The Unbridled Power!

When discussing transhumanism and futurist philosophies usually the emphasis is placed on what advances we can manage with unbridled science and discovery. I have found in many of these cases the “missing link”, as it were, to bring these ideals to fruition can be boiled down to : “Where do we get the energy or idle time to do that? And who gets it? The rich? The poor?”

The main problem we face, as a species, is that at this time in our development we are stuck, strangely enough, in a situation that is the opposite of what we assume has brought us as far as we have, and once again highlights that all things are relative.

The awful blaring truth that we need to face, is the fact that we live in an age of scarcity. It may not feel like it and it especially may not seem like it to many westerners with their ample power, food and water. But we have to face it that as a species we do _not_ have as much as we might think.

Sure compared to 200+ years ago we have a plethora of energy and resources. But these are concentrated in the hands of the few.. and even then (this is not a tree hugging “think of the poor” rant) we don’t actually have as much as we think we do. We do live in a world where over a fifth of the population do not have access to clean drinking water.

“Well what about the cheap, portable water purifying devices that are starting to appear?” you might ask… Things like the excellent slingshot water purifier by Dean Kamen? Well that’s all well and good but can we pump out the thousands of these that are needed and power them for practically nothing? No. Resources are scarce.. even for the truly global lifestyle improvement devices.

You and I spend most of our day working so we can earn money to pay for things like gas to travel, food which requires energy to grow, transport and distribute. Sure, we have access to a very cheap form of energy in gasoline, but we _know_ that’s going to run out and it’s only cheap relative to other sources at the moment.

What we need is an endless, clean, easily distributed source of energy that is centred in the regions that need it most. There are, of course, a legion of suggested options in this area; geothermal, solar, hydroelectric and many, many more but all of them have their own problems and limitations. Either via manufacturing, maintenance, scale or location.

Solar needs cheap, efficient, panels and while they are “getting there” the cost of building and maintaining big solar farms are prohibitive. Not to mention many of the nasty chemicals that go into high efficiency panels.

Geothermal and hydroelectric are obviously limited to the areas where there is geothermal activity or big accessible rivers.

Wind is more ubiquitous but again highly variable in it’s delivery and speed.

There is however an option I’ve been following for some time with high levels of optimism and to be quite honest am reasonably upset that it’s not gotten a bigger following (I have suspicions why not but don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist). My personal pick for “power generation of the future” is the “Solar Tower” currently being championed by enviromission.

Their design for power generation operates on the two very simple principles that a greenhouse gets hot, and hot air rises.

The design basically revolves around a really tall tower with a slanted “skirt” greenhouse made from either glass or long lasting clear plastic leading up to it. The air under the skirt gets warm, heating up to a max of 86 deg C, and rushes to the center. Once there it travels through 32 turbines at the base of the tower (at up to 49 feet/sec) and rises up the tower, cooling as it goes.

A nice “glory” video of it’s operation can be seen in this youtube video

(details of function start about 50% through)

The standard design for this tower can generate 200 megawats (the amount of power deployed by a standard coal powered plant) and needs little maintenance once built outside giving the windows a wee wash now and then and oiling the turbines.

The power it generates (once cost of building is paid off) is essentially “free” and multiple towers can be built in appropriate areas. What’s more they are ideal for areas that are poor and unable to produce food due to say, desert like terrain. Locations such as Australia, the western US, Africa and other equatorial desert regions could become the major power generating centres of the world. This could give poorer nations the option of “bootstrapping themselves up” by being power providers to the richer nations to the north.

What is especially frustrating about this idea and it’s lack of realisation is that it’s not all fantasy and theory. A prototype was built as far back as 1982 in Spain that generated a maximum power output of 50kW at a meagre 1/5th the size of the proposed full sized models. This is also not taking into account better understanding of heat generation and storage developed since to allow the tower to produce more consistently and at night.

I personally feel… no hope, that this is the technology that will help us start to get over this hump in our development. Allowing us to have cheap plentiful electrical power that can then roll over (inĀ  combination with the improved battery and energy storage technologies that are on the horizon) into all areas of our lives. Giving us truly electric cars, transport, and food production. Once the price on these essentials of living can start coming down… once people can be given clean water, cheap transport and in the case of the lucky societies that have massive industrial infrastructure, more time to sit around and think about things, we can finally start to advance as a people into a future that includes us all in a true and equal age of plenty.