The great energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy is under way. As fossil fuel prices rise, as oil insecurity deepens, and as concerns about pollution and climate instability cast a shadow over the future of coal, a new world energy economy is emerging. The old energy economy, fueled by oil, coal, and natural gas, is being replaced with an economy powered by wind, solar, and geothermal energy.
The Earth’s renewable energy resources are vast and available to be tapped through visionary initiatives. Our civilization needs to embrace renewable energy on a scale and at a pace we’ve never seen before.
We inherited our current fossil fuel-based world energy economy from another era. The 19th century was the century of coal, and oil took the lead during the 20th century. Today, global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2)—the principal climate-altering greenhouse gas—come largely from burning coal, oil, and natural gas. Coal, mainly used for electricity generation, accounts for 44% of global fossil-fuel CO2 emissions. Oil, used primarily for transportation, accounts for 36%. Natural gas, used for electricity and heating, accounts for the remaining 20%. It is time to design a carbon- and pollution-free energy economy for the 21st century.
Some trends are already moving in the right direction. The burning of coal, for example, is declining in many countries. In the United States (the #2 coal consumer after China) coal use dropped 14% from 2007 to 2011 as dozens of coal plants were closed. This trend is expected to continue, due in part to widespread opposition to coal now being organized by the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.
Oil is used to produce just 5% of the world’s electricity generation and is becoming ever more costly. Because oil is used mainly for transport, we can phase it out by electrifying the transport system. Plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars can run largely on clean electricity. Wind-generated electricity to operate cars could cost the equivalent of 80-cent-per gallon gasoline.
As oil reserves are being depleted, the world has been turning its attention to plant-based energy sources. Their potential use is limited, though, because plants typically convert less than 1% of solar energy into biomass.
Crops can be used to produce automotive fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel. Investments in U.S. corn-based ethanol distilleries became hugely profitable when oil prices jumped above $60 a barrel following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The investment frenzy that followed was also fueled by government mandates and subsidies. In 2011, the world produced 23 billion gallons of fuel ethanol and nearly 6 billion gallons of biodiesel.
But the more research that’s done on liquid biofuels, the less attractive they become. Every acre planted in corn for ethanol means pressure for another acre to be cleared elsewhere for crop production. Clearing land in the tropics for biofuel crops can increase greenhouse gas emissions instead of reducing them. Energy crops cannot compete with land-efficient wind power.
The scientific community is challenging the natural gas industry’s claim that its product is fairly climate-benign. Natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking (a much-touted key to expanding production) is even more climate-disruptive than coal because of methane gas leakage. (Methane is a potent contributor to climate change.)
The last half of the twentieth century brought us nuclear power, once widely touted as the electricity source of the future. Although nuclear reactors supply 13% of the world’s electricity, nuclear power’s limited role in our future has been clear for some time. It is simply too expensive.
Countries around the world are richly endowed with renewable energy, in some cases enough to easily double their current electrical generating capacities. A revamped clean energy economy will harness more energy from the wind and sun, and from within the Earth itself. Climate-disrupting fossil fuels will fade into the past as countries turn to clean, climate-stabilizing, non-depletable sources of energy. The growth in the use of solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity can only be described as explosive, expanding by 74% in 2011. Early photovoltaic (PV) installations were all small-scale—mostly on residential rooftops. That’s changing as more utility-scale PV projects are being launched. The United States, for example, has under construction and development more than 100 utility scale projects. Solar-generated electricity is particularly attractive in desert regions such as the U.S. Southwest because peak generation meshes nicely with peak air conditioning use.
The world’s current 70,000 megawatts of photovoltaic installations can, when operating at peak power, match the output of 70 nuclear power plants. With PV installations climbing and with costs continuing to fall, cumulative PV generating capacity could surpass 1 million megawatts in 2020. (Current world electricity generating capacity from all sources is 5 million megawatts.) Installing solar panels for individual homes in the villages of developing countries is now often cheaper than it is to supply them with electricity by building a central power plant and a grid.
The heat that comes from within the Earth—geothermal energy—can be used for heating or converted into steam to generate electricity. Many countries have enough harnessable geothermal energy to satisfy all of their electricity needs. Despite this abundance, the geothermal energy capacity installed as of 2012 is only enough to provide electricity for some 10 million homes worldwide.
Roughly half of the world’s 11,000 megawatts of installed geothermal generating capacity is concentrated in the United States and the Philippines. Altogether, 24 countries now convert geothermal energy into electricity. The United States, with 130 confirmed geothermal plants under construction or in development, will be bringing at least 1,000 megawatts of generating capacity online in the near term. Worldwide, this accelerating pace could yield 200,000 megawatts of generating capacity by 2020.
Each alternative energy source—whether solar, geothermal, or wind—has a major role to play, but it is wind that is on its way to becoming the foundation of the new energy economy.
In the race to transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy and avoid runaway climate change, wind has opened a wide lead on both solar and geothermal energy. Solar panels, with a capacity totaling 70,000 megawatts, and geothermal power plants, with a capacity of some 11,000 megawatts, are generating electricity around the world. The total capacity for the world’s wind farms, now generating power in about 80 countries, is near 240,000 megawatts. China and the United States are in the lead.
Over the past decade, world wind electric generating capacity grew at nearly 30% per year, its increase driven by its many attractive features and by public policies supporting its expansion. Wind is abundant, carbon-free and nondepletable. It uses no water, no fuel, and little land. Wind is also locally available, scales up easily, and can be brought online quickly. No other energy source can match this combination of features.
One reason wind power is so popular is that it has a small footprint. Although a wind farm can cover many square miles, turbines occupy only 1% of that area. Compared with other renewable sources of energy, wind energy yield per acre is off the charts. For example, a farmer in northern Iowa could plant an acre in corn that yields enough grain to produce roughly $1,000 worth of fuel-grade ethanol per year, or he could use that same acre to site a turbine producing $300,000 worth of electricity each year.
Because turbines take up only 1% of the land covered by a wind farm, ranchers and farmers can, in effect, double-crop their land, simultaneously harvesting electricity while producing cattle, wheat or corn. With no investment on their part, farmers and ranchers can receive $3,000 to $10,000 a year in royalties for each wind turbine on their land. For thousands of ranchers on the U.S. Great Plains, wind royalties will one day dwarf their earnings from cattle sales.
Wind is also abundant. In the United States, three wind-rich states—North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas—have enough harnessable wind energy to easily satisfy national electricity needs. Another attraction of wind energy is that it is not depletable. The amount of wind energy used today has no effect on the amount available tomorrow.
Unlike coal, gas, and nuclear power plants, wind farms do not require water for cooling. As wind backs out coal and natural gas in power generation, water will be freed up for irrigation and other needs.
Perhaps wind’s strongest attraction is that there is no fuel cost. After the wind farm is completed, the electricity flows with no monthly fuel bill. And while it may take a decade to build a nuclear power plant, the construction time for the typical wind farm is one year.
Future wind complexes in the Great Plains, in the North Sea, off the coast of China or the eastern coast of the United States may have generating capacity measured in the tens of thousands of megawatts. Planning and investment in wind projects is occurring on a scale not previously seen in the traditional energy sector.
One of the obvious downsides of wind is its variability. But as wind farms multiply, this becomes less of an issue. Because no two farms have identical wind profiles, each farm added to a grid reduces variability. A Stanford University research team has pointed out that with thousands of wind farms and a national grid in a country such as the United States, wind becomes a remarkably stable source of electricity.
In more densely populated areas, there is often local opposition to wind power— the NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) response. But in the vast ranching and farming regions of the United States, wind is immensely popular for economic reasons. For ranchers in the Great Plains, farmers in the Midwest or dairy farmers in upstate New York, there is a PIMBY (“put it in my backyard”) response.
Farmers and ranchers welcome the additional income from having wind turbines on their land. Rural communities compete for wind farm investments and the additional tax revenue to support their schools and roads.
One of the keys to developing wind resources is building the transmission lines to link wind-rich regions with population centers. Perhaps the most exciting grid project under consideration is the ‘Tres Amigas’ electricity hub, a grid interconnection center to be built in eastern New Mexico. It will link the three U.S. electricity grids—the Eastern, Western, and Texas grids. ‘Tres Amigas’ is a landmark in the evolution of the new energy economy. With high-voltage lines linking the three grids where they are close to each other, electricity can be moved from one part of the United States to another as conditions warrant. By matching surpluses with deficits over a broader area, electricity wastage and consumer rates can both be reduced. Other long distance transmission lines are under construction or in the planning stages.
We know that rapid growth in wind generation is possible. U.S. wind generating capacity expanded by 45% in 2007 and 50% in 2008. If we expanded world wind generation during this decade at 40% per year, the 238,000 megawatts of generating capacity at the end of 2011 would expand to nearly 5 million megawatts in 2020. Combined with an ambitious solar and geothermal expansion, along with new hydro projects in the pipeline, this would total 7.5 million megawatts of renewable generating capacity, enabling us to back out all of the coal and oil and most of the natural gas now used to generate electricity.
In addition to the shift to renewable sources of energy, there are two other critical components of this climate stabilization plan: rapidly increasing the energy efficiency of industry, appliances, and lighting, and restructuring the transportation sector, electrifying it as much as possible while ramping up public transit, biking and walking. (With this latter component, we would be able to back out much of the oil used for transportation.)
This energy restructuring would require roughly 300,000 wind turbines per year over the next decade. Can we produce those? For sure. Keep in mind that the world today is producing some 70 million cars, trucks, and buses each year. Many of the wind turbines needed to back out fossil fuels in electricity generation worldwide could be produced in currently idled automobile assembly plants in the United States alone. The plants would, of course, need to be modified to shift from automobiles to wind turbines, but it is entirely doable. In World War II, Chrysler went from making cars to tanks in a matter of months. If we could do that then, we and the rest of the world can certainly build the 300,000 wind turbines per year we now need to build the new energy economy and stabilize the climate.
For the first time since the Industrial Revolution began, we have an opportunity to invest in alternative sources of energy that can last as long as the Earth itself. The choice is ours. We can stay with business as usual, or we can move the world onto a path of sustained progress. The choice will be made by our generation, but it will affect life on Earth for all generations to come.
The Washington Post has called Lester R. Brown “one of the world’s most influential thinkers.” He started his career as a farmer, growing tomatoes in New Jersey with his brother. After earning a degree in Agricultural Science from Rutgers University, he spent six months in rural India, an experience that changed his life and career. Brown founded the WorldWatch Institute and then the Earth Policy Institute, where he now serves as President. The purpose of the Earth Policy Institute is to provide a vision of an environmentally sustainable economy, a roadmap of how to get from here to there—as well as an ongoing assessment of progress. Brown has authored many books. His most recent is Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. It is available online at www.earth-policy.org/books/fpep and at booksellers. Supporting data, endnotes, and additional resources are available for free downloading.