Fossil fuels are finite, dirty, and dangerous. In 2010, the investment bank HSBC published a white paper that speculated that even under the rosiest scenarios, the world only has 50-year supply of oil left. That’s why oil companies are drilling offshore and in the Arctic—the easily accessible oil is already used up.
Fortunately, we have the technologies right now to begin our transition to an energy system powered by a green energy—one that is powered by renewable energy source like wind, solar, and geothermal. The transition to these solutions, coupled with improved energy efficiency, will create new jobs, decrease our exposure to toxic pollutants like mercury, and help to solve the climate crisis.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report in 2010 that examined 164 different energy scenarios and found that with the right policies in place, renewable energy can supply up to 43% of energy in 2030 and 77% in 2050. Togehter with improved energy efficiency, we would be well on our way to a zero carbon world.
We are already making significant progress, but there is so much work left to do. In the U.S. in 2010, renewable energy accounted for just 10.9% of U.S. domestic primary energy production, but that is an increase of 5.6% over 2009. In the same period, China added 29 gigawatts (GW) of grid-connected renewable capacity, for a total of 252 GW, an increase of 13% compared over the previous year.
To make a world powered by renewable energy, we need the right policies in place to incentivize the use of clean energy. Policies such as renewable energy standards (only 30 states in US have one now), feed-in tariffs, and a true price on carbon will speed up the transition. We also need the corporate sector to help lead by cleaning up their carbon footprints and by championing strong governmental to help move us forward.
Solar: The Power of the Sun
Solar works in multiple ways: Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels convert sunlight directly into electricity; and concentrated solar power (CSP) uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect the solar energy and convert it to heat energy that powers a steam turbine.
Globally, solar PV capacity has increased by a factor of seven in five years. As an example of change look at California, where a mix of policies is making renewable energy the standard. The California utility Southern California Edison requested in June 2010 approval for 20 solar PV projects. The project would generate approximately 567 GWh of energy in all – and would do it for less than the cost of natural gas!
Change is in the Wind
Wind turbines, some of which stand as tall as 300 feet, create electricity by using the wind to turn their blades which power an electric generator. The US Department of Energy estimates that wind alone can power 20 percent of the US grid with 10 years.
China is leading the world in the installation of wind turbines, and at the end of 2010 it had installed an amazing 41.8 GW of wind energy. The US is scaling up its use of wind as well, with project springing up in the MidWest and Texas at record speed. In 2010, the Department of Energy approved an offshore wind project that will power an amazing 1.9 million U.S. homes.
Geothermal power plants naturally heat water and create steam to drive a flash steam plant to make electricity. The steam can be as hot as use 360°F (182°C)! The US is the world leader for installed geothermal electricity capacity and generation, but the country has just scratched the surface of what geothermal can provide. In past two years in the U.S. geothermal capacity has growth more than 3%, and the Department of Energy estimates that geothermal can power the grid with 15,000 MWs of new capacity within the next ten years.
Using Energy More Efficiently
Part of solving the energy puzzle is using the energy we already use more efficiently. Insulation, painting our roofs white, passive solar design, and compact fluorescent lights, which use two-thirds less energy and may last 6 to 10 times longer than incandescent lights, are just a few examples of technolgies that can save energy. In fact, the International Energy Agency has said that improved energy efficiency in buildings, industrial processes and transportation could reduce the world's energy needs by one third by 2050, putting us far down the path to a saving the climate.