Good News on Renewable Energy
By Hannah Solomon-Strauss on 09/27/2012 @ 04:07 PM
One of the key questions for those advocating a greener economy is what can possibly replace fossil fuels and gas to power our lives. Turns out, clean energy is much closer to being able to do this than we realize. Wind energy in particular is looking promising. Here’s a brief roundup of some of the latest news about clean energy, and wind in particular.
Brad Plumer at the Washington Post wonders whether wind power could ever supply the world’s energy needs. Presently, wind accounts for 4.1% of electric power in the United States, so clearly, it has a long way to go. But, he writes, studies have shown that both theoretically and practically, wind energy could soon provide much more energy. In 2008, the Department of Energy estimated that by 2030, wind energy could provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity.
One obstacle is that, unlike gas and oil, the wind doesn’t blow constantly to allow a steady baseline of power. The wind is always blowing somewhere, though, and two Stanford professors have illustrated how wind farms can be linked together to provide that steady baseline.
The study that asked this question in the first place remains optimistic about the possibility of wind providing all our energy. It concludes by saying, “it seems that the future of wind energy will be determined by economic, political, and technical constraints, rather than global geophysical limits.”
If wind energy is so promising, why all the doom-and-gloom news about the renewable energy industry?
This is what Andrew Winston is asking in the Harvard Business Review. Winston argues we’re writing off clean energy too soon: we’re using more than ever, business is booming, and the transition from nonrenewable energy can happen faster and better than we expect.
Winston writes that we’re prematurely writing the obituary of green energy. He rightly points out that “this significant win for clean energy has gone mostly unnoticed in the press. If anything, the story has been the opposite” as news articles “herald” the decline of wind energy and cover, seemingly non-stop, Solyndra’s default. But even though we’re not paying attention, “the percentage of our electricity coming from the greenest sources—that is, the non-hydroelectric renewables such as solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass—has doubled in just four years to nearly six percent.”
This is huge. Popular opinion clearly has green energy’s fate wrong and, writes Winston, so does business. “The business world tends to perceive renewable energy as an altruistic, rather than fiscally prudent, investment. But this view is dead wrong. The renewable energy industry is growing very fast…and not because it’s a philanthropic effort.”
The numbers, and some history, suggests that the transformation from dirty to clean energy sources can happen more rapidly than we might expect. “The scale and pace of change I'm describing is not a fantasy — it has already happened elsewhere. Portugal transformed its electric grid from 17 percent renewables to 45 percent in just five years (as of 2010). And in the first half of 2012, renewables provided over 25 percent of Germany's electricity. On one sunny day this past May, Germany set a world record by generating 50 percent of its peak electricity needs solely from solar power.”
The European Union: Powered By Wind
Finally, the European Wind Energy Association reported today that the EU has “passed the milestone of 100 gigawatt (GW) of installed wind power capacity.” One hundred GW of wind power can, according to the press release, “generate electricity over a year to meet the total consumption of 57 million households.” To put that amount of energy into perspective, here are some equivalents.
One hundred GW of wind power can produce the same electricity over a year as:
- 62 coal power plants, or
- 39 nuclear power plants, or
- 52 gas power plants.
To produce the same amount of electricity as 100 GW of wind turbines, you would have to:
- Mine, transport, and burn 72 million tons of coal, at a cost of $6,415,114,200, which would emit 219.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide.
- Loading that amount of coal would require 750,000 train cars with a length of 7146 miles—the distance from Brussels to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
- Extract, transport, and burn 42.4 million cubic meters of gas, at a cost of $9,703,133,800, which would emit 97.8 metric tons of carbon dioxide.