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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 good thing about an investment in renewable infrastructure is that while it may take many years to build (and much materials), it will also last for decades. We do not need to keep feeding steel into a wind turbine that’s already up and running, unlike the hungry beasts of fossil fuels, which endlessly devour coal, oil and gas.

Supposing we get past the first hurdle of materials, what about some of renewables’ other challenges? The one most levied is intermittency—the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing when you need the energy most. Then what?

“By combining wind and solar and using hydroelectric to fill in the gaps” it can be done, Jacobson told AlterNet. “We found for California that you can do this pretty straightforwardly, wind and solar are very complementary: if the wind is not blowing during the day, the sun is often shining, and vice versa. If you have enough hydro on the grid, which you do on the West Coast, then you can fill in the gaps. You can also use concentrated solar power.”

And then there’s location; what if the wind blows or the sun shines the most in places where you have the least need for the energy. "Transmission is technically not a barrier at all,” said Jacobson. “Maybe you need to do some rezoning, people don't generally like to add transmission lines. But you can take advantage of a lot of existing lines, increase the capacity on them, that would reduce the issue of having to put in new lines.”

Some of this is already underway. A project installing 3,600 miles of new transmission lines is nearing completion in Texas that would hook up the state’s windy western region with high population centers in the rest of the state. Sustainable Business reported that it would increase the state’s capacity for wind energy by 50 percent.

Another project that’s proposed to begin construction next year would be able to send energy from windy Wyoming, 725 miles to Las Vegas, Nevada.

To get the most efficiency out of the transmission process, you can use HDVC, high-voltage direct current, a big part of Fthenakis’ solar plans. Unlike the AC power we currently use, HDVC transmits electricity with less loss over long distances.

The other massive issue is cost. “If you look historically of all the fossil fuels, they just keep rising and rising,” said Jacobson. “Whereas the wind and solar costs are going down, for the most part. For example, in the last four years costs of installing wind have gone down 50 percent. Solar prices in the last year just went down another 6 to 14 percent, they've been gradually declining.”

Fossil fuels, however, may continue to get more expensive. We’re drilling tens of thousands of feet deep. We’re going miles vertically and then horizontally for gas and oil. If you could look at the technology that’s used today to do high-volume horizontal fracturing for shale gas and tight oil, it’s quite complicated stuff. We’re not just putting a straw in the ground anymore. The harder this stuff is to get, the more energy we’re using to do it. It’s not just more expensive; we’re also consuming more energy for extraction than in decades past.

Then there is the obvious point that we don’t seem willing to address. Burning fossil fuels is what’s driving climate change—yet we give the industry a free pass on the externalities. A story in Nature set the price of just the impacts of the release of methane from a melting Arctic at $60 trillion. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Natural disasters in the U.S. alone last year totaled $110 billion. If the frequency and severity of extreme weather continues to rise as predicted, that number may get a whole lot bigger.

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