The world need not look to radical new technologies or search for elusive new sources of power to give people sustainable and constantly renewable energy. Most of the technology required to do so is already here.
This is the conviction of Mark Delucchi, a UC Davis research scientist, and Mark Jacobson, a Stanford professor of civil and environmental engineering.
The two researchers published an article that was the cover story of the November issue of Scientific American, delineating a plan for supplying the world with wind, water and solar energy.
According to Delucchi and Jacobson, a shift from the current gas-guzzling, climate-changing economy into a clean entirely electric one based on wind, water or solar power would mean a 30 percent decrease in demand for energy worldwide.
Based on a quantitative evaluation from a study Jacobson published in Energy and Environmental Science last year, the two researchers also calculated that solar energy had what amounted to 30 times the energy needed.
Despite these promising numbers, the problem lies in overcoming the political and infrastructural barriers that have prevented these long-standing technologies from taking hold and making the impact the researchers know they are capable of.
“What we’re trying to show is that it is surprisingly feasible technologically and economically,” Delucchi said.
A problem that comes with using natural sources of energy such as wind and solar power comes from their variability. The sun does not always shine in any one place for solar panels to collect its rays, nor is there always wind to power turbines.
The solution to this, Jacobson said, is the creation of a large-scale network of panels and turbines across a nation or around the world. This would allow collection of sufficient energy regardless of time of day or weather conditions.
Though the creation of such indefinitely renewable energy is among the primary goals of the researchers’ plans, it also brings with it several other benefits. Such a plan would address climate change and the inevitable depletion of fossil fuels.
Jacobson said the push toward a 30 percent decrease in energy requirements is twofold. One comes from replacing liquid-fuel dependent combustion engines with electric or hydrogen ones. The second comes from converting commercial, industrial and residential sectors to electricity and making them as energy-efficient as possible.
“We want a reduction and elimination of environmental impacts,” Delucchi said. “There’s a wide range of problems [including] water pollution, air pollution, global pollution and also the problems associated with relying on unequally distributed and financially volatile fossil fuels.”
According to Jacobson, the benefits of wind, water and solar energy over other proposed future sources of energy such as nuclear or biomass are many. The collection of wind energy, for example, emits 13 to 17 times less carbon in the whole lifecycle of a wind turbine as opposed to nuclear power plants, which are markedly more costly and take longer to setup.
Nuclear power plants also carry with them the risk of nuclear proliferation in the event of terrorism or war.
According to Jacobson, biofuels produce a carbon balance that is close to traditional fuels, while the amount of land use, water use and air pollution would produce the same pollution as traditional fuels. The same is true with coal and carbon, which produces about 50 times more carbon emissions than wind or solar power.
As expected, for such a system to take hold would require a drastic, if not complete overhaul of a nation’s infrastructure, and as such, political, social and institutional constraints abound.
“The biggest problem is the system, as we and others have envisioned, is different in some very key aspects from the current system,” Delucci said. “It’s not clear that we can make it there in an incremental way… to make this work, we’ll need a lot of corporations and people working together.”
ARNOLD LAU can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.