Saturday, October 09, 2010

The death toll of fossil fuels - and my new book

Who said this, and when?

"Eventually industry will no longer find in Europe the resources to satisfy its prodigious expansion... Coal will undoubtedly be used up. What will industry do then?"

It was solar pioneer, Augustin Bernard Mouchot, after demonstrating an early industrial application of solar thermal energy as long ago as 1880.

Four years earlier he had demonstrated the use of solar power for cooking, by making a block of ice using a parabolic dish collector.

The solar age is undoubtedly coming - and it's been waiting to arrive for a long time, continually frustrated by the aggressive marketing of cheap energy.

I have just finished writing my latest book, The Earthscan Expert Guide to Solar Power for Power, Heating, and Cooling.

In writing it I have discovered some astonishing facts about just how long the technologies have been around... and how different the twentieth century would have been if we had been forced to rely on solar and other renewable sources of power instead of fossil fuels...

...if we hadn't been cursed - as well as blessed - with nature's bequest of such huge quantities of oil, gas and coal.

Because from the first world war - partly fought over access to the newly discovered oilfields of Iraq, which was created as a result of that war - through the Six Day War and the recent Iraq wars, not to mention hundreds of other conflicts, access to fossil fuels has been the cause of millions of deaths.

With growing awareness of the impact of climate change, their aspect as a curse on the global scale has become increasingly apparent.

In 1913, Frank Schuman, who designed the world's first solar power station, dreamt of a completely solar powered world. It was theoretically possible then, as indeed it is now.

Nowadays, the phrase “energy security" is being used by those who want to see local, sustainable sources of clean energy replace dirty fossil fuels.

This is because the sun, wind and other renewable sources of energy are available abundantly, everywhere on the planet, with no need for conflict over their use. Looking at the history of solar power it is clear how its development has suffered as a result of the abundance of fossil fuels.

Humanity - or its leaders - are now faced with a clear choice: whether to stick with the status quo and vested interests that aggressively promote as inevitable, a continued dependence on fossil fuels; or whether to accelerate the deployment, research and development into solar and other renewable, sustainable technologies and practices.

My new book makes the case for the latter, looking at all the available technologies, and the sunrise ones:

  • passive solar architecture

  • solar water heating

  • solar thermal electricity generation.

Here is a not-exhaustive list of the technologies it looks at from the point of view of their end use:

  • Heating and cooling space: passive solar design, urban planning, passive stack ventilation, phase change materials, unglazed transpired collectors, solar-powered chillers and coolers
    Lighting: glazing, special glass coatings; sun pipes

  • Heating water: solar water heating systems; evacuated tubes; swimming pool heating; active solar cooling; applications for large buildings and districts
    Cooking, food drying, desalination and water treatment

  • Electricity: thermoelectric devices, photovoltaic modules, system design, process heat, concentrating solar power

  • Transport: solar vehicles, hydrogen production.

The potential of these technologies is completely clear and proven. The scientific case for the likelihood with business-as-usual of a runaway greenhouse effect, has been conclusively established.

The stakes could not be higher and the choice more stark.

The Earthscan Expert Guide to Solar Power for Power, Heating, and Cooling will be out next year.

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