Posted by: Scott | March 25, 2011

The Great Fukushima Legacy New Energy Contest

It seems every time I want to write about something I think is important, another thing I think is important comes along and grabs my attention. Thank you, inventors of television advertizing, for my short attention span. But I digress…

The shocking images from Japan’s earthquake/tsunami/reactor failure should remind us living on North America’s Wet Coast of two things. First, we are inevitably due for similar treatment from Mother Nature. We just won’t know when and where until she’s ready spring it upon us. Second, we are nowhere near as ready to handle that kind of disaster anytime soon. Certainly not as well the Japanese have so far. Do you have a disaster kit? I don’t.

The Japanese reactor failure should also remind us just how reliant we are on a very limited range of energy options. Most of the industrialized world still relies overwhelmingly on fossil fuels to run everything cars to factories to whole cities. There are alternatives, but like fossil fuels, they all have some limitations. A quick checklist of popular renewables:

Solar – clean and cheap, but less efficient where there’s less sunshine. Great in Medicine Hat, Alberta (Canada’s Sunshine Capital); not so much in Prince Rupert, BC, where people with sun allergies actually go to live).

GOOGLE IMAGES

Wind – clean and cheap, but visually distracting for some. Plus, they are dependent on area wind patterns, which means optmum location weighed endangering birds and overcoming NIMBYism.  

Wave – very effective in coastal waters with high tide variations (think Bay of Fundy). Availability of water, much less high tides, is crucual.

Hydro – cheap and clean, too, but costly and time-consuming to build. Plus, dams eventually have to be decommissioned for safety. And then there’s the damage to pre-existing ecosystems, making the impact of wind generators seemingly irrelevant by comparison.

Geothermal – great in places with access to volcanic hot spots (Hawaii, Iceland), but again they’re location-dependent.

And then there’s nuclear: clean, powerful and… dangerous as Hell! Okay, I know that open-air nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s and 60s exposed our parents to far more radioactive fallout than Fukushima, Chernobyl or Three Mile Island ever could (which might explain some of our parents’ strange behavior). And, I know reactor accidents are rare. But when things do go bad at a nuclear power plant, they really go bad.

With that sobering thought in mind, you’d think we’d all be demanding our political leaders to kickstart the search for the next big thing in energy.

And, you’d think that with the torrid pace of advancement in information technology that we’d be making similar strides in developing new forms of energy that could power all this stuff we really don’t need. But no. Granted, increnmental progress is always being made in making existing energy systems cleaner and more efficient, but where’s the push for something new?

Incentive seems to be missing. Why? I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories (anymore), but too many greedy people seem to think that the world can live on oil, coal and natural gas forever, or at least as long as they’re alive and collecting rich dividend checks from Exxon-Mobil and the like.

In terms of new energy ideas, there’s certainly lots of talk. (Just read the online debate about whether developing power from dark matter violates the laws of quantum mechanics.) The apparent problem is no one seems willing to take the risk of investing long and deep enough to ‘walk the talk.’ Thus, we have a catch-22: we can’t know what works and what doesn’t unless someone actually builds a new energy test platform, but hardly anyone seems willing to risk money (and potential ridicule) in building something that might not work. I think we’ve become too careful.

It’s only a matter of time, though, before one person’s ‘silly idea” becomes someone else’s innovation and society’s accepted reality. Just think of the airplance. It, too, was once a silly idea before two brothers took a chance and persevered through lots of ridicule to make their silly idea a reality. Could it happen again? Why not?  

This has me thinking: back in the early 20th Century, we had competitions for just about anything that involved new technology. Who could drive a car the fastest or the farthest. Who would be first to fly from here to there, and then in the least amount of time. There were trophies, yes, but there were also monetary prizes for the winners. Inventors were treated like celebrities. But now there is so much focus on corporate research and development and patent protection to know just who’s behind our new toys. How many of us know who actually invented the laptop computer, the LCD flat screen TV, or Viagra? Was there a competition for the pill that develops the fastest and longest erection? I never heard of it.

So here’s my silly thought: an international competition to develop a working new energy system viable at various scales, from the vehicle/household level to that of whole cities. A competition not unlike the Nobel Prize, but one which involves far more money. Billions, in fact, to those who can build a provable energy system that is safe, reliable and can produce large amounts energy anywhere in the world, using mostly (if not wholly) local inputs.

The inventor(s) would not receive patent rights but money and recognition in exchange for allowing the new technology to be universally accessible at minimal cost. In that way, any city, industry or national government in the developing world can begin to address its social development issues without adding to the planet’s already oversized carbon footprint, while post-industrial states can put their fossil fuel legacy behind them, once and for all.

The prize money could come from sources like the seized assets of criminals or political despots. Obviously, we’re not all billionaires, but individuals could donate to the fund as well. A UN or other well-recognized and respected international agency would have to look after the prize and research grant fund, supervise the competition, and develop what the criteria for determining the winner(s). A multi-billion$ prize is necessary to ensure maximum benefit to humanity; otherwise, the profit motive could kick in and any research-related patents would fall into corporate or military hands. The stakes are already too high now for a good idea be cast aside for the sake of profitability or “national security.” Conservation and renewables alone will not solve our global energy needs. Something else is needed to erase the gap between the energy haves and have-nots. (That’s how we achieve “international security.”‘) We owe it to futurte generations to be as bold as those who thought that nuclear power was the answer. Okay so they got it wrong. That doesn’t mean we will, too. It doesn’t mean we shouln’t try.

As the title of this posting suggests, I propose to name the contest “Fukushima Legacy” – not for the stricken power plant, but for the plant workers and the emergency personnel who have almost certainly shortened their own lives for the greater good. “The needs of the many outweigh those of the few… or the one.” Isn’t that what a certain Vulcan once said? A new energy contest might be just what’s needed for someone to make that all-important breakthrough. I think we owe “the few” a legacy fitting their sacrifice.

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