It’s a given to me that renewable energy can power the world. I’ve been studying the matter for years and have looked into the various talking points against it. The technology is here. The technology is tested and proven. The technology will also get better and filler technology will pop in to help out. But anyone who claims that renewable energy isn’t possible or can’t be used to power all of human civilization hasn’t looked into the matter in too much depth.
But, you don’t have to take my word for it. One of the best pieces I’ve read on the matter is a 2009 piece from Mark Z. Jacobson (professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program there) and Mark A. Delucchi (a research scientist at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis) published in Scientific American. The title? “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables” (by 2030).
You can check out the full piece above, but I’m going to excerpt a few key pieces from that below.
First though, I am a political realist (I think). While we have the technology to power the world with renewable energy by 2030, I know we don’t have the political will. We do have the political potential to do a WHOLE LOT better than we’re doing today, though. Hopefully we start tapping that potential much better than we are today. If we don’t, as the International Energy Agency (not the most progressive bunch) recently told us, in lighter words, we’re going to get crushed by the climate.
Quick, Tremendous Change is Possible
Our plan calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations. The numbers are large, but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle; society has achieved massive transformations before. During World War II, the U.S. retooled automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956 the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.
I’m sure millions of people have said it: when humans put their mind to it, it’s a wonder what they can create. Today, we talk to each other, write each other, watch videos on, and play various games on mobile telephones that can fit in our pocket. We watch movies and store massive amounts of information on little machines we can stick in a backpacks or a briefcase. Humans have built pyramids, skyscrapers, and space shuttles. We can’t power the electric grid and our vehicles with something other than out-dated oil and coal? Come on! The potential is there. And we already have the technology!
“Our plan includes only technologies that work or are close to working today on a large scale, rather than those that may exist 20 or 30 years from now.”
Electric Transportation is a Key, Reduces Energy Demand
Today the maximum power consumed worldwide at any given moment is about 12.5 trillion watts (terawatts, or TW), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The agency projects that in 2030 the world will require 16.9 TW of power as global population and living standards rise, with about 2.8 TW in the U.S. The mix of sources is similar to today’s, heavily dependent on fossil fuels. If, however, the planet were powered entirely by WWS, with no fossil-fuel or biomass combustion, an intriguing savings would occur. Global power demand would be only 11.5 TW, and U.S. demand would be 1.8 TW. That decline occurs because, in most cases, electrification is a more efficient way to use energy. For example, only 17 to 20 percent of the energy in gasoline is used to move a vehicle (the rest is wasted as heat), whereas 75 to 86 percent of the electricity delivered to an electric vehicle goes into motion.
Even if demand did rise to 16.9 TW, WWS sources could provide far more power. Detailed studies by us and others indicate that energy from the wind, worldwide, is about 1,700 TW. Solar, alone, offers 6,500 TW. Of course, wind and sun out in the open seas, over high mountains and across protected regions would not be available. If we subtract these and low-wind areas not likely to be developed, we are still left with 40 to 85 TW for wind and 580 TW for solar, each far beyond future human demand. Yet currently we generate only 0.02 TW of wind power and 0.008 TW of solar. These sources hold an incredible amount of untapped potential.
Of course, monocultures (or duocultures, if there is such a word) are not recommended — they aren’t particularly safe and come with certain weaknesses. An investor doesn’t put all his money in one company and, as the old adage says, you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket.
But we’ve got plenty of other clean, renewable technologies to fill in the gaps and diversify the network. We’ve got geothermal, wave power, hydroelectric (large and small), tidal, kinetic energy to tap, and more.
Add in storage, electric vehicles (which also provide storage), and a smart grid and you’ve got a pretty diverse, stable system.
We have chosen a mix of technologies emphasizing wind and solar, with about 9 percent of demand met by mature water-related methods. (Other combinations of wind and solar could be as successful.)
Wind supplies 51 percent of the demand, provided by 3.8 million large wind turbines (each rated at five megawatts) worldwide. Although that quantity may sound enormous, it is interesting to note that the world manufactures 73 million cars and light trucks every year. Another 40 percent of the power comes from photovoltaics and concentrated solar plants, with about 30 percent of the photovoltaic output from rooftop panels on homes and commercial buildings. About 89,000 photovoltaic and concentrated solar power plants, averaging 300 megawatts apiece, would be needed. Our mix also includes 900 hydroelectric stations worldwide, 70 percent of which are already in place.
What about the land required for all that? (I can hear the troll commenter now.)
Come on, do you really think that’s a problem, or are you trying to cause trouble?
Only about 0.8 percent of the wind base is installed today. The worldwide footprint of the 3.8 million turbines would be less than 50 square kilometers (smaller than Manhattan). When the needed spacing between them is figured, they would occupy about 1 percent of the earth’s land, but the empty space among turbines could be used for agriculture or ranching or as open land or ocean. The nonrooftop photovoltaics and concentrated solar plants would occupy about 0.33 percent of the planet’s land. Building such an extensive infrastructure will take time. But so did the current power plant network. And remember that if we stick with fossil fuels, demand by 2030 will rise to 16.9 TW, requiring about 13,000 large new coal plants, which themselves would occupy a lot more land, as would the mining to supply them.
Check out the full piece for more on materials, reliability, cost (just note that the solar is expected to hit “grid parity” sooner than they projected in 2009 and the true cost of solar isn’t actually used), and policy needs.
Earth image via DonkeyHotey
I'm the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular clean energy website in the world, and Planetsave, a leading green and science news site. I've been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and I've been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, bicycling, and wind energy for the past few years. You can also find my work on Scientific American, Reuters, Think Progress, GE's ecomagination site, several sites in the Important Media network, & many other places. To connect on your favorite social network, go to: zacharyshahan.com