It’s Not Easy Being Green: Powering The Future (Podcast)


Wind turbines collecting energy that will eventually be converted into electricity and other fuel sources. This technology is widely discussed in the new Discovery Channel special "Powering The Future." Image courtesy of Discovery Channel.

Nothing has done more to reinvigorate discussions about energy and fuel dependence than the tragic oil spill currently afflicting the Gulf Coast [excellent resource for trajectory, timeline and news sources]. Though scientists and oil manufacturers continue to debate the validity of the “Peak Oil” theory, a very uncomfortable reality looms that oil production may not be able to keep up with thirsty demand. With an ever-increasing global population, a constant proliferation of technology choices and lifestyle improvements, and a rising middle class in third world countries, the factors contributing to fuel consumption may be the precipice of an eventual geopolitical crisis. In an effort to showcase their dedication to addressing the most salient energy and environmental questions affecting our generation, the Discovery Channel, backed by founder John Hendricks, is launching a revolutionary four-part documentary called Powering The Future. In it, they address a range of economics, national security, social and scientific questions related to energy and fuel all through the single focal point of searching for a modern, clean, limitless supply of energy. Our coverage of Powering the Future includes a review of the first installment and an exclusive podcast interview with the show’s host, lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy, Dr. M. Sanjayan. For full content, please click “continue reading.”

Dr. M. Sanjayan, host of Powering The Future, and lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy.

“We are the energy generation, but we as Americans do not fundamentally understand what energy is, where it comes from, how we use it, and how much we need,” remarks Dr. M. Sanjayan, host of the new Discovery Channel four-part documentary Powering The Future. Indeed, any honest retrospective of the modern energy crisis first requires a primer reviewing how our dependence on major fuel sources (coal, oil, and natural gas) came about and the unique challenges that breaking it poses. I consider myself a fairly well-informed individual, particularly on scientific matters, but in watching the first installment, The Energy Revolution, even I was amazed at the sheer interconnectedness of major electrical grids, and how much links us globally in energy delivery vessels. A German electrical engineer in the documentary compares running a major grid to being an air traffic controller.

Much of the current hope for alternative energy sources rests in grandiose ‘silver bullet’ solutions. Scientists at the National Ignition Facility are using the world’s biggest and highest powered lasers as a power source for smashing together the hydrogen atoms in a droplet of water, resulting in nuclear fusion. This mimics the way that the sun makes energy, and, if successful, would harness a limitless supply of power. Nuclear fusion research has been ongoing since the 1940s, but has never been applied successfully on a large enough scale like the undergoing experiments at the Ignition Facility. [ was recently granted an exclusive tour of the Ignition Facility, which will be covered soon in a separate post.] Another growing ‘silver bullet’ sector has been the harnessing of two natural energy sources—the sun and wind. Wind energy is the largest (and fastest-growing) alternative source of energy. Denmark gets about 20% of its power from wind sources, while the United States gets approximately 1.2%. Photovoltaic, or solar panels, more mobile and aesthetically pleasing than wind turbines, are another popular source of alternative energy. Little money has been poured into researching photovoltaic grids as a large-scale source of energy, it holds promise. The 89 petawatts of sun that shines on the Earth each year is more than 6,000 times the 15 terawatts of electrical power consumed by human. Unfortunately, both of these energy sources face one insurmountable hurdle; their mercurial natures. Our modern lifestyles require a constant influx of power, but if the sun stops shining, or the wind stops blowing, solar and wind technologies are unreliable.

Scientists make adjustments to the enormous lasers at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, CA.

The reality is that moving energy consumption into the 21st Century will not happen with one grand discovery, but a microcosm of intermediary ones. Powering The Future provides some exciting insight into the body of research and creativity being applied to alternative energy sources. Many communities are powering themselves through clever solutions, such as Japan generating solar energy in outer space and then beaming it to Earth, or New York City harnessing wind energy from tidal waves in the East River. No role is rendered more important in this documentary than that of private organizations and academia in leading innovation and discovery. Bay Area-based Makani Power specializes in capturing and storing high-altitude wind for abundant power and energy. Caltech University solar electrochemist Dr. Nate Lewis has invented a thin coating of paint containing chemicals that catalyze the sun’s energy for power. Paint your roof, get free solar energy! In fact, just today, General Electric announced a $200 million smart grid contest for cleaner and more efficient electrical grids. The California-based X-Prize Foundation has even gotten in on the act, recently announcing a $10 million oil spill cleanup challenge.

Even those that consider themselves knowledgeable about environmental issues and research and technology of clean energy will have a lot to learn from Powering The Future. The special does an exceptional job of laying out the complex science behind concepts such as fusion and large-scale electrical grids for a lay audience to understand, while not glossing over current research in industry and academia. Moreover, rather than approaching the issue with the typical heavy-laden, moribund fatalism one often finds in these specials, Powering The Future leaves one feeling hopeful about the range of innovation happening at all levels worldwide, and the remarkable commitment of both academic labs and private companies for tireless discovery. It is this very entrepreneurial, resilient, and utterly human, attitude that will power our future more than any fossil fuel ever could.

Powering The Future premieres on the Discovery Channel on Saturday, July 17, 2010 at 8 PM ET/PT.

Finally, we encourage you to listen to our exclusive one-on-one podcast interview with Dr. M. Sanjayan (18:00), lead scientist of the Nature Conservancy, as we expand the energy discussion of the mini-series to global solutions, his thoughts on the oil spill crisis, and ways that we can impact our dependence on fuels right now.

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