Green

Eighty years until we get a world run on renewables?

Renewable sources like solar and wind power can account for 100 percent of the world’s energy needs by 2090, according to a scenario devised by the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) and Greenpeace.

The scenario assumes substantial government investment and carbon legislation. According to the blueprint, written up in the Energy [R]evolution Report, the majority of the switch can be accomplished by the middle of this century.

The scenario is more aggressive than most put forth to date. The scenario also calls for relying entirely on energy sources that are strictly defined as renewable — meaning nuclear power is excluded. Four sources are expected to provide the bulk of the world’s power: biomass (like ethanol), geothermal, solar and wind. However, greater “efficiency” is the largest contributor.

That last factor is interesting, because while the forecast of power to be created by renewable sources appears to be at possible given current trends, the efficiency required by the [R]evolution report would result in a drastically different-looking world. Efficiency gains would come about mainly through generating energy close to consumers — think solar panels on every rooftop — as well as upgrading old buildings, mandating green building techniques for new structures and improving industrial processes.

As the report points out, about one third of energy supplied to the average home is lost through inefficiencies like bad insulation. The nascent green building industry has been waiting for governments to sit up and take notice of such losses, and hopefully provide a kick-start much like the incentives that solar and wind receive.

But the scenario appears unrealistic when it suggests there will be a drop in energy usage. Energy usage is a figure that rises over time, in expanding economies. With developing countries like China and India in the mix (new coal factories are completed every week in some Asian countries), we can expect healthy growth in energy usage through this century. The [R]evolution report sees a scenario where real energy usage drops, due to efficiency.

The scenario also mandates an end to the use of nuclear power, a conclusion no doubt brought about by the involvement of Greenpeace, an aging environmental organization. Nuclear power is a centerpiece of many countries’ plans to slow CO2 emissions. While painting a picture of a world threatened by horrifying consequences if CO2 emissions continue, Greenpeace is apparently picking and choosing only the solutions that meet its organizational, moral criteria.

While nuclear is not a perfect power source, even its old opponents are coming around to the view that nuclear is preferable to coal plants, which, incidentally, cause more radioactive pollution than their nuclear counterparts. The report, however, insists that nuclear is unsafe, and even uses a sign from Chernobyl to illustrate its point — although an accident such as the one that occurred at Chernobyl would be impossible to replicate at most modern nuclear plants.

For an idea of the convoluted logic of Greenpeace, consider a statement made by senior Greenpeace scientist David Santillo during a debate over whether ocean iron fertilization, a method to encourage plankton to absorb more CO2, is a good idea. While the technique, which is being researched by a venture-funded company called Climos, is still highly speculative, Santillo objected to iron fertilization not on scientific grounds, but because it would be “morally indefensible” to use a natural system to help absorb CO2 emissions, rather than forcing humans to reduce their emissions.

That view is consistent with the report’s assumed reduction in energy usage, but reveals a naive worldview, in which consumers of every sort can simply stop old practices at any given time and switch to a better way without the stunning economic damage such a fast switch would cause.

Despite the shortcomings, there’s good data in the 212-page plan, which includes exhaustive data on specific regions and industries. Once the more hare-brained suggestions are weeded out, it might just give a good view to what the future of energy will look like.

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