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I like to have my students engage in some simple back of the envelope calculations to put certain problems in perspective. One such problem is “our” ability to produce energy. It is perhaps the scariest bogeyman out there. However, here is one example (among dozens) of why we do not have an energy problem.

We might have a technological problem or an economic problem, but the availability of energy to power our lives, warm and cool our homes, and to produce the massive amount of stuff we like to consume is of zero concern. That’s right, zero concern.

Maybe in upcoming posts I’ll report on the sun and the atoms, for now, let’s just think a little about a common thunderstorm. (the rest of what follows is from my student Juan Pablo G.S., with some edits and additions from me):

How Much Energy Does a Thunderstorm Produce?

The total energy of a (single) thunderstorm can be calculated by knowing the quantity of water that is condensed in, and subsequently precipitated from, a cloud. In a typical thunderstorm, approximately 5×108 kg of water vapor (55 million tons) are lifted; the amount of energy released when this condenses is 1015 joules.

The total amount of energy consumed in the United States is 15.8 TerraWattsHours per year. This is equivalent to 5.7 x 1016 Joules of energy. Thus, the energy contained in roughly 57 thunderstorms would be enough to satisfy ALL of the energy needs for the United States in a given year.

How many thunderstorms hit the US each year? Between 100,000 and 125,000. So, in order to extract the equivalent amount of energy needed to power the entire US for a year, we would have to harness 0.057% of the energy from each of 100,000 storms. Not 10%. Not 1%. Not one-tenth of a percent, but rather 57 hundreths of a percent.

That is not easy, of course. But this is just intended to give you a sense for what is “possible” out there.

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