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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

We must think beyond fuel cells, wind power and even solar energy

Energy efficiency is nowhere yet compared to where it could be. The time has come to go beyond the obvious, writes Gunter Pauli

The race towards sustainable energy needs to be sped up. Salah Malkawi for The National
The race towards sustainable energy needs to be sped up. Salah Malkawi for The National

Energy efficiency is urgently needed because climate is changing and sea levels are rising due to our excessive and inefficient use of fossil fuels. Whereas scientists debate the extent of the problem, nearly everyone agrees that climate change is a fact, and its impact will be disastrous for the social and economic fabric which has been woven over the past centuries. Humanity will have to adapt.

The problem, however, is broader than global warming. We burn oil to generate power at very low efficiency. Oil to power for transportation through a combustion engine only reaps 13 per cent of its energy potential. There is no investment that survives the scrutiny of financial experts when the return is a mere 13 per cent reached after 100 years of research. Our refusal to push for substantially greater fuel efficiency is inexcusable. Worse, the refusal to invest heavily in research and development to move us towards a renewable economy is a lost opportunity.

Energy efficiency is nowhere yet compared to where it could be. The time has come to go beyond the obvious. It is urgent to think beyond fuel cells, wind power and even solar. While these forms of renewable energies represented a great start with billions invested, we need to scale and speed up if we want to make a real dent in the statistics. The time has come to identify the key areas for fundamental research and embrace creativity in order to imagine the next levels of fuel and energy efficiency that can target breakthroughs by a factor of 100.

Did you know that the power of your heart has the equivalent strength of 0.003 horsepower? This core system that secures our survival requires about 1.5 Watts of energy. This is generated thanks to a chemical reaction of potassium and calcium that we accumulate through an appropriate inflow of nutrients. This muscle has the strength to channel 8,000 liters of blood through some 60,000 km of veins and arteries each day. Have we ever simulated energy efficient systems which can emulate this performance? Now imagine the whale, pumping 1,000 litres every pulse through a hundred million veins and arteries.

Do you know how a butterfly moves around? It harvests the micro flows of energy available through minute gusts of wind that are sufficient to surf from Mexico to the United States, and get the food it needs. No other living species is as efficient as the butterfly in harvesting these unnoticeable sources of energy. Do you know how a trout can hold still in a gush of water in a mountain creek?

Did you ever stop and think about the natural energy which permits the apple to defy gravity? We know well how the apple and any other object, respects the law of gravity and drops down, but why do we not wonder how the apple gets up there in the first place. This is a major lack of understanding how nature works. Whereas each of these phenomena could be explained haphazardly, it is necessary to pay more attention to the capacity of nature to harvest energy with levels of efficiency our human living systems cannot even dream of.

We urgently need to rethink our framework of reference for energy efficiency. The best option is to inspire children at an early age. That is why the Zayed Future Energy Prize is such a welcome initiative. If we remain inventive only with the obvious energy sources which we know today, we will make major strides forward, but we will not design a society capable of responding to everyone’s needs. There is no doubt that nature can be a bigger inspiration than we ever considered possible; and even better, nature does not generate carbon or methane emissions while thriving on numerous forces which we have just begun to understand.

Gunter Pauli is author of 15 books, including The Blue Economy