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Clean Energy

Electricity: An Astonishing Abundance!

What we can do about electricity:
Sun or coal, wind or nukes? You vote.

The U.S. emits the equivalent of 7.26 gigatonnes of CO2 annually. Our electricity production contributes 2.43 gigatonnes of that.

Our story of energy begins when humans discovered the secret of fire. We burned wood and brush to protect ourselves from predators, cook food, and, later, to survive the ice age. In 12th-century Europe, with the forests fast disappearing, we started burning the strange black stones we called coal. Later, we used coal to produce steam, launching the Industrial Revolution.

It is astonishing how far we have come. To anyone from the 18th century, our world today would be unbelievable. We burned the black stones, and their fossilized relations, oil and gas, and for those who have had abundant access to these resources, it has been good. But today the over-use of these fossil fuels is threatening life on Earth.

Now we are poised to move into our next era. We are coming to terms with the havoc we are creating by burning millions of years of the planet’s stored sunlight in the blink of a geologic eye. And we are realizing that it is time to lay down these fossil fuels, while understanding that we could never have developed a solar photovoltaic (PV) cell, electric car, or super-efficient LED light bulb without the energy gift of those ancient life-forms. The sunlight they stored over millions of years has enabled us to build the intellectual capital necessary to meet our needs using current renewable energy from the sun, wind, earth, and oceans.

Solar energy, for example, offers an abundance of energy. Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation has calculated that each year, a square kilometer of hot desert receives solar energy equivalent to 1.5 million barrels of oil. Worldwide, this is several hundred times more energy than we need. Similarly, analysts who have evaluated the solar resources in the southwest United States found that concentrating solar power could provide nearly 7,000 gigawatts of capacity, seven times more than the current total U.S. electric capacity. (Concentrating solar power uses parabolic mirrors to focus solar energy to heat a gas or liquid.)

We can also gather solar electricity directly using photovoltaics as many people are already doing in Germany, Japan, and California. We can gather energy from the wind—North Dakota alone has enough wind energy for 33 percent of current U.S. demand for electricity. We can gather energy from the waves and tides, and from underground, where the potential store of geothermal energy in granite, six to 10 kilometers down, could power all U.S. needs for 20,000 years.

The numbers do add up, especially when you look at the full global potential of each technology. The challenge is to ramp up fast enough to make the transition in time. The numbers improve considerably when you consider that we could improve efficiencies throughout our economy by two to 10 times, using today’s technologies, and that the transition to electricity instead of liquid fuel for transport reduces the energy needed considerably.

Why, then, is there talk of nuclear power when it carries such dangers, and of as-yet unproven “clean” coal, with carbon capture and sequestration? The answer is probably financial—investors find it hard to walk away from their investments. They continue to side with the coal and oil industries that pay for their jet planes and mansions, even though they are fueling a climate catastrophe.

We need non-corrupted governments to cap the oil wells; lock up the coal mines; require super-efficiency in buildings, cars, and appliances; and redirect investments into renewable energy—as Sweden’s government is doing with its commitment to end the country’s dependency on oil by 2020. It is all doable: we just need the courage and belief to do it.


Guy Dauncey wrote this article as part of “Stop Global Warming Cold,” the Spring 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Guy is a speaker, organizer, consultant, and author with Patrick Mazza of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change, New Society Publishers.