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Global Reliance on Clean Energy Possible, Practical

Wind turbines
There is enough wind on earth to power the planet, according to two new studies—but political and social changes would be needed to make it happen. Wikimedia Commons/Dirk Goldhahn

According to two new reports, there is enough wind on earth to generate all of its power needs. But that is only part of the story.

October 2, 2012—According to two reports published in separate journals last month—“Saturation Wind Power Potential and Its Implications for Wind Energy” and “Geophysical Limits to Global Wind Power”—the earth technically has enough wind power to fulfill global power needs. However, that is only part of the story: Reliance on wind, water, and solar power could feasibly create a clean-energy economy within thirty years, according to one of the researchers.

“A clean-energy economy is one in which the energy infrastructure results in zero air pollution, zero water chemical pollution, zero greenhouse gas emissions (for example, carbon dioxide), and one that is sustainable and reliable in the long term,” said Mark Z. Jacobson, Ph.D., a professor of civil and environmental engineering and the director of the atmosphere/energy program at Stanford University who wrote in response to written questions submitted by Civil Engineering online. Jacobson coauthored the “Saturation” paper for the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science with Cristina L. Archerb, Ph.D., an associate professor of physical ocean science and engineering at the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment at the University of Delaware.

Converting completely to power generated by wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) is technically feasible within the next few decades, Jacobson said, citing prior research he conducted with Mark Delucchi, Ph.D., a researcher in the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

While either wind or solar power has the potential to supply the globe’s needs individually, relying on a combination of wind, water (geothermal and hydroelectric), and sunlight is a more reliable option, Jacobson noted in a presentation he gave this summer at a seminar sponsored by Google at the technology firm’s Mountain View, California, headquarters. Jacobson pointed to real-time tests performed in California for 2005 and 2006 that indicated that a combination of the four sources of power met electricity needs in California 99.8 percent of the time during the two years, even under extreme conditions.

“The main limitations [are] neither technical nor even economic. They [are] primarily social and political,” Jacobson told Civil Engineering online. “We believe that all new energy can be WWS by 2030 and existing energy can be phased out by no later than 2050.

“The technologies are here,” Jacobson said. “The issue is implementing policies wisely.” The tax breaks and subsidies provided by the federal government so that fossil fuels can be used to meet energy needs amounted to $72.5 billion between 2002 and 2008, he said. With these kinds of subsidies, convincing energy users and energy providers to switch to clean power can be an uphill battle even though the air pollution caused by fossil fuels are well known, and well studied.

But end prices to the consumer can also support the switch to clean energy. For example, Jacobson noted that wind can cost less than fossil fuel-generated electricity. “From 2003-2011, the five states with more than10 percent of their electricity from wind saw residential electricity price increases of only 2 cents/kWh during that period, whereas all the other states, dominated by fossils, saw their rates increase by 3.6 cents/kWh,” Jacobson said. “Hawaii, in fact, saw its price increase from 16 to 33 cents/kWh.” Hawaii has great wind and solar potential, he said, but is still dominated by fossil-generated electricity.

There are immediate policy options that the federal government or states can implement, he said. They include “virtual net metering for solar; feed-in tariffs for wind and solar; eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels, biofuels, nuclear power, and internal combustion vehicles; reducing permitting barriers to clean energy projects; and facilitating the implementation of electric charging stations,” Jacobson said. (Virtual net metering enables multimeter property owners to allocate any credits they receive from their electric utility for operating a clean energy system on their property to the tenants themselves; feed-in tariffs guarantee solar energy producers a set price from the utilities to which they sell power.)

Civil engineers can accelerate the nation’s shift toward clean energy through immediate grass roots-level change, Jacobson said. “Buildings themselves and the construction of buildings as well as other infrastructure require a lot of energy,” he said. “Civil engineers can encourage or require the use of clean energy and develop methods of improving the energy efficiency of the construction process and ensure that buildings, when built, use the least amount of energy possible.”

While the goal of creating a clean-energy economy within the next 30 years can seem daunting, a significant cultural shift within this time frame is certainly possible and not unprecedented, according to Marco Krapels, an executive vice president and commercial banking products division manager with Rabobank North America, the North American branch of the Utrecht, the Netherlands-based global food and agricultural banking firm Rabobank, who also spoke at the Google seminar.

Krapels pointed out that 30 years ago people were told that smoking was fine, and doctors were used in commercials to sell cigarettes. However, within that time frame a fundamental cultural shift occurred, identifying smoking as a habit with significant, and severe, health implications. A similar reorientation in the world’s awareness of how its energy supplies are generated, and how they impact the environment, is also necessary—and feasible—Krapels noted.

Considering that Jacobson began his talk at Google noting that 2.5 million people die every year from diseases and complications created by air pollution (15 to 20 percent of these deaths are children under the age of five who die in developing countries), the need is particularly pressing. Indeed, air pollution mortality is one of the five leading causes of death worldwide, Jacobson noted. These annual deaths can ultimately be eliminated with a clean-energy economy, he said.


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    I like Dr. Gessler's comment. Conservation and energy management will be a key to our success.

    I have serious reservations about the article. What is the effect, both locally and globally, of removing energy from natural systems, and what are the unintended consequences of such a massive investment and operating system? We know that fossil fuels contribute waste energy and pollution to the environment. We also have a good handle on the technology and the impacts. Fossil fuel energy is the cheapest alternative for us right now. We need to use it to wisely and economically bridge to alternative energy sources and quit trying to jump the shark to get there too early.

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    What an upbeat article! Thank you. Yet I think it tells only half the story: there is no mentioning of the concept of the 2000 Watt society. The average US citizen uses 11000 Watt to maintain life. Many countries with similar standards of living use half as much. And the goal is to bring that consumption down to 2000 Watt (the present world average) within a time frame not much longer than that proposed in the article. What a powerful combination if we can work at both ends: production of WWS and consumption.

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