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Watt's Happening: Power to spare

It there enough to power our hi-tech, energy hungry, over-populated planet? Is it actually possible to power everything all the time with renewables?
The Bear Mountain Wind Park.

don​Renewable energy has always seemed like magic to me. Let a wind turbine spin in the wind or let the sun shine on a solar panel and out comes electricity. Amazing.

And there’s more. What the “renewable” part of renewable energy means, of course, is that there is no fuel required. Sure, we need some to build the energy harvesting equipment in the first place (for now – soon we’ll use renewable energy to make more renewable energy), and a little bit for maintenance. But the point is, once it is up and running, it makes electricity without fuel. Nature just keeps “renewing” the energy source, forever.

And hey, there’s a really good spin off from this “no fuel” thing: no pollution. Yes folks, once she’s up and running, renewable energy is so close to pollution-free that you might as well call it that.

Remember, “no fuel” means no fuel to be dug up or drilled for, refined, or transported. No-fuel energy has a tiny environmental impact compared to fuel-based energy. Period. And, of course, if you have a “spill” of solar energy, we just call that a nice day.

No fuel also means lower cost. When renewables become the norm in a decade or two, the dollar and cents costs of energy will go down, especially if we include (which we should) the costs to the natural environment, health care costs from pollution, the costs of adapting to global climate change and the costs of extracting, refining and transporting fuel.

Hmm, an energy source that needs no fuel, creates no pollution, costs less and lasts forever. Sounds like a pretty good idea!

But is there enough of it to power our hi-tech, energy hungry, over-populated planet? Is it actually possible to power everything all the time with renewables? The answer: “You bet!”

More where that came from

There is, indeed, enough. Supplies of easily accessible wind and solar dwarf the energy consumed by everybody on the planet many times over.

The sun alone pours some 350,000,000 terawatt (trillion watt) hours of solar energy on the planet each year, about 4000 times more than we currently consume, and about 400 times more than all the energy in the world’s remaining oil reserves. There is lots of renewable energy. And it doesn’t run out. Ever.

But what would be needed to harvest all the energy needed to run the whole planet? This has been a very well-studied question, and the answers are promising.

Way back in 2009, a landmark study published in Scientific American, “A path to sustainable energy by 2030,” by Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, proposed to eliminate the need for all fossil fuels worldwide by 2030 using a mix of 90,000 solar plants, numerous geothermal, tidal and rooftop photovoltaic installations, and 3.8 million 5-megawatt wind turbines scattered all around the globe.

Both wind power and solar power are already cost-competitive with most other energy sources, including coal. Around the world, solar is jumping into the lead ahead of wind as the fastest growing energy source the world has ever seen. It’s cheap, it’s reliable, it goes up fast and runs with very little maintenance for decades.

Intermittency? Easy peasy

What about that old “intermittency” problem? The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, after all.

New energy storage technologies are also a huge new growth industry that are rendering the intermittency issue a problem of the past. Buying energy when it is cheap, storing it in large lithium battery banks and then selling it into the grid when it is expensive, is a new and growing way to make money while helping to stabilize the grid and provide quick power when it is needed. Large numbers of electric vehicles can provide similar back up power for the grid, and extra income for the EV owner!

Global investment in renewables has exceeded investment in coal, gas and oil combined for many years now. Something must be working. Clearly, the problems are being solved and the shift to renewables is happening, quickly. Never quickly enough of course, but gaining speed rapidly.

Renewable energy seems like magic, but it isn’t. It’s just simple, common sense technology. Can we change our entire energy system in 20 to 30 years, as experts say we must to avoid catastrophic climate change?

Yes we can!

Don Pettit lives and writes in Dawson Creek and is Executive Director of the Peace Energy Cooperative.

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