Stepping off the jet in mid-August at the Orlando, Fla., airport left me with no doubt solar was in my future — right then and there! The heat and humidity were oppressive, but a quick shuttle ride delivered me to The World Solar Congress where I'd spend the next four days being exposed to brilliant minds from around the globe.
The theme for the combined International and American Solar Energy Societies was "Bringing Water to the World." The July/August Solar Today magazine article "Water Security: A Growing Crisis" was what drove my desire to attend the Congress. Its author, Allen Hoffman, senior analyst for the Office of Energy, was to be the keynote speaker the following morning.
I was aware of the world's limited availability of potable water, but I had an overly optimistic viewpoint that one half of 1% of the globe's water was available as drinking-quality water. I've also had a nagging doubt about oil and gas supplies, knowing that a finite amount of these fossil fuels must be available. I was unaware of the stunning revelations and quality education I would receive during the next 80 hours.
During the first panel discussion, " Renewable Fuels and Other Options to Reduce World Oil Consumption," moderator Paul Notari, ASES chairman for renewable fuels, explained the term "renewable energy" no longer refers to just solar. Now solar serves as the umbrella for a wide variety of alternative energy sources.
Fuel from corn
Monte Shaw of the Renewable Fuels Association said that some gasoline fuels now contain 10% ethanol, which helps to reduce smog, and he predicted we'll see 20% to 30% growth every year for ethanol production into the foreseeable future. The United States has 88 ethanol plants in 20 states, which are projected to produce 4 billion gal. in 2006 — less than 3% of all gasoline production. Their target is 7.5 billion gal. by 2012.
Even with the increased production, however, the total would represent just 5% of gasoline production. Current technology primarily utilizes corn by removing the starches without adversely affecting it as livestock feed.
Shaw noted that if ethanol production were to be viable throughout the world, especially in developing countries, switch grass and other castoffs from crops would need to be the primary-source instead of grain that may not grow well in those regions. The yield is lower, which increases costs of production-per-gallon, he said, but that ethanol can be produced more cheaply than gasoline.
John Turner of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory cited hydrogen as another fuel source. During the conference, he detailed the use of fuel cells and other technologies that utilize hydrogen as a fuel and discussed hybrid cars.
Brazil will be the first self-reliant country to sever its ties with oil due to its commitment for production of ethanol from sugar cane, noted Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, in a separate presentation. Cars in Brazil have "flex" engines capable of switching between various fuels while they make this transition.
The Brazilians are able to pursue this goal through private investments of $5 billion. In the United States, in addition to corn, 500 million bushels of soybeans will be sent to the five new ethanol plants that will be online by year's end, Brown said.
Wind power needs to be increased by 30% annually for each of the next 30 years, said Brown, who listed six reasons for investing in wind energy:
• It's abundant; • It's cheap; • The supply is inexhaustible; • It's widely available; • It's 100% clean energy; and • It's climate benign. Brown recalled seeing a wind-turbine farm in Texas with all the turbines in use. At the base of those tall towers, numerous oil derricks were pumping out their dark elixir of energy.
"I'll bet that if I drove down that same road 20 years from today, the wind turbines will still be spinning while every one of those oil derricks will be standing idle as a silent sentinel over the end of the age of oil," he said. "We're going to be living in a world far different than what we've known before."
Turner previously had spoken about the return on investments for photovoltaic solar cells and the difference between crystalline and thin-film panels. He indicated a PV-panel system would see a three-to four-year payback depending upon the utility buy-back rates. In the right areas, wind turbine generation could enjoy a full payback within three to four months!
"If just 6,000 square miles of the United States were covered in PV solar panels, we would produce all of the energy required for the entire country," he said.
While that may sound as if it's an awesome degree of coverage, he then
displayed a U.S. map with a small black square covering a tiny portion of Texas — the 6,000 square miles needed!
Contrarian among idealists
Frank Krieth, a University of Colorado professor, disputed the notion that ethanol, biodiesel or hydrogen would be a knight in shining armor. He noted that oil had topped $64 a barrel that morning but cautioned that in terms of real dollars, the oil shortages in the 1970s saw costs — when adjusted for inflation — equivalent to more than $100 a barrel.
Krieth referred to electric cars as "cars that pollute elsewhere" and indicated fuel-cell hybrid cars have a well-towheel efficiency of just 13%.
He indicated an electric car will need $1,640 for its batteries and is only viable if the recharge power is derived from solar cells.
His cradle-to-grave cost figures dismantled pipe dreams I'd long held for fuel-cell use in residential applications and dashed any hopes I held for hydrogen — unless it too is derived via solar PV-arrays.
Krieth also mentioned that he's not averse to nuclear energy. The government's previous subsidies for nuclear power were $169 billion vs. $5 billion dedicated to solar technologies, he noted.
Water and energy
Alan R. Hoffman addressed the issue of clean water during the "Bringing Water to the World" seminar, asking "Is it a global commodity or a basic human right?" Hoffman, who had been with the U.S.
Department of Energy and National Academy of Sciences, said he had stumbled upon the dire importance of water while attending a water conference in the Middle East.
He became convinced that water would rise in importance to become "the issue of the 21st century." He listed a number of points:
• Water security, or the ability to access sufficient water to sustain basic minimum standards. "Wars in the future will be fought over access to clean water, not oil," he noted.
• Water's role in the growth of foods, goods production, sanitation and health.
• Water and gender In many Third World countries, women and children are relegated to the task of finding water for drinking, cooking and bathing. This effort often takes eight or more hours or longer to accomplish. "More than 1 billion people go without a source of clean potable water every day in the world," he said.
• Water and energy The two are interdependent, although inadequate resources are being applied in research. "The two cannot be separated," he said.
• Water is life While the United Nations says that "water is fundamental to life and health," Hoffman lamented the fact that human rights agreements, in some cases brokered by the UN, do not include essential rights to water. This will ultimately result in wars, he said.
"There are 329 million cubic miles of water on the earth and 99.7% of it is not suitable for use!" he said "Of the remaining .03%, most is not readily available. Demand for water tripled in the past halfcentury, and in 2000 worldwide usage utilized 30% of all available potable water resources. By the year 2025, worldwide use is expected to use 70% of all available water that's suitable for humans." Agriculture remains the single largest user of water and represents 39% of U.S. water usage.
Agriculture relies on aquifers such as the Ogallala for irrigation, but the primary means is flood, or surface irrigation. The federal government subsidizes flood irrigation, but not drip irrigation, which would reduce water usage dramatically, Hoffman said.
In developing countries, 80% of the diseases are waterborne due to a lack of clean drinking water: 2 million children die each year from these preventable diseases, and 60 million children who become stricken survive, but the quality of the life is severely stunted by the lingering effects. Lack of access to clean water is keeping entire
'We're going to be living in
a world far different
than what we've known before.
civilizations on the brink of destruction. The need for water prevents children and women from obtaining education, and women's needs are ignored in many of these societies due to the social structure granting status to only males of their society.
"The UN has declared 2005-2015 as 'The Decade of Water,'" Hoffman said. "However, marginal and declining support for water issues continues to plague UN oversight of these problems — in spite of a growing awareness that access to water is the key."
Energy is the key to unlock the door, he noted. Clean water relies upon energy for pumping it from the ground, filtration and treatment, transportation and delivery. This is where solar power, clean water and developing Third World countries come together.
Solar also holds the promise of natural sterilization via ultra-violet rays, a process we see quite often in well-water systems. Low-voltage LED ultra-violet lights can be utilized to conserve energy and connected to solar panels.
Lester Brown discussed how water, energy and food are inexorably intertwined. Humans need 4 liters of water per day, and it takes 2,000 liters of water to produce the food each of us consumes every day! It takes 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain, he said.
"Connect the dots," Brown said. "A future of water shortages will equal a future of food shortages. The world's population doubled but the demand for water tripled. Demand is outpacing supply and there will be 3 billion more people by 2050 — many in countries already going dry."
He cited our own U.S.-based over-pumping of the Ogallala Aquifer as an example of one area in our own backyard where we're in danger. As the value of water rises to previously unheard of heights, some farmers have found it lucrative to abandon farming and sell their water rights to cities or water brokers!
"It's becoming a battle over water that pits cities against farmers," Brown said. "Neither can win and neither can afford to lose.
"Not one single country has addressed the stabilization of falling water tables."
Brown related the looming global water crises to the lackluster response to AIDS when it first began appearing in Africa.
" There are 6,000 deaths per day in Africa from AIDS," he said, "