Fast Company

100% Renewable Energy in 40 Years Not Limited to Our Wildest Dreams: Study

windmill

New research suggests the whole world could switch to renewable energy sources using current tech in just 20 to 40 years. It would cost no more than current energy, and would have big economic and eco payoffs. The only barriers are down to social, business, and political inertia.

We all know about renewable energy--it's been around for years, and is key to solving the global warming (and end-of-oil) crisis. Nowadays it's good to be green, and research into the millions of different aspects of the tech is skyrocketing. But a Stanford research team has just compiled an innovative, lateral-thinking study that says even using current available technology the entire world could switch 100% of its energy needs to renewable sources in just a handful of decades. How is this possible?

Current tech is good enough

The research from Mark Z. Jacobson and team involves making all new energy production plants use renewable energy by 2030, and then converting older existing plants by 2050. In the new world order, almost everything would run off electricity. Ninety percent of the production would come from windmills and solar energy plants (already very well established technologies) and the remaining 10% would come from hydroelectric power, geothermal, and wave/tidal power. Mobile things--cars, trains, ships and such--would run on hydrogen-powered fuel cells, and aircraft would burn hydrogen fuel. The hydrogen itself would come from green-electric generation processes.

All of this plan requires no more than a dedicated push to exploit existing technology and to network it all together in an intelligent way--because demand varies from place to place, throughout the day, and as seasons change, and the sun, wind, and waves don't necessarily give power all the time, everywhere. "If you combine them as one commodity and use hydroelectric to fill in gaps [as it's a reliable battery-like resource], it is a lot easier to match demand," Jacobson notes. A supergrid, with long-distance links, international cooperation and really smart energy management is needed. (Good job we're already building one).

Will it cost more?

Nope. Making the changes will take time, effort and money--because you have to build a lot of new equipment, and link up power grids across the world. Spinning up green-power industries to build devices at a global scale will also cost money, as will winding down and deconstructing the infrastructure in place to support coal, oil, gas and even nuclear electricity generation.

But "when you actually account for all the costs to society--including medical costs--of the current fuel structure, the costs of our plan are relatively similar to what we have today," according to Jacobson. That medical reference is to the health benefits of reducing pollution on a global scale, as well as side-effects like deaths from warming-induced natural disasters.

Will it cost more in the long run?

Nope, it may cost less. Due to the incontrovertible laws of thermodynamics and other bits of physics, "heat engines" like the non-renewable power stations and car engines we run today are way less energy efficient than an all-electric process. The Stanford plan suggests global energy needs would drop by 30% due to this efficiency boost, meaning we'd actually need less power--and if the business models evolve to support this norm, individuals may pay less for their energy.

Won't we pepper the Earth with windmills and solar farms and hydroelectric dams?

Nope, Stanford's plan would require 0.4% of the world's land (mainly for solar power) and the spacing between windmills accounts for another 0.6%--although you can use this area for farming and catering for other needs. One percent of the windmills are already in place, and Jacobson notes "the actual footprint required by wind turbines to power half the world's energy is less than the area of Manhattan."

Considering how much space is taken up by power stations and coal mines--facilities that would be closed in the plan--this isn't too much of a sacrifice. And a significant share of the wind farms could be offshore, to satisfy NIMBYism.

Why don't we do it then?

Inertia. We're all used to the current way of things, and rethinking everything from how your car works to looking at a landscape where power windmills go from rare to the norm involves a big effort--a "large scale transformation" on a global scale. Governments are notoriously slow-footed when it comes to this sort of change, and the Stanford plan involves so many innovations and international cooperation that the complexity is almost beyond imagination.

Existing businesses who rely on coal, oil, gas (and their byproducts, like the airline industry's need for aviation fuel) will be reluctant too.

But we've done similar things, as Jaconson notes--it's an effort "comparable to the Apollo moon project or constructing the interstate highway system," just compressed into a short timescale and requiring action from a majority of nations.

To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

[Image: Shooter's Bottom wind turbine at dusk (Sharon Loxton) / CC BY-SA 2.0]

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18 Comments

  • Michael Sprague

    Our U.S. river restoration firm recently converted to 100-percent green energy sources to power our Paradise Valley, Mont. headquarters.  The switch to wind and solar was surprisingly painless. Besides installing a roof-top solar panel system, we opted for wind energy green tags purchased from our local, publicly-owned utility.  Our usage cost for wind energy went up a negligible $.0009 per kilowatt hour for 2011. We’ve even changed our ISP to a company that uses wind energy. Switching to all renewable, clean energy was simple, cost-effective, and ecologically sound. Hopefully, your article will encourage others to do the same.
     
    Michael Sprague, President
    Trout Headwaters, Inc.
    Livingston, MT 
    www.troutheadwaters.com 

  • Marty Kassowitz

    I don't doubt the premise for this article in the least. There's tremendous amount of "off the shelf" tech that can be used in short order to pull this off. One of the wildest and at the same time exciting is that idea of turning our roadways into solar panels that we actually drive on. http://organicconnectmag.com/w...

  • motorcyclemessiah

    we could have it for free and have it now Nicola Tesla discovered it years ago so when the junkies against crime topple the old power structure it will be our first priority as it will give the poor quality of live that will slow their birth rates .and lower carbon emission's and we all know this has to happen or the rich will just murder off four firths of the planet to prop up their lifestyles .and consumption.

  • himagain

    Sadly, we all know that inertia is the normal state of hoi polloi. Now it is compounded by involuntary medication.
    All innovation is by nutz. People with the mistaken belief that if you can prove it, the System will adopt it.
    In fact, the great problem is the sheer size of the existing infrastructure with its fantastic profits and its particular owners. Doing anything else cuts them out of the loop.
    The only hope is to cut them in on it in a big way.
    Not easy to do with their existing profits.
    Take legalising simple drugs: cocaine, marijuana. How could we offer the same gargantuan profits existing now? It would have to be a franchise deal so attractive that it could pull the Power Money into it.
    Anybody remember the steam car?
    Ford's plastic Ford? No rust, no dents, i/2 the weight?
    Plastic bags and bottles that are not only biodegradable, but edible?

    Cheers?

  • StPete

    No doubt we're on to the technology now, but I can't _imagine_ big oil & big coal ever letting go of their power in 40 years. Not in America, where government elections run on their money.

  • motorcyclemessiah

    we at the junkies against crime are not planning on giving them an option .like they never give us .

  • Matt Snyder

    I fully agree with the title of the article. Much of the rest is pure fantasy. No, planes will not be using hydrogen. The energy density is nowhere near enough to support commercial flight on hydrogen. No current design road trucks will not use fuel cells for reason of utility and cost, even in 40 years. The real trick to this is being able to generate fuels compatible with today's hardware and fuel distribution systems that are renewable and preferably use something that is today a waste product as a feed stock. The article is accurate that such technology exists today. It's at Scipio Biofuels Inc. http://www.scipiobiofuels.com the rest of the inexpensive technologies required to capture & sequester CO2 from the air, de-acidify the oceans and over time eliminate the eutrophism that has become the "new" pollution can be found here -> http://blogs.fanbox.com/howtos...

    All it takes to make it ALL happen is adequate investment in what is found at the second link.

    Hard part done. Where is the collective will?

    Have a nice day!

  • Chris Reich

    You assume that in 40 years we will do things in the same way we do them today. Let's take trucks for example.

    If we build an efficient rail network, trucks could be used as short distribution hauls thus reducing the need for as many. And then, much of our trucking could be performed using electric vehicles in shorter runs.

    40 years is a long time—too long to imagine what it will look like based on how things look today.

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

  • Per Lind

    It is rather scary that our thought leaders are still insisting on the centralized power generation model. We all know that the us spends (or wastes)up to 80% of their power in the distribution link, simply because of this flawed technology.If you take decentralized power generation into the equation, just for new-build capacity and in the developing world, then we could reach these goals in much less time. Yes it is about perception and perception is reality from where YOU are looking, so don't expect the government oet oil lobbyists to change and see their oil wells or campaign funds dry up! Sad, but true. To back up my arguments, please see my partners article about the conundrum we are facing now: www.IndraNet-Technologies.com

    And to you government people reading this: get on with it or we will have Mr. Ricky Gervais make rude jokes about you!

  • Kit Eaton

    I like your use of "imagine" there. It's true--to overcome the inertia, imagination is needed in vast amounts.

    This research has confirmed a sneaky feeling I've had for years that we could actually do this. The biggest issue apart from NIMBYs is international co-operation. You've just got to look at the whole Eastern Europe vs Russia shenanigans over piped gas to wonder what international tensions would do to a collaborative supergrid.

  • Chris Reich

    Did you notice in the State of the Union speech, just after president Obama says we can do this grand thing, he mentions our need for "clean" coal (a euphemism if there ever was one) and natural gas too! He mentions those as if not to leave the fossils out. That was a purely political statement---going to your comment.

  • Chris Reich

    Operative word: inertia.

    Let's get moving. Imagine the economic advantage of having a virtually limitless supply of clean energy. Other operative word: imagine.

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

  • Paul Weber

    Same wavelength here.
    "Inertia" is one of humanity's single worst trait. Coupled with ignorance it is pure poison.
    Inertia can be overcome only through education and culture.
    That takes some level of political backing.
    Which failes because of vested interests - other operative word.
    Politik + vested interests + business leads us to repression, iron fist conservatives, or just plain lobbying against the interests of the Planet.
    So how do we short-circuit this negative feedback loop?

    Discuss

  • Chris Reich

    We overcome the negative loop by making what is 'right' also profitable. When it becomes profitable, business will motivate the political side to subsidize by making the process easier or perhaps even direct subsidy---as in ethanol. There's a sweet deal. First they make it a mandatory component of gasoline thus guaranteeing a market, then the government subsidizes the production! So not only are we required to buy it, but we pay for it through taxation.

    If all the hidden costs of fossil fuels were brought into the equation, renewables would be very competitive.

    Chris

  • Doug Bissing

    Ethanol may be green, but it is:

    1. Inefficient relative to fossil fuels.
    2. Has significant impact on food availability, and commodity prices (seen the creep, especially of late?)

    We're now dedicating over 30% of our crops to ethanol. It is inefficient, causing us to burn more gasoline and, in the end, contributing more to pollution than without. Much more significant, though, is the impact it has on the food supply and commodity prices. Corn drives up prices on feed, and reverberations can be felt in markets from beef to milk and beyond.

    I think I see where you're going with the discussion, but I think ethanol is a poor example (or a very undesirable one). The desire to seek subsidies should be an indicator to question whether your idea has traction in the open market.