Can lightning be harnessed as an energy source? The short answer is: not right now. The long answer is: where there’s a will, there’s a way. But that doesn’t mean we’ll be seeing it any time in the near future.
There are huge cost factors associated with even researching the power of lightning, let alone implementing a collection system across the board to harness lightning as an energy source.
So first, let’s take a look at how we could do it.
To better understand the potential for using lightning as an alternative and sustainable energy source, let’s first look at some facts about the mysterious bolts.
First off, lightning doesn’t actually generate much power when it hits. Sure, its potential is huge, but since it occurs in such short bursts, the amount of energy we see transferred from a typical bolt is only enough to power a 100 watt light bulb for six months.
It might not seem like much, but when you consider lightning strikes the earth around 100 times per second, it means there is a huge amount of power flowing to the earth every minute, all of which is going unused.
One of the problems with trying to capture the power of lightning is finding the lightning in the first place. Its occurrences are so random and inconsistent it makes setting up a lightning power station difficult. If a power station is constructed at a spot where there have been many lightning strikes in the past, there’s no evidence lightning will continue to hit there in the future.
After all, everyone knows lightning never strikes the same place twice… except in some cases. On the other hand, there are a lot of places that do see repetitive lightning strikes. North America sees a ton of lighting every year because of its geography, and buildings such as the Space Needle and the Chrysler Building were built to withstand dozens of lightning strikes a year. However, the current record holder for yearly lightning strikes is the perfect example to demonstrate how lightning could be harnessed: the CN Tower.
The tallest building in North America, located in Toronto, Ontario, is hit by lightning around 75 times per year (click here for a video of the Tower being struck). So if each brief bolt holds enough energy to power a lightbulb for six months, then one year of lightning collection could power that same light for over 37 years.
For a building like the CN Tower, that isn’t very much, but maybe if we were to switch the lights on the outside of the CN Tower to LEDs, and then hook up a lightning contraption… Okay, so maybe it’s not feasible. And it’s definitely overly idealistic.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a significant amount of power, and not worth the effort to collect. Not to mention how strong the collection devices would have to be to absorb such strong surges of energy, and how dangerous the work would be for anyone operating the systems.
So, in the end, it’s not practical right now, and there’s no arguing that. But if there is one place where we might see it being used in the future, it’s got to be Dubai. Right now, they’re constructing the tallest buildings in the world which will shame even the CN Tower. If the height:lightning ratio is any indication, these buildings will be seeing far more than 75 strikes per year, and that’s on each individual building.
If, and it’s a big ‘if’, lightning can ever be harnessed for energy purposes, we will need a way to draw more lightning to desired points of contact, such as taller buildings or lightning poles, and a wide area with points to hit throughout the grid. Then we may one day be able to see the use of the lightning bolt to power our grids, and not just make our pets wet their beds.