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Widespread solar energy within 50 years? 'We can definitely do it,' predicts sustainability expert

How this country borrows money for oil -- with no intention of paying off the debt -- generates the worst business plan ever, said Cornell energy expert Frank DiSalvo in a public lecture Sept. 13. But there is light at the end of the energy tunnel, he predicted, and it will come from the sun.

Fossil fuel resources cannot provide the world with adequate energy indefinitely, said DiSalvo, the John A. Newman Professor of Physical Science at Cornell and director of the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future, in the second installment of the Sustainable Earth, Energy and Environmental Systems speaker series in 101 Phillips Hall.

"We have to solve this problem, sooner rather than later," he said. The answer, he added, lies in renewable energy sources and a sustainable approach that will not compromise future generations. To achieve this, DiSalvo emphasized the need to consider the interrelationships of energy, economic development and the environment.

The heavy reliance on such fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal will eventually cause serious economic and environmental problems, DiSalvo noted, as resources dwindle and prices rise.

In the United States, for example, "We buy oil by essentially borrowing money. Then we burn the oil, and because we have both a trade and federal budget deficit, we have no intention of paying it off, so we pay interest on it forever," said DiSalvo. "That is the worst business plan ever."

Using fossil fuels is also largely inefficient; when they are burned, almost two-thirds of their energy potential is lost to the environment as heat, and their use incurs damage to the environment.

"Ultimately, most of the energy on the planet is going to come directly from the sun," predicted DiSalvo. "More energy than we use in one year is hitting the planet every hour of the day from the sun."

However, solar energy is now expensive, ways to store and transport it have yet to be developed, and creating large-scale solar energy systems will inevitably present economic and environmental challenges. "It's our choice as to which impacts we want to have and how much we can minimize them," said DiSalvo.

DiSalvo also emphasized that challenges in sustainability are much more than technical. "The cultural, social, political and behavioral dimensions in addressing sustainability will be central to determine possible futures for us and the planet," he said.

Nevertheless, DiSalvo is confident that progress toward sustainable energy will occur by mid-century. It will require capital, time and human and political investment, but "together we can definitely do it," he said.

The Sustainable Earth, Energy and Environmental Systems speaker series addresses issues related to energy, climate and the environment every other Monday night at 7:30 p.m. in 101 Phillips Hall until Nov. 29. The series is co-sponsored by the Cornell Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future.

More information and video recordings of lectures can be found at

Michelle Spektor '12 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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