The great energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy is under way. As fossil fuel prices rise, oil insecurity deepens and concerns about pollution and climate instability cast a shadow over the future of coal. A new world energy economy is emerging, powered by wind, solar and geothermal energy. The Earth’s renewable energy resources are vast and available to be tapped through visionary initiatives. Our civilization needs to embrace clean energy on a scale and at a pace we’ve never seen before.
We inherited our current fossil fuel-based energy economy from another era. The 19th century was the century of coal, and oil took the lead during the 20th century. Today, global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) — the principal climate-altering greenhouse gas — come largely from burning coal, oil and natural gas. Coal, mainly used for electricity generation, accounts for 44 percent of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions. Oil, used primarily for transportation, accounts for 36 percent. Natural gas for electricity and heating accounts for the remaining 20 percent. It is time to design a carbon- and pollution-free energy economy based on renewable energy for the 21st century.
U.S. Coal Plants Are Being Phased Out. The burning of coal is declining in many countries. In the United States, the No. 2 coal consumer after China, coal use dropped 13 percent from 2007 to 2011 as dozens of coal plants were closed. This trend is expected to continue.
Oil Is Becoming a Relic of the Past. Oil is used to produce just 5 percent of the world’s electricity generation and is becoming ever more costly. Because oil is used mainly for transportation, we can phase it out by electrifying the transport system. Plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars can run largely on clean electricity. Electric motors are so much more efficient than gas engines that wind-generated electricity to operate cars could cost the equivalent of 80-cents-per-gallon gasoline.
Nuclear Is Too Expensive. Although nuclear reactors supply 13 percent of the world’s electricity, nuclear power’s limited role in our future has been clear for some time. It is simply too expensive.
Natural Gas Has Been Oversold. The scientific community is challenging the industry’s claim that natural gas is fairly climate-benign. Natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” (a much-touted key to expanding production), is even more climate-disruptive than coal because of methane gas leakage. (Methane is a potent contributor to climate change.)
Countries around the world are richly endowed with enough renewable energy to easily double, in some cases, their current electrical generating capacities. As the U.S. Electricity Generating Capacity by Source chart in the Image Gallery shows for the United States, a revamped clean energy economy will harness more energy from the wind and sun, and from within the Earth itself. Climate-disrupting fossil fuels will fade into the past as countries turn to clean, climate-stabilizing, nondepletable sources of energy.
Plant-Based Energy Is Attracting Some Attention. As oil reserves are being depleted, interest in plant-based energy sources is emerging.
Crops can be used to produce automotive fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel. Investments in U.S. corn-based ethanol distilleries became hugely profitable when oil prices jumped above $60 a barrel following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The investment frenzy that followed was also fueled by government mandates and subsidies. In 2011, the world produced 23 billion gallons of fuel ethanol and nearly 6 billion gallons of biodiesel.
The more research that’s done on liquid biofuels, the less attractive they become. Every acre planted in corn for ethanol means pressure for another acre to be cleared elsewhere for crop production. Clearing land in the tropics for biofuel crops can increase greenhouse gas emissions instead of reducing them. Ethanol and biodiesel crops cannot compete with land-efficient wind power.
Solar Is Exploding. The growth in the use of solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity can only be described as explosive, expanding by 74 percent in 2011. Early photovoltaic installations were all small-scale — mostly on residential rooftops. That’s changing as more utility-scale projects are being launched. The United States, for example, has under construction and development more than 100 utility-scale solar projects. Solar-generated electricity is particularly attractive in desert regions such as the U.S. Southwest, because peak generation meshes nicely with peak air conditioning use.
The world’s current 70,000 megawatts of photovoltaic (PV) installations can, when operating at peak power, match the output of 70 nuclear power plants. With PV installations climbing and with costs continuing to fall, cumulative PV generating capacity could surpass 1 million megawatts in 2020. (Current world electricity generating capacity from all sources is 5 million megawatts.) Installing solar panels for individual homes in the villages of developing countries is now often cheaper than supplying them with electricity by building a central power plant and a grid.
Geothermal Is Abundant. The heat that comes from within the Earth — geothermal energy — can be used for heating or converted into steam to generate electricity. Many countries have enough harnessable geothermal energy to satisfy all of their electricity needs. Despite this abundance, the geothermal energy capacity installed as of 2012 is only enough to provide electricity for some 10 million homes worldwide.
Roughly half of the world’s installed geothermal generating capacity is concentrated in the United States and the Philippines. The United States, with 130 confirmed geothermal plants under construction or in development, will be bringing at least 1,000 megawatts of generating capacity online in the near term. Worldwide, this accelerating pace could yield 200,000 megawatts of generating capacity by 2020.
Wind Can Take the World by Storm
Each alternative energy source — whether solar, geothermal or wind — has a major role to play, but wind is on its way to becoming the foundation of the new energy economy.
Wind has opened a wide lead on both solar and geothermal energy. Wind farms, now generating power in about 80 countries, have a capacity of some 240,000 megawatts. China and the United States are the world leaders in wind energy.
Over the past decade, world wind electric generating capacity grew at nearly 30 percent per year, an increase driven by its many attractive features and by public policies supporting its expansion. Wind is abundant, carbon-free and nondepletable. It uses no water, no fuel and little land. Wind is also locally available, scales up easily and can be brought online quickly. No other energy source can match this combination of features.
One reason wind power is so popular is that it has a small footprint. Although a wind farm can cover many square miles, turbines occupy only 1 percent of that area. Compared with other renewable sources of energy, wind yield per acre is off the charts. For example, a farmer in northern Iowa could plant an acre in corn that yields enough grain to produce roughly $1,000 worth of fuel-grade ethanol per year, or he or she could use that same acre to site a turbine producing $300,000 worth of electricity each year!
Because turbines take up only 1 percent of the land covered by a wind farm, ranchers and farmers can, in effect, double-crop their land, simultaneously harvesting electricity while producing crops or livestock. With no investment on their part, farmers and ranchers can receive $3,000 to $10,000 a year in royalties for each wind turbine on their land. For thousands of ranchers on the Great Plains, wind royalties will one day dwarf their earnings from cattle sales.
Wind is also abundant. In the United States, three wind-rich states — Kansas, North Dakota and Texas — have enough harnessable wind energy to easily satisfy national needs. Another of wind’s attractions is that it is not depletable. The amount of wind energy used today has no effect on the amount available tomorrow.
Unlike coal, gas and nuclear power plants, wind farms do not require water for cooling. As wind replaces coal and natural gas in power generation, water will be freed up for irrigation and other needs.
Perhaps wind’s strongest attraction is that there is no fuel cost. After the wind farm is completed, the electricity flows with no monthly fuel bill.
Wind farms can also be built quickly. While it may take a decade to build a nuclear power plant, the construction time for the typical wind farm is one year.
Future wind complexes in the Great Plains, in the North Sea, off the coast of China or on the eastern coast of the United States may have generating capacity measured in tens of thousands of megawatts. Planning and investment in wind projects is occurring on a scale not previously seen in the traditional energy sector.
One of the obvious downsides of wind is its variability, but this becomes less of an issue as wind farms multiply. Because no two farms have identical wind profiles, each farm added to a grid reduces variability. A Stanford University research team has pointed out that with thousands of wind farms and a national grid in a country such as the United States, wind becomes a remarkably stable source of electricity.
‘Put It in My Backyard’
In more densely populated areas, there is often local opposition to wind power — the NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) response. But in the vast ranching and farming regions of the United States, wind is immensely popular for economic reasons. For ranchers in the Great Plains, farmers in the Midwest or dairy farmers in upstate New York, there is instead a PIMBY (“put it in my backyard”) response. Farmers and ranchers welcome the additional income from having wind turbines on their land. Rural communities compete for wind farm investments and the additional tax revenue to support their schools and roads.
One of the keys to developing wind resources is building the transmission lines to link wind-rich regions with population centers. Perhaps the most exciting grid project under development is the so-called Tres Amigas electricity hub, a grid interconnection center to be built in eastern New Mexico. It will link the three U.S. electricity grids: the Eastern, Western and Texas grids. Tres Amigas is a landmark in the evolution of the new energy economy. With high-voltage lines linking the three grids where they are close to each other, electricity can be moved from one part of the United States to another as conditions warrant. By matching surpluses with deficits over a broader area, electricity waste and consumer rates can both be reduced. Groundbreaking is targeted for early fall 2012. Other long-distance transmission lines are under construction or in the planning stages.
The Dirty Past Becomes a Clean Future
We know that rapid growth in wind generation is possible. U.S. wind generating capacity expanded by 45 percent in 2007 and 50 percent in 2008. If we expanded world wind generation during this decade at 40 percent per year, the 238,000 megawatts of generating capacity at the end of 2011 would expand to nearly 5 million megawatts in 2020. Combined with an ambitious solar, geothermal and hydro expansion, this would total 7.5 million megawatts of renewable generating capacity, enabling us to back out of all coal and oil and most natural gas now used to generate electricity.
In addition to the shift to renewable sources of energy, there are two other critical components of this climate-stabilization plan: rapidly increasing the energy efficiency of industry, appliances and lighting, and restructuring the transportation sector, electrifying it as much as possible while ramping up public transit, biking and walking. (With this latter component, we would be able to back out much of the oil used for transportation.)
This energy restructuring would require roughly 300,000 wind turbines per year over the next decade. Can we produce those? For sure. Keep in mind that the world today is producing some 70,000,000 cars, trucks and buses each year. Many of the wind turbines needed to replace fossil fuels in electricity generation worldwide could be produced in currently idled automobile assembly plants in the United States alone. The plants would, of course, need to be modified to shift from automobiles to wind turbines, but it is entirely doable. In World War II, Chrysler went from making cars to tanks in a matter of months. If we could do that then, we and the rest of the world can certainly build the 300,000 wind turbines per year we now need to build the new energy economy and stabilize the climate.
What Can I Do?
One of the questions I hear most frequently is, “What can I do?” Lifestyle changes are essential, but they are not a substitute for political action. Restructuring the global economy means we must become politically active and work for needed changes. Communicate with your elected representatives. Urge them to support increased government incentives for renewable energy and phase out current subsidies for coal, oil and nuclear.
For the first time since the Industrial Revolution began, we have an opportunity to invest in alternative sources of energy that can last as long as the Earth itself. The choice is ours. We can stay with business as usual, or we can move the world onto a path of sustained progress. The choice will be made by our generation, but it will affect life on Earth for all generations to come.
Think Globally, DIY Locally
You, too, can help save the planet by taking advantage of renewable energy in your own backyard. Browse these articles on our website for ideas and projects.
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Lester R. Brown is one of the world’s most influential environmentalists. Founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, Brown has written or co-written more than 50 books, including World on the Edge.