The well known science fiction author Neil Stephenson drones on at a low, bemused ebb about how we have lost the ability to dream big. Within a couple generations, we went from not being able to fly to putting men on the moon. The same length of time since that initial burst of creativity, between putting the first man on the moon and the present, has been far less creative. Today the best minds on the planet, Stephenson drily observes, dedicate their significant mental energies to coding spam filters.
Stephenson's idea of dreaming big entails building a really tall tower, in the spirit of the biblical Tower of Babel. If you have read his book Snowcrash, the biblical reference is entirely explicable. Stephenson wants to launch pay-loads into orbit from a height of 15 or 20km, depending on complicated calculations that factor in the force the Jet Stream exerts on the needle-like edifice, into the vast unknown where the gods were once believed to dwell. The energy required to achieve orbit, and so also the cost, would be greatly reduced. The idea attracts him because, he says, it is entirely within our technical capacity to accomplish. In principle, we can do big things. The only thing missing is political will.
If dreaming big means finding ways off the planet's surface, though, I have to wonder whether it covers over a deeper despair. It's fairly obvious from the talk Stephenson harbours a great deal of pent up frustration towards other people--politicians, businessmen, and the like--who don't think things through with the clarity of a natural scientist or an author of science fiction. So it's not surprising his idea of thinking big involves leaving home.
Flywheel energy storage technology is another such project within our technical capacity to achieve. It's also a lot closer to home than are the supposed promises of a new Babel. Flywheel technology is a mechanical form of energy storage, which promises to regularize demands on energy supply between peak and off-peak hours. A rotor suspended in a near-frictionless, vacuum-sealed container is speed-up by excess electrical power during off-peak hours and energy from the rotor is fed back into the energy grid during hours of peak demand.
Flywheel technology has the potential to smooth out large the cost differential between base-load (coal, hydro-electric, nuclear) and peak-load (usually older natural gas plants) power-production. This will allow for the integration of intermittent forms of renewable energy production--especially wind, solar--with an distribution network that demands a regular supply.
It would also throw into question one of the basic tenets of the calculus of electrical supply and demand: electricity cannot be stored. That's big. Like really, really big. The way the electrical production industry responds to new demands on existing supply could be entirely rethought. And right now some sort of creative thinking along these lines is needed. More than 1200 new coal-fired power-plants are being planned at the same time as smog in China has been renamed the 'airpocalyse'. To put this as crassly as possible, capitalists everywhere should be thinking about how to make money off Chinese (or Brazilian, Indian, Indonesian, Mexican, heck even American) children starving for breathe a fresh air. Now. The planet will thank them.
Development of flywheel technology will occur quite close to my childhood home. Last December, the Wall Street Journal reported one Ontario firm, NRStor, has partnered with Ontario Power Generation, along with a couple of other companies, 'to accelerate the commercialization of energy storage technologies through the planning and development of energy storage solutions.' Admittedly, the language is evasive. It doesn't actually say things are going to get done. But someone out there, at least, is thinking big in ways that don't involve us banking that technological spin-offs from space exploration will be a tide that automatically lifts all boats down here on earth. (There's a biblical Flood metaphor in there somewhere.)
The press release reports that a one-acre plot of land will be developed near the town of Sarnia. The rationale it provides is couched in terms of responding to future market pressures. As the costs of fossil fuel energy production as still quite low, this sort of technology is not likely going to establish itself overnight. But North Atlantic governments should stop behaving as if their sole priority was the maintenance of something called 'the economy'. They should start thinking more about other public goods; flywheel technologies, for example, could be incentivized. The payout for 'the economy' over the longer term is obvious.
(A post of mine related to the topic: Smoggy Days.)