By Thomas Neuburger
I've been doing a short series on alternative energy sources that might provide high efficiency at low cost and lower "price to the environment." The first entry is here: "Is There a Better Way to Harness Solar Power Than Photovoltaic Cells?"
This is the second entry. We normally associate wind power production with mass installation of three-blade turbines.
There are downsides to this technology, however. One is unsightliness — ugliness if you will — and many communities, notably rich ones, have rejected them on this basis alone.
Another, as the video above explains, is the high cost of the initial installation plus the cost of maintenance; traditional three-blade wind turbines contain a wealth of moving parts.
But quite a number of low-cost, low-maintenance technologies are becoming available, including ion-capture devices, devices that "wobble" in the wind and contains almost no moving parts at all, and highly efficient wind-capture devices that are small, discrete and safe — suitable for rooftops and parks.
So there's that — hope for a future with renewables powered by ever-improving technology.
The Scale of the Problem
But in keeping with my other recent theme — the one that asks, Can we mitigate the climate crisis and still keep our high-energy-consumption lifestyle? — I'd like to present the scale of the problem we're trying to solve.
The following represents world energy consumption since 1800:
In 1800, the world consumed about 5,000 Terawatt-hours (TWh) or so of energy, and even as late as 1930, world consumption barely broke above 30,000 Terawatt-hours. Today, the world consumes more than 170 Terawatt-hours of energy — a number that's rapidly increasing. Of that total, only 25,000 TWh or so comes to us as electricity. The rest comes by more direct use, such as burning gas for automobiles and so on.
To get a sense of the scale of world consumption, your electric bill measures your home's energy use in kilowatt-hours. So consider:
1 TWh = One thousand GWh (gigawatt-hours)
= One million MWh (megawatt-hours)
= One billion KWh (kilowatt hours)
If the world uses 170,000 TWh a year, it uses 170 trillion KWh, or about 15 trillion KWh each month. If your electric bill says you use 1,000 KWh in an average month (that may be low for Americans), total world use of energy is the equivalent of supplying electricity to 15 billion American homes — each month.
Replacing all of that consumption with renewable sources is the size of the problem we're trying to solve. And note again, energy consumption is rapidly rising. In most years, absolute annual growth in energy consumption runs between 2,000–4,000 TWh per year,or somewhere between 1–3% per year.
At this rate, in ten years world energy consumption could rise above 200 TWh. If we're not replacing fossil fuel sources with renewable sources at a faster rate than that, we're not even keeping up with world growth in consumption. As Our World In Data put it: "By 1994 we were already getting 13.5% from low-carbon sources. Today – 25 years later – we’ve only increased this by two percentage points. It’s moving in the right direction, but far too slowly – probably much more slowly than many expect." ("Low-carbon sources" includes nuclear, by the way. Take that out and the energy mix is even less encouraging.)
Betting on a High-Energy Future
Forget how fast this needs to be done. Forget how much carbon-based fuel a massive global conversion like this will consume. Is it possible to create a system that continues to power the world at this scale on renewables? Is it possible to sustain world energy consumption at this scale at all?
Time will tell. It looks like, if our better renewable angels win the fight against the corrupt Joe Manchins (and yes, Joe Bidens) of the world, we might be going to try.