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How soon can the world switch to 100% renewable energy?

A study by two engineers suggests that no insurmountable technological challenges will prevent the world from switching entirely to renewable energy sources by 2030. But do we have the will to switch?

The Huffington Post today and other outlets in recent days are featuring news of a two-part report in the journal Energy Policy suggesting that – by the year 2030 – we on planet Earth can achieve a transition to 100% renewable energy.

Renewable energy – in case you’ve been in an underground bunker or the far side of the moon – includes energy from wind and solar, for example.

Two engineers wrote the report: Mark Delucchi of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, and Mark Jacobson of Stanford’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. You can find both Part 1 and Part 2 online. The report suggests that all the major resources – the “stuff” needed to make the global switch to 100% renewable energy – already exists. In other words, they say, no major technological breakthroughs or undiscovered materials are needed.

But – before you start tossing your photovoltaic cells in the air in celebration – you should note the amount of effort, not to mention political will, involved. According to PhysOrg:

Achieving 100% renewable energy would mean the building of about four million 5 MW wind turbines, 1.7 billion 3 kW roof-mounted solar photovoltaic systems, and around 90,000 300 MW solar power plants. The wind turbines needed, for example, are two to three times the capacity of most of today’s wind turbines, but 5 MW offshore turbines were built in Germany in 2006, and China built its first in 2010. The solar power plants needed would be a mix of photovoltaic panel plants and concentrated solar plants that concentrate solar energy to boil water to drive generators. At present only a few dozen such utility-scale solar plants exist. Energy would also be obtained from photovoltaic panels mounted on most homes and buildings.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that, today, over 80% of the world’s energy use stems from non-renewables – for example, oil and gas. Plus, our human use of fossil fuels is known by scientists to be contributing to global warming. In fact, Delucchi and Jacobson were at a climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009 when they began to ask themselves when and how the world could make the switch to renewables.

They then did the math: hence their report. The team now believes that one of the biggest obstacles to ramping up the world’s renewables use is the electric grid’s ability to mix and match renewable sources (e.g., geothermal+solar, hydropower+wind) in order to meet demand.

Delucchi and Jacobson also noted a few other roadblocks, according to PhysOrg:

The pair say all the major resources needed are available, with the only material bottleneck being supplies of rare earth materials such as neodymium, which is often used in the manufacture of magnets. This bottleneck could be overcome if mining were increased by a factor of five and if recycling were introduced, or if technologies avoiding rare earth were developed, but the political bottlenecks may be insurmountable.

So there you have it. The primary things stopping us from going 100% renewable energy by 2030 include neodymium … and ourselves. As Delucchi and Jacobson said in the abstract to their report:

We conclude that barriers to a 100% conversion to (renewable) power worldwide are primarily social and political, not technological or even economic.

Thus a study by two engineers suggests that no insurmountable technological challenges will prevent the world to switching entirely to renewables by the year 2030. But do we have the will to do it?

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Beth Lebwohl


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