Thursday, July 26, 2012

We Don’t Need to Dam Rivers to Make Clean Energy

The key to a fuel free energy economy is clean, renewable energy. For a long time, the most abundant, most economically productive source of clean, renewable energy has been river water, which produces hydroelectric power through turbines that turn inside major dams. Dams can have catastrophic environmental impacts, even where their use for irrigation and flood-control have a positive impact on human populations. 

The truth of the matter, however, is that we no longer need dams to produce clean energy, and we can achieve a 100% clean renewable energy economy without building any new dams. There is enough wind to power all of our energy needs many times over. And there is far more solar energy available than that. All we need to do is build the infrastructure to harness that energy and convey it to the end users (households, transport, military and industrial). 

In Building a Green Economy, we used Department of Energy data to show that by the most conservative estimate possible (in fact, far more conservative, mathematically, than is reasonable, by any standard), the territory of the United States receives more than 342 times the energy it requires for out entire economy, directly from the Sun, every day.

We know that offshore wind alone can provide up to 70% of current electricity demand (if the infrastructure is built), and just three states (Texas, Kansas and South Dakota) have enough wind to power all US electricity needs (households, transport, military and industrial). SolarImpulse, a Swiss aerospace firm, has developed a 100% solar-powered airplane that can fly for more than 24 hours straight, without landing. 

The work ahead entails refining these technologies so they can meet the full bulk of demand inherent in our current economic activities:

  • The SolarImpulse airplane needs to carry 50 to 100 passengers to be commercially viable as a replacement for the big jets, but the industry will see overhead fall dramatically when it transitions to a fleet of fuel-free aircraft, which could make it possible to replace jumbo jets with ultralight solar planes that carry only two to three dozen passengers at a time. 
  • We now have the technology to build super-fast, high-powered electric vehicles that surrender nothing to combustible-fuel vehicles (the Tesla Roadster can outpace the Porsche 911), and this technology will soon be cost-effective for general-market personal automobiles. 
  • Electric vechicle (EV) infrastructure is evolving fast, and will be bolstered by the work of Better Place, a worldwide EV-refueling firm that has developed battery switch-out technology, allowing for the full repowering of electric cars in less time than it takes to pump a tank of gasoline. 
  • Wind power is now rapidly developing across rural America, with many farmers, families and communities finding it the most cost-effective way to both provide energy and to finance their own ongoing activities, without having to sell out to agribusiness or urban development. 
  • Following the lead of California, states like New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts are showing that aggressive development of solar-voltaic infrastructure means they can become world leaders in solar production per land-area, and begin the transition away from a 100% combustible/nuclear energy economy.
  • Solar Roadways has already developed technology that makes it more cost-effective to use modular in-ground solar panels instead of asphalt to build state-of-the-art roads and highways. 
  • Transitioning away from combustible-fuel-powered buses to electric vehicles and trams is showing how better planning, more green space, and quieter, cleaner, fuel free transport, can create better living conditions, move people more efficiently from place to place, build better cities and take cars off the roads. 
  • Urban bikeshare programs are showing that the healthiest, most cost-effective, punctual and convenient way to get around is by bicycle, making city centers cleaner, safer and friendlier to human beings operating at the human scale. 
  • In the US and Canada, Citizens Climate Lobby, a non-partisan, non-profit grassroots volunteer organization, is working with Congress and Parliament, to pass fee and dividend legislation, which will provide incentive and economic comfort to households, decentralizing the energy economy and speeding the transition to a 100% clean, renewable energy economy.

In short: the only reason we do not yet have a 100% fuel free clean, renewable energy economy is because we have not yet built the infrastructure. We don’t need to build massive dams along the world’s major rivers, altering ecosystems and threatening human populations and vital climate patterns, to get clean energy. 

With American transport infrastructure more than $3 trillion behind schedule for basic maintenance and upgrades, now is the perfect time to make sure we build the rational, cost-effective, democratizing 21st century clean-energy economy we need. We have an opportunity to show the world there is a smarter, healthier, less destructive way forward. There is nothing to do but do it.