Watt’s Happening: powering the planet with renewables

Friday, May 24th, 2013

By Don Pettit

MYTH #3: “We can’t possibly power the whole planet on renewables because there’s not enough of it and it’s intermittent and unreliable.” WRONG!

Renewable energy has always seemed kind of magical to me. Stick a wind turbine up in the air or let the sun shine on a solar panel and out comes electricity. That’s pretty cool.

And there’s more. What the “renewable” part of renewable energy means, of course, is that there is NO FUEL REQUIRED. Sure we need some to build the energy harvesting equipment in the first place, and a little bit for maintenance, but the point is, once it is up and running, it makes electricity without fuel.

And hey, there’s a really good spin off from this “no fuel” thing: no pollution. Yes folks, once she’s up and running, renewable energy is darn close to pollution-free. Remember, “no fuel” also means no fuel to be dug up or drilled for, refined or transported. No-fuel energy has a tiny environmental impact compared to fuel-based energy. Period.

Hmm, an energy source that needs no fuel, creates no pollution and lasts forever. Sounds like a pretty good idea! But is there enough of it to power our hi-tech, over-populated planet? Is it actually POSSIBLE to power everything all the time with renewables? The answer: “You bet!”

POWER TO SPARE

There is, indeed, enough. Supplies of easily accessible wind and solar dwarf the energy consumed by everybody on the planet many times over. Like, really dwarf. The sun alone pours some 350,000,000 terawatt (trillion watt) hours of solar energy on the planet each year, about four thousand times more than our planetary civilization currently consumes, and about 400 times more than all the energy in the world’s remaining oil reserves. There is LOTS of renewable energy.

But what would be needed to harvest all the energy needed to run the whole planet? A 2009 study published in Scientific American, “A path to sustainable energy by 2030,” by Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, proposes a plan to eliminate the need for all fossil fuels worldwide by 2030 (just 20 years!) using a mix of 90,000 solar plants, numerous geothermal, tidal and rooftop photovoltaic installations, and 3.8 million 5-megawatt wind turbines scattered all around the globe. (Wind supplies 51 per cent of world demand in this plan because it is the fastest to scale up and deploy, and is already cost-competitive with most other energy sources, including coal).

JOBS, JOBS, JOBS

Still, that’s one heck of a lot of wind turbines to build and solar panels to install. Is it possible? Sure it is. Let’s remember that the world currently manufactures 73 million cars and light trucks every year, and somewhere in the world a city the size of Seattle is being built EVERY WEEK. Rapid, massive change is not only possible, it happens all the time.

The cost? A small fraction of our global military spending. And cheaper to produce than fossil energy too. After all, there’s no expensive fuel, and because renewables are much more distributed across the land, much less transmission is required (you can generate all your own power with the sunlight falling on the roof of your home, for instance).

And boy, we’re talkin’ jobs!

What about that old “intermittency” problem? The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. The good news is that once you get a fair bit of this renewable infrastructure in place, things tend to even out: wind not blowing here but blowing over there, sun shining when the wind isn’t blowing, geothermal and hydro providing back-up as needed, etc.

A recent California study at Stanford University calculated that a mix of geothermal, wind, solar and existing hydro could generate 100 percent of California’s electricity 24/7. It’s true: just about everywhere on the planet some mix of renewables will work year around, night and day. . . forever.

Renewable energy seems like magic, but it isn’t. It’s just simple, common-sense technology, actually. Can we change our entire energy system in 20 years? Certainly.

And the really good news is that we have already begun. More on that in later installments of Watt’s Happening . . .

Don Pettit is a director of the board of Peace Energy Cooperative.

Image Caption: Wind turbines like these at Bear Mountain Wind Park near Dawson Creek could supply half of the world’s power by 2030. Many countries, including Denmark, Germany, the U.S. and China are moving aggressively in that direction. (D.A. Pettit photo)