James Stafford: Which renewable energy technologies do you think hold the greatest potential to make a meaningful addition to global energy production?
Dave Summers: I have always thought that we did not take enough advantage of the underground. There is a small but growing use of geothermal energy (and ground source heat pumps) but there are other advantages to putting buildings and other construction underground that will likely eventually dawn on enough people that it will become a more sustainable industry.
But I have been waiting for that to happen for 40 years, and it may well take as long again before it comes to pass.
James Stafford: Who or what is the biggest obstacle to renewable energy?
Dave Summers: Depends on where you are. In Botswana it was finding folk to do the maintenance in the villages. I look out of my window at a snow-covered back yard, in a state where neither wind nor solar has much viability, hence the local university is installing a geothermal system. Where do I get the heat? From the surrounding forest, I purchase wood almost every year for use in a tile stove, and the firebox is wrapped in copper tubing. But, as the British experience showed centuries ago, burning wood is a luxury, and coal was cheaper, as the forests disappeared.
Sadly the folks that discuss future energy alternatives tend to come to the discussion with their own agendas, so that it is difficult to have an open discussion that does not end up in emotional argument.
The world desperately needs new forms of energy to replace those that are starting to run out. The time available before those needs become critical is getting shorter, and thus an open debate is vital. But because of the politics there have been a number of decisions to move technology forward before it was really ready, and that has hurt new development, and is likely to continue to do so.
Keeping solar panels clean without scratching and power degradation has been something I first discussed in an ASTM panel over 30 years ago. Maintenance is likely the biggest hidden problem at the moment.
James Stafford: Which geopolitical hotspots should we be keeping our eyes on over the coming year for potential problems?
Dave Summers: The situation in the China Sea is starting to become a greater concern, and it is a reflection more, I believe, of the potential energy sources under the sea, than it is for any particular right to own tiny islands in the middle of nowhere.
The Middle East is always a worry. Once the can of democracy was kicked open the ways in which this will change things in the region can only be guessed at. Regime changes are rough and rarely run smoothly. Policy changes mean changes for investors, and there are many groups in the region that have little love for the United States or for many of the countries of Europe.
James Stafford: If energy demand around the world continues to grow at current rates, how do you imagine the future? Will it lead to war? Large differences between the top and bottom echelons of society? Wide spread starvation? Etc.
Dave Summers: Sadly wars have been fought over resources since the beginning of time, and in the last few decades human nature has not changed that much. The impact of mass communication, and its global reach may make it easier to tell the people on both sides the “truth”, which is always adjusted as a function of who is telling it, and the possible impact of fabricators over conventional manufacturing might, however, make more of an impact faster than currently anticipated.
The mass elevation of people into the middle class in Asia cannot be reversed, and the pressures that this will bring can provide unyielding momentum that leads to conflict, particularly where there is some control over communication.
There have been enough breakthroughs in agriculture that the risks of mass starvation are fading, though the availability of water is a constant concern in a number of countries. Spreading information, and providing assistance at the lowest levels of production will come about with the spread of electronic communication and this will have a beneficial impact.
James Stafford: How has media manipulation figured in the climate change debate?
Dave Summers: As long as journalists are advocates rather than reporters the true story will not emerge. The lack of journalistic challenge in the mainstream media to the deliberate deception employed in hiding the decline in temperature prediction accuracy with the tree rings which dropped just as temperatures were rising, thus invalidating the “hockey stick”, was an early indication that media manipulation was going to be a critical factor in this debate.
How long must global temperatures remain relatively stable before someone brings this up as a front page story? The amount of money involved with those who espouse anthropogenic causes of climate change dwarfs the funding that has gone to those who raise questions when so many papers so this “may” happen, and that “might” occur. And those who pay the bills… . .
James Stafford: Lockheed recently came out with a statement predicting that they will have a working nuclear fusion reactor within the next 10 years. If this prediction does come true – do you see this having any meaningful impact on the energy sector?
Dave Summers: Um! Nuclear fusion has been the next great thing in energy production for the full extent of my professional life. It is likely to continue to be so through the professional lives of my children, and likely grandchildren.
James Stafford: What are your thoughts on nuclear power? Is it essential to meet our growing energy demand?
Dave Summers: Nuclear power has a considerable potential to help solve some of the shortfalls in energy that are now appearing on the horizon. Unfortunately the long delays in construction, some of which are due to permitting issues that have become political footballs, make it a hard investment to justify.
The move to construction of smaller reactors may well have considerable benefit, and the development of thorium has also got its place. But to make progress requires political will, and that is sadly lacking, and will remain so until energy demand rubs the noses of the body politic in the reality that there is no ideal, only the viable.
James Stafford: Dave thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Hopefully we will have a chance to catch up later in the year.