I enjoyed Engineer-Poet's recent post on peak energy versus peak oil. He sees considerable grounds for optimism, and has some interesting numbers to back it up:
The plug-in hybrid is coming; electric propulsion is already good enough to be offering 85% reductions in motor-fuel needs. But that's not the end. Radically improved batteries have been announced by several different companies, offering huge increases in power/weight (5 kW/kg), charge/discharge rate (100 C), and lifespan. The inevitable outcome of these advances is an all-electric car which can go several hundred miles at highway speeds and recharges in 5 minutes. Long before that, the same batteries will make hybrids more muscular than all but the most exotic sports cars. The same advanced 5 kWH battery which could drive a Prius+ for 20 miles or so could also deliver enough power (500 kW!) to leave Corvettes in the dust. If you're imagining a Miata with the power of a NASCAR racer, you've got the right idea....In other news, attempts to make ethanol cheaply from non-food agricultural wastes (i.e., straw and stalks) continue to seem promising. I remain lukewarm about biodiesel, but the worst of my misgivings evaporate when the feedstock is waste cellulose. I can't imagine anything more ghastly than dedicating millions of acres to food crops, and turning them into ethanol at a net energy loss. Cellulosic ethanol, however, is another matter, and a couple of companies claim that they're prepared to move into large-scale production, using fungi to break cellulose down for processing into ethanol. SunOpta is one; Iogen is another.
Humans use about 400 quadrillion BTU (quads) of energy per year from all sources; the Sun delivers this much energy to Earth in about 41 minutes. Developments in the pipeline might increase the efficiency of PV cells from 15% to 60%, roughly 30 times as great as the most efficient higher plants. Such cells would produce an explosion in energy availability and thus energy use, without pollution.
Treehugger discusses the progress being made towards building two huge new solar arrays in the Mojave Desert, which will use Stirling engines to generate power. Their combined output would be an unprecedented 800 megawatts.
Treehugger also reports on Sun Microsystems' new, more efficient microprocessor:
[T]he new processor...draws an average of about 70 watts, anywhere from half to a third of more traditional processors, which are typically between 150 and 200 watts. Since less energy means less heat, this also cuts down on the amount of cooling needed, which serves to further save energy. Sun claims that removing the world's Web servers and replacing them with half the number of UltraSparc T1-based systems would have the same effect on carbon dioxide emissions as planting 1 million trees. It expects to ship systems based on the processor by the end of the year.Elsewhere, I've mentioned the use of satellites to monitor and protect endangered species. Now, it seems that satellite surveillance is doing a good deal to protect the severely overfished Chilean sea bass from poachers.
[A] radar satellite surveillance system based on Envisat and Radarsat-1 imagery has cut the number of illegal fishing incursions in the vicinity of Kerguelen Island by nine-tenths. Run for the benefit of the French maritime authorities by the firm CLS (Collecte, Localisation Satellites), a subsidiary of the French space agency CNES, the system is up and running at a time when overfishing has left the 40-million-year-old Patagonian toothfish species on the verge of extinction.