Pathways to 100 Percent Renewable Energy

Windmills over cornOriginally published in Renewable Energy World on April 30th, 2013.  © Copyright 2013 by John J. Berger
Image via MorgueFile

Reaching the goal of getting 100 percent of the world’s energy from renewable resources is technically and economically feasible today. The challenges lie in the realms of public policy and political will, as well as in finance, market development, and business development.

That was the message delivered by numerous distinguished energy experts in San Francisco on April 16th at Pathways to 100 Percent Renewable Energy, the first international conference specifically focused on accelerating the transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

Citing a number of recent authoritative energy studies, Dr. Dave Renne, President of the International Solar Energy Society said all the studies agree that there are no technical barriers to getting 100 percent of our energy from renewable resources. Their technical potential, he said, “far exceeds even our wildest future (demand) projections.”

Some renewable technologies in themselves are sufficient to supply 100 percent of the world’s energy demand by themselves, though of course this would not be an optimal global energy solution. Professor Alexa Lutzenberger from the University of Leuphana, Germany noted that the world could meet 100 percent of its energy needs just from biomass fuels and biogas.

This versatile fuel can be used to produce power, or power and heat in a combined heat and power plant. It can also be used to produce biodiesel or other fuels, such as biomethane and bioethanol. When cleaned, biogas can utilize the world’s vast natural gas pipeline infrastructure.

Germany now has some 8,000 mostly small agricultural biogas plants which afford farmers the opportunity to become energy independent and enjoy relatively stable, reasonably priced energy.

100 Percent Renewables Possible for the Planet

Marc Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering discussed his landmark 2009 feasibility study for completely powering the planet with “wind, water, and solar (WWS).”

Jacobson said that 2.5-3 million people die prematurely from fossil fuel air pollution worldwide each year and that cumulativly, 100 million people have perished from air pollution over the past 100 years.

Referring to climate change, growing global population, rising energy demand, and air pollution, Jacobson said, “These are drastic problems, and they require drastic solutions.”

He found that by producing 100 percent of the planet’s energy from a mix of wind, concentrating solar, geothermal, tidal power, photovoltaics, wave power, and hydroelectricity, air pollution deaths would be eliminated along with the emission of climate-disturbing greenhouse gases generated from fossil fuels.

Global energy use would also decline sharply. Just by replacing the fuels in the global energy mix with electricity, Jacobson found that total energy demand would decline 32 percent by 2030, even without accounting for energy efficiency measures that would also be adopted.

In the U.S., the study found that a similar shift to electricity and electrolytic hydrogen would cut primary energy demand by 37 percent, also before other efficiency measures. The switch would reduce California’s energy demand by 44 percent, largely as a result of converting the transportation sector to more efficient electric propulsion.

Jacobson did not recommend nuclear power, coal with carbon capture, natural gas, or biofuels that involve combustion and may release air pollutants and carbon dioxide.

Under the plan’s assumptions, electricity costs would fall compared with fossil fuel power and more new jobs would be created than lost in the energy transition. Global energy security and price stability would both be vastly enhanced and the renewable facilities needed would require only 0.4% of the world’s land.

New York

Jacobson also reported on a new Stanford University study he led recently which contends that it would be technically and economically feasible for New York State to get all its energy from renewable sources by 2030. RenewableEnergyWorld.com reported on that study here and there is an active discussion following the article. Jacobson said that, if implemented successfully, the plan would save money, energy, and create jobs while reducing the health impacts and costs of air pollution in New York.

Renewables in California

Also at the conference, Stephen Berberich, President and CEO of the California Independent System Operator Corp. said that today’s power industry won’t be recognizable by 2050. The vast majority of the state’s energy demand will by then be met by renewable energy, and the utility industry will be completely transformed.

Many homes will be effectively off the grid, doing their own generation, and using their own energy storage systems. Berberich expects that the largest power consuming sector in the California economy in 2050 will likely be the state’s transportation fleet, which by then will be electrified to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Berberich said that the move to renewables will be driven by economic imperatives, the development of new technology, and concern over climate change. “The costs of distributed technologies are falling dramatically.”

Berberich himself said he pays about 35 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity at his home in the PG&E service territory but that he can get a solar array for 20 cents a kilowatt-hour. “Why wouldn’t I do that?” he asked.

Customers in the future will enjoy transparent pricing and, with the help of online applications and advanced networking devices, “will be able to see, shape, and control their energy usage,” he said.

During the transition to a renewable energy powered economy, Berberich cautioned that ramping renewables up too quickly could drive costs up and provoke a backlash. “If a rate bomb goes off, there’s going to be a hue and cry,” he warned. Likewise, problems with system reliability would also undermine progress toward 100 percent renewable energy.

Dr. Eric Martinot, senior research director at the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies provided the conference with a summary of the Renewables Global Futures Report produced by REN21, a global, multi-stakeholder network of experts from many sectors of society, seeking to accelerate the global transition to renewable energy.

Based on the opinions of 170 leading experts and 50 energy scenarios, the report forecasts rapid increases in global investment in renewable energy supply, accompanied by continued declines in cost and advances in technology. Global investment in renewable energy was $260 billion in 2011 and, according to the report, may reach $400-500 billion by 2020.

While recognizing that challenges remain in integrating renewable energy into utility power grids, buildings, transport, and industries, the report concludes that the primary challenges, “relate to practices, policies, institutions, business models, finance,” and other factors.

The report takes note of a growing number of regions, cities, towns, and communities that are planning to eventually become 100 percent reliant on renewable energy. Rather than expecting renewables just to fit within modestly restructured existing energy systems, it envisions the co-evolution of renewable technologies over time into profoundly transformed new energy systems.

More information about the Pathways to 100 Percent Renewable Energy conference and its sponsor, the Renewables 100 Policy Institute, can be found at www.go100percent.org. Organizers are planning to post videos of the conference on the website in the near future.

Atmospheric CO2 Rises to 400 Parts Per Million. Origin of the Extra Gas No Mystery

Atmospheric COS levels reach 400ppm (parts per million) in May 2013

Image via MorgueFile

As you may have heard, the CO2 concentration in Earth’s atmosphere has now risen to 400 parts per million (ppm). Although the media has covered this story and pointed out that “this is the first time in human history that atmospheric CO2 has reached this level,” they have in general failed to explain how we know that the extra atmospheric CO2 is from fossil fuel burning rather than from natural causes.

Without such an explanation, the door stands open for climate science doubters to ask, what proof do we have that the CO2 actually came from fossil fuels? All kinds of noxious gases erupt from below ground. Maybe the extra CO2 came from the Earth’s mantle by way of volcanic eruptions. Sounds reasonable . . .

But if you want a ready answer to this plausible sounding objection, you can find it in my recent book, Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science (Northbrae Books, 2013), in which this and other spurious arguments by climate science deniers are dispelled. As Myth #3 states (from Climate Myths):

Carbon in the form of carbon dioxide is released from the Earth’s mantle into the atmosphere through volcanic hot spots, volcanic subduction zones (places where the great plates of the Earth’s crust dive beneath each other), and through midocean ridges.

The element carbon has three naturally occurring isotopes. Isotopes are related forms of the same element. They behave the same chemically and differ only in mass. The isotopes of carbon are carbon-12, carbon-13, and carbon-14. They occur in nature in known ratios.

Carbon-12 is by far the most common, accounting for almost 99 percent of all the carbon on Earth. Most of the other 1 percent of the carbon is carbon-13. Unlike carbon-12 and carbon-13, which are stable, carbon-14 is radioactive and extremely rare in nature.

Plants preferentially utilize the lighter carbon-12, and so carbon derived from fossil fuels—which are largely formed from dead, decayed, and compressed ancient plant matter—have a higher carbon-12 to carbon-13 ratio than carbon from other sources. Fossil fuels—being derived from the decayed remains of ancient plants—have the same carbon isotope ratio as plants. Thus the increase in this ratio that has been detected in atmospheric carbon dioxide samples over time confirms that the carbon dioxide increases of concern are coming from the burning of fossil fuels and other plant material, rather than from an increase in outgassing from the Earth’s mantle.

Although the outgassing of the Earth’s mantle has released vast quantities of carbon dioxide since the planet’s formation billions of years ago, the outgassed carbon dioxide does not exhibit an enrichment in carbon-12. It therefore cannot account for the enrichment of carbon-12 found in the atmosphere.

The outgassing of the Earth’s mantle as it relates to climate and atmospheric chemistry is explained much more fully in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group I Report and is also well explained on the award-winning science website, http://www.Realclimate.org.

Yet another type of information supports the conclusion that the recent increase in the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content is being caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests. It is corroborated by data on how much fossil fuel has been burned and how many tons of carbon-containing forests have been destroyed.

The tonnage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere corresponds well to the quantity of carbon dioxide generated by the burning of fossil fuels and forests (some 500 billion metric tons) minus the Earth’s well-understood natural carbon dioxide removal processes, just as it clearly does not correspond to any outgassing of carbon dioxide from the Earth’s mantle.

To sum up, based on reasonable scientific approximations of the quantity of carbon dioxide added and removed from the atmosphere, it’s possible to calculate the concentration of carbon that would be expected in the atmosphere if the source of the increase were the burning of fossil fuels and clearance of forest. Sure enough, these estimates are in close agreement with the actual concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which as of mid-2012 was 394 ppm [And is now 400ppm].

Climate Change Threatens Pervasive Forest Loss

by John J. Berger, Ph.D and Lani Maher

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Aspen leaves showing extensive damage done by the aspen leaf miner
Photo: ©2006, Benson Lee, Copper Center, Alaska

An article by Nicholas Riccardi in Friday’s Los Angeles Times cites global climate change as the primary cause of Sudden Aspen Decline, which has been sweeping through forests of the American West in recent years. Rising temperatures and increased drought conditions—both attributed in part to global warming—have increased populations of insects, such as the aspen bark beetle and aspen leaf miner, to which aspens are highly vulnerable. SAD has ravaged aspen groves in Colorado and elsewhere, significantly transforming the landscape.

Whereas these forests are declining due to the effects of climate change, forests globally have the potential to reduce climate change. Through photosynthesis, healthy forests contribute oxygen to the atmosphere and remove carbon dioxide by storing carbon in plant tissue. This lowers the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Decadent or dormant forests, however, release carbon. As aspen groves die, they stop taking up carbon and release the carbon they had stored.

Forests, of course, can also affect climate locally and regionally by releasing moisture. Tree roots withdraw water from the soil for transport up the stem or trunk to the leaves where the moisture evaporates. The increased atmospheric humidity can reduce or prevent drought. Trees can also extract moisture from the air by their contact with low fog, causing it to condense on leaf surfaces and drip to the ground, where it can add substantially to total annual precipitation. Trees also moderate local temperature extremes and wind velocities.

Badly infested aspen grove. These trees should be predominantly green, given the time of year that this picture was taken
Photo: ©2006, Benson Lee, Copper Center, Alaska

“In addition to their influence on [local and global] climate, forests purify water by filtering it through litter and soil. Much of the water we drink, either form surface or underground sources, comes from forested watersheds, including water that accumulated eons ago. Forests also increase the amount of water reaching groundwater reservoirs by slowing the rate of surface runoff (which helps prevent floods), thus increasing the percolation of runoff in to the soil. This helps recharge deep groundwater, raises the water table, and makes for more persistent streamflow during dry seasons, benefiting vegetation and wildlife . . . Soil and forest litter absorb rain like a sponge and release it to vegetation and groundwater slowly . . . More than half of the water supplies in the western United States flow from national forests.”2

 

Aspen trees, like most forests, provide a rich habitat for many different plant and animal species. The grasses that sprout under aspen groves help slow runoff, hold soil, reduce erosion, and encourage infiltration of water into the ground, which is important for making water available to nearby metropolitan areas. Therefore, the decline of the aspen in the American West means not only a loss of scenic beauty, ecological vitality, and municipal water supply, but is a harbinger of the pervasive forest loss that climate change will bring to much of the American West and Southwest.

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1 John J. Berger, Forests Forever: Their Ecology, Restoration, and Protection (San Francisco, CA and Chicago, IL, Forests Forever Foundation and Center for American Places at Columbia College, Chicago, 2008), pp. 13-14. Distributed by University of Chicago Press.
2 Ibid.

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To read Nicholas Riccardi’s article, Global Warming Blamed for Aspen Die-off Across the West, please click here.