Here at Gizmag we cover a seemingly endless stream of renewable energy technologies designed to wean us off our reliance on fossil fuels and improve the health of the planet. As important as such developments are, for these technologies to have an impact they must of course be implemented – and on a large scale. What has been sorely lacking is a plan to accomplish such a Herculean feat. Now researchers from the University of California-Davis and Stanford University have published a study that details one scenario to completely convert the world to clean, renewable energy sources – and they say it could be done in 20 to 40 years using technology available today at costs comparable to fossil fuel-based energy.
For our transport energy needs, cars, trucks, motorbikes, ships and trains would be powered by electricity and hydrogen fuel cells, while aircraft would be fueled by liquid hydrogen. Commercial processes would also be powered by electricity and hydrogen, which would be produced using electricity. Meanwhile, our homes would eschew natural gas and coal in favor of electric heaters, while water would be preheated by the sun.
To that end, the plan would see all new energy generation coming from wind, water and solar by 2030, and all pre-existing energy production converted by 2050. The researchers say that the millions of lives saved by the reduction in air pollution and a 30 percent reduction in world energy demand – thanks to the conversion of combustion processes to the more efficient electrical and hydrogen fuel cell processes – would help keep the cost of such a conversion down.
"When you actually account for all the costs to society – including medical costs – of the current fuel structure, the costs of our plan are relatively similar to what we have today," Jacobson said.
The plan also envisages the connection of geographically diverse regions using long-distance transmission to overcome energy shortfalls in a given area. If the wind or solar energy generation conditions are poor in a particular area on a given day, connecting widely dispersed sites would allow electricity to be provided from a few hundred miles away where the sun is shining or the wind blowing.
"With a system that is 100 percent wind, water and solar, you can't use normal methods for matching supply and demand. You have to have what people call a supergrid, with long-distance transmission and really good management," said Delucci.
Additionally, off-peak electricity could be used to produce hydrogen for the industrial and transportation sectors and, as it is today, pricing could be used to control peak demands.
"For solar cells there are different materials, but there are so many choices that if one becomes short, you can switch," Jacobson said. "Major materials for wind energy are concrete and steel and there is no shortage of those."
"Most of the land between wind turbines is available for other uses, such as pasture or farming," Jacobson said. "The actual footprint required by wind turbines to power half the world's energy is less than the area of Manhattan."
"This really involves a large scale transformation. It would require an effort comparable to the Apollo moon project or constructing the interstate highway system," Jacobson says. “But it is possible, without even having to go to new technologies. We really need to just decide collectively that this is the direction we want to head as a society."
Th researchers two part paper appears in the journal Energy Policy.
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