Can Science Fiction Solve The Renewable Energy Problem?

renewable energy problem

One of our society’s most pressing issues is the creation of a universal renewable energy source or the widespread adoption of an existing renewable energy solution.

Energy experts from Stanford estimate that our supply of natural gas will run out in the next 40 years, and coal won’t last much longer after that. It’s clear that the clock is ticking, and if we don’t find a solution soon, billions of people around the world will be without power.

That means no electricity, no Internet, no heat (more accurately, no AC), and a hundred other things will no longer be possible.

But why are governments and corporations so hesitant to play hardball with energy reform? A lot of people claim that the renewable energy problem is to blame.

What is the Renewable Energy Problem?

While not a super-accurate term, the renewable energy problem refers to the fact that our current green energy sources aren’t equipped to always be producing power.

When the sky is cloudy or its nighttime, solar power is out of the question.

When the wind doesn’t blow, wind power is out of the question.

So that leaves us with nuclear power and hydroelectric. But what happens when our water sources dry up or nuclear power plants become overworked?

That’s the renewable energy problem. It’s fear.

The fear that if we integrate existing green energy sources to our power grids, we become more susceptible to nature-driven power outages and grid failure.

And sure, our atmosphere is becoming more and more unpredictable, who knows if solar power will be a viable energy source in the future.

But there are already multiple cities—and countries—across the world that are implementing close to 100% clean energy.

Scotland, for example, was operating at 97.4% clean energy in 2020. And a report from the Sierra Club in 2019 showed that many cities and towns across the US were implementing clean energy strategies, regardless of political or social rulings.

Enter Science Fiction

So, to solve the renewable energy problem, what must we do? I think it’s clear that even though renewable energy sources are capable of powering entire cities, they might not be viable in the future.

Naturally, we turn to science fiction for ideas. Pretty much since the invention of the genre, science fiction has been influencing real-world scientific endeavors, and in the realm of clean energy, we have a lot of ideas to sift through.

Fusion

By far the most common solution to the renewable energy problem is a reliance of fusion power.

Simply put, fusion is the act of harnessing the energy from the combination of two atomic nuclei. Fusion is not be confused with fission, which is the act of splitting an atom into two different atoms.

Science fiction has idolized fusion power for decades, and the power source has appeared in all kinds of stories, from The Expanse to Star Trek.

renewable energy problem fusion reactor

But how close are we to achieving nuclear fusion as a viable energy source? Well, Chinese scientists just ran a test on their $1 trillion fusion reactor and it managed to reach temperatures of 158 million degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 5 times hotter than the sun.

If we can successfully tap the power grid into a resource like this, I’d say most of our qualms about renewable energy would disappear.

Sodium-ion Batteries

One of the biggest questions people ask when considering the renewable energy problem is how will our vehicles be powered?

Electric vehicles of all kinds are rapidly hitting the mainstream, but a problem remains – batteries. Lithium-ion batteries have become the norm for electric transportation, as well as many other consumer electronic items, like smartphones and laptops.

But lithium-ion batteries are difficult to produce, are hard to recycle, and provide less-than-ideal power storage.

Thankfully, we have science fiction to help us, and this time, we go way back to the early days. In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne describes the idea for a sodium/mercury battery that powers the Nautilus.

renewable energy problem sodium ion batteries

In chapter twelve, Verne writes, “Mixed with mercury, it forms an amalgam that takes the place of zinc in Bunsen cells. The mercury is never depleted. Only the sodium is consumed, and the sea itself gives me that. Beyond this, I’ll mention that sodium batteries have been found to generate the greater energy, and their electro-motor strength is twice that of zinc batteries.”

The sodium needed for these batteries is extracted from seawater, as Verne later explains. His idea, while not nearly as fleshed out as it needs to be for actual execution, has influenced many scientists working to create an alternative to the lithium-ion battery.

And prototypes of sodium-ion batteries are not only better at holding a charge, the resources needed to create them are much more readily available. Sodium-ion batteries might be years away from consumer use, but they’re certainly presenting a viable alternative to wasteful battery practices.

From Fiction to Reality

Obviously, there are countless other examples of renewable energy sources found in science fiction. Stargate, in particular, experiments quite a bit with alternative energy. Solar flares, black holes, hydrogen fusion—all kinds of energy methods make it onto the show.

Other renewable energy sources seem like they’re straight out of sci-fi but actually hit closer to home. An article published in Wired describes the process of using gravity to generate enough power to supply over 1,000 homes with renewable energy.

I guess at the end of the day, anyone who cites the renewable energy problem for why they don’t support green power really hasn’t done the research. Or, they haven’t read enough science fiction to know that the possibilities are endless.

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