1/29/2011

Could U.S. Go 100% Renewable in 40 Years? Study Says Yes!

The image of a totally oil and coal independent world seems a bit vague to most but to scientists and researchers, that future is not so distant.  New research suggests the whole world could switch to renewable energy sources using current technology in just 20 to 40 years.  It would cost no more than current energy, and would have big economic and environmental payoffs.  We all know that renewable energy is key to solving global warming and the end-of-oil crisis, but how do we convinces our leading nations to work together on these efforts?  Fortunately a Stanford research team has compiled an innovative, lateral-thinking study that says even using current available technology the entire world could switch 100% of its energy needs to renewable sources in just a handful of decades.



Kit Eaton of FastCompany reports that the research from Mark Z. Jacobson and team involves making all new energy production plants use renewable energy by 2030, and then converting older existing plants by 2050.  In the new world order, almost everything would run off electricity.  Ninety percent of the production would come from windmills and solar energy plants and the remaining 10% would come from hydroelectric power, geothermal, and wave/tidal power.  Mobile things--cars, trains, ships and such-- would run on hydrogen-powered fuel cells, and aircraft would burn hydrogen fuel. The hydrogen itself would come from green-electric generation process.

This plan requires only a dedicated push to exploit existing technology and to network it all together in an intelligent way, because demand varies from place to place, daily, seasonal changes, and the sun, wind, and waves don't necessarily give power all the time, everywhere.  "If you combine them as one commodity and use hydroelectric to fill in gaps, it is a lot easier to match demand,"Jacobson Notes.  A super-grid, with long-distance links, international cooperation and really smart energy management is needed.  Check this one out being built in the Middle East.




What about Costs?

Making changes will take time, effort and money because you have to build a lot of new equipment, and link up power grids across the world.  Putting together green-power industries to build devices at a global scale will also cost money, as will winding down and deconstructing the infrastructure in place to support coal, oil, gas and even nuclear electricity generation.  But "when you actually account for all the costs to society, including medical costs, of the current fuel structure, the costs of our plan are relatively similar to what we have today," according to Jacobson.  That medical reference is to the health benefits of reducing pollution on a global scale, as well as side-effects like deaths from warming-induced natural disasters. The Stanford plan also suggest global energy needs would drop by 30% due to this efficiency boost, meaning we would actually need less power, and if the business models evolve to support this norm, individuals may pay less for their energy.

Stanford's plan would require 0.4% of the worlds land (mainly for solar power) and the spacing between windmills accounts for another 0.6%, although you can use this area for farming and catering for other needs.  One percent of the windmills are already in place, and Jacobson notes "the actual footprint required by wind turbines to power half the world's energy is less than the area of Manhattan."