This is my 4th year taking part in the Earth Hour, a global event aimed at raising awareness about sustainability issues.  This year, I have decided to write a daily post during the month leading to the event in order to share some thoughts about the environment and give tips the little changes we can make in our daily lives.  There will also be some guest posts by fellow bloggers who will share their own views on a topic related to the environment.  You can read my introductory post here and access the Earth Hour website here.

I encourage you to comment and share your own tips, ideas and experience.  In the last couple of days before the event I will do a few posts about what readers had to say.  I believe we can learn a lot by sharing!

Today, a guest blogger is joining me.  David blogs from Ireland @Tiny Planet about current affairs and other musings on history, technology and whatever catches his attention.  Today, he is going to discuss new energy sources and how we are living in the future (sort of).

“When I was growing up, hydrogen power was something confined to Star Trek and optimistic plans for the future. Solar power was a nice concept that nobody really got around to using for some reason, and anything nuclear was immediately associated with Chernobyl or the world war everybody knew was coming. Well, nuclear fission, anyway. Nuclear fusion was going to be the answer to all our energy prayers. It was presented as an obvious solution, but of course it remains a fantasy.

I remember collecting a weekly series about science of the future. I don’t remember what it was called, but it was like a printed version of Beyond 2000, for those of you who remember that. This would have been in the early 1990s, and it predicted things like wireless communication devices the size of pens, what humans would look like in one million years, that sort of thing. I don’t know if we’ll even still be here in one million years, but those pen-sized wireless devices have already been superseded by Bluetooth. This is just one example of how we are already catching up with, and exceeding, what was considered a dream even 20 years ago (although we still don’t have flying cars).

Over the last few years I have been struck by how much of our energy technology is like something from the science fiction of my youth. I have often wondered how much science is inspired by sci-fi (in truth, quite a bit). But I’m just as fascinated by how science is catching up with fiction. With the technology available, the planet could be powered by solar energy while using only a fraction of the planet’s surface. According to an image I’ve seen on LandArtGenerator, it would be about 500,000 km2. You can see something similar here: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/09/surface-area-required-to-power-the-whole-world-with-solar-power-wind.php.

Storing and transmitting the electricity would be a whole other technical problem, but where there’s a will there’s a way, as they say. But bear in mind that this is solar power alone, and zero-emission energy at that. Not so long ago, I blogged (at tinyplanetblog.com) about a report by American scientists that concluded that within 20 years the planet could run on renewable energy. Wind, solar, geothermal, wave. At this stage, using these sources for electricity is almost old hat, as they’ve become familiar.

But most of us don’t realise that photovoltaic cells were invented in the 1880s. That’s 1880s. And yet when I think of solar power I always go back to the science fiction I read and watched in the 1980s and 1990s, which always used it as part of an effort to conjure up a world in which humans have shrugged off fossil fuels and come to our senses. It was part of a message of hope, for which I partially blame Star Trek.

Hydrogen was always another slightly mythical power source when I was younger. In the 1960s, Bussard proposed using ramscoops as a way of powering spacecraft, and Star Trek adopted this idea. The big, red, glowing things on the warp nacelles are hydrogen scoops. Now buses in cities such as Barcelona are powered by hydrogen fuel cells (okay, there are only a handful, but it’s part of an experiment to show that the technology is viable).
This little bus fleet may not be enough to really dent the planet’s carbon emissions, but they just show how far we have come technologically. Imagine public transport everywhere being powered by hydrogen or other energy cells. Those wonderful, zippy trams on Star Trek: The Next Generation would no longer be a jarring reminder of how dirty our current transport is, but would be part of a movement toward a cleaner, greener future.

Although the recession/credit crunch/economic meltdown will seriously curtail the development of ‘alternative’ energy sources, we have enough practical means at our disposal to make major changes in how we power the planet. One may ask if we can afford to do it at all. I would ask if we can afford not to. Even getting started would make a huge difference, and successful projects would lead to additional investment and cheaper technology for all. Don’t give up hope just yet.”

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