How much energy do we need or can we make a star on earth?

Posted in BBC, energy, Nuclear Fusion by Tony C on March 8, 2009


If you haven’t watched Professor Brian Cox’s Horizon episode on Nuclear Fusion you should, it’s a fascinating look at the subject in it’s own right but the best bit is when he talks to Saul Griffiths a serial entrepreneur and inventor, about energy production and consumption.  Griffith’s view is about as pragmatic and uncluttered as it gets. 

Here we are on this finite little ball that’s spinning through the universe, if there is a limit to how much power per square metre we can get, we shouldn’t be afraid of that limit but we should certainly try to operate within it. Let’s as quickly as possible get the debate about energy away from the emotional, qualitative, polar bear issues and to a very rational, “what do we have to do”?, “how do we get this done”?

Griffith’s thinking came from examining his own energy consumption.  He assumed as he commutes by bike, uses public transport and owns a wind energy company he be a “good human”.  The devil is of course in the details, he worked out for example how much energy is consumed having the New York Times delivered to his house, 507 watts if you’re interested, how much to take a how shower everyday, drive, fly etc etc.  Griffiths was shocked by the results. 

The two then went through a calculation to establish what energy needs might be based on on a number of  premises. 

  • Energy equity. The average American currently consumes 11.4KW of energy per year whereas the world average is 2.2KW making a world total of 13TW or 13 million million watts.  So if we pick a number somewhere in between 11 and 2 that’s equitable for all of us on planet earth that would be fair wouldn’t it? 5KW per annum making a total of 30TW. 
  • No fossil fuels.
  • Target date of 2035.

In the West we’d need to consume a whole lot less even with more than doubling world total , but those not as fortunate than us could enjoy a live style approximating our own.  Again sounds fair doesn’t it?

  • If we choose then to generate a modest 5TW of our needs from Nuclear Fission Reactors we’d need to build 5000 of these in 25 years or two and half full size reactor every week.
  • Every 3 minutes for the next 25 years we’d need to install a full size 3MW Wind Turbine and cover about 2% of the land mass with such turbines for another 5TW.
  • 10TW from Solar.  250  squared metres of Solar Panels would need to be installed every second for the next 25 years.
  • Bio fuels.  2TW.  We’d need to produce 4 Olympic sized swimming pools of genetically engineered bacteria every second for the next 25 years.

They didn’t get to include tide, geothermal or hydro as the numbers were probably equally as mind boggling.  As Cox ten points out they didn’t factor in population growth and every minute or second we do nothing the numbers above just keep climbing.

He then asks if we can get over our ‘addiction’ to fossil fuels?  Even if we bend and twist the calculations above you’d have to conclude things don’t look good.  Now of course this was a programme about the possibility of Nuclear Fusion and we just don’t know if it works or could ever work on an industrial scale, but it might be the ‘get out of jail free’ card. 

Humanity then has a couple of choices.

  • Assume Fusion is too far away and increase the use of fossil alternatives until we get it to work.
  • Take a gamble with Fusion and spend 100 times what we do on R&D at the moment.  In the UK we currently spend more on ringtones than Fusion research.

I came away from the programme both encouraged and disappointed by our progress, on one hand there is some amazing research going on the field of Fusion power all around the world but it’s painfully slow progress.  The problem of course as much about money and politics as it is scientific but if we were to take Fusion power as seriously as we take Fusion bombs we could be on to something. 

A Manhattan Project for energy anyone?

6 Responses

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  1. M. Simon said, on March 9, 2009 at 5:32 am

    Uh, 508 watts is not an amount of energy. Any one who would say something like that is ignorant of what energy is.

    So what is the actual energy? 508 billion watts delivered for a nanosecond? Or .508 watts delivered for 1000 seconds (both are the same amount of energy – 508 joules)?

    Here is something that might be closer than you think:

    Bussard’s IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained

    Why hasn’t Polywell Fusion been fully funded by the Obama administration?

  2. M. Simon said, on March 9, 2009 at 5:41 am

    Addiction to fossil fuels? I’m addicted to civilization. You can’t have the kind of civilization we have without a LOT of energy.

    Well you start with the wrong premise and a misunderstanding of energy and you wind up with stupid policies. This may be the first time in history where the political demands re: energy cause civilizational collapse.

    We have enough resources to get us through the transition to fusion. If we don’t behave stupidly out of ignorance. What do I expect to happen? We will behave stupidly out of ignorance.

  3. stufforama said, on March 9, 2009 at 10:27 am

    Hi M Simon, thanks for your comments.

    A couple of things. Firstly I did mention the energy consumption was per year but apologies for not making it clearer earlier on in the post.

    The whole point of the calculation that Cox and Griffiths did was that we need a LOT of energy and IF we take the position that fossils fuels are not the long term answer then alternatives need to looked at. However if we take a 25 year view current alternatives don’t just add up…

  4. Martin said, on March 9, 2009 at 11:09 am

    I suspect those figures are either power consumption figures as an average for the year or total kilowatt hours, but don’t quite feel right. 11ish kilowatts average consumption seems very high, but then perhaps I am just underestimating the “background” energy consumed on my behalf?

    The other thought I had when I saw the programme was why focus on JUST fusion (I agree we ought spend WAY more on research than we do). With technology that we have today (in fact technology that really needs nothing beyond 1950s engineering) we could really ramp up our fission capacity and alsoi invest in Hydrogen distribution as a replacement to domestic gas and pettrolium prioduct consumption.

  5. D-man said, on June 26, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    I’m not so sure about the numbers either. Just before I graduated, I roomed with four other guys—making our “household” a total number of four. The average American household right now is at 2.67 (, thus any numbers from our household could be higher than an average American household.

    At any rate, our energy consumption on our power bill for Feb. was 344 kWh, which seemed to be fairly representative of other months (even though Feb. is shorter). Using this number we find that our energy consumption would be around 4200 kWh per year, divide this by the total number of hours per year and we get 0.5 kW/yr.

    I realize you were probably factoring transportation and other such things, but it wold amaze me if these other factors were 20 times the amount we use in our homes.

    I like the idea, fusion is a good place to research, but may not be the best immediate solution.

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