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Do We Have All the Renewable Energy We Need to Power the World?

A leading researcher says we have enough wind and solar to power the world. Are we willing to do what's necessary to transform our society?
 
 
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The environment is one bad news story after another. The Pacific Ocean is warming at a rate faster than anything seen in the last 10,000 years and we may have the warmest Arctic in the last 120,000 years. We’re told to brace for more and worse droughts, floods, heat waves, and storms. Coastal communities may disappear from rising seas, entire island nations are going under. If that all weren’t bad enough, there is a global wine shortage.

The bright side is that we aren’t being blindsided by an unknown enemy: Our relentless burning of fossil fuels is the big thing pushing us toward the brink. So it would figure that a solution to get us out of this mess would be pretty obvious.

That’s why it’s great that there are people like Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. While it is one thing to say we want to stop burning fossil fuels, Jacobson (and a team of researchers) are telling us how to do it.

Jacobson was recently on the “David Letterman Show,” where he proclaimed that we have enough wind and solar to power the world.

Is he right? Can renewables really replace fossil fuels? If so, are we willing to do what’s necessary to get there? Let’s take a look at his work and some other new developments.

A Renewable World

In 2009 Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, a research scientist at the University of California, Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, published a cover story in Scientific American outlining a plan to power 100 percent of the world’s energy (for all purposes) using wind, water and solar technologies (WWS for shorthand). Their list of acceptable technologies includes several different kinds of solar power, on- and offshore wind turbines, geothermal, tidal, and hydropower. No nukes, no natural gas, no ethanol—only the real deal renewables.

“Our plan calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations,” they wrote. “The numbers are large, but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle; society has achieved massive transformations before,” including our massive highway system and our industrial rampup during World War II.

Their plan, which would provide energy for everything—transportation, heating/cooling, electricity, and industry—would have 51 percent of the energy coming from wind, specifically 3.8 million 5-megawatt wind turbines. Sound like a lot? “It is interesting to note that the world manufactures 73 million cars and light trucks  every year,” they write. Also, the footprint of these would be smaller than the size of Manhattan, and of course they wouldn’t all be clustered in the same area either.

The next big power source is solar—40 percent coming from a combination of 89,000 photovoltaics (like the kind you mount on the roof of a home or business) and concentrated solar plants, which usually use mirrors to concentrate light, turning it into heat, and creating electricity with steam turbines. Add in 900 hydroelectric facilities, 70 percent of which we already have, and around 4 percent from geothermal and tidal energy, and the globe is powered by renewable energy!

That’s the plan, anyway. If this seems too big to comprehend, let’s look at the state level. Jacobson has worked with research teams to develop plans for New York and California, and he hopes to do one for each state in the country.

The California plan aims for “all new energy powered with WWS by 2020, 80-85 percent of existing energy replaced by 2030, and 100 percent replaced by 2050.”

They found that, “electrification plus modest efficiency measures would reduce California’s end-use power demand 44 percent and stabilize energy prices since WWS fuel costs are zero.” This is a common finding with researchers delving into electrifying energy systems with renewables—we end up with far more efficient systems, so we need even less energy.

 
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