100% Renewables by 2030: Ambitious Plan or Pipe Dream?


Photo: Creative Commons
3.8 Million Wind Turbines, 90,000 Solar Farms, $100 Trillion in Investments
A recent study by Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, and Mark Delucchi, a research scientist at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, claims that the world could get to 100% renewables by 2030. Considering the immensity of the scale the world's power grids, nobody can't fault these two for lack of vision. But it is realistic, or just something nice to dream about, but without much chances of actually happening?

Photo: Creative Commons

You can read the whole thing here, but some highlights:

The authors' plan calls for 3.8 million large wind turbines, 90,000 solar plants, and numerous geothermal, tidal and rooftop photovoltaic installations worldwide. [...]

the overall construction cost for a WWS system might be on the order of $100 trillion worldwide, over 20 years, not including transmission.

That last past, "not including transmission", is crucial. Renewables are not as concentrated as fossil fuels, and the best sources are often located in scarcely populated areas. This means that transmission costs are going to be substantial, in some cases probably as high as the costs of the actual wind farms/solar farms/etc.

We must also take into consideration the planning fallacy, which can lead to delays and cost overruns.

But on the bright side, the authors remind us of massive changes that happened quickly in the past: "During World War II, the U.S. retooled automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956 the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society."

But still, I have big doubts that this will happen in the next 20 years. How much has happened in the past 20? A lot to be sure (new technologies developed, costs brought down, capital invested, etc), but not enough to make a big difference to the power grid of most countries. I certainly hope that things will keep accelerating and that we'll see an exponential growth in clean energy production, but it will probably take more than 20 years.

In fact, one of the reasons why it might take a while is because when it comes to technologies that aren't mature yet, you can get a lot more bang for your buck by waiting (ie. you buy more wind turbines with X amount of cash in ten years than right now). That's a problem, because the atmosphere doesn't care about our budgeting; greenhouse gases are accumulating every day we keep burning fossil fuels...

But in the meantime, the important thing is to get our priorities straight. Even if we don't get to 100% renewables any time soon, we should start by getting rid of the most carbon-intensive sources of power (coal, I'm looking in your direction) and grab the low-hanging fruits, like expansion of hydro power using already existing dams and efficiency improvements (better insulation of buildings, more efficient HVACs, etc).

Via Scientific American, NYT
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