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Clean Power

Switching The World To Renewable Energy Will Cost $62 Trillion, But The Payback Would Take Just 6 Years

Mark Jacobson and his team have published a renewable energy study in which they argue the payback time is just 6 years.

Mark Jacobson and his colleagues at Stanford University have published a new study in the journal Energy & Environmental Science that claims 145 of the world’s nations could switch to 100% renewable energy in a few years using renewable energy technologies available today. They recommend the world make the switchover by 2035, but in no event later than 2050. Their goal is to have 80% operating on renewable energy by 2030.

The researchers looked at onshore and offshore wind energy, solar power, solar heat, geothermal electricity and heat, hydroelectricity, and small amounts of tidal and wave electricity. Batteries were the most common electricity storage solution, with the team finding that no batteries with more than four hours of storage were necessary.

“We do not need miracle technologies to solve these problems. By electrifying all energy sectors; producing electricity from clean, renewable sources; creating heat, cold, and hydrogen from such electricity; storing electricity, heat, cold and the hydrogen; expanding transmission; and shifting the time of some electricity use, we can create safe, cheap, and reliable energy everywhere,” Jacobson says. He is a staunch supporter of the Green New Deal.

The researchers say switching to renewable energy would avoid utility grid blackouts and save consumers trillions of dollars. One of the main reasons for that finding is that the combustion-based energy systems most countries rely require a lot of energy just to function. In switching to a clean, renewable energy system, Jacobson states that worldwide energy usage would go down by 56% immediately.

Renewable Energy & Efficiency

Those savings are attributable to the efficiency of clean energy over combustion systems, as well as the efficiency of electrified industry. There would no longer be a need to explore for oil, coal, and gas, drill wells or dig new mines, transport oil to refineries, build and maintain pipelines, or truck petroleum products to end users, according to My Modern Met.

Efficiency is something that people who drive electric cars should understand quite well. A gallon of gasoline has the equivalent energy of a 33.7 kWh battery. Many electric cars today have a range of 300 miles or more, which means they can travel that far on the equivalent of 3 gallons of gasoline. A first generation LEAF had a 24 kWh battery, which means it was so efficient, it could go about 80 miles on the equivalent of about .8 gallons of gasoline.

A typical internal combustion engine is 20 to 25% efficient, which means three-quarters of what you pay for is wasted as friction or heat. An electric car is 80 to 95% efficient. In a world that is rapidly overheating, how much longer can we afford to be so profligate with our energy usage? Would you pay $100 for a suit that was worth only $25? Of course not, and yet every time people fill their tanks with gasoline, they are wasting three-quarters of the energy they are paying for.

The problem is similar when we consider thermal generation of electricity. The amount of energy wasted in the process it simply staggering, and yet we continue to generate electricity that way because it is what we are used to and we can’t see another way. Jacobson and company are shining a bright light on an alternate pathway.

Non-Economic Benefits, Too

The study is mostly about economics, but there are significant and quantifiable health benefits to not filling our lungs with air that is mixed with the harmful pollutants that result from combustion. People are hyper-vigilant about what they put in the bodies today and yet they never give a thought to the crud they breathe and drink and eat that is left over after fossil fuels are burned.

The cost of making the changeover to 100% renewable energy would be a staggering $62 trillion. Wow! That is a ton of money, people. But here’s the thing. Jacobson and his team say the savings from switching the world to 100% renewable energy would be $11 trillion a year. In other words, the initial investment would be paid back in just 6 years! Many people have a hard time distinguishing between an investment and an expense. They tend to see that $62 trillion as an expense and ignore the payback.

Ford is spending $40 billion to transition to making electric cars. Volkswagen, Mercedes, GM, BMW, Hyundai, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota are doing the same. Does anyone think that money is just an expense or that the managers of those companies have not calculated the expected return on their investment down to the fraction of a penny? Why do we continue to view the cost of transferring to renewable energy as an expense and not an investment, one that will pay economic and non-economic benefits for generations?

Wind and sunshine are free. Once the systems to harvest energy from them are completed, the cost of fuel is zero. Yes, those resources will need to be updated, refurbished or replaced over time, just the way utility grids and thermal generating stations need to be as well. But the cost of fuel remains at zero while the price of fossil fuels gyrates radically over time.

There’s one other aspect of renewable energy that you can’t put a price on but it’s extremely valuable nonetheless — energy security. Nations that generate their own electricity don’t need to be at the mercy of lunatics and despots who can decide at any time to cut off the supply of oil, or unnatural gas, or coal. How much is that worth? It may be  hard to answer that question, but it is clearly not nothing. The people of Europe are facing a long cold winter because the supply of cheap methane from Russia has ended abruptly. How much would energy security be worth to them?

The Takeaway

In the conclusion to their study, Jacobson and his research colleagues say, “Transitioning to 100% [renewable energy] in 145 countries decreases energy requirements and annual private and social costs while creating about 28.4 million more long term, full time jobs than lost. A 100% [renewable energy] economy uses only about 0.53% of the 145 country land area, with 0.17% for footprint and 0.36% for spacing.”

People may quibble over some of the timing and access to the raw and manufactured materials needed to complete a changeover to 100% renewable energy. They may worry that there is not enough political will to make this happen. Those are valid concerns. But what the Stanford team is doing is setting a target. As Forrest Gump said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’re not likely to end up there.”

It’s easy to say the task is too hard or too expensive or pushes too far, too fast. Those might be concerns for ordinary challenges. But when the objective is preserving the Earth as a sustainable place where human beings can live, making bold plans is really the least we can do.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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