Imagine a world fueled wholly by renewable energy. Rooftops lined with solar panels, ridges and coastlines dotted with turbines, rivers tamed by massive dams. A world free of fossil fuels and their polluting emissions. A sleeker, quieter, greener world.
For many of my progressive friends, such a vision represents the future. Eventually, the argument goes, the U.S. government will ‘wake up’ and start subsidizing Green Energy a la Germany and Spain, putting tens of thousands to work rebuilding our electrical infrastructure, and evading climate change’s nastier aspects.
A wonderful vision, I’ll agree.
A look at some current realities, however, suggests a future not so rosy.
At present, only 7 percent of total American energy consumption is powered by renewables. (Biomass: 4.5%; hydro: 3.26%; wind: 1.2%; solar .16%.) Even in vanguard nations like Spain and Germany, fossil fuels still supply the lion’s share of energy needs, at 75 and 76% respectively. Massive government-subsidies notwithstanding, only 7.5 percent of global demand is satisfied by renewables. To say we have our work cut out is an understatement.
Consider wind power. In the US today, some 45,000 turbines generate 60,000 megawatts. Wind apologists claim the US possesses the capacity for 60 quads, or 17,584,264,999.98 megawatts. Yet as was pointed out in Richard Heinberg’s, The Party’s Over, to produce even “…18 quads of wind power in the US by 2030 would require the installation of something like half a million state-of-the-art turbines, or roughly 20,000 per year starting now.” (Now being 2003).
Solar offers similar challenges. Though USDE studies estimates a total 350 quads of US solar potential, (total consumption being 100 quads), the cost would be an astronomical six trillion dollars, and would require an area roughly the size of Maryland.
Hydropower is even more daunting. Assuming a target of 50% of consumption, we would need to build an additional 38,333 new dams—and that’s on top of the billions we’d need to spend repairing the existing 2,300.
Given the current political climate, does any of this seem likely?
Not with a Congress who would slash crucial social programs while pumping billions into unconstitutional domestic spy programs.
Even if some cataclysmic event forced the government’s hand—a sudden spike in sea level, say—there is still the problem of storage.
Unlike fossil fuels whose tangibility permits energy-conversion pretty much anytime, anywhere, renewables are dependent on ever-changing environmental outputs. If the wind ain’t blowing or the sun ain’t shining, the juice ain’t flowing. In a perfect world, you’d capture and store the excess generated during wind events and long summer days, releasing it whenever supply failed to meet demand. Unfortunately, such technology does not yet exist—at least not on an efficient and cost-effective scale.
Currently, there are two main ways of storing renewable-generated power at grid-scale: pumped hydroelectricity and compressed air energy storage (CAES). Pumped hydroelectricity works by pumping water uphill into large reservoirs during times of high supply, and releasing it when supply is low. The rushing water turns a turbine, creating electricity. While effective, this approach is expensive and environmentally destructive. It’s also only feasible in mountainous regions, leaving the Midwest and much of the East S.O.L.
The other method, CAES, works similarly. Excess generation is used to force hot air into underground vaults where it is stored until needed. When released, the air is fed through a series of electricity-generating turbines. However, much of the heat is lost during storage, leaving behind air that is cooler, less expansive. New designs to capture and store the heat before it is absorbed are still on the drawing board.
Other methods—lithium batteries, vehicle grid storage, ultracapacitors, hydrogen—show promise but are either underdeveloped, too expensive, impractical, or all three.
The unfortunate truth is after decades of R&D we still don’t have a workable, grid-scale storage solution.
So okay, you say, we’re dragging our feet a bit. But that’s what human-beings always do. And then someone comes along at the last second and invents some brilliant new device, and everything’s fine.
A technological breakthrough is certainly a possibility, but it would have to be implemented using—you guessed it—fossil fuels. Fossil fuels so sparse and precious as to make their use for anything other than the most immediately profitable activities unthinkable.
If the federal government had acted in the Seventies and Eighties, before the rise of China and India, it might have been possible. But not now. Not with 6 trillion in debt. Not with banks sitting on billions in reserves.
The future of renewable power will be one that is sporadic and piece-meal. A community here, a city there. A cluster of cabins on a Montana ranch with an array of aging solar panels. Military and governmental installations. A wealthy and privilege few.
For the rest of us, it will be very much as it is now: getting by with less.
Jeremy Tucker blogs at deadnationwalking and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org He is the creator/star of two short satirical films: FU Ocean and The 20 Minute Weightlifting Freakout with Boz Blackknuckle. He lives in Newtown, Pennsylvania.