scientists to people in the remotest areas and allowing for lighting and refrigeration. The World Bank has initiated a “Lighting Africa” program to promote off-grid light-emitting diode (LED) illumination in villages. This chapter will include interviews with Peter Haas, founder of Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG), and Robert Freling of Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF). The sun is also being used not just for electricity, but as a direct source of energy for solar cooking. Pendergrast may visit Zambia’s South Luangwa Valley, where approximately ten women and children a year in search of scarce firewood are killed by elephants. Solar cookers using parabolic mirrors in the valley are saving lives and trees. He could also go to Kikokwa, Uganda, a “model village” in which all households use a combination of solar cookers, efficient wood stoves and heat-retaining hay baskets to cook and to pasteurize water. According to the World Health Organization, indoor air pollution from solid fuel use is responsible for 1.6 million deaths annually due to pneumonia, chronic respiratory disease and lung cancer, and in developing countries it is the most lethal killer after malnutrition, unsafe sex and lack of safe water and sanitation.
Chapter 4: River Run. This chapter discusses the possibilities of power generated by flowing water. Hydroelectric power from dams already provides 19 percent of the world’s electricity. In places such as the United States, most usable major rivers have already been dammed, and these dams will also silt up over the next few centuries. But in many smaller locations, where water once turned mills, it could again provide more local power or add it to the electric grid. Micro-turbines can produce power in rivers or streams without the need for dams, environmental degradation, or relocation of people. Pendergrast will visit several small-scale hydro plants in New England, where he lives, along with the Low Impact Hydropower Institute in Portland, Maine. He will also visit hydro-power sites in Japan and China. A research team at Toyama Prefectural University in Japan is developing a micro hydro electric generation system using a spiral water turbine that allows hydropower that requires a minimal vertical drop or flow volume. The enormous power of the tides is currently tapped only in places with a very large tidal flow. Since 2008, the “Seagen” turbine has converted tidal energy into commercial electricity in Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland. Oceanic wave action can also be used to produce electricity, as it does in Portugal at the Aguçadoura Wave Park, which consists of three 750 kilowatt Pelamis snake-like generators. But any device taking advantage of wave action has to survive variable wave power and direction, storms, and salt-water corrosion.
Chapter 5: Blow Ye Winds. Wind power currently provides only 2 percent of the world’s electricity, but that figure is growing rapidly, as rows of wind turbines spring up on land and along seacoasts such as the off-shore wind farm at Middelgrunden, Denmark. In the United States, Texas, Iowa, and California lead the way in wind power, but in virtually every state, there is renewed activity in this area, since wind power is fairly reliable in many locations. Over 80 countries are using wind power to produce commercial electricity. Japan Wind Development Company and battery maker NGK Insulators have partnered to install battery accumulators at a wind-power site in Japan’s Aomori Prefecture. Tokyo’s Loopwing Company makes an innovative wind turbine that can operate as a stand-alone energy source for homes.
Chapter 6: Cow Poop, Weeds, and Trash. Methane produced by decaying organic matter occurs naturally and, if the source is replaced (i.e., another tree grown), biomass is a sustainable energy source. On the other hand, methane is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, so using it as fuel is essential. This chapter includes a visit to Foster Brothers Dairy Farm in Middlebury, Vermont, where decomposing cow manure powers the farm and nearby homes, with a rich compost by-product sold in trademarked bags as “Moo Doo.” Ethanol made from subsidized U. S. corn is ill-advised and energy-inefficient, but sugar cane is far more efficient. The New Hope Power Partnership in South Bay, Florida, uses sugar cane fiber and recycled wood to generate power for nearly 60,000 homes. Landfills can be a rich source of methane gas generation from rotting garbage. In Bargeshagen, Germany, GMK mbH makes small, highly efficient Organic-Rankine-Cycle (ORC) biomass plants, which can convert wood chips and agricultural waste into electricity. In Japan, the Biomass Technology Research Center is promoting research on gasification and the production of dimethyl ether, a liquid that might replace diesel fuel.
Chapter 7: From the Bowels of the Earth. Deep inside the earth, radioactive decay of minerals produces a constant supply of heat that radiates to the surface, particularly in places where tectonic plates meet. The world’s largest group of geothermal electric generators is located at “The Geysers,” in the Mayacamas Mountains north of San Francisco. Geothermal power provides nearly a fifth of the Philippines’ electricity, and Japan is studded with a string of such generators related to volcanic activity, with several new projects underway. But the most promising application of geothermal energy can occur anywhere in the world, independent of tectonic plates. By burying pipe-loops only a few meters below-ground, and using heat pumps, buildings can be heated efficiently with geothermal energy even in frigid climates.
Chapter 8: Nuke It. This chapter reviews the nuclear power option, which currently provides 15% of the world’s electricity. France already gets 80% of its power from nuclear plants, and new plants are coming online in Japan. China plans to build more than 100 nuclear facilities. Pendergrast may visit French installations as well as the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, Vermont, which has received much negative publicity because of leaked tritium. Yet Yankee also provides over a third of the small state’s energy needs. Nuclear power is controversial and U-235 is rare, so that it is not a long-term sustainable answer to our energy needs. Breeder reactors, using U-238 (much more plentiful) can supply nuclear power – though the same technology can also produce nuclear bombs. Nuclear power is probably a necessary stop-gap option because it does not produce green house gases, but it does produce long-term radioactive waste, and plants take 20 years or more to build and get online.
Chapter 9: The Electric World. This chapter reviews how to produce and store electricity, using the energy sources covered in previous chapters. Trains, streetcars, city buses, trucks, and cars can be powered by electricity. The all-electric Tesla Roadster, made in Palo Alto, California, can travel 200 miles on one electrical charge, and Tesla’s planned Model S will go 300 miles on a single charge. Pendergrast will interview Elon Musk, the visionary Tesla CEO who made his fortune through Paypal. Though expensive now (around $100,000 per car), the Tesla could provide a prototype for mass production that might dramatically lower the cost. A “smart grid” can deliver electricity from suppliers to consumers using two-way digital technology to save energy, using off-peak electricity for many home applications. Locally and regionally generated electricity from solar, wind, hydro, or biomass can be added back to the grid. One major challenge is how to store electricity once it is generated. This chapter will explore work on more compact, powerful batteries such as lithium-ion, lithium iron phosphate, or nickel metal hydride for electric automobiles and hybrid vehicles. It will also explore possibilities for mass storage of electricity derived from fluctuating solar/wind power. A nickel-cadmium battery bank was installed at Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2003 to stabilize voltage at the end of a long transmission line, but it provides only a 15-minute backup. Molten metal batteries made from sodium and sulfur (NaS) provide greater storage. The Tokyo Electric Power Company and NGK Insulators Ltd consortium has produced NaS batteries for Japan Wind Development Co.’s Miura Wind Park. Large-capacity vanadium redox flow batteries are used at Huxley Hill wind farm in Australia and Tomari Wind Hills at Hokkaidō, Japan.
Chapter 10: The Politics of Energy Choices. This chapter reviews the need for legislative actions to encourage sustainable electricity. These include tax incentives, higher taxes on fossil fuels, legislation for force utilities to buy from local wind/solar/hydro producers, and the like. By using fossil fuel, we are expending solar energy that took millions of years to accumulate, which is why it can offer such economical, efficient energy. We have been using up this stored solar power at a furious rate, and we have given tax breaks to Big Oil. We must level the playing field to make renewable energy sources a reasonably profitable, economical alternative.
Chapter 11: Global Health Report. This chapter presents an overview of how we may attain a more sustainable health future. An electrified, interconnected globe can better deliver vaccines and health care to the developing world, as well as helping to provide safe water and local sustainable agriculture and family planning. Using battery-driven digital video cameras and projectors, for instance, local documentary makers can make health videos in native languages that can have a major impact at the village level (examples at www.incef.org). By 2084, world population will increase to 9 billion-plus people, with most of that growth occurring in poor countries. As health improves, and more children live to adulthood, the fertility rate will drop if women are empowered to manage the size of their families. With better access to education and reproductive health services, maternal mortality will decline, and both women and children will live more healthy, productive lives. In the developed world, more food will be grown locally without petroleum-based fertilizers, which will require more physical labor and community cohesion. Bicycling (there are now electric bikes) and walking will become more necessary and acceptable. Junk food will no longer be widely available through supermarket outlets. As a consequence, people will lead healthier lifestyles and the epidemic levels of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease will dwindle. With cleaner air, deaths from pneumonia and asthma will also decline.
Chapter 12: 2084 Revisited. In a fictionalized treatment, we see small-town and city life in the United States, as well as life in Niger, the poorest country in the world. Life is more local, with real communities reminiscent of the 19th century in some ways. There is still an interstate highway system, but instead of gas stations, there are charge stations for electric vehicles, and since recharging batteries takes a few hours, there are movie theaters, games, and slow food outlets offering heart-healthy meals. There are local industries and crafts, small farms and community gardens. Yet these towns also feature modern passive solar homes, photovoltaic panels, and/or micro-hydropower. Many homes are heated by geothermal heat pumps, and the electric grid is supplemented by big hydro, big solar, and nuclear. There are high taxes on use of fossil fuel, which everyone grouses about but takes for granted. Air flight is much more expensive and infrequent, fueled by hydrogen. Because of universal access to the Internet and Skype, however, people can interact intimately without air travel. Boats are propelled on short trips by electricity and on long trips by hydrogen or biodiesel. Most remaining oil is used for plastics and other derivative products. Everything, including all plastic, is recycled. In a typical village in Niger, there is safe water from solar treatment, and a deep well provides backup in a regional city. Solar LED lighting provides a way for young scholars to do their homework, while photovoltaic cells provide electricity to power computers and cell phones. Women have access to different forms of birth control, and the average family has three children, who attend school but also help with chores such as tending the millet fields. Childhood mortality has declined dramatically, in part due to local health clinics where vaccines and routine care are administered, and the universal use of insecticide-treated bednets. Food storage of millet and other grains has been improved via Internet education, which has also raised the consciousness of women and men, so that men have begun to help more with jobs formerly assigned only to women, including learning to cook on solar cookstoves.
Epilogue: Take Your Pick. This short conclusion summarizes the problems and solutions, along with a dramatic plea for implementing solutions through regulations, taxes, incentives, and examples. We have a choice. Take your pick: Which 2084 will become a reality?