I recently heard a presentation by green energy expert Stuart Brand, in which he stated that nuclear and clean coal is the future of our energy. Currently, wind and solar combined make up less than 2% of all energy generated in the U.S.
But here’s the other side of the coin. A new study says that we could be 100% renewable energy reliant by 2030. Two U.S. researchers, Mark Delucchi and Mark Jacobson, believe that we could tap into ample natural resources to such an extent to completely power all homes, businesses and factories world-wide in less than 20 years.
The results of the study were published in a recent National Geographic article entitled, “Going ‘All the Way’ With Renewable Energy?”
So, just how can this leap occur? How is it possible that we can somehow pull a 360 degree turn from using coal, natural gas and oil as more than 80% of all energy, to going 100% renewable energy reliant?
The authors of the new study note that many new energy generating systems would have to be built. More precisely: 4 million 5-MW wind turbines, 90,000 300-MW large-scale solar plants, and 1.7 billion rooftop PV systems at 3 kW each. Notably, the study excludes biomass and carbon-free electricity generation, as those power plants rely on fossil fuels.
There are several variables that will affect whether and how we could ever truly become 100% renewable energy reliant. First, we’ll need vast stretches of land on which to build wind turbines and install solar power plants. That, of course, is a political hot potato. Second, we’ll need to quintuple production of rare earth minerals like neodymium, which is used to make magnets. Third, we’ll need significantly more political support and governmental incentives to back up a build-out of this magnitude.
Its staggering, really, when you consider the potential impacts of such a proposal. From the National Geographic article:
Delucchi and Jacobson estimate that a drive for 100 percent renewable energy would require a massive building binge. For instance, the world would need nearly 4 million wind turbines, and they’d be big ones—rated at 5 megawatts (MW). That’s two or three times the capacity of the majority of turbines on the market; 5 MW turbines were an innovation introduced offshore in Germany in 2006, and China just built its first 5 MW wind turbine last year.
The pair estimate that the world would need 90,000 large-scale solar plants, each with a capacity of about 300 MW—both those that rely on photovoltaic panels that make electricity directly, and concentrated solar power plants that focus the sun’s rays to boil water to drive electric generators. At present, fewer than three dozen such utility-scale solar plants are in operation worldwide; most are far smaller.
And the big solar systems wouldn’t displace the need for rooftop power; the researchers estimate a need for 1.7 billion 3-kilowatt solar PV systems as well. Think of that as one rooftop PV system for every four people on the planet.
Building all these new turbines, solar panels, and other infrastructure would eat up plenty of steel, concrete, and other resources. However, Jacobson and Delucchi concluded there are no significant economic or environmental constraints on the production of bulk materials such as concrete and steel, so they examined more closely the needs for less common materials.
Whether or not we really will become 100% renewable energy reliant by 2030 is probably beside the point, however. The authors of the study published it (apparently) merely to show that the potential to do so is there – not to suggest any ways to clear the significant practical and political hurdles that stand in the way.