Quantcast

PART II: Transitioning from Fossil Fuels to Renewable Energy

Energy

Lester Brown

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

In the race to transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy and avoid runaway climate change, wind has opened a wide lead on both solar and geothermal energy. Solar panels, with a capacity totaling 70,000 megawatts, and geothermal power plants, with a capacity of some 11,000 megawatts, are generating electricity around the world. The total capacity for the world’s wind farms, now generating power in about 80 countries, is near 240,000 megawatts. China and the U.S. are in the lead.

Over the past decade, world wind electric generating capacity grew at nearly 30 percent per year, its increase driven by its many attractive features and by public policies supporting its expansion. Wind is abundant, carbon-free and nondepletable. It uses no water, no fuel and little land. Wind is also locally available, scales up easily and can be brought online quickly. No other energy source can match this combination of features.

One reason wind power is so popular is that it has a small footprint. Although a wind farm can cover many square miles, turbines occupy only one percent of that area. Compared with other renewable sources of energy, wind energy yield per acre is off the charts. For example, a farmer in northern Iowa could plant an acre in corn that yields enough grain to produce roughly $1,000 worth of fuel-grade ethanol per year, or he could use that same acre to site a turbine producing $300,000 worth of electricity each year.

Because turbines take up only one percent of the land covered by a wind farm, ranchers and farmers can, in effect, double-crop their land, simultaneously harvesting electricity while producing cattle, wheat or corn. With no investment on their part, farmers and ranchers can receive $3,000 to $10,000 a year in royalties for each wind turbine on their land. For thousands of ranchers on the U.S. Great Plains, wind royalties will one day dwarf their earnings from cattle sales.

Wind is also abundant. In the U.S., three wind-rich states—North Dakota, Kansas and Texas—have enough harnessable wind energy to easily satisfy national electricity needs. Another attraction of wind energy is that it is not depletable. The amount of wind energy used today has no effect on the amount available tomorrow.

Unlike coal, gas, and nuclear power plants, wind farms do not require water for cooling. As wind backs out coal and natural gas in power generation, water will be freed up for irrigation and other needs.

Perhaps wind’s strongest attraction is that there is no fuel cost. After the wind farm is completed, the electricity flows with no monthly fuel bill. And while it may take a decade to build a nuclear power plant, the construction time for the typical wind farm is one year.

Future wind complexes in the Great Plains, in the North Sea, off the coast of China or the eastern coast of the U.S. may have generating capacity measured in the tens of thousands of megawatts. Planning and investment in wind projects is occurring on a scale not previously seen in the traditional energy sector.

One of the obvious downsides of wind is its variability. But as wind farms multiply, this becomes less of an issue. Because no two farms have identical wind profiles, each farm added to a grid reduces variability. A Stanford University research team has pointed out that with thousands of wind farms and a national grid in a country such as the U.S., wind becomes a remarkably stable source of electricity.

In more densely populated areas, there is often local opposition to wind power—the NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) response. But in the vast ranching and farming regions of the U.S., wind is immensely popular for economic reasons. For ranchers in the Great Plains, farmers in the Midwest or dairy farmers in upstate New York, there is a PIMBY (“put it in my backyard”) response.

Farmers and ranchers welcome the additional income from having wind turbines on their land. Rural communities compete for wind farm investments and the additional tax revenue to support their schools and roads.

One of the keys to developing wind resources is building the transmission lines to link wind-rich regions with population centers. Perhaps the most exciting grid project under development is the so-called Tres Amigas electricity hub, a grid interconnection center to be built in eastern New Mexico. It will link the three U.S. electricity grids—the Eastern, Western and Texas grids. Tres Amigas is a landmark in the evolution of the new energy economy. With high-voltage lines linking the three grids where they are close to each other, electricity can be moved from one part of the United States to another as conditions warrant. By matching surpluses with deficits over a broader area, electricity wastage and consumer rates can both be reduced. Other long distance transmission lines are under construction or in the planning stages.

We know that rapid growth in wind generation is possible. U.S. wind generating capacity expanded by 45 percent in 2007 and 50 percent in 2008. If we expanded world wind generation during this decade at 40 percent per year, the 238,000 megawatts of generating capacity at the end of 2011 would expand to nearly 5 million megawatts in 2020. Combined with an ambitious solar and geothermal expansion, along with new hydro projects in the pipeline, this would total 7.5 million megawatts of renewable generating capacity, enabling us to back out all of the coal and oil and most of the natural gas now used to generate electricity. (See data.)

In addition to the shift to renewable sources of energy, there are two other critical components of this climate stabilization plan: rapidly increasing the energy efficiency of industry, appliances and lighting, and restructuring the transportation sector, electrifying it as much as possible while ramping up public transit, biking and walking. (With this latter component, we would be able to back out much of the oil used for transportation.)

This energy restructuring would require roughly 300,000 wind turbines per year over the next decade. Can we produce those? For sure. Keep in mind that the world today is producing some 70 million cars, trucks, and buses each year. Many of the wind turbines needed to back out fossil fuels in electricity generation worldwide could be produced in currently idled automobile assembly plants in the U.S. alone. The plants would, of course, need to be modified to shift from automobiles to wind turbines, but it is entirely doable. In World War II, Chrysler went from making cars to tanks in a matter of months. If we could do that then, we and the rest of the world can certainly build the 300,000 wind turbines per year we now need to build the new energy economy and stabilize the climate.

For the first time since the Industrial Revolution began, we have an opportunity to invest in alternative sources of energy that can last as long as the Earth itself. The choice is ours. We can stay with business as usual, or we can move the world onto a path of sustained progress. The choice will be made by our generation, but it will affect life on Earth for all generations to come.

Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.

--------

Click here to read PART I of this series.

Adapted from Exciting News About Renewable Energy, by Lester R. Brown, in the October/November 2012 issue of Mother Earth News.

 

 

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

An aerial view of a neighborhood destroyed by the Camp Fire on Nov. 15, 2018 in Paradise, Calif. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Respecting scientists has never been a priority for the Trump Administration. Now, a new investigation from The Guardian revealed that Department of the Interior political appointees sought to play up carbon emissions from California's wildfires while hiding emissions from fossil fuels as a way to encourage more logging in the national forests controlled by the Interior department.

Read More
Slowing deforestation, planting more trees, and cutting emissions of non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases like methane could cut another 0.5 degrees C or more off global warming by 2100. South_agency / E+ / Getty Images

By Dana Nuccitelli

Killer hurricanes, devastating wildfires, melting glaciers, and sunny-day flooding in more and more coastal areas around the world have birthed a fatalistic view cleverly dubbed by Mary Annaïse Heglar of the Natural Resources Defense Council as "de-nihilism." One manifestation: An increasing number of people appear to have grown doubtful about the possibility of staving-off climate disaster. However, a new interactive tool from a climate think tank and MIT Sloan shows that humanity could still meet the goals of the Paris agreement and limit global warming.

Read More
Sponsored
A baby burrowing owl perched outside its burrow on Marco Island, Florida. LagunaticPhoto / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Burrowing owls, which make their homes in small holes in the ground, are having a rough time in Florida. That's why Marco Island on the Gulf Coast passed a resolution to pay residents $250 to start an owl burrow in their front yard, as the Marco Eagle reported.

Read More
Amazon and other tech employees participate in the Global Climate Strike on Sept. 20, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. Amazon Employees for Climate Justice continue to protest today. Karen Ducey / Getty Images

Hundreds of Amazon workers publicly criticized the company's climate policies Sunday, showing open defiance of the company following its threats earlier this month to fire workers who speak out on climate change.

Read More
Locusts swarm from ground vegetation as people approach at Lerata village, near Archers Post in Samburu county, approximately 186 miles north of Nairobi, Kenya on Jan. 22. "Ravenous swarms" of desert locusts in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia threaten to ravage the entire East Africa subregion, the UN warned on Jan. 20. TONY KARUMBA / AFP / Getty Images

East Africa is facing its worst locust infestation in decades, and the climate crisis is partly to blame.

Read More