Based on how fast gasoline prices are skyrocketing, you might think it’s time to dust off the old bomb shelter and start hoarding food. But fear not–the renewable energy industries of the world have big plans to save the day. The plans are so big that sometimes it sounds like we could solve this problem right now. But there is always a catch. What’s clean energy promising right now, and what’s keeping it from fulfilling its potential?
Wind: The American Wind Energy Association tells us that a power grid could work at up to 40% wind–provided, of course, that there are sufficient transmission lines to carry that wind from open fields to crowded cities (an expensive proposition). Last year, the DOE estimated that the U.S has an available offshore wind capacity of 4,150 gigawatts (excluding pesky details like environmental, human use, and technical considerations), or 20% of the country’s electricity generation needs. This wouldn’t be cheap to build. For some perspective, the 468 megawatt under-construction Cape Wind project cost $1 billion. So, as with everything, cost stands between us and a mostly wind-powered future.
Geothermal: The DOE estimates that geothermal sources could provide 100 gigawatts of power in the next fifty years. That’s nothing compared to wind’s potential–but at least geothermal sites don’t have to deal with the NIMBYism that comes along with wind turbine installations. Also, it’s available 24 hours a day, unlike wind and solar power. Because the Earth (and its reservoirs of hot water and steam) never sleeps. But, like wind, it’s going to cost a lot to build these plants. Coal power, on the other hand, is cheap and exists right now. People aren’t good at making those kind of tradeoffs.
Solar: We haven’t seen any hard and fast estimates of solar potential in the U.S, but word on the street is that there is no shortage of sunlight in this country. So if everyone slaps a solar panel on their roof and big companies keep pushing mega-solar installations, we could probably power the whole country with solar. And the more solar we install, the faster it will become price-comparable to coal. Except: the turtles. We need to make sure that solar installations in the desert don’t crush the endangered turtles, or we risk the wrath of passionate desert turtle advocates.
Algae: DOE researchers recently put out a report claiming that algae-based biofuel could replace up to 17% of U.S oil imports (the country imports approximately 51% of all petroleum used). The catch: growing algae requires a whole lot of water–too much to make it worthwhile. So until we figure out how to use less water, that 17% will continue to exist only in the minds of the algae-obsessed.
Biofuels: The Biomass R&D Technical Advisory Committee, a Congressional panel, envisions (PDF) a 30% replacement of the current U.S. petroleum consumption with biofuels by 2030. This would require a lot of biomass–368 million dry tons from forestlands and 998 million dry tons from agricultural lands. The DOE claims that we could do this and still meet food, feed, and export demands. We’ll believe it when we see it.
Will any of these come to fruition? Judging by the molasses-like pace at which humans make change, probably not. But everyone needs goals.