Monday, 21 June 2010

Issue #1 - Will Renewable Energy Save the Day?

Is it possible to provide enough energy for the entire population of Earth using only renewable sources, without the further development of Fusion technology, before fossil fuels run out?
Asked by: Jake Blanchard

When exactly will fossil fuels run out? This is one of the most debated questions on this subject, and peak oil theory is gaining more ground within politics and the scientific community. Peak oil is when the maximum rate of global oil extraction is reached; afterwards the amount of oil produced enters an inevitable decline. In 1956 M. King Hubbert predicted that the United States oil production would reach peak in 1969, but today politicians and oil companies insist that oil has yet to peak and that we can expect it around 2020,-2030. ZERO CARBON BRITIAN 2030, the latest significant energy strategy report for the UK, states,

‘Non-renewable fossil fuels are clearly finite and so cannot last forever... The point at which global production of conventional oil reaches its maximum is generally called “peak oil”. As it depends on many factors, it is extremely hard to determine precisely when it will occur, or how steep the ensuing descent will be.’

This also applies to coal and natural gases, with predictions for coal to run out in around 250 years and natural gases between 40-70 years. The companies in charge of mining and drilling add extra years to their calculations, in the hope that new technology will bring greater supply. Unfortunately at the moment the answer to this question is we don’t know exactly when they will run out, it could be somewhere between 4-250 years, with oil being the first to go. Meanwhile, the world is becoming more and more fossil fuel hungry.

As it currently stands the world uses around 12.5 Terawatts of energy (12 X 1012) and this is set to rise to around 16.9 TW by 2030. Based on the statistical reviews from BP and REN21 in 2006, renewable sources produce 8.24% of this needed energy, with fossil fuels being the greatest contributor at 85% (Oil 37%, Coal 25% and Gas 23%). The use and popularity of renewable energy has increased since 2006, but still has a long way to go before it can give fossil fuel a run for its money.

So is it really possible for the wind, the tide and the sun to power the Earth?

According to scientist Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi this is not such a far-fetched idea.

"A large-scale wind, water and solar energy system can reliably supply the world’s needs, significantly benefiting climate, air quality, water quality, ecology and energy security”
November 2009 Scientific American Magazine ‘A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables’

Jacobson and Delucchi’s push for a greater increase in renewable energy sources using currently existing technology would transform the world’s energy system in which the 16.9 TW prediction for 2030 would be reduced to 11.5 TW due to electrical energy being more efficient than combustion. Here are their plans explained:

The Break Down

Solar 41% This would include two forms of solar energy generation. An increase in Solar Photovoltaic Panels -the cellular panels we are increasingly familiar with - that could be situated on roof tops both domestic and commercial, and a massive investment into the newer Concentrated Solar Plants - a field of mirrors which focus the light to a single point to generate heat, which is transferred into energy. Jacobson and Delucchi predict around 89,000 Photovoltaic and Concentrated Solar Plants, producing 300 megawatts apiece, will be needed to meet this target.

Wind 50% To generate the required amount of energy, there would need to be 3.8 million large wind turbines, all producing at a rate of 5 megawatts, with the worldwide footprint of the wind turbines being 50 square kilometers (smaller then Manhattan).

Water Energy 9% 900 hydroelectric stations worldwide are needed to produce the sufficient amount of energy, but with 70 percent of these plants already in place we are well on our way to meeting this target.

(Scientific American Magazine ‘Powering a Green Planet: Sustainable Energy, Made Interactive’)

A Rosy Outlook?

The debate rages on whether renewable energy can really be scale up to the magnitude needed, efficiently. Conservation biologist Jesse Ausubel argues that the increase of renewable energy would lead to the ‘rape of nature’ (New Scientist 2006) and that ‘the best energy solution is increased efficiency, natural gas with carbon capture, and nuclear power.’ Some have criticized Ausubel comments as being exaggerated and inflammatory, but his opinionated paper ‘Renewable and nuclear heresies’ does raise some important issues around the effectiveness of renewable sources. Issues that also concern Stewart Brand, in his argument as part of the debate ‘Does the world need nuclear energy?’ at TED, Brand commented on the efficiency of renewable energy.

‘Wind is wonderful... But one of the things we're discovering is that wind, like solar, is an actually relatively dilute source of energy. And so it takes a very large footprint on the land’


‘…to get 13 clean terawatts of energy from wind, solar and biofuels, [the] area would be roughly the size the United States, an area he refers to as "Renewistan."’

Governments are trying to increase the production of renewable energy and decrease CO2 to meet the Kyoto agreement. If ZERO CARBON BRITAIN 2030’s case is successful we will see Britain meeting Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi plan and hopefully putting the renewable energy critics to bed. The road to a world powered by renewable energy will be bumpy, and we may never get there completely if Fusion or Nuclear can have anything to do with it. I believe, for what it is worth, that we will never truly run out of fossil fuel, because as supply declines, prices will increase and so will alternative energy sources, leading to people becoming less and less reliant on fossil fuel and use of energy becoming more and more efficient. Let’s hope!

If you have anything to add, disagree on or rant about please leave a comment below.

The future of renewable energy? - Science and Environment article - Ted Talk/Saul Griffith/On Kites As the Future of Renewable Energy


Scientific American -Powering a Green Planet
New Scientist - Renewable Energy Could Rape Nature
Scientific - A path to Sustainable Energy by 2030 - Mark Jacobson Debate Does The World Need Nuclear Energy

1 comment:

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