Ideological wars spill over to renewable energy

Yes, the pitchforks and torches are out again, and it looks as though renewable energy may have to head for the hills.

The flashpoint? A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—ambitious, but definitely realistic—that finds that renewable energy sources could supply 77 percent of global energy by the year 2050.

The problem? Three-fold:

1) The report is from the IPCC, an entity that has become a favorite target of the fossil fuels industries and the many policy organizations they support in a long-running effort to discredit basic science (which says that more greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere will affect its climate by trapping more of the sun’s heat);

2) The report finds that a drastically lower-carbon future does not need to rely on nuclear power, contrary to the views of many who champion nuclear as the only “realistic” alternative to fossil fuels; and

3) One of the report’s lead authors is affiliated with the international environmental group Greenpeace, anathema to both nuclear and fossil fuels backers.

Clearly, this document has created a target-rich environment for some very large industries with very deep pockets.

That being the case, let’s set aside the guilt-by-association arguments and take a look at the science.

Are the report’s findings unrealistic? No. As energy and climate expert blogger Joe Romm, editor of Climate Progress, points out, the report states that global investment of more roughly $12 trillion over the next 20 years will be needed, along with a host of major policy changes. In addition, others—specifically, Stanford University’s Mark Jacobsen and Dr. Mark Delucchi of the University of California-Davis–are on record with studies finding that not 77 percent, but 100 percent, of global energy can come from renewable sources not by 2050, but by 2030 (see reports here and here).

WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) also recently released a report finding that 100 percent global energy from renewables is possible by 2050, again without using nuclear power.

All three reports envision a global energy system that grows steadily more efficient, enabling renewable energy’s percentage of supply to increase more rapidly than it otherwise might. As Jacobsen comments to Romm, however:

“The cost of electricity would be similar to that today. We would be silly not to go down this path due to the fact that it is so much more efficient than our current path. For example, the cost of electricity for driving an electric car is the equivalent of $1/gallon, which compares with $4/gallon for gasoline to go the same distance. The cost benefits of reducing air pollution and global warming are enormous, reducing taxes and medical insurance costs to all.”


“We assumed only modest efficiency improvements [in order] to be conservative. However, converting to electricity in itself is so efficient that total power demand decreases by 30%.”

(It’s also worth noting that the U.S. Department of Energy, under the Bush Administration, released a report in 2008 finding that 20 percent of U.S. electricity could be provided by wind power alone by 2030. Further reports since then have merely bolstered the 2008 report’s findings—two studies by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have found that the utility systems of the Eastern and Western U.S. can accommodate 20 percent and 30 percent wind energy, respectively, and detailed reviews of the nation’s wind resource have found that it’s enough to supply all U.S. electricity needs many times over.)

Further, the future of America’s economy may well depend on our (at long last) taking renewable energy seriously. In a recent poll of U.S. electric utility executives by the consulting firm Black & Veatch, 67% of those surveyed said they believe the country is “at risk of losing its domestic design and construction skills, equipment manufacturing capabilities and global competitive position in utility technology.”

In addition, nearly half (49 percent) said they are “concerned” or “very concerned” about “the increasing concentration of renewable technology manufacturing overseas.”

The bottom line? America (and the world) are doing far, far less with renewable energy than they could be doing. The last decade has already given us a taste of what wind energy can achieve, with its wind farm global capacity increasing more than 10-fold (from 17,000 megawatts, MW, installed in 2000 to 197,000 MW in 2010). Notwithstanding the naysayers and deniers, the IPCC report points the way to a cleaner, better energy future.

By Tom Gray,