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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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One possible scenario they lay out for California looks like this:

  • 25 percent from onshore wind (22,900 5-MW turbines)
  • 10 percent from offshore wind (7,233 5-MW wind turbines)
  • 15 percent from concentrated solar plants (1,080 100-MW plants)
  • 15 percent from solar-PV power plants (1,820 50-MW plants)
  • 10 percent from residential rooftop solar PV (16.2 million 5 kW systems)
  • 15 percent from commercial/government rooftop PV (1.15 million 100-kW systems)
  • 5 percent from geothermal plants (81 100-MW plants)
  • 4 percent from hydroelectric power plants (11 1,300-MW plants, 90 percent of which we already have)
  • 0.5 percent from wave (4,360 0.75-MW devices)
  • .5 percent from tidal (2,960 1-MW turbines)

Their research found this will create 856,000 20-year construction jobs and net 137,000 permanent jobs. Other benefits include protecting the water supply from hazardous spills, cleaning up air pollution (including preventing thousands of premature annual deaths), and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

When it comes to New York, the biggest difference from California is a little less concentrated solar and much more offshore wind. This is their New York plan:

  • 10 percent onshore wind (4020 5-MW turbines)
  • 40 percent offshore wind (12,700 5-MW turbines)
  • 10 percent concentrated solar (387 100-MW plants)
  • 10 percent solar-PV plants (828 50-MW plants)
  • 6 percent residential rooftop PV (5 million 5-kW systems)
  • 12 percent commercial/ government rooftop PV (500,000 100-kW systems)
  • 5 percent geothermal (36 100-MW plants)
  • 0.5 percent wave (1910 0.75-MW devices)
  • 1 percent tidal (2600 1-MW turbines)
  • 5.5 percent hydroelectric (6.6 1300-MW plants, of which 89 percent exist)

Now that we have the numbers, we have to ask: is this really feasible?

Surmountable Obstacles?

Mark Jacobson and company think their work is technically feasible, although not without significant challenges (more on that below). That doesn’t include the social and political hurdles that are set pretty high. Right now, it looks like an impossible leap. But that doesn’t dismiss the importance of Jacobson's vision. We may not reach his goal, but he’s pointed us in the right direction.

So has Vasilis Fthenakis, senior research scientist and adjunct professor at Columbia University, who developed a plan that employs solar to power 69 percent of the country’s electricity and 35 percent of all our energy needs by 2050, with 90 percent of all energy in the U.S. coming from solar by the end of the century.

“In contrast to the Jacobson plan, Fthenakis and his fellow researchers concentrate on building a large number of photovoltaic and thermoelectric solar power plants in the sunniest parts of the United States—chiefly the Southwest—and using high voltage direct current transmission to connect these power sources with the rest of the country,” explains Lakis Polycarpou for Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Jacobson leans more on wind, while Fthenakis puts more stock in solar. But both will take raw materials to build, and that could be problematic. All those wind turbines and solar panels start from materials that will need to be dug out of the ground in someone’s backyard. We could be trading our dependence on Middle East oil for raw earth metals from China, lithium from Bolivia, or copper from the Congo.

“Humankind faces a vicious circle: a shift to renewable energy will replace one non-renewable resource (fossil fuel) with another (metals and minerals),” wrote researchers Olivier Vida, Bruno Goffe, and Nicholas Arndt in Nature GeoScience. “Potential future scarcity is not limited to the scarce high-tech metals that have received much attention. The demand for base metals such as iron, copper and aluminum, as well as industrial minerals, is also set to soar.”

This doesn’t mean, they write, that pursuing renewables should be abandoned; simply that we need a comprehensive strategy in our path forward.

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