04/25/2013 03:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2013

(Nearly) Unlimited Energy

2013-04-25-rameznaam.jpgBy Ramez Naam
This is Part One of a five-part series by Ramez Naam, Singularity University Adjunct Faculty, exploring the power of innovation to boost our access to energy, food, water, raw materials, and human population. All are based on his new book, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

We have access to nearly unlimited energy, food, water, and raw materials. Over the next 5 days, I'll demonstrate that with numbers.

This is not to say that we don't have problems or threats ahead. We live on a finite planet with real problems facing it. Over the last few years, the prices of oil, food, metals, and raw materials of all sorts have shot up. Fresh water aquifers and rivers are being drained at a ferocious rate. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from our use of energy are heating up the planet. Over the next few decades human population will rise by another 2 billion and demand for water, food, and energy will rise by 50%, 70%, and 100%, respectively. Some look at these numbers and conclude that we're headed for a sharp crash, or at least that we're at the limits of the human population and human prosperity that the planet can bear.

But the planetary limits aren't even close. The only real limit, indeed, is the speed with which we can innovate. That is the critical variable to our future prosperity.



Humanity consumes energy at a rate of roughly 17 Terawatts - that is to say, 17 trillion joules per second, every second of every day. That's a huge number. But the sun hits the planet with nearly 90,000 Terawatts of power - 90 quadrillion joules per second - or more than 5,000 times as much energy as we use from all current sources of energy combined.


So energy on this planet is abundant. The primary problem isn't a limit on the amount of energy we can tap into. It's that we're primarily tapped into the far smaller far dirtier supply of energy from fossil fuels.

Much of that is because solar energy, until recently, has been prohibitively expensive. But that's changed rapidly through exponential improvements in solar photovoltaics. I've written before on the exponentially dropping price of solar power(as have many others). But let's look at this another way. For $100, how much solar power generating capacity can you buy?


The change is stunning. In 1980, $100 would buy you 5 watts of solar generating capacity. At the end of 2012, the same amount of money would buy you 100 watts of solar generating capacity, or 20 times as much.

Solar is now at the price where in sunny areas it is roughly the same price as grid electricity from coal or natural gas. If this pace continues, in the very near future solar will be far cheaper than any other sort of energy, allowing individuals and businesses to tap into many times more energy than they do today, at a lower cost, with no greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, we also need to store energy for use at night time. That also shows an exponential trend. Looking at just one technology - lithium-ion batteries - we see that the amount of energy that could be stored for $100 went up by a factor of 10 in just 15 years, from 1991 to 2005.


In short, the planet provides us with a tremendous amount of energy - far more than we will need for centuries to come. IF we can maintain - or even accelerate - our pace of innovation in energy technology, we'll be able to tap into this wealth of energy.

The challenge isn't the limit of energy - it's a race between the rate at which we damage our climate and the rate at which we can innovate.

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.