We Have the Renewable Energy We Need to Power the World—So What's Stopping Us?
By Tara Lohan
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
The environment is one bad news story after another.
The Pacific Ocean is warming at a rate faster than anything seen in the last 10,000 years and we may have the warmest Arctic in the last 120,000 years. We’re told to brace for more and worse droughts, floods, heat waves, and storms. Coastal communities may disappear from rising seas, entire island nations are going under.
If that all weren’t bad enough, there is a global wine shortage.
The bright side is that we aren’t being blindsided by an unknown enemy: Our relentless burning of fossil fuels is the big thing pushing us toward the brink. So it would figure that a solution to get us out of this mess would be pretty obvious.
That’s why it’s great that there are people like Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. While it is one thing to say we want to stop burning fossil fuels, Jacobson (and a team of researchers) are telling us how to do it.
Is he right? Can renewables really replace fossil fuels? If so, are we willing to do what’s necessary to get there? Let’s take a look at his work and some other new developments.
A Renewable World
In 2009 Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, a research scientist at the University of California, Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, published a cover story in Scientific American outlining a plan to power 100 percent of the world’s energy (for all purposes) using wind, water and solar technologies (WWS for shorthand). Their list of acceptable technologies includes several different kinds of solar power, on- and offshore wind turbines, geothermal, tidal, and hydropower. No nukes, no natural gas, no ethanol—only the real deal renewables.
“Our plan calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations,” they wrote. “The numbers are large, but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle; society has achieved massive transformations before,” including our massive highway system and our industrial rampup during World War II.
Their plan, which would provide energy for everything—transportation, heating/cooling, electricity, and industry—would have 51 percent of the energy coming from wind, specifically 3.8 million 5-megawatt (MW) wind turbines. Sound like a lot? “It is interesting to note that the world manufactures 73 million cars and light trucks every year,” they write. Also, the footprint of these would be smaller than the size of Manhattan, and of course they wouldn’t all be clustered in the same area either.
The next big power source is solar—40 percent coming from a combination of 89,000 photovoltaics (PV)—like the kind you mount on the roof of a home or business—and concentrated solar plants, which usually use mirrors to concentrate light, turning it into heat, and creating electricity with steam turbines. Add in 900 hydroelectric facilities, 70 percent of which we already have, and around 4 percent from geothermal and tidal energy, and the globe is powered by renewable energy!
That’s the plan, anyway. If this seems too big to comprehend, let’s look at the state level. Jacobson has worked with research teams to develop plans for New York and California, and he hopes to do one for each state in the country.
The California plan aims for “all new energy powered with WWS by 2020, 80-85 percent of existing energy replaced by 2030, and 100 percent replaced by 2050.”
They found that, “electrification plus modest efficiency measures would reduce California’s end-use power demand 44 percent and stabilize energy prices since WWS fuel costs are zero.” This is a common finding with researchers delving into electrifying energy systems with renewables—we end up with far more efficient systems, so we need even less energy.
One possible scenario they lay out for California looks like this:
- 25 percent from onshore wind (22,900 5-MW turbines)
- 10 percent from offshore wind (7,233 5-MW wind turbines)
- 15 percent from concentrated solar plants (1,080 100-MW plants)
- 15 percent from solar-PV power plants (1,820 50-MW plants)
- 10 percent from residential rooftop solar PV (16.2 million 5 kW systems)
- 15 percent from commercial/government rooftop PV (1.15 million 100-kW systems)
- 5 percent from geothermal plants (81 100-MW plants)
- 4 percent from hydroelectric power plants (11 1,300-MW plants, 90 percent of which we already have)
- 0.5 percent from wave (4,360 0.75-MW devices)
- .5 percent from tidal (2,960 1-MW turbines)
Their research found this will create 856,000 20-year construction jobs and net 137,000 permanent jobs. Other benefits include protecting the water supply from hazardous spills, cleaning up air pollution (including preventing thousands of premature annual deaths), and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
When it comes to New York, the biggest difference from California is a little less concentrated solar and much more offshore wind. This is their New York plan:
- 10 percent onshore wind (4020 5-MW turbines)
- 40 percent offshore wind (12,700 5-MW turbines)
- 10 percent concentrated solar (387 100-MW plants)
- 10 percent solar-PV plants (828 50-MW plants)
- 6 percent residential rooftop PV (5 million 5-kW systems)
- 12 percent commercial/ government rooftop PV (500,000 100-kW systems)
- 5 percent geothermal (36 100-MW plants)
- 0.5 percent wave (1910 0.75-MW devices)
- 1 percent tidal (2600 1-MW turbines)
- 5.5 percent hydroelectric (6.6 1300-MW plants, of which 89 percent exist)
Now that we have the numbers, we have to ask: is this really feasible?
Jacobson and company think their work is technically feasible, although not without significant challenges (more on that below). That doesn’t include the social and political hurdles that are set pretty high. Right now, it looks like an impossible leap. But that doesn’t dismiss the importance of Jacobson's vision. We may not reach his goal, but he’s pointed us in the right direction.
So has Vasilis Fthenakis, senior research scientist and adjunct professor at Columbia University, who developed a plan that employs solar to power 69 percent of the country’s electricity and 35 percent of all our energy needs by 2050, with 90 percent of all energy in the U.S. coming from solar by the end of the century.
“In contrast to the Jacobson plan, Fthenakis and his fellow researchers concentrate on building a large number of photovoltaic and thermoelectric solar power plants in the sunniest parts of the United States—chiefly the Southwest—and using high voltage direct current transmission to connect these power sources with the rest of the country,” explains Lakis Polycarpou for Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
Jacobson leans more on wind, while Fthenakis puts more stock in solar. But both will take raw materials to build, and that could be problematic. All those wind turbines and solar panels start from materials that will need to be dug out of the ground in someone’s backyard. We could be trading our dependence on Middle East oil for raw earth metals from China, lithium from Bolivia, or copper from the Congo.
“Humankind faces a vicious circle: a shift to renewable energy will replace one non-renewable resource (fossil fuel) with another (metals and minerals),” wrote researchers Olivier Vida, Bruno Goffe, and Nicholas Arndt in Nature GeoScience. “Potential future scarcity is not limited to the scarce high-tech metals that have received much attention. The demand for base metals such as iron, copper and aluminum, as well as industrial minerals, is also set to soar.”
This doesn’t mean, they write, that pursuing renewables should be abandoned; simply that we need a comprehensive strategy in our path forward.
One good thing about an investment in renewable infrastructure is that while it may take many years to build (and much materials), it will also last for decades. We do not need to keep feeding steel into a wind turbine that’s already up and running, unlike the hungry beasts of fossil fuels, which endlessly devour coal, oil and gas.
Supposing we get past the first hurdle of materials, what about some of renewables’ other challenges? The one most levied is intermittency—the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing when you need the energy most. Then what?
“By combining wind and solar and using hydroelectric to fill in the gaps” it can be done, Jacobson told AlterNet. “We found for California that you can do this pretty straightforwardly, wind and solar are very complementary: if the wind is not blowing during the day, the sun is often shining, and vice versa. If you have enough hydro on the grid, which you do on the West Coast, then you can fill in the gaps. You can also use concentrated solar power.”
And then there’s location; what if the wind blows or the sun shines the most in places where you have the least need for the energy. "Transmission is technically not a barrier at all,” said Jacobson. “Maybe you need to do some rezoning, people don't generally like to add transmission lines. But you can take advantage of a lot of existing lines, increase the capacity on them, that would reduce the issue of having to put in new lines.”
Some of this is already underway. A project installing 3,600 miles of new transmission lines is nearing completion in Texas that would hook up the state’s windy western region with high population centers in the rest of the state. Sustainable Business reported that it would increase the state’s capacity for wind energy by 50 percent.
Another project that’s proposed to begin construction next year would be able to send energy from windy Wyoming, 725 miles to Las Vegas, Nevada.
To get the most efficiency out of the transmission process, you can use high-voltage direct current (HDVC), a big part of Fthenakis’ solar plans. Unlike the AC power we currently use, HDVC transmits electricity with less loss over long distances.
The other massive issue is cost. “If you look historically of all the fossil fuels, they just keep rising and rising,” said Jacobson. “Whereas the wind and solar costs are going down, for the most part. For example, in the last four years costs of installing wind have gone down 50 percent. Solar prices in the last year just went down another 6 to 14 percent, they've been gradually declining.”
Fossil fuels, however, may continue to get more expensive. We’re drilling tens of thousands of feet deep. We’re going miles vertically and then horizontally for gas and oil. If you could look at the technology that’s used today to do high-volume horizontal fracturing for shale gas and tight oil, it’s quite complicated stuff. We’re not just putting a straw in the ground anymore. The harder this stuff is to get, the more energy we’re using to do it. It’s not just more expensive; we’re also consuming more energy for extraction than in decades past.
Then there is the obvious point that we don’t seem willing to address. Burning fossil fuels is what’s driving climate change—yet we give the industry a free pass on the externalities. A story in Nature set the price of just the impacts of the release of methane from a melting Arctic at $60 trillion. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Natural disasters in the U.S. alone last year totaled $110 billion. If the frequency and severity of extreme weather continues to rise as predicted, that number may get a whole lot bigger.
Good News for Renewables
Regardless of specific plans outlined by researchers, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of renewables
In August the Department of Energy announced that in 2012, wind was the top source of new electricity in the country and it was double the amount of wind power the previous year. “The country’s cumulative installed wind energy capacity has increased more than 22-fold since 2000,” the department stated. And it’s not just power, it’s also jobs—nearly three-quarters of all turbine equipment in the country is made at home.
That’s not all. “The price of wind under long-term power purchase contracts signed in 2011 and 2012 averaged 4 cents per kilowatt (kW( hour—making wind competitive with a range of wholesale electricity prices seen in 2012,” the Energy Department reports.
The potential for offshore wind in the U.S. is huge, but it’s yet to become a reality. That may soon change as there are now 11 projects in advanced stages—one in the Great Lakes, two off Texas’ Gulf coast, and the rest in the Atlantic from Virginia north to Massachusetts.
Unfortunately, wind’s huge gains could be dampened next year if the production tax credit that aids wind energy development is allowed to expire at the end of December. Likewise, the solar industry faces a federal tax credit expiring at the end of 2016, which could curb huge growth in that area. Right now, solar is hot. The Solar Energies Industry Association reports that a new solar system is installed in the U.S. every four minutes and the price of a PV system has dropped 50 percent since 2010. Although the amount of energy coming from solar that is used by power plants is only 1 percent, that’s likely to change with larger plants coming on line in the next few years.
Most people in the renewables industry see these tax credits as helping to level the playing field with fossil fuels, which despite being one of the most profitable industries in the world, still sees enormous subsidies. A report released this year by the International Monetary Fund found that global pre-tax subsidies for the fossil fuel industry hit $480 billion in 2011 (post-tax subsidies are nearly $2 trillion).
An optimistic assessment of solar’s future by Deutsche Bank predicts that globally the solar market will be totally sustainable, and not in need of subsidies, in only two years. Country-by-country, things will obviously differ.
The Biggest Hurdle
Jacobson recently said on the “David Letterman Show,” “There is no technological or economic limitation to solving these problems; it’s a social and political issue, primarily.”
These are no small problems. We have a Congress that can’t even agree how to tie its own shoelaces, let alone how to solve the biggest threat facing humanity. Conservatives have waged a war on renewables, seeking to roll back state requirements for renewable energy, but they haven’t always been successful. As more red states like Texas benefit from wind energy, it may well be a losing strategy for them (as it was for arch climate denier Ken Cuccinelli who just lost the race to be Virginia’s next governor).
The Washington Post published the results of a new Pew poll that found only Tea Partiers still cling to anti-science views about climate change; 25 percent of Tea Party Republicans believe in climate change, compared to 61 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats.
Despite an outlier (yet vocal) conservative fringe, we’re slowly headed in the right direction. Time is of the essence. Can the change happen quickly enough?
“I think in some sectors it will naturally evolve very quickly like electric cars because they're so efficient,” said Jacobson. “In other sectors, if we don't push faster, then they're just going to change really modestly or not fast enough. I'm pretty optimistic that once people understand what's going on with the problems, in terms of climate, pollution, energy security, and once they understand there are technical solutions available and the economic solution is available, they will galvanize around those solutions.”
All the finger pointing can’t just be aimed at our elected officials—there has to be broad public support. Renewable projects should still be subject to environmental review, but barring that, it’s no longer acceptable to say that wind turbines or solar panels are too ugly to look at, especially by people who get electricity from coal, oil and gas yet share none of the burden of its extraction or burning.
When we talk about powering our future with renewable energy we have to understand that we’re still talking about impacts—but we have to weigh those against the impacts of continuing to power our world with ever more extreme methods of fossil fuel extraction.
This isn’t simply a matter of changing how we get energy. It means shifting the power dynamic in this country (and across the world), and literally putting power back in the hands of individual people and communities.
At this point, Jacobson’s optimistic goal of 100 percent renewables by 2030 or even 2050 looks out of reach. But what if we aimed for 50 percent for starters, and focused our economy on resilience instead of endless growth? The right wing might kick and scream, but I doubt the world would come to an end. If we keep burning fossil fuels, however, our fate isn’t likely to be very pleasant.
Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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