When humankind really wants to do something, our ingenuity, resources and determination are breathtaking. We put a man on the moon! We unlocked the power of the atom! We routinely build devices for our entertainment that are mind¬bogglingly complex, and our industrial civilization and economic infrastructure is a system of interlocking components that rivals the brain as the most complex structure in the known universe.
We stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us. This challenge represents our generation’s turn to carry the baton forward. It won’t be easy, but it is possible.
How do we do it?
The sun that hits just 1% of the area of the Sahara Desert contains enough energy to power the entire world. That same desert, irrigated with saltwater, could provide enough biofuel to replace all of the world’s energy needs. The wind that sweeps across the American Plains could power the entire United States. So, too, could the heat stored in the ground beneath our feet. An intelligent “energy internet” that manages and stores energy—much like the World Wide Web does data—lies just around the corner. There’s ample renewable energy; that’s not the problem.
But there’s no magic bullet. All renewables need to be developed on a massive scale. Enormous investments need to be made in transmission and storage, to deliver that energy where and when it’s needed. Conservation is an equal partner. Every watt of energy we don’t use is a watt of energy we don’t need to produce.
Back when I was a software entrepreneur, my hard-nosed business partner would often exclaim in an exasperated voice: “It’s all economics!” He’d trot this expression out whenever I proposed something that relied on forces other than money — goodheartedness, idealism, moral fiber. He had a point.
Money makes the world go ’round, and it’s money that needs to be deployed. So, how do we make the money flow away from fossil fuels? We can’t rely solely on goodwill or idealism.
One solution is to put a price on carbon emissions. Emitting carbon can no longer be free—it cannot remain, in the words of one economist, an “externality.” Then, and only then, will capital begin to flow to renewables. But this solution is long and slow. No one is willing to shock the economy with steep, sharp increases in the price of carbon.