By Dennis Posadas
The cover story in the November issue of Scientific American contends that renewable energy can already theoretically power 100% of energy needs, and totally replace carbon emitting sources by 2030. The article authors, Stanford University Professor Mark Jacobson and University of California Davis researcher Mark Delucchi, charted a roadmap to shift the power and transport sectors to renewable energy by 2030. Jacobson, who heads Stanford's Energy Program, and Delucchi say this is possible by combining wind, concentrated solar, geothermal, tidal, solar photovoltaic, wave and hydropower and linking them together in an intelligent manner, using information available from meteorological sources for example,. Both authors base their arguments on a 2008 paper published in the Journal of Energy and Environmental Science, arguing that shifting vehicles from liquid fuels to electricity and cutting energy losses would make possible a global energy demand reduction of 30%.
Detractors argue that initial capital costs for some renewable sources are still expensive, and that some sources of renewable energy like wind and solar, are intermittent. The wind doesn't always blow when you want it to and the sun doesn't always shine, in a particular location, they argue.
However, these issues are slowly being solved both financially and technically. Cost considerations are now being offset by financing mechanisms like the Carbon Development Mechanism (a.k.a. "carbon credits") and incentives like the feed-in-tariff popularized in Europe and in Asian laws like the Philippines Renewable Energy Act of 2008, which seeks to grow renewable energy from 1% in 2008 to 10% by 2018.
Technical intermittence issues are also surmountable with proper planning and coordination with weather forecasting agencies. Averaged over a large area and connected together through the grid, there is always a place where the wind and sun are available at any given moment. Storage mechanisms such as batteries, elevated lakes, and old salt caverns (through compressed air storage) can store excess energy for use when needed. Most intermittent renewable energy generators simply connect these power sources to the electric grid, and act as a source when available. Issues with connecting increasingly intermittent generating sources to the grid is increasingly being researched, along with the use of smart appliances with built in chips that can adjust their demand depending on the power situation at a given moment.
But we all know that what is theoretically possible, even in the face of scientific argument, is not always what happens. Take the Beta versus VHS, or even the Windows versus Linux argument, there will always be advocates and detractors of a particular technology.
Notwithstanding the fact that climate change skeptics still abound, on the question of large-scale adoption of renewable energy itself, the main barriers now are cost and practical considerations, whether these be technical or business related. To speak of 100% renewable energy is still to say the least, quite radical at this time, even among technologists. It is somewhat akin to John F. Kennedy's challenge in the early sixties to the American scientific community, to send a man to the moon before the end of that decade. Theoretically possible yes. Practical? Maybe not for a while but if we make it a goal, it can be. We know where Kennedy's gauntlet took us, and sometimes it simply takes the right challenge to go into a particular direction.
Don't get me wrong. Aiming for a 100% renewable energy future will be fraught with challenges, and will take a lot of money, time, energy, and will have many failures along the way. The electric grid itself has to evolve, from generation to transmission, to distribution, to even the appliances to become smart so that all become intelligent and talk to each other just like the Internet, before we can even consider this as a practical possibility.
But let us begin.
Dennis Posadas is the Editor of Cleantech Asia Online, and the author of Jump Start: A Technopreneurship Fable (Singapore: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009). He is currently working on a new business fable on clean energy and climate change called Green Thinking.