Green Energy in 20-40 Years?

All the power the world needs could be provided by alternative energy sources within 20-40 years if the political will could be found, according to Stanford researchers. Note that they do not include nuclear energy in their calculations.

Part of their technique is to include ‘externalities’ of hydrocarbon fuels in their cost estimates, such as health costs of pollution.

wind turbines

14 Responses

  1. 20 to 40 years might be true for India or Italy or Ireland or Iran but for a country like the US where the parking lots are so large a person needs to carry a cantine of water to cross them, along with lots of other energy wasteful infrastructure, I think that they are going to have to work very hard to achieve that goal.
    If it can become a national obession like beating the Russians in Hockey once was then maybe they could do it.

    • Americans will have no choice but to either give up their cars for public transportation or replace their cars with battery or hydrogen powered cars when oil prices make gasoline/diesel powered cars too expensive to operate.

  2. The best solution to the fact that the world will need double its current energy needs within 50 years is nanotech solar energy, proposed by the late Dr. Richard Smalley, a pioneer in nanotechnology, the technology of engineering things on a molecular scale.

    Nanotech Key To Future Energy Solutions, Nobelist Says
    :link to

    Nanotechnology and Our Energy Challenge
    :link to

  3. I’m all for it. Together with a healthy dose of (voluntary) family-size and thus human-population-size management (reduction). A free iPod (or something) to any female who agrees to be sterilized (also free)? (Sorry to be sexist, but males cannot have babies.)

    How houses now heated by gas or fuel oil burning will be heated by electricity is a bit of a problem, as is how airplanes will fly without jet fuel. But these are small problems compared to the costs of continuing to flood the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.

    • How about free education and free healthcare. That alone will lower the birth rate. And how about vasectomies and an ipod for all males who will agree to be sterilized.. certainly cheaper and safer than a tubal ligation. But as you are a neanderthal……

  4. Perhaps “the world” can be powered that way. But the world consists of nation-states. Many of them want to make a large portion of energy domestically, even those who do not have reliable wind or sunshine over enough area. Jacobson’s reference to the Apollo moon project reminds me of the political scientist Yonosuke Nagai’s remark that “Americans can go to the moon because the space in between is not inhabited by opponents.”

  5. I just happened to listen to a recent interview, in which it was pointed out that nuclear is not a good choice for carbon reduction. The reason is that it is very, very expensive. The same amount of money, used in other ways, would be much more effective at reducing greenhouse gases.

  6. Congratulations on The BOB’s nomination. Last year, our blog was awarded the Best Blog in Spanish Award, and the truth, the award ceremony is an event that will always remain a happy memory in our lives.
    Congratulations for your good work and good luck !

  7. The key phrase in your post is “if the political will could be found”. It won’t be. My god, just look at the GOP, and then despair.

    And even if more political support for a transition toward renewables existed, I’m highly skeptical we could achieve it in practice. Here are the obstacles:

    1) oil, the world’s best energy source, is becoming expensive, and will soon become scarce as well.

    2) The transition from our current infrastructure to a renewable infrastructure will require massive energy inputs. And the rest of the economy will still require the same energy inputs to run normally. Combined with 1) above, it’s not clear enough fossil fuel energy is available to both power existing economies AND make the transition

    3) The Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) of fossil fuels is very high – anywhere from 5:1 to 50:1. The EROEI of renewables is a source of debate, but it is definitely less than that of fossil fuels, and some researchers have put it at 2:1 or even less (depending on the technology).

    To put that in perspective, to power existing economies which use 9:1 EROEI energy sources with renewables at (let’s assume) 3:1, then you need significantly more generation capacity to provide the same net energy to the external economy.

    4) How will renewables run the transportation system? Oil is easily converted into liquid fuels, which are energy dense. How will windmills do that? If we all drive electric cars, then in addition to powering the existing grid, renewables will have to generate even more power to run our planes and automobiles. That increases the required infrastructure even further.

    5) How will this massive infrastructure project be financed? Look around the world at the health of the economies of many nations, and you wonder where the funds will come from for such a massive investment project. The UK is cutting government spending – the US is probably going to do the same, though not as much. Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Spain are in financial trouble.

    6) The future most likely holds economic contraction (See Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth), which will cause terrible financial problems (exacerbating point #5) as well as making us poorer, which will exacerbate the fighting over how to utilize our declining resources (see the point at the top about political will).

    To sum it all up, it is a fantasy which is nice to think about, but which will never actually come to pass.

    • 1) and 2). I think there is enough fossil fuel left to build the infrastructure for renewables. Investment in energy infrastructure, particularly in solar photovoltaics, pay you back 9 to 1, energy-wise. It’s already happening. Look at the curve of solar installation in California.

      3) Only coal has an 80:1 EROI. The next fossil fuel (imported oil) has has an EROI of 14:1 now.
      The only renewable that is as bad as 2:1 is biodiesel, of course.
      (link to

      The lower EROI of solar photovoltaics, combined with the sprawl of our development because of the use of cars makes me hopeful. Sprawl means adequate room to install lower intensity generation. The electric grid, right now, is perfectly designed to support the flow of low intensity energy from the residential feeders back to industrial users.

      4) Our transportation system will change to accommodate the new energy situation. Liquid fuel will be used by the most efficient or most important users (rail freight, food production, and, sigh, the military). Personal transportation will become electric, as gasoline prices become unbearable. This will be painful.

      5) It will be financed from the bottom up, with your blood and the blood of your children, just like the resource war in Iraq was financed. The squandered money and effort of the first decade of the 21st century are going to be a millstone around our necks, though.

      6) Yep. It’s hard to argue against a contracting economy, if you’re not a BRIC. And I have to agree that our political system doesn’t seem to be up to the task, either. And putting your faith in corporations to foster the general good has gotten us to where we are today.

  8. This is one of the realistic proposals, meaning they base their conclusions on reasonable wind, wave, and solar resources. Notice what is missing: no bogus “biofuels”.

    A number of unrealistic proposals ignore the basic facts about “biofuels”, which cannot cover any meaningful part of our energy consumption and which compete directly with food production. From a pure energy perspective, a car eats for twelve people. These are lobbyists for “biofuel” subsidies, like the infamous ethanol subsidy. The most dishonest of them will make claims such as “(my kind of) biofuel won’t compete with food production”, which is a flat lie. “Biofuels” will come only at the expense of starving humans, and cannot address our energy problem anyway. Any and all plant-growing land should be reserved to feed the world.

    Yes: wind, wave and solar can do the job – provided that we follow the example of the Germans and start investing in them.

  9. The hard reality is, the existing energy infrastructure used in most places on earth can NOT continue for more than a few more years, so regardless whether people want to change or not they will be forced to just to survive.

    Global Peak Oil is absolutely 100% guaranteed to happen. That is, at some point in time, the global demand for oil-based energy will exceed the global production capacity. This has been proved beyond all reasonable doubt by most of the production areas passing peak production and declining. Today, over 75% of all the oil production areas are past peak production and no major oil fields have been found to replace the declining fields. The ONLY thing open to discussion is WHEN Global Peak Oil will happen. a few say it is happening NOW. A majority of “experts” think it will happen by 2020 (the date that most countries on earth, other then the US, are using for their national energy planning). And a few think it will happen later, but only a miniscule number think it will happen after 2030.

    Using the 2020 date means that the US energy infrastructure that was built over a period of 150 years will have to be completely replaced in about NINE years. I suspect that the US will FAIL at this task.

    Then what?

    Basically the US economy will be decimated, with transportation almost completely crippled. Note that with minimal transportation most US food and goods distribution will fail, leaving most of the US without food since over 50% of all Americans live in cities and have no way to produce their own food.

    What could replace oil-based energy?

    For the short term, fission reactors could be used, although the situation in Japan has shown just how dangerous light water reactors are. Fortunately there are safer experimental reactor designs (but none are currently in commercial production). BUT …

    Fission reactors suffer from the same raw materiel constraints as oil-based energy, the earth dose NOT have enough nuclear energy to power the entire earth for more than a few decades.

    The basic reality is there are ONLY THREE “permanent” sources of energy (from a human perspective anyway):

    – broad spectrum energy from the Sun. Most existing forms of energy (oil, hydro, wind, etc.) are derived from solar energy.

    – Internal energy of the earth, mostly in the form of heat.

    – gravitational interaction of planets, suns and other objects, mostly in the form of tides on earth.

    Until these forms of energy are fully harnessed by ALL humans on earth, humans will have a lot of problems after the oil becomes to costly due to lack of supply and high demand.

    Note that a BIG problem area for the US is transportation, although it is solvable by using stored energy in the form of batteries and hydrogen. The hydrogen would need to be produced by “cracking” sea water using electricity provided by one of the three “permanent” energy sources.

  10. Thanks for the post & the link, Prof. Cole. The web is full of sky-pie-tech solutions to the Peak Oil & Climate Change problems, mostly delusional. This looks like a sober analysis of existing tech. But as Zero points out above, the catch is “political will”. Posts like this can help generate that will.

    I agree with Al – “biofuel” is bogus. Call it “Cornohol”; most ears will catch the unpleasant Beavis reference.

    I think Spyguy’s comment includes an intersting pair of “wrongs” which add up to a “right”:
    1. Nuke Fission is NOT a short-term solution, because it takes 10 years to build a nuke plant.
    2. There is (close to) plenty of fissile material lying about, if we include Thorium & other heavy junk elements.
    Net right: Nuke power is not the magic bullet that techno-idealists pretend it to be. It may be part of the medium-term mix – especially since the lobbing power of the corps which will profit makes it politically feasible.

    Peak oil is “merely” an economic problem. Coal & associated Petro-sludge (“tar-sands, etc) is worse. There’s lots of it, it can be cracked into gasoline, and it fuels politically powerful corps – so it’s hard to stop. Digging it is way-bad messy, and burning it is even worse. Beside the disruption of agriculture & aquaculture from CO2 emissions, burning coal puts all kinds of other junk in the air (mercury & other heavy metals, even low-level rad-crap).

    I reject Zeroworker’s pessimism, but I can’t entirely refute it. Yes, there are problems – technical (vehicle power, grids, etc), economic (can “we” redirect enough resources to build a post-carbon infrastructure in time), and political (Repubs like big Corps, so they ARE the problem; Iowa likes Cornohol & W. Va likes Coal, so Dems are useless).

    If we – USA “we” – can cut that gordian political “Not”, then we – Terrans – can solve the other problems. That’s a big IF; let’s get to work.

    Thanks again, Prof. Cole.

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