I once attended a very interesting and enlightening presentation by a professor of history from Stanford. He described the energy crises of the past and how each one was succeeded by a new source of energy that empowered humanity to move forward until the next crisis came along.
The professor described the first energy crisis was the cutting down of all the trees in the British Isles and Europe by the sixteenth century. Wood was used primarily for heating homes and cooking food, and the growing population in the countryside and the cities had literally claimed all the wood. The great fleets of Spain and England were not possible without wood from the New World, acquired at great expense from so far away.
What solved the problem of the wood energy crisis was the discovery of the use of coal and peat to replace wood for heating and cooking. The heat that coal produced enabled improved metalsmithing, and combined with the steam engine, brought about the Industrial Revolution. As demand for coal grew, thousands lost their lives in the mines and millions shortened their lives with coal borne pollution and disease.
By the turn of the twentieth century, readily available coal was getting hard to come by in Europe and much of the forests of the United States had been cut for building everything from ships to factories to mansions in the glorious Victorian era. It was a time when many wooden cities like Chicago burned completely down. Smoke-filled air was considered the norm and those that lived by railroad tracks lived in filth.
The discovery of oil and its derivative, gasoline in the late nineteenth century brought about the Transportation Revolution with the automobile and airplane. By the 1960s natural gas pipelines brought an end to the thick smoke from coal fired heating nationwide. The advent of the twenty first century indicates that we have peaked as far as fossil fuels are concerned and the potential for carbon dioxide to alter the climate ushers in the need for another energy revolution.
Solar power and its derivative, wind power, have been proven to provide enough energy not only to grow all the crops and all the forests that we need for sustenance, but provide for all of our heating, cooling, water purification, cooking, transportation, power needs, and electronics use. The question is not if we will use solar power for all these things, but when it will happen.
Just like the first steam engines were only able to pump water from deep wells, but later able to propel a locomotive down a railroad track at 100 mph and power whole factories, and the first automobiles were highly unreliable and only able to travel at speeds around 10 mph, unable to compete with locomotives, solar power is just now proving its worth. Since the inception of solar cells in the 1960s, there has been steady improvement in their efficiency and cost. Combined with improvements in batteries and the onset of meters that enable individuals to sell back power to the power companies, the stage is set for a new revolution in the information age of the Internet.
Already, we can buy homes that are built by contractors in traditional tracts of suburbia that require no or little power from the grid. What that does is free individuals from the cost of energy from major power companies. Electric vehicles are very quickly being developed to the point where they compete favorably with gasoline vehicles for everyday transportation. Once enough of these vehicles are on the road, the demand for gasoline will drop to the point where it will become inexpensive for those few uses where gasoline will be needed.
The most remarkable result of the solar revolution will be the freeing of many people from the whim of corporate power. Once all of their power is generated at home for free, people will be able to have more disposable cash to spend on what they need. Poor farmers throughout the world with land, like those farmers with wood lots that sustained their heating and cooking needs for nearly a century, will become wealthy with power if they choose to utilize the free sunlight that falls on their land. Renters will not benefit from this windfall energy, but they will benefit from the lower cost of energy. Having control of every power need in the home will benefit everyone and be the great equalizer of the twenty first century.
Finally, having so much inexpensive power at our disposal will result in fewer needs to exploit fossil fuels, our forests, and enable food to be grown, not on factory farms, but in our own neighborhoods and homes. By the end of the century, I can foresee that the rain forests will be returning worldwide and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will be returning to levels prior to our burning wood for fuel centuries ago. There will be trials in between, but human beings are capable of learning and adapting like we have done many times before.
Copyright 2013 © Ronald W. Hull