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Published on November 15th, 2011 | by Zachary Shahan


Renewable Energy Can Power the World (Reminder)

November 15th, 2011 by  


renewable energy world

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.

Wind and Solar Potential Dwarf Our Energy Needs

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.

The Plan

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

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About the Author

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession and Solar Love. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, and Canada. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in. But he offers no professional investment advice and would rather not be responsible for you losing money, so don't jump to conclusions.

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  • I know power

    Interesting that anyone would think you could power the world with renewable energy. Maybe if you reduce our standard of living. You can if you don’t plan to compete in a global market place or want to significantly reduce the amount of power available for use to power homes, devices, industry or just comfort. Just in case you have not looked at the economics, the cost for renewable is several orders of magnitude higher than our abundant fossil fuels. You are more than likely just naive or lost in space.

    • Anonymous

      You know, were you to read the article perhaps you wouldn’t embarrass yourself by saying something foolish like “You can if you don’t plan to compete in a global market place or want to significantly reduce the amount of power available for use to power homes, devices, industry or just comfort.”

      And had you looked at the economics of renewables vs. fossil fuel and nuclear technology you wouldn’t make a very misinformed statement like “cost for renewable is several orders of magnitude higher than our abundant fossil fuels”.

      Do you know how much a kWh of coal-generated electricity actually costs if all costs are included?

      Do you know how much cheaper it is to charge an EV per mile than fuel an ICEV?

      I bet not….

      • domestic_energy

        Ok Bob, how much cheaper is it to charge an EV than a ICEV? I estimate it costs me 10 Cents/mile and $1 of my time (@ $30/hr) while refueling my car.
        Please make sure you include your actual coal-generated electricity costs (that you refer to in your first question) because your EV is powered by Coal. Also, how much time does it take to charge? It appears that is left out of your cost calculation.

        • Bob_Wallace

          The working number for EVs is 0.3 kW/mile. The average retail electricity price in the US is $0.12/kWh. That makes it 3.6c/mile.

          Realistically many people are going to charge with off peak power which can run as low as $0.05/kWh which would be 1.5c/mile.

          Plug in/plug out time is less than 20 seconds per day (I’m guessing – if one is an efficient person). Open door. Take plug from hook on side of garage, plug in. Remove plug from car, hang on hook. Close door.

          Let’s say the EV driver is plugging in every day, that’s 2 hours a year.

          You’re filling up how often? Once a week? Once every two weeks.

          You are not filling up in 2 minutes. You are most likely spending between 10 and 20 minutes each time you fill up from the time you deviate from your route to stop at the filling station to the time you get back on route.

          You can’t get out of your car, swipe your card, punch buttons, stick the hose in the filler and replace the hose/cap and get back in your car in two minutes. Add in the time pumping, the time waiting to get to the pump, the drive time, etc.

          At ten minutes and filling every two weeks you are spending 4.3 hours. At 20 minutes and once a week it would mean 17.3 hours.

          Coal is a temporary and decreasing problem. Coal currently provides a bit less than 40% of US electricity, down from a high of 56%.

          Coal will take another big drop over the next two years as we close about 20% of our existing coal plants while building no new ones.

  • Anonymous

    Three thumbs up!!!

    (Well, I grew up close to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Clean, safe, too cheap to meter. The check is in the mail….)

  • Gary2

    Ray Kurzweil has a great TED Talk discussing exponential increases in technology, solar power being one of those technologies. Some point at the shakeout of less viable companies in solar/wind as being the messenger of failure concerning the industry as a whole. Ridiculous premise. It is interesting to see the ebb and flow of different forms of solar energy.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks! I’ll check that out.

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