100% renewable energy by 2030?

Paul Raven @ 21-01-2011

“Yeah, right,” I hear you say… and that’s pretty much what I thought as well. But a new study says that, on paper at least, an all-renewable energy infrastructure could be built within just two decades of today… and built is the operative word:

Achieving 100 percent renewable energy would mean the building of about four million 5 MW wind turbines, 1.7 billion 3 kW roof-mounted solar photovoltaic systems, and around 90,000 300 MW solar power plants.


Delucchi and colleague Mark Jacobson left all fossil fuel sources of energy out of their calculations and concentrated only on wind, solar, waves and geothermal sources. Fossil fuels currently provide over 80 percent of the world’s energy supply. They also left out biomass, currently the most widely used renewable energy source, because of concerns about pollution and land-use issues. Their calculations also left out nuclear power generation, which currently supplies around six percent of the world’s electricity.

To make their vision possible, a great deal of building would need to occur. The wind turbines needed, for example, are two to three times the capacity of most of today’s wind turbines, but 5 MW offshore turbines were built in Germany in 2006, and China built its first in 2010. The solar power plants needed would be a mix of photovoltaic panel plants and concentrated solar plants that concentrate solar energy to boil water to drive generators. At present only a few dozen such utility-scale solar plants exist. Energy would also be obtained from photovoltaic panels mounted on most homes and buildings.

Of course, the technological plausibility of an all-renewable energy economy has always been theoretically understood. So why does it seem so unbelieveable?

The pair say all the major resources needed are available, with the only material bottleneck being supplies of rare earth materials such as neodymium, which is often used in the manufacture of magnets. This bottleneck could be overcome if mining were increased by a factor of five and if recycling were introduced, or if technologies avoiding rare earth were developed, but the political bottlenecks may be insurmountable.

Ah, yes – the p-word. Might’ve guessed that’d crop up in there somewhere. The saddest thing of all is the lost opportunities for political solutions that pushing for even a quarter of this vision would create: massive building programs would create loads of jobs and envigorate flagging economies, at the same time as removing major sources of atmospheric pollution and the incentive to go to war over increasingly scarce fossil fuel resources. Pretty much everyone would stand to benefit… except that tiny percentage of people currently profiting from the status quo, of course.

But were I to suggest that they were involved in spending millions of dollars on obfuscatory political chicanery and misiniformation campaigns to prevent the status quo from shifting, why, I’d be some sort of rabid conspiracy theorist! After all, everyone knows the real conspiracy is being masterminded by neoMarxist extremists masquerading as climate scientists, right? Right?

[ I really shouldn’t need to point out that the last few sentences there are meant to be read with a tone of extreme sarcasm, but – what with this being the internet – consider this a disclaimer to that effect. And to pre-empt the other obvious objection, I strongly suspect the 100%-by-2030 projection is ludicrously optimistic, even were global agreement and cooperation toward that aim within grasp; however, the underlying point is that the technology exists right now, and we’re not using it to even a fraction of its potential. ]

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5 Responses to “100% renewable energy by 2030?”

  1. Robert Koslover says:

    The technology certainly “exists” to implement solar and wind energy, but the economics do not make sense (yet). Once these technologies become cost-effective, their adoption may possibly be slowed (or accelerated) due to politics, likely depending on who stands to get elected or to make or lose money, of course. However, and this bears repeating, solar and wind energy systems are NOT presently cost-effective in comparison to other energy sources, regardless of the enthusiasm of pro- or anti- political forces. Yes, the cost effectiveness of these technologies is improving (thank goodness), but they simply are not there yet. But please, feel free to encourage and support the many scientists and engineers now working on more efficient, lower-cost, and more-durable solar cells, wind-driven generators, wave power generators (full disclosure: I have a patent on an enabling technology for wave power), compact/efficient power converters, lower-cost energy storage (e.g., ultra-capacitors), and more. There is genuine hope that cost-effectiveness of renewable energy sources (e.g., solar, wind, wave power, etc) can be achieved. Patience. Thank you!

  2. Wintermute says:

    Solar is already cost effective in some areas such as Hawaii, where most things are imported. Large scale utility solar power is already well under transition there.

    Also, if the sort of government croneyism that gives billions a year to subsidize big oil and other dirty energy to solar and wind, it would be WAY competitive. The playing field isn’t level, and that’s one of the things still holding alternative energy back

  3. gmoke says:

    Other green future studies:

    Carbon-Free, Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy by Dr. Arjun Mahkijani of Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (www.ieer.org, free download available).

    Greenpeace Int’l just published a new study, focused on Europe but relevant here as well: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publications/climate/2011/battle%20of%20the%20grids.pdf

    Synapse Energy Economics published a study in May 2010, available here: http://www.nirs.org/alternatives/beyondbausynapse51110.pdf

    German Aerospace Center did a study for Greenpeace in 2009, available here: http://www.nirs.org/alternatives/energyrevolution2009.pdf

    A plan from Arup which looks at planning for an ecological future of 9 billion plus living in cities:

  4. Your Obedient Serpent says:

    I hate to be the wet blanket at this party, Paul, but I have to object to the casual dismissal of “a five-fold increase in mining” as a “political bottleneck”. I do understand that the article is referring specifically to mining for rare-earth elements, but unless new low-impact mining methods become the norm, that’s going to have substantial environmental impacts of its own, even if all petroleum exploitation and uranium mining ceases entirely.

  5. AVE_fan says:

    Vast quantities of energy exist in the troposphere as CAPE (Convective Available Potential Energy) http://tornadochaser.net/capeclass.html

    A technology to harvest this energy is called the Atmospheric Vortex Engine

    It would be far more economic to build these (~200 MW) than it would be to build millions of wind turbines. CAPE is more constant in the atmosphere than is wind KE–when not present it can be added using warm water which is stored underground at low-temperature or from any source of low-grade heat, such as industry, geothermal, or even from Urban Heat Islands.