Will renewable energy technologies ever save us from our fossil-fuel burning ways? It’s one question that made Sanjayan, The Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist, agree to host “Powering the Future” — a four-part Discovery Channel series that airs Saturday, July 17 and Sunday, July 18 at 8p ET/PT.
As it turns out, he’s still uncertain about the future — but he does now know tons about all things renewable, from solar paint to clothing woven with photovoltaics to why China and America need each other to crack the green energy nut. I reached him in London, where he’d just given a TED talk on the future of conservation, to find out more about the series.
Q: You’ve done a lot of very successful TV shows about wildlife. So why energy? Isn’t that out of the comfort zone of a conservationist?
Sanjayan: I never thought energy was core to conservation — but when I started doing research for the show, it didn’t take me long to realize everything we do links back to the cost of energy and the use of energy and its impacts on the environment.
Here’s what doing the show made me realize: As a conservationist, I can’t sit out this issue. None of us can. Everything I care about as a conservationist, from endangered species to fresh water to recycling, is impacted by how we use energy. Which is why I wanted to know more.
But very few Americans have a visceral sense of this stuff. Energy is an incredibly important issue, possibly our number one issue, and yet the American public understands it less well than defense, health care or education. We have a less intuitive understanding of energy because we can’t touch it, define it or save it.
In doing the show, I realized that this is the most important thing I’m going to do for a while because it’ll help anyone who watches better understand the enormous issues around energy use. We want people to come away informed and ready to have an honest dialogue about it.
Q: Do you find yourself more or less optimistic now about our abilities to tackle the energy problem?
Sanjayan: I’m neither. I do know that nobody can afford to ignore this problem.
Q: You introduce us to a lot of small and big ideas for renewable energy in this series — everything from an enormous battery to power New York City to an olive-processing factory that uses its waste olive pits to power itself. What surprised you the most doing this series? What ideas were you most impressed with?
Sanjayan: What surprised me most — a pleasant surprise — was the number of innovators that there are out there working on trying to find the silver bullet to this problem.
What dismayed me was the enormity of the problem. The good news: Lots of people are working on this. The bad news: It’s a heck of a complicated problem. Gasoline is so attractive because it packs such a punch in a small space.
In terms of ideas and technology itself — I think it’s pretty brash and impressive that American innovators are forming their own green car companies. There are individuals who are making cars and marketing them and giving the big guys, the Fords and Toyotas and Hondas, a run for their money.
For example, an entrepreneur in L.A. is putting out a model called the Coda – it looks like a normal car, but it’s pure electric. And he’s selling them this year. It’s like you and I saying: Let’s build a plane company. His brainstorm is that he outsourced the battery manufacturing to the same Chinese company that makes batteries for the iPhone.
The other thing I discovered is that the picture often painted about the international race to become the world leader in renewables is more complicated than we’re led to believe in the press. Tom Friedman [the columnist for The New York Times] wants to scare America into action on renewable energy by saying the Chinese are kicking our ass and we better get going. The sense he conveys is that the Chinese are so far ahead we’re going to have to run to catch up.
I agree with him that America needs to get going, but when I went to China, I saw that there’s more to the story. China and America need each other to develop renewables. The innovations are still coming from America, while the manufacturing is coming from China. And a lot of these Chinese and American renewables companies have joint ventures. We show a wind turbine whose blades change their shape to fit the speed of the wind — it’s made in China, but the control device actually made in America.
I also came away with the sense that the Chinese are creating an entirely different model for themselves that we don’t hear about, based on their cultural norms.
In China, a four-minute hot shower is a luxury. They’re perfectly happy to install a rooftop solar thermal heater that gives them a four-minute shower. Americans want 15-minute showers with very hot water. Because the Chinese aren’t giving up anything, they’re comfortable establishing a new norm. When people say “game over when Chinese become like us” — they’re wrong. The Chinese want to be like the Chinese. I found that interesting and heartening.
Q: During the show, you say replacing fossil fuels is going to take hundreds and thousands of attempts by hundreds and thousands of innovators until we hit paydirt. But of all the technologies you introduce us to in the series — everything from fusion to olive pit-biofuels to photovoltaics woven into curtains and clothes — which is your money on? Do you think there will be a silver bullet? Or is it going to be a weave of thousands of smaller ideas together?
Sanjayan: I think it’s going to be silver buckshot, not a silver bullet. Having said that, the one I would invest my money in is wind – I think it has the greatest potential, the greatest power generating capability and the greatest upside.
In terms of a specific technology, it’s hard to say. It was very fun to see Nate Lewis’s lab at CalTech, producing solar paint. There are also kites now with turbines underneath them – a clever, clever technology. When the winds die down, the turbines take over to power the kites until the wind picks back up.
Q: You interview an engineer at a solar farm in Spain who tells you: “If renewable is not controllable at the end of the day, you have nothing.” Many of these alternative energies like wind or solar seem inherently fickle. How do we solve this problem?
Sanjayan: It’s got to be two things — batteries, and also a better grid to mix and match from different sources. Ultimately, we need a system that uses the best sort of energy at the right time for the ideal use. For instance, you don’t want to run at night the electricity collected from solar power into a battery — that’s inefficient and dumb. For wind, ideally you want to send electricity from wind power to people not far from the turbines, and have those turbines sited so that the viewshed isn’t significantly impaired.
But really, your question is unfair. Renewables don’t pack the punch that gasoline packs — but oil is very fickle as well, if you think about the risks of getting it to the consumer and how quickly people will sue oil companies to stop drilling and transporting.
In Missoula, my hometown, we’ve recently had massive protests against oil pipe-drilling equipment going through town on its way to Canada. And this is just the drilling equipment and pipes – they have to shut down the streets to allow these huge transport vehicles through. I doubt we would have that kind of protest if it were a giant wind turbine. People now think oil is dirty and that anything to facilitate getting it is a bad idea.
Q: The timing of this show is of course dramatic, with the ongoing crisis in the Gulf. As a species, we’ve been using fossil fuels for about 100,000 years. Are we ready to have a dialogue about moving beyond petroleum? In the United States, are we ready to change our policies to bring about that shift?
Sanjayan: I obviously believe it is time for a national dialogue — I feel this show will allow the American public to have that dialogue by giving them the facts about energy. Energy entirely controls our lives, we’re entirely dependent on it, but we can’t see it. It was a challenging show to do, but I’m glad we did it.
Regarding changed policies — I don’t think we have a choice. I think we need a comprehensive energy bill with a big provision on clean energy. And we will do it, if not this year, in three or four years — but there’s a huge cost in waiting. Friedman is right about American competitiveness and clean energy. Each year we wait it becomes harder, not easier to do.
(Image credit: La Cinnamon/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)