Wind Solar Water Alone Could Power the World by 2030 New Study Claims

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A new study recently published in the journal Energy Policy is sure to create controversy and provoke discussion. It proposes that the world can provide for all of its energy needs, including electric, transportation, heating/cooling energy needs using only wind, water, and solar power by 2030.

by Chris de Morsella, Green Economy Post Follow Chris on Twitter @greeneconpost

Motivated by and seeking to address the major issues of climate change, pollution, and energy insecurity a new study just published in the journal Energy Policy states that the world can provide for all of its energy needs, including electric power, transportation, heating/cooling, etc using only wind, water, and solar (WWS) energy by the year 2030. The study estimates the world could be entirely powered by electricity and electrolytic hydrogen (mostly for transportation fuel) using approximately 4 million 5MW wind turbines; fifty thousand 300MW concentrated solar thermal plants; forty thousand 300 MW solar PV plants; 1.7 billion 3 kW rooftop PV systems, five thousand 100 MW geothermal power plants; 270 new 1.3 GW hydro plants as well as some additional wave & tidal energy.

Mark Delucchi, a research scientist at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis and colleague Mark Jacobson, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Stanford and the authors of this study purposely left all fossil fuel sources of energy out of their calculations and concentrated only on wind, solar, waves and geothermal sources. In a decision sure to consternate supporters of biofuel and biomass energy the two authors decided to not to incorporate biofuels as an energy source in their study, because of concerns about pollution and land-use issues.

Because climate change, air pollution, and energy insecurity are current and growing problems, and because it takes several decades for new technologies to become fully adopted, the authors chose to consider only those energy supply options that have been demonstrated (at least in pilot projects) and that can be scaled up as part of a global energy system without further major technology development. For this reason more exotic possible future energy supplies were not considered.

It should be noted that the authors did look at nuclear energy, including so called Gen IV fast neutron breeder reactor types and the less well known thorium based broad spectrum neutron breeder systems. These were discarded based on a combination of environmental and proliferation concerns as well because of concerns about the very long lead times required by nuclear power installations and in order to fully research & develop what are currently just ideas on paper (i.e. the Gen IV reactor designs and the Thorium based fuel cycle).

According to this study the wind, water and solar energy infrastructure reduces world power demand by some 30%, primarily due to the efficiency of electricity compared with internal combustion and requires only a half of one percent more of the world’s land for footprint and spacing, respectively. They suggest producing all new energy with WWS by 2030 and replacing the pre-existing legacy fossil energy plants by 2050. The greatest barriers to the plan are social and political, not technological or economic and the energy cost in a WWS world should be similar to that today, again according to the analysis that was done in this study.

Jacobson said a major challenge would be in achieving the interconnection of variable energy supplies such as wind and solar in a smart manner that enables the different renewable sources to work together in order to maintain a consistent match of supply with demand. This is the driving motive for the inclusion of more consistent and predictable renewable sources such as wave, tidal and geothermal power that though supplying a relatively small portion of the total energy plays a vital role by providing critical base load capacity.

The study analyses the current and projected needs, breaking them out by type – e.g. electric power, transportation, heating & cooling etc. – and also regionally. It then analyses renewable energy resource availability for the various energy types studies: including wind, water, solar, geothermal, wave, tidal and so forth. For these sources it looks at the estimated total power worldwide, the power in high energy locations (i.e. with better margins) the amounts in only those locations that are likely to be developed and finally that which is currently being delivered.

It then analyses the number of plants of each type that would be needed for what they believe will be the optimal mix of power sources; what the land footprint and land spacing needs are for each of these power sources; what each of their percentage contribution is expected to be and the numbers of plants needed both globally and for the US – again for each power type.

The authors look at the resource requirements needed in order to produce and deploy these energy harvesting systems and conclude that by being highly recycling for the most part there are no show stoppers. They do mention that the most problematic materials may be rare earth elements (REEs) like neodymium (Nd), which is used in constructing the permanent magnets used in modern wind turbines, noting that the annual world production of Nd therefore would have to increase by a factor of more than five to accommodate the demand for Nd for production of PMs for wind-turbine generators for their global WWS scenario. The global reserves of Nd could support such a build out; however this rare earth element would need to be recycled in order for it to be sustainable over the longer term. The are major environmental and political obstacles to ramping up REE supplies so they consider wind turbine designs that do not rely on Nd for permanent magnets.

The study also examines the issues of lithium supply used in advanced batteries and of platinum, which is important for most fuel cell designs. In both case it concludes that a combination of available reserves, recycling and alternate technologies that do not rely on them are sufficient in order to realize the goals envisioned by this study.

I can almost hear the howls of protest and derision that will inevitably be raised by proponents of an ever increasing reliance on coal, by the pro nuclear crowd and by biomass and biofuel proponents. Some of it will no doubt be justified, but a lot of it will not amount to much more than a loud rhetorical noise making. I just finished reading the entire study – it is a long and dense read – and I was impressed by the quality of the scholarship in it. While I do not necessarily agree with all the conclusions drawn or premises made by the two authors I respect the body of their work. It is an important study and will likely be widely quoted and widely disparaged by some (many of whom will have never actually read the study).

© 2011, Chris de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.


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Author: Chris de Morsella (146 Articles)

After a decade performing as a lead guitarist for rock bands, Chris de Morsella decided to return to the career his uncle mentored him in as a youth....Software Engineering. Since that time he has thrown himself into his work. He has designed a compound document publishing architecture for regulatory submissions capable of handling very large multi-document FDA regulatory drug approval submissions, for Liquent, a division of Thompson Publishing. At the Associated Press, Chris worked with senior editors at facilities around the world, to develop a solution for replacing existing editorial systems with an integrated international content management solution. He lead the design effort at Microsoft for a help system for mobile devices designed to provide contextual help for users. Chris also helped to develop the web assisted installer for LifeCam2.0, the software for Microsoft’s web cam and developed late breaking features for the product He also served with the Rhapsody client team to redesign and build a major new release of Real Networks Rhapsody client product. His most recent assignment has been Working with the Outlook Mobile Time Management team for the next release of Outlook Mobile for the SmartPhone. Chris' interests are in green building and architecture, smart grid, the cloud, geo-thermal energy, solar energy, smart growth, organic farming and permaculture. Follow Chris on Twitter.

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  • John Whitney AIA

    Great article. I am contacting the authors to get a copy of the report.

    One note from this posting indicates that the title of this posting might be a little off:

    “They suggest producing all new energy with WWS by 2030 and replacing the pre-existing legacy fossil energy plants by 2050.”

    If this is correct, then the authors are proposing that by 2030 all new power can be by wind/solar/water, not all power (any existing fossil/ biomass/ nuclear plants in operation now and developed before 2030 would still be operating….a big chunk of our generating capacity!). If this is so, the authors are indicating that by 2030 we will be ready to stop building new fossil/ nuclear/ biomass plants and will be ready to start phasing them out. Final phase out would occur over 20 years, completing by 2050.

    Sound about right?

    Still an absolutely remarkable prediction/ proposal.

  • Chris de Morsella

    Making projections that far into the future is always a hazardous proposition so I would take this report as a snapshot view of what the authors believe is possible given where we are today. They do a pretty impressive job of supporting this view with data and a well argued analysis. Including a pretty in depth analysis of the various nuclear alternatives and why for each one of these there remain large problems — such as high level waste issues — that (in the view of the authors of this report — a view I happen to largely agree with) disqualify nuclear power as a realizable solution to meeting our future energy requirements.

    I am also not sure that I agree with their decision to completely exclude all biomass and biofuel energy from consideration — my opinion is that especially for certain niches such as high grade liquid fuels that biofuel has an important role to play.

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  • Bernard Ferret

    Nuclear is still a great way to go. Look at the French nuclear success story! 78% of France’s electricity needs are generated by 58 nuclear plants. Fossil fuels account for about 20% and hydro for another 20%. Yes, that’s more than 100% and that’s why France is the world’s largest exporter of electricity (mainly to the UK, Italy, Belgium and Germany).
    You’re going to ask about waste, which is still an issue, but the French have worked hard on that: 20% of the nuclear fuel comes from recycled materials; most of the waste is reprocessed and only 3% of the original materials end up as high level waste.