Ever since I learned about sustainable design, I was hooked. There was something about a balanced system that got me. Zero waste, renewable goods, services, synergy, etc. was all very neat to me. For me, no facet of sustainability resounded stronger than renewable energy.
I was in middle school when I first became interested in lightning power. Even back then, oil was the way, the truth, and the life in America. The price of oil was always news, as was the price of gas, and other derivates of this very limited source of energy. Everyone is still fretting about oil as our main energy source, but whenever I look into the sky, when it is storming, I see lightning potential. Lightning is, after all, pure energy. And if captured properly, could be used to sustainably power the world.
So, when I emailed the Department of Energy asking them if they knew about or were investigating the efficacy of lightning power and then waited and waited; their reply was, “Dear Jeff, you can’t get lightning to strike the same place twice.” I was bummed.
I decided to go and get some numbers, so I did some research. According to "Out of the Blue," a book written by John S. Friedman, exclusively about lightning, 1.2 billion flashes occur annually. Most lightning occurs in Rwanda but the U.S. lightning giant, Florida, still gets about 25 million flashes per year. Each bolt of lightning contains 250 kW-hours.
A more important indicator, however, is whether or not lightning can strike the same place twice. First of all, yes it can because lightning will always take the most efficient path to the ground no matter what. The Empire State Building, for example, has been struck over 1,000 times in its lifetime and is struck an additional 25 times a year. It is, however, very difficult to predict where and how much lightning will strike. It is possible to attract lightning, as Benjamin Franklin proved with his famous kite and key experiment. It is also possible to project lightning, as Nikola Tesla did when he created his infamous Coil.
Is it possible, though, to rely on lightning as a renewable and dependable power source? Unfortunately, we can’t predict where lightning will strike and we are not even sure if 10,000 amps, which is a temperature 4x the surface of the sun, can be safely stored, let alone dependable. There are also disadvantages regarding the intense magnetic field lightning has. Architects, engineers, and physicists would have the hard task of figuring out how to make lightning a reliable energy source, by overcoming the aforementioned obstacles.
However, if the world could capture even a quarter of annual lightning at 250 kW-hours, it would produce 87.5 billion kW-hours, which according to Department of Energy Statistics, would be a significant portion of global energy demand.
With such potential, how can lightning power be ignored?