Turns out Bob Dylan was right after all.A new study by Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson (via Stanford News Service) puts wind at the top of the list of energy sources to wean the world off fossil fuels and meet the challenge of reversing climate change.
“Clean Coal” isn’t. Nuclear carries unacceptable risks and a huge waste disposal problem, and ethanol is worse than oil.
With the energy transition now an urgent part of global economic recovery, this report provides a fantastic road map for the Obama administration. Here are a few highlights:
Best to worst electric power sources:
- Wind power
- Concentrated solar power (CSP)
- Geothermal power
- Tidal power
- Solar photovoltaics (PV)
- Wave power
- Hydroelectric power
- A tie between nuclear power and coal with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).
Best to worst vehicle options:
- Wind-BEVs (battery electric vehicles)
- Wind-HFCVs (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles)
- Solar PV-BEVs
- A tie between nuclear-BEVs and coal-CCS-BEVs
It’s not surprising that the Republicans with their “Drill, baby drill” mantra also supported the worst possible options with billions in subsidies and tax credits: Nuclear, coal, and ethanol. I am so grateful that we are not facing a business-as-usual McCain presidency. Eight more years of the fossil guzzling corporate gang-bang would have been more than the biosphere could take.
To place the various alternatives on an equal footing, Jacobson first made his comparisons among the energy sources by calculating the impacts as if each alternative alone were used to power all the vehicles in the United States, assuming only “new-technology” vehicles were being used. Such vehicles include battery electric vehicles (BEVs), hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs), and “flex-fuel” vehicles that could run on a high blend of ethanol called E85.
Wind was by far the most promising, Jacobson said, owing to a better-than 99 percent reduction in carbon and air pollution emissions; the consumption of less than 3 square kilometers of land for the turbine footprints to run the entire U.S. vehicle fleet (given the fleet is composed of battery-electric vehicles); the saving of about 15,000 lives per year from premature air-pollution-related deaths from vehicle exhaust in the United States; and virtually no water consumption. By contrast, corn and cellulosic ethanol will continue to cause more than 15,000 air pollution-related deaths in the country per year, Jacobson asserted.
Because the wind turbines would require a modest amount of spacing between them to allow room for the blades to spin, wind farms would occupy about 0.5 percent of all U.S. land, but this amount is more than 30 times less than that required for growing corn or grasses for ethanol. Land between turbines on wind farms would be simultaneously available as farmland or pasture or could be left as open space.
Indeed, a battery-powered U.S. vehicle fleet could be charged by 73,000 to 144,000 5-megawatt wind turbines, fewer than the 300,000 airplanes the U.S. produced during World War II and far easier to build. Additional turbines could provide electricity for other energy needs.
“There is a lot of talk among politicians that we need a massive jobs program to pull the economy out of the current recession,” Jacobson said. “Well, putting people to work building wind turbines, solar plants, geothermal plants, electric vehicles and transmission lines would not only create jobs but would also reduce costs due to health care, crop damage and climate damage from current vehicle and electric power pollution, as well as provide the world with a truly unlimited supply of clean power.”
Jacobson said that while some people are under the impression that wind and wave power are too variable to provide steady amounts of electricity, his research group has already shown in previous research that by properly coordinating the energy output from wind farms in different locations, the potential problem with variability can be overcome and a steady supply of baseline power delivered to users.
Jacobson’s research is particularly timely in light of the growing push to develop biofuels, which he calculated to be the worst of the available alternatives. In their effort to obtain a federal bailout, the Big Three Detroit automakers are increasingly touting their efforts and programs in the biofuels realm, and federal research dollars have been supporting a growing number of biofuel-research efforts.
“That is exactly the wrong place to be spending our money. Biofuels are the most damaging choice we could make in our efforts to move away from using fossil fuels,” Jacobson said. “We should be spending to promote energy technologies that cause significant reductions in carbon emissions and air-pollution mortality, not technologies that have either marginal benefits or no benefits at all”.
“Obviously, wind alone isn’t the solution,” Jacobson said. “It’s got to be a package deal, with energy also being produced by other sources such as solar, tidal, wave and geothermal power.”
During the recent presidential campaign, nuclear power and clean coal were often touted as energy solutions that should be pursued, but nuclear power and coal with carbon capture and sequestration were Jacobson’s lowest-ranked choices after biofuels. “Coal with carbon sequestration emits 60- to 110-times more carbon and air pollution than wind energy, and nuclear emits about 25-times more carbon and air pollution than wind energy,” Jacobson said. Although carbon-capture equipment reduces 85-90 percent of the carbon exhaust from a coal-fired power plant, it has no impact on the carbon resulting from the mining or transport of the coal or on the exhaust of other air pollutants. In fact, because carbon capture requires a roughly 25-percent increase in energy from the coal plant, about 25 percent more coal is needed, increasing mountaintop removal and increasing non-carbon air pollution from power plants, he said.
There’s only two things missing from the Stanford report: analysis of fuel production from waste streams–biomass and otherwise–and closed cycle algae production. Even absent those two promising biofuel solutions, it’s abundantly clear: the U.S. must continue to aggressively develop BEV’s whether or not GM survives. The Volt program should be promoted and expanded, whether by GM itself or its successors. Firms like Tesla Motors should be receiving federal money long before the big three. We cannot meet even the modest goal of 20% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020 if we all keep driving vehicles with internal combustion engines. This early 20th century technology is killing us, and it’s not even necessary. Won’t be long before these wheezing, belching behemoths will be consigned to the ash heap of once-useful technological oddities along with the venerable steam engine.
Driving an oil-burner should be seen as out of step as leg-warmers and bolo ties. (Wait, are those back in style?) As out of step as slavery or religion. (Wait, those are both still pretty big, too). OK, a final try: As out of step as a one legged man in an ass-kicking contest. There.
Electric vehicles can be made far superior in every way to the old oil-burners. Saving the 15,000 lives now lost to air pollution is equivalent to saving over three times as many people as were killed in the Iraq war–every year. It seems like those are the kind of numbers that should inspire us to launch an all-out national effort. Not to mention the job-creation potential. Ignoring this transition further would be a near-genocidal form of willful ignorance. So are the carboniferous black days of black tar and black lung finally coming to a close? We’ll see if Obama with the backing of Al Gore and a blueprint from Amory Lovins can make this happen. There’s absolutely no reason why not. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Only the old extractive industries and old attitudes are on the chopping block. Hopefully as the joke goes, upon winning the election Obama did not get pulled by oil/coal executives into a darkened room–shown the Zapruder film–and asked “any questions?”