Global energy and political will

"There are no technological or economic barriers to converting the entire world to clean, renewable energy sources." (Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering, Stanford University)

The political fallout of the nuclear emergency in Japan has brought to mind a recent two-part academic paper on energy policy which argues that meeting all global energy needs with wind, water and solar sources is feasible within 20-40 years. This would be using existing technologies, with the proviso being sufficient societal and political will to implement such a radical change in technical and economic infrastructure.

When I first read the paper by Mark Jacobsen and Mark Delucchi, my initial reaction was that the engineers, while open about the staggeringly huge challenges involved in a wholesale switch to renewable energy, were divorced from political reality, and did not appreciate the degree of inertia inherent in modern human society. This is not so much to do with “political will”, per se, but rather a tendency to think creatively while procrastinating to the nth+1 degree. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is anchored firmly to the sofa, so to speak.

It is unfortunate that Jacobsen and Delucchi’s paper is not published in an open-access journal, as we could really do with a public debate stimulated by such a thorough technical analysis. I do not have the time to discuss here the details of the engineers’ argument. Instead I shall simply extract from their presentation the following figures: 3,800,000 five megawatt wind turbines; 49,000 three hundred megawatt concentrated solar energy plants; 40,000 three hundred megawatt photovoltaic installations; 270 new 1300 megawatt hydroelectric plants; 720,000 seven hundred and fifty kilowatt ocean wave generators; and 490,000 one megawatt tidal turbines. This is what Jacobsen and Delucchi calculate it would take to supply our 21st century energy needs.

The above numbers may seem astronomical, but in global terms there is nothing out of the question about them. We are talking here of a technical undertaking on the scale of the first moon landings, which were launched at the beginning of the 1960s with a presidential edict, culminating in the first humans kicking at the lunar dust in 1969. Today’s world may be a great deal more complex, but our technical capabilities have massively advanced in the past few decades.

Still, I do not see a rapid switch to all-renewable energy generation as being politically, socially, economically or psychologically feasible. I say that with a deep sense of regret, and it is in no way a negative reflection on the work of the two Marks from California. It is good that clear thinking and imaginative scientists and engineers lay out the facts, even if the result is a mirror in which is reflected our collective unwillingness to act.

Further reading

Mark Z Jacobsen & Mark A Delucchi, “Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I:Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials”, Energy Policy 39, 1154 (2011)

Mark A Delucchi & Mark Z Jacobsen, “Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part II: Reliability, system and transmission costs, and policies”,  Energy Policy 39, 1170 (2011)