As the climate continues to warm, and normally cool or even cold places like Alaska break records during what is only the first month of summer, U.S. policy makers turn – belatedly – to the idea of alternative power.
It’s far too late to prevent some of the devastating effects of global warming, also known as climate change. In fact, it’s very likely that the planet will not only reach the unimaginable 2-degree increase in temperature predicted by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), but exceed it. This, at least, is the message from James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a highly reputable (if singularly disturbing) scientist in his own right.
Hansen made his prediction at the end of 2011, bluntly calling the 2-degree warming limit which national leaders had agreed on at Doha, Qatar “…a prescription for disaster.”
His words were unsettling, to say the least, and his prediction was bolstered by comments from the Union of Concerned Scientists Director Alden Meyer.
“World leaders set a goal of … 2 degrees, but the commitments they’ve made to meet that goal are inadequate.”
We could almost ignore Hansen’s dire prognosis. We might even be able to tune out Meyer. But what about the United Nations Environment Report, which states that – even if national leaders meet their most zealous climate goals – the world as a whole is likely to contribute 52 gigatons (Gt) of greenhouse gases to the environment in 2012 – a figure which is 8 Gt greater than is needed to confine warming at or below 2 degrees.
The International Energy Agency adds its own chorus, noting that the 2-degree goal can only be kept if 66 percent of fossil fuels (oil, gas, etc.) are left in the ground.
For most of the world, this means alternative energy, or renewable energy; that is, anything that doesn’t involve burning fossil fuels like coal, oil or natural gas. Some “green” energy advocates even rule out nuclear power. These forms of renewable energy are typified by solar and wind, with geothermal, hydro and biofuels running close seconds. In fact, so intense has the race become for alternative sources of energy that scientists are currently looking into:
- Fecal power, from cow flatulence to adult diapers, which are repurposed into burnable pellets
The two top contenders are solar power and wind power. Regarding the latter, the UK isn’t doing too badly, at least in Scotland, which has 203 onshore wind farms. Unfortunately, this level of commitment to renewable wind energy is underwritten by subsidies – in effect, perks which supposedly support wind energy jobs. And they do, sometimes to the extravagant tune of £1.3 million! That is, instead of generating 60 jobs at £20,000, wind in the UK adds only a few jobs at phenomenal salaries.
In fact, the only saving grace of this initiative is that it provides alternative, or renewable energy. In the UK, this amounts to 23.5 million megawatt-hours (MWh) of energy from both offshore and onshore wind, serving 5.4 million homes. Because wind energy represents a large part of renewable energy in the UK – a small country in terms of acreage but surrounded on all sides by water – solar energy is barely a fraction.
Bioenergy is another huge UK energy solution, with wave and turbine energy creeping up on wind. Overall, the UK’s renewable energy output in Q2 2012 is up to 8130 gigawatts (GW). This compares favorably with an overall energy output of 319,000 GW for all four quarters of 2011. The two figures break down into 9.8 percent of energy from renewables. In the UK, as across the EU, utilities are backing off investments in fossil-fuel burning generation and pouring that money into both renewables and energy efficiency, in effect burning the candle from both ends.
In the United States, wind turbines added 13.2 percent to the total of renewable energy generated in 2012. In 2011, this figure was 11.7 percent. 2011 was also the year in which renewables produced more energy than nuclear power for the first time. This was also the first year in which the total of renewable energy sources passed 520,000 gigawatt hours (GWh), delivering 7.8 percent of total power supplies, 119.75 of them solely from onshore wind.
As compared with the UK’s renewable output (9.8 percent of the total), U.S. output is only 7.8 percent. This doesn’t look good for a nation that prides itself on being first in new technology (as represented by renewable energy techniques). Then, too, the U.S. has a very large, extremely powerful and enormously wealthy fossil fuel energy sector – a sector that is reluctant to leave what it persistently calls “200 years of coal” in the ground in Appalachia, the Heartland, and the Powder River Basin of Montana, Wyoming, Nevada and the Western slope of Colorado.
The biggest problem, after the fossil-fuel sector’s immense lobby, is the dilemma of storing renewable energy. The largest utility-scale electricity storage developed to date is a 4-megawatt sodium-sulfur (NaS) battery system in Presidio, Texas, but newer storage technologies are starting to prove themselves, from molten salt to hot water storage. For homeowners unable to afford these 2.0 storage technologies, ranked and shelved deep-discharge (marine or offsite power) batteries fill the bill.
Going forward, however, it’s important that the U.S. uses the technology tied up in its 17 laboratories, 10 of which operate at the behest of the Office of Science, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, or DOE. These labs are charged with finding better, cheaper and more efficient ways of storing energy – a must-have if renewable technologies like wind and solar are to continue to grow.