A Symbiosis of
Technologies supplying Carbon-free, Non-Intrusive Green Energy
for all Inhabitants of Planet Earth
According to the DOE International Energy Outlook 2004, world energy consumption is expected to grow from its present level around 400 quads per annum to well over 600 by 2025, a greater than 50% increase. Moreover, many predict human population levels to approach 10 billion by mid-century with global industrialization rates far outpacing those of the United States. As the world aspires to reach an American standard of living, IEO 2004 predicts the present energy consumption rate, 215 quads per year in the industrialized nations and 185 in emerging countries, to evolve toward 270 to 330, respectively. How to supply and configure the energy economy and infrastructure for such a world is perhaps the principal long-range challenge facing human civilization at the dawn of this new century. A major component of the challenge will be attaining this goal in the most environmentally benign and least eco-invasive manner possible.
A principal uncertainty in this social equation is the extent to which the earth’s remaining fossil fuel reserves can be exploited. Even though the possible link between observed increasing global temperature and concomitant increasing carbon dioxide emissions (currently at 6,000 MMTCE/year and expected to reach 10,000 by 2025) remains controversial, all agree that such a link is at least physically plausible, and the coming decades are likely to see an internationally agreed upon “no regrets” policy adopted severely restricting or eliminating the use of fossil fuels for both transportation and the production of thermal and electrical energy. One major harbinger of this trend is the concentrated effort globally underway to develop technology to displace hydrocarbons with hydrogen as surface transportation fuel. However, writing in a July, 2003, commentary in Nature, Paul Grant estimated that the production of sufficient quantities of hydrogen to replace present consumption of petroleum in automobile and truck vehicles in the United States alone, either by electrolysis or thermal splitting of water or methane would require additional power production equivalent to doubling the nation’s current electricity generation capacity. Given the massive amounts of CO 2 necessary to sequester should this hydrogen be generated either directly or indirectly from fossil fuels, and the enormous land areas needed for biomass, wind or solar required in its place, one is brought to the conclusion that only nuclear power could feasibly enable a complete hydrogen transportation economy.
In a certain sense, hydrogen and electricity can be considered “mutually fungible.” In a number of instances, each can replace or be transformed into the other – hydrogen as potential energy and electricity kinetic. However, it will be most realistic to provide both and let the end user decide the choice to employ. In two papers published in 2001 and 2002 in The Industrial Physicist, Paul Grant constructed just such a scenario on an urban scale, where both hydrogen and electricity are produced centrally in a nuclear power plant, supplemented by roof-top solar photovoltaics and the combustion of waste biomass, and then distributed throughout the community via a SuperCable conveying cryogenic hydrogen and electricity using superconducting wires refrigerated by the former.
In a talk delivered to the American Nuclear Society in 2001, Chauncey Starr expanded this concept to create the vision of a “Continental Energy SuperGrid,” a nationwide network of nuclear power plants linked by SuperCables. His presentation and its publication in Nuclear News attracted wide attention. Its appearance was followed by a subsequent workshop held in Palo Alto in November, 2002, organized by Tom Overbye of the University of Illinois, under a grant from the Lounsbery Foundation obtained through the auspices of Jesse Ausubel, to explore the engineering feasibility of various aspects of the SuperGrid, including the topics of system stability, reliability and physical security, which concluded such a project, despite its immense scale and cost, could in principle be carried out using present or soon to be available technology.
On 25 - 27 October 2004, a second Supergrid workshop will be held on the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois. Information about SuperGrid 2 can be found by following this link.