Renewables Show Promise Amid Scary Signs of Climate Change

Earth’s inhabitants are showing increasing stress from global warming as trees fall over in Alaska, penguin chicks die in Antarctica and traditional villagers near the Arctic seek new homes because their coastal villages have washed away.

While examples abound of policies heading in the wrong direction -witness the aggressive Chinese coal plant building schedule — hopeful signs are beginning to mount as well. Speakers at Tuesday morning’s SOLAR 2006 plenary on climate change action have been working on renewable energy for decades and emphasized that time is running short but solutions are within reach. “We have about a 10-year window and that’s it,” said Donald Aitken, a consultant, scientist and former chair of the American Solar Energy Society (ASES). “It’s scary when you realize the political barriers.” Still, Aitken showed that renewable energy options will soon be not only economically viable but also contribute to higher quality of life and social equity in the region around the Mediterranean Sea. He shared the work of German scientist Franz Trieb analyzing the feasibility of expanding renewable energy in the area including parts of Europe, north Africa and the Middle East. Concentrating solar power came out ahead in the analysis of that region and will be fully competitive between 2010 and 2020, the analysis shows. The challenges to act before warming causes irreversible changes are great, said Dennis Dimick, associate editor of National Geographic magazine. Using photos from the magazine’s recent reports on energy and climate issues illustrating the dire effects of global warming that are already evident, he noted that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere sticks around for about 100 years. So even if carbon emissions were shut off — like turning off a bathtub when it appeared likely to overflow — they would continue “filling” the tub for a century. “Things are moving too fast for living things,” Dimick said. “”Plants can’t adapt, animals can’t adapt.” But of all the ground-breaking reports the magazine has done on climate change and energy topics, Dimick said the story on alternative energy was the top-rated article last year. The stark news on the pace of global warming shows the urgency of taking action, said Frank Kreith, a renowned author and lecturer on renewable energy. So far, 18 states and the District of Columbia have adopted portfolio standards, requiring some use of renewable energy. Other states are working on initiatives. If all the states meet the standards now in effect, the results would be impressive: 25,000 MW of renewable energy will be online by 2017, translating into reductions in carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to 3.1 billion more trees or 9.7 million fewer cars. While that is encouraging, “”We need a much bigger worldwide effort,” noted Kreith. Transportation is second to electricity generation as a contributor to carbon dioxide emissions. “I believe this is the Achilles heel in our energy policy,” Kreith said. With oil supplies expected to peak soon, “Unless we have a way to supplement fuel for ground transportation, we will face an enormous crisis,” he said. Using Brazil’s transition to fueling vehicles with ethanol — 85% of cars sold in Brazil are Flex Fuel vehicles today — Kreith said the U.S. could make a similar transition but not by simply copying Brazil. Using hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars, and transitioning to development of cellulosic ethanol, Kreith showed a potential to transition away from most carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles. “My bias is that we can do it. I hope we can consider it doable and I hope this is the beginning,” he said.
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