100 Percent Renewable Energy is Within Reach

The world can run on 100 percent renewable energy, sooner and cheaper than most think

There are no technological or economic reasons why we cannot completely replace fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy. In addition to curbing climate change causing greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy also improves human health. Minimizing climate impacts and reducing health costs would generate trillions of dollars of cumulative savings.

The idea that the world can be powered entirely by renewable energy is not new. In 2011, Stanford researcher Mark Z. Jacobson and UC-Davis researcher Mark A Delucci concluded that the world can be powered by clean and sustainable energy. The study they co-wrote authored found that using existing technology, the world can abandon fossil fuels and adopt renewable energy in as little as two decades. The researchers further stated that this can be done for the same price as conventional energy.

There are already commitments and functioning examples of 100 percent renewable energy use. In 2014 a number of leading companies pledged to get their power entirely from renewables. The EPA’s Green Power List reviews the growing number of businesses, municipalities and universities that use only clean energy.

Hawaii has been reducing its dependence on fossil fuels to generate electricity, but the state still uses petroleum for 70 percent of its energy generation. A new bill will abandon oil altogether and require the state to get all of its energy from renewables (primarily wind, solar, geothermal and hydro) by 2040.

California is working towards the goal of getting one third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. New research suggests that California could produce enough solar energy to provide as much as five times the electricity it currently consumes. This is achievable by deploying solar in developed areas (roof tops or open spaces on the ground) close to where people live and consume power.

California is already getting more than 12 percent of its power from renewable sources and individual cities in California are going even further. San Jose, San Francisco and San Diego have all pledged to get off fossil fuels, starting in 2022, 2035 and 2020 respectively. The San Diego 100% Renewables report shows how San Diego can get all of its electricity from renewable energy.

As of 2014, Aspen Colorado was getting more than 86 percent of its energy from renewables (hydro and wind) and the city has vowed to go 100 percent renewable by the end of 2015. Early in 2015, Burlington, Vermont became the first US city to deliver on the promise to end fossil fuel use for electricity and meet all of their power demands with renewables (biomass, hydroelectric, solar and wind).

On March 18, 2015, Georgetown, Texas announced that it would soon be generating 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources (solar and wind). What makes this noteworthy is the fact that Texas is the largest oil producing state in the US. The reason Georgetown is turning to renewables is because they are a cheaper source of electricity than fossil fuels.

A number of studies show that renewable energy can meet or exceed U.S. energy demands in a timely fashion. U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research indicates that renewable energy can replace fossil fuels within 20 years. Sandy MacDonald, director of the earth system research lab at NOAA said that wind and solar could supply 70 per cent of electricity demand in the lower 48 states, with fossil fuel and hydro/nuclear renewables each accounting for just 15 per cent by 2030.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Renewable Electricity Futures Study (RE Futures) found that using a diverse array of commercially available technologies, the US could easily supply 80 percent of its electricity needs with renewables by 2050. The Union of Concerned Scientists published a plan for renewable energy to provide 80 percent of our electricity by 2050.

A recent Stanford paper entitled “100 percent Wind, Water, Sunlight (WWS) All Sector Energy Plan for the 50 U.S. States,” suggests that the United States can get all of their power needs from renewables.

These U.S. examples alongside research from all around the world (Europe, Asia, Latin America, Canada, Australia, Africa and the Middle East) reveals that renewable energy has the potential to quickly and affordably replace fossil fuel as the world’s primary source of energy.

As pointed out in a Bloomberg article, renewable energy has “passed a turning point” and we can now say with confidence that 100 percent is possible. The world is shifting away from fossil fuels and towards renewables.

Recent and future prospects look very good for the growth of renewables. In 2014, renewable energy had one of the best years ever and it is looking very good for 2015 and beyond.

“The shift occurred in 2013, when the world added 143 gigawatts of renewable electricity capacity, compared with 141 gigawatts in new plants that burn fossil fuels,” the article stated. “The shift will continue to accelerate, and by 2030 more than four times as much renewable capacity will be added.”

The fossil fuel lobby frequently point to the problem of intermittency of renewables (eg the sun is not always shining and the wind is not always blowing). However, as pointed out in a another Bloomberg article, the example of Germany proves the naysayers wrong.

Cheaper storage will further minimize the so called intermittency problem. “There’s a myth among opponents of renewable energy that you need 100 percent backup spinning all the time, and it’s utter nonsense,” said Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

The world will transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy, the only question that remains to be answered is how long it will take.

The real issue is not about technological feasibility or even economics, it is about political will.

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  1. A renewable energy solution for going carbon neutral

    If we are going to begin to figure out a replacement power source that can take the place of fossil fuels, we have to look at solar energy as the primary source of power. For all practical purposes the sun is the primary source of power on the planet, including the creation of all fossil fuels. One sq meter of sunlight yields 200 watts utilizing solar PV with a 20% efficiency at sea level. There are 2,589,988 sq meters in one sq mile. It figures that 1 sq mile of PV will yield .517,997,600 gigawatts of electricity before accounting for the resistances that we’ll call derates. For the sake of argument in terms of the derates, and rounding off of the numbers as well, lets say that 1 sq mile of PV yields .4 gigawatts. Therefore if we had a 10,000 sq mile PV farm, we would expect that its output would = 4-terawatts. It is actually estimated that a 3-terawatt system, would adequately provide 100% of all electricity utilized in the United States, but that would require 24/7 production. A 4-terawatt system would provide more of an overall saturation of the grid, but it could only produce this power for about 5 hours a day from a single location. Therefore, the system will need to be spread out, over multi time zones in multi locations, and located as closely as possible to areas of high electrical consumption. A good portion of the production can come from residential and commercial rooftops, as well as larger community installations, such as solar covered park and rides and the like. By spreading out the production over the expanse of the country, we can begin to extend the daily averages of solar irradiation across our four time zones and increase overall production time from 5 hours to 9 hours. Although it is true that we live in a 24/7 world most of our consumption occurs during daylight hours when solar production is occurring, so much so, that we can safely conclude that a 4-terawatt nationwide PV system will provide 40% of our load requirements without the need for electrical storage. We also must also take into account that heating and cooling require the largest demand on the electrical grid. Therefore, geothermal applications need to be introduced into the overall mix. Geothermal has the potential to eliminate an additional 30% of the national overall electrical load, and operates 24/7.

    So far, we have focused primarily on solar PV and just mentioned geothermal to address offsetting our needs for fossil fuel consumption. Solar thermal has yet to be examined. Large heliostat solar concentrators need to come into play. Not only do they provide electricity at utility grade rates, but also the heat that they generate keeps the steam driven turbines operating at capacity a full 4 hours after sundown. Electrical production utilizing wind represents only 4% of our current power source inventory, yet it has the potential to provide 10 times the power that our nation consumes. Of course, we have not explored hydropower from our nation’s dams yet, but at this point hydro provides 7% of our inventory, and probably will remain at this level going forward. However if we were to take that extra terawatt that the PV is producing, and used it to pump water into elevated storage reservoirs, then that same water could be continually be released into turbines, thus generating power throughout the night.

    All of this renewable energy is at our fingertips, and it is affordable. The PV comes in at between 6 and 7 cents per/KWh at today’s pricing, and that price is going down as we speak. The same is true for wind, and even less for geothermal, and hydro. For every source of renewable energy discussed here, there are probably two more that are not mentioned, such as tidal power, commercial and domestic solar hot water, heat pumps, and the list can go on and on. In short, it is clear to this writer that we have an overabundance of alternative energy options available to us without having to continue our destructive use of nuclear, and fossil fuels. With the possible exception of pumping water into elevated storage reservoirs, there is also no need for storing electricity in batteries, at such a high cost to the environment, and our purses, “Electric vehicles, the exception”.

    The elephant in the room not mentioned is CONSERVATION! We as Americans were brought up in a throw away society. Everything from plastic water bottles, paper products, leaving lights and gadgets on, 20 minute showers, running the water until it gets cold, standing in front of the fridge with the door open, I’m sure that you get it. Conservation can easily offset 25% of our national electric load. Actually, we would require over 4 earths if everyone on the planet consumed as much as the average US citizen.

    Some references:

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