I am occasionally asked by friends about prospects for all sorts of “green” technologies to have an impact on satisfying the world’s energy consumption. It is difficult to get ones mind around the scale of the problem but there have been some pretty good attempts, which I will mention below.
To these quantitative analyses I want to add a test that any layperson can use to sort out plausible new energy technologies from the implausible. That test is a test of poetry.
Another way to bring thoughts about alternative technologies down to a human scale is to realize that if any of these technologies are to make numerically significant impact feeding the world’s voracious energy usage, that technology must be describable as both “unrelenting” and “awesome.” Unrelenting like a major river fed from an unquenchable source. Relentless like the sun beating down through cloudless dessert sky. Unstoppable like the decay of a radioactive isotope with a 10,000-year half-life.
It must also be awesome on a human scale. Awesome like the visceral feel-it-in-your-gut roar of a massive river cascading down the canyon. Overwhelming like the blistering sun scorching a dessert one cannot walk across in days.
If the technology is too tame, too gentle, to be described with poetic words such as awe-inspiring, never-ending, unrelenting, gargantuan, overwhelming, and even terrible; if the phenomenon does not make you feel insignificant, then sadly it too is too insignificant to quench our monstrous energy appetite.
Thus many a new energy pretender can be dismissed by its lack of poetry.
As for other ways of visioning the problem, I like the “cubic mile of oil” (CMO) image (that is about what we burn globally per year) that has been used to some effect by, for instance, Hewitt Crane in his lecture in Engelbart’s Colloquium, or in the IEEE Spectrum article by Goldstein and Sweet where they talk about how much, in the way of alternatives, we would need to build each year for 50 years to reach an equivalent energy equal to one cubic mile of oil, assuming that we had that long. There are lots of criticisms of this work, e.g., why does the world need another unit of energy or, more seriously, issues such as that wind and solar do not run all the time or that the efficiencies of usage are not visually represented, but I think that the CMO gives a pretty good sense of scale.