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August 2009
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Could you Power a City with a Single Bolt of Lightning?

It is storm mania in the GTA, electrical storms seem to be a daily occurrence. As I see these large bolts seem to reach out to buildings and crash into the ground I can’t help but wonder why harvesting energy from lightning bolts isn’t in the renewable energy conversation?

A Poor ROI

Why aren’t more scientists researching how to harvest lightning and turn it into usable electricity? From what I’ve been able to discover with my quick research online is that an a bolt of electricity holds about 5 billion joules of energy (enough to provide an average household with all their energy needs for a month), but it is only potential energy. The energy from the lightning bolt would have to be converted from DC (direct current) to AC (alternating current); AC is the electricity we use to power all our gadgets.

Even if we could capture the lightning most of the energy from the bolt is used to heat the surroundings; according to the Greener.Ideal it is believed that the loss of energy due to heat would mean that a lightening bolt could only power one light bulb for 6 months. From powering a home for a whole month to a only 1 measly light bulb over 6 moths, that’s a huge loss.

All of this though is further complicated by chaos, lightning is random. Capturing the lightning requires a massive station, which is not only expensive but fairly immobile. Since lightning is so inconsistent there is nothing that can predict that it will continue to strike the same area in the future.

The Individual Footprint

Worldwide lightning storms are predictable through the North American summer months. Combine that with some very tall buildings, like The Sears Tower in Chicago, The Chrysler Building in Detroit, and many New York buildings, and you have yourself the ideal lightning capturing station, each being hit about a few dozen times per year. But one building stands out on its own, Toronto’s CN Tower, being struck about 75 times per year.

Instead the overall energy production could be scaled back; the lightning bolts could be used to power the tall buildings. The idea of sustainability is to be able to provide your own energy without compromising the future of others. These tall buildings can do such; their unique height allows them to benefit from the lightening storms we see.

The CN tower could be the test project. Change all the lights to LED’s, reduce energy demands as much as possible and install a capturing station. Who knows maybe the CN Tower could become carbon neutral?


Comment from Ian
Time August 13, 2009 at 1:52 pm

How would you suggest the energy the bolt delivers in a fraction of a second be stored for gradual dissemination over the succeeding days/weeks/months?

Wouldn’t that entail extensive battery systems with the ability to completely charge near-instantaneously?

Comment from Sasha
Time August 13, 2009 at 4:22 pm

it would require extensive battery systems plus very sophisticated surge protection.
What if instead there was an energy trade with adjacent buildings? This would eliminate the necessary batteries and the other buildings could deliver power over a period of time.

Comment from Ian
Time August 14, 2009 at 1:56 pm

What do you mean by ‘energy trade with adjacent buildings’?

The fundamental problem is you have the near-instantaneous delivery of a substantial amount of energy that you need to be able to capture and store. I don’t know if that technology or capability yet exists.

Comment from Sasha
Time August 14, 2009 at 3:05 pm

you’re right you would need a ‘system’ to capture and store the energy. I know there is research being done on this in Florida, since they also get many, many electrical storms too.
But the battery/storage system could be significantly smaller if the energy was fed into the grid within minutes/hours of it hitting the tower as opposed to having to be stored long term.

Comment from Ian
Time August 14, 2009 at 3:58 pm

“But the battery/storage system could be significantly smaller if the energy was fed into the grid within minutes/hours of it hitting the tower as opposed to having to be stored long term.”

Specifically where would the energy be put for these minutes/hours before being fed into the grid if not some kind of storage system?

This isn’t addressing the fundamental problem previously stated. Whether you store the energy for two minutes, two days or two weeks before using it is relatively minor to that initial capturing & storage problem.

Comment from avaissaps
Time December 11, 2009 at 10:38 pm

Great blogpost, did not thought reading this would be so stunning when I klicked at the link.