Most of us think we have an energy problem. That it is difficult to run our civilization on clean and renewable energy. Most believe that we cannot escape the conflict between the need for more economic growth--more wealth for more people--and the environmental destruction that we create to produce that growth.
I used to think we had an energy problem too. Until we worked on a big cover story for Ode in 1997, just 2 years after we had established the predecessor of The Intelligent Optimist in The Netherlands. At that time I learned some numbers that told me that I had no clue about energy problems and--more importantly--about the scope for energy solutions.
These are the numbers that blew my mind: Every year the sun sends 5.4 million exajoules of energy to Earth. About one third of this energy reverberates back into space. About a fifth is absorbed by the atmosphere. That leaves about 2.5 million exajoules available for energy consumption on Earth. That is about 5,000 times the current total annual global energy consumption. In other words: As long as the Sun shines, we have plenty clean and renewable energy at our disposal. We don't have an energy problem; we have a technology challenge. We just have to find ways to convert the free and clean energy that comes to us into systems that we can use.
Last week a report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) stated that solar panels can meet 100% of electricity demand on just 1% of land. The report studied seven countries and found that solar could produce all the energy while taking up only 1% of the land in Indonesia, Madagascar, Mexico, Morocco, South Africa, Turkey and the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
And that is with current technology. The WWF did not speculate about better solar panels that are (far) more efficient in converting light into electricity. The report did not mention other solar energy opportunities as solar thermal plants, wind energy and tidal energy.
I know we face a climate change and global warming challenge. I also see a bright opportunity for innovation and economic development while meeting this challenge. Forty years ago the then oil minister of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Yamani, famously predicted: "The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil."
That is a perspective we tend to miss in much of the energy debate. We seem to ignore human ingenuity as the driver of civilization as we look at our future while only taking into account today's technology.
As I write this, many bright minds around the world are working on the opportunities that our energy challenge presents. These bright minds know that fortunes will be made along the way and they hope these fortunes will be theirs. Many will fail. But some will succeed. And they will transform our world beyond imagination. Think about what Google and Apple did to make information available to everyone and imagine a company that will make solar energy easily available to all on the planet. This will release an energy revolution that will have an even deeper impact than the information revolution, simply because it is possible to live with less or little information but nobody can live without energy.
We don't have an energy problem. We have an enormous energy opportunity. Intelligent optimism sees that opportunity in the problem. It is not just a different perspective. It is the beginning of the solution.