Could you power a city with lightning?

In Back to the Future, Doc Brown uses lightning to power the De Lorean sports car time machine so that Marty can return to 1985. But could lightning ever be harnessed as a useable power source in the future?

At first sight it appears promising because a lightning bolt, which has over five billion Joules of energy, which could provide one household with all their energy needs for a month. However, Doc Brown had an unbeatable advantage over us – he knew when and where the lightning was going to strike.

In the UK we experience relatively few thunderstorms each year: in England thunder occurs on average 11 days per year, with even fewer in Scotland and Wales. Even during a thunderstorm it’s incredibly difficult to predict when and where lightning will strike.

Assuming that you are lucky and get a lightning bolt to hit your conductor, there would be major difficulties in storing the energy and then converting it to alternating current so it can run your appliances. In addition, any solution to these problems would need to be able to withstand the enormous surges in energy generated by each strike.

Finally, much of the lightning bolt’s energy goes into heating the surrounding air to temperatures greater than the surface of the Sun. So even if you managed to overcome the problems of collecting, storing and converting the energy from the lightning to make it useful, you would still only be harnessing a small proportion of the lightning bolt’s power.

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