One of the most important aspects of our efforts to develop a sustainable society involves the way we produce and use energy. That we need to wean ourselves from our addiction to fossil fuels is obvious, both because the supply of those fuels is limited (especially in their cheap and abundant forms, to which we originally became addicted), and because of the environmental damage they cause, particularly in terms of climate change.
The main candidates, apart from improved energy efficiency, are solar and wind power, with contributions as well from geothermal, biofuels, and hydroelectric. The problems with most of these in the long run involve location. Not all parts of the world are well suited to all of them. In particular, high-latitude areas are not as appropriate for the development of solar power as low-latitude areas, because the latter receive much more sunlight.
High-latitude areas may in some cases be prime candidates for the development of wind power, however. Areas that are not suitable for wind power due to low or sporadic winds may be fine places to develop solar power. (Some areas seem good for both.) A better measure is the combined amount that each type of energy contributes to world demand, or can contribute in the future.
A new study from Stanford University co-authored by researcher Mark Jacobson suggests that it is technically feasible for all of the world’s projected energy demand to be met by renewable energy in the next 20 to 40 years. The study examines both technological and economic factors and concludes that a combination of solar and wind power could supply 90 percent of the world’s energy needs. Geothermal and hydroelectric power would account for another four percent between them, and the remainder would be eked out by wave and tidal power.
The transition to renewable energy envisioned by the study incorporates some automatic energy efficiency improvements stemming from the conversion of internal-combustion engines to some type of electricity use, either battery-electric power or fuel cells. Electric motors are more efficient than internal-combustion, so replacing the behemoths behind our garage doors with electric cars of one type or another would improve efficiency all by itself. It’s likely that an effort specifically aimed at increasing energy efficiency could improve the study’s figures a bit further.
The study goes into detail about the economics of the transition, which Jacobson says is technically feasible but would require a major effort comparable to the Apollo moon landing. It also details many of the technical procedures that could help meet shifting local demand through renewable energy.
The main point to be recognized is that the transition is possible, and that we have the technology and the ability to meet our energy needs while improving our relationship with the environment.
Image credit: LoraxV on flickr