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Clean Power — Visualizing The Impact Of Humanity

In the midst of all the scary data on global warming, I discovered a new presentation of data on the global deployment of renewable energy. Even though it is quite clear these days that solar and wind is raging on — like burying the coal industry and overtaking nuclear — it can be very unclear where we are in the process. Will the fossil fuel era be over soon enough to prevent irreversible catastrophic changes to our climate? A cool tool from from CREATE Lab tries to visualize the change, and this is how they do it:

EarthTime, stitching together and animating high-definition satellite imagery, ties together diverse data layers to show the patterns and connections behind some of the major social and political trends of the past two decades – and how they are inscribed into fast-changing landscapes. The platform has already been used in public outreach in schools and museums, and to inform world leaders at World Economic Forum events of major environmental and geo-economic shifts, from air pollution to inequality. It uses images captured by NASA satellites since 1984.

When I saw a few examples I was stunned. We humans are visually oriented. We are struggling to make sense of text and numbers. We like graphs and images with colors better. But what really soothes our senses is colorful moving images. The following videos show something in a few seconds, which I previously had trouble believing.

But before I start playing with EarthTime, let’s get the scary bit out of the way first. This video from NASA is the most frightening I have ever seen, and yes, if we had no prospect of the fossil fuel era being replaced by anything else, it would show that glimpse in the planet’s history where man burned it all and died in the flames. It shows temperature changes year by year over the last 137 years. Everything looks calm and stable for the first 100 years, but in the last few seconds we see a planet that literally overheats:

If you ponder it, you can easily panic and just feel the urge to get away … but, wait, where to? But chill out and look at the following videos. On you can play with data of many kinds, just like, but this time as time-lapse geographic maps. This is what I got from fiddling with wind energy data (every green dot is a wind turbine. The brighter the light, the larger the turbine):

Beautiful right? Of course, I can’t help being a little proud when I see it all starting out in Denmark, but notice the pace. It’s raging fast. Wind energy is itself able to threaten the fossil fuel industry, and this happens all over the world. Wind energy is a solid and mature industry and could handle the entire world’s energy supply in a matter of decades. But is that fast enough? This is where my fiddling with solar data on EarthTime convinces me that we’re all going to be just fine (every purple dot is a solar installation hooked up. The brighter the light, the larger the installation):

Again, notice the pace, it’s accelerating fast! When I saw that, I felt a sense of relief. What wind energy may not be able to do in due time, solar certainly will. What we are witnessing here is a conversion of energy production in the world that exceeds any previous technological implementation. This development will end with a global energy supply that is primarily based on solar energy, backed by wind and storage, and my conservative guess is that it will all be over within the next two decades.

Looking closely at these videos reveals that the development of the solution is at least as fast as the development of the problem. Something suggests that human-caused global warming can, in fact, be reversed by human efforts, and it is happening right now. However, we have already caused major changes in the world’s climate systems and we better prepare ourselves for some very violent weather over the coming decades. The planet will find a new equilibrium, and it will probably be very different from the current norm. But we will survive. I have no doubts about that.

The fossil fuel era is soon over and the human race is now moving into an era where we harvest solar energy directly on a large-scale, 24-hours a day. Utilizing fossil fuels, old stored solar energy, is simply an inefficient and outdated technology. Wind energy is a fantastic and simple mechanical way of utilizing intermediately stored solar energy in the atmosphere. Solar cells, on the other hand, are modern electronics, and every time we have seen a breakthrough in electronics, it takes about a decade from market breakthrough to total dominance.

Welcome to the future. It’s going to be a good one.

“EarthTime is a means to tell stories. The impact of humanity can be seen globally and in individual communities. You really can’t understand climate change, migration or major social and political trends without examining their connections across time, across space and between each other. EarthTime enables you to do that.” — Illah Nourbakhsh, Director – CREATE Lab

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Written By

Jesper had his perspective on the world expanded vastly after having attended primary school in rural Africa in the early 1980s. And while educated a computer programmer and laboratory technician, working with computers and lab-robots at the institute of forensic medicine in Aarhus, Denmark, he never forgets what life is like having nothing. Thus it became obvious for him that technological advancement is necessary for the prosperity of all humankind, sharing this one vessel we call planet earth. However, technology has to be smart, clean, sustainable, widely accessible, and democratic in order to change the world for the better. Writing about clean energy, electric transportation, energy poverty, and related issues, he gets the message through to anyone who wants to know better. Jesper is founder of and a long-term investor in Tesla, Ørsted, and Vestas.


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