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The Green Life: Powering the World with Only Renewable Energy? It Can Be Done.

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January 20, 2011

Powering the World with Only Renewable Energy? It Can Be Done.

WorldsolarWe say going green is all about the little things. But what would it really take — and how long — to run the entire planet exclusively on renewable energy? That’s the question behind a body of research emerging from scientists at two California universities who say it could be done by 2030 — if governments around the world embrace sweeping but practicable policy changes.

The researchers propose a massive, worldwide building spree to construct renewable-energy sources, using only existing technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels, and geothermal plants. The amount of those required to power the globe could be built by 2030. And by 2050, we could be off non-renewables altogether, argue Mark Jacobson, a Stanford professor, and Mark Delucchi of UC Davis.

The transition to 100% renewables is “definitely technically feasible. It’s more a question of policies,” Jacobson says. “There’s a gradual movement in that direction right now, but it’s really at a snail’s pace, and you really need a large-scale change.”

In other words, world governments would need to implement radical policy changes — in particular, tax incentives for clean energy and penalties for pollution, Jacobson says — to make the construction of renewable sources not just competitive, but preferable to building, say, natural-gas pipelines. Jacobson's breakdown of a world on 100% renewables shows that 50% of energy would come from wind turbines (requiring 3.8 million turbines, only 0.8% of which are currently in place), with solar panels and hydro and geothermal plants contributing much of the rest. Using existing technologies is important, he says, because they can already do the work required and using them saves time and money.

“There’s a false sense that we should try little bit of everything and just see if something works,” he says. “But we know some things are better than others, so we should focus on those things.”

Read more about the study in Mason Inman’s National Geographic story.

--Tim McDonnell

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