Can We Go All the Way to 100% Clean Renewable Energy?
I was pleased to see the 10 August 2016 announcement by the Sierra Club that ten U.S. cities have vowed to ”lead the way to 100 percent clean energy.”
The club announced a new report showcasing the 10 cities making ambitious commitments to replace fossil fuel combustion (which generates greenhouse gases, adding to global warming and its many adverse consequences).
The report claims that
“…public officials and community leaders see the transition from dirty fossil fuels to clean energy not as an obligation but as an opportunity. Cities powered by 100% clean energy save taxpayer dollars, help their residents save money, create good jobs, and foster a better quality of life.”
All well and good. However, partial conversion of a few subdivisions, towns, and cities does not a substantial reversal of the accelerating global warming process make. This great beginning needs rapidly to escalate from partial to complete conversion (including homes, offices, factories, government facilities, and even transportation) and from a few towns and cities to the whole country, eventually the world. And “eventually” cannot mean in the next century.
That will be too late. As you’ll read in my article, the process is already well under way around the world and in the U.S., driven almost completely by market forces, with a little help from local, state, and national governments. But it still is way too slow for ultimate success to be anything we all would want.
Unfortunately, the Sierra Club announcement didn’t indicate if they thought it could be even possible to do a 100% complete conversion from fossil fuels to clean renewable sources. There are many obstacles to a complete conversion, notably in the transportation sector.
The report itself offered this encouraging claim:
“And 100% clean energy is not a not pie-in-the-sky idea. Burlington, Vermont; Aspen, Colorado; Columbia, Maryland; and Greensburg, Kansas, have already achieved 100% clean energy and are powering their cities today with entirely renewable sources.”
The magic word deep in the report seems to be “100% electricity.” In the Case of Aspen, Colorado, other forms of energy use in the city were not mentioned. Has the city made progress running its cars, trucks, trains, and fossil-fuel-powered residential space heating and industrial heating systems without fossil fuels, with only renewable energy sources? To a minor degree the answer is yes.
The wind and solar variability issue alone poses a serious challenge. Wind and solar radiation are not available 100% of the time. How does Aspen manage that? “Aspen’s mix is now approximately 50% wind, 45% hydropower, and the remaining 5% from solar—including solar at the water treatment plant and solar thermal powering an affordable housing neighborhood—and landfill gas.”
That’s impressive, but that 45% from hydropower likely is what saves the day, since it is probably available whenever needed to fill in at night when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
What Aspen is doing now is not necessarily what they’ll be able to do in the future. It is encouraging, but we need to know that going all the way is possible, so that the now-famous adage in this wall mural at a street protest long ago can be the major goal:
As a solar energy scientist for over 40 years now, I’ve been concerned about four big inhibitors to going all-the-way in the conversion from fossil fuel combustion to renewable energy sources. Recently, I did some work to find out how serious these inhibitors are today, after all the years of research and experimentation with renewable energy over the past half century.
Please leave a comment in the space provided below my posting. The more comments on that article, the more the editors at “Climate Desk” and its many partners will pay attention to it, possibly reposting it in their own publications.
As you can tell from the title of my piece, the conclusion I reached was a positive one. I hope you like it.
Dr. Ross McCluney holds B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in physics, worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center for three years as an optical oceanographer and then as a principal research scientist at the University of Central Florida’s Florida Solar Energy Center for over 30 years. He has been an active environmentalist since before the first Earth Day 1970 and helped organize the University of Miami’s observance of that event. He has taught classes in algebra, radiometry and photometry, and environmental ethics; written books and chapters in books by others; and made presentations to a variety of audiences on energy and environmental topics.