The Problem of Scale

It’s the essential challenge of our attempt to wean ourselves from old, reliable fossil fuels for energy:

From the dust-blown steppes of Inner Mongolia to the waters off Shanghai, China installed more wind turbines in the first half of 2010 than any other country — 7,800 megawatts of potential power production, or more than the United States, the European Union, and India combined. In fact, in northeast China alone, autumn and winter winds now produce some 17 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, roughly 5.5 percent of the total power generation in the region. That’s up from 534 million kilowatt hours just five years ago.

But despite this rapid progress, wind energy still only generates a tiny fraction of China’s electricity. Indeed, even with aggressive government backing and green energy mandates, such “new energy” — including wind, solar, nuclear power plants, and biomass — accounts for less than 3 percent of China’s electricity production, compared to more than 70 percent provided by coal, which produces roughly 3 metric tons of carbon dioxide for every metric ton of the dirty, black rock burned. And as China’s economy continues to expand at a dizzying rate for the foreseeable future, wind and other renewable sources of energy will not even be able to keep pace with new demand, meaning fossil fuel burning will continue unabated.

This is hardly unique to China. In the U.S., electricity produced from the breeze has increased 13-fold in the past decade, yet still only provides 2.3 percent of the country’s electricity — compared to just under 50 percent provided by burning coal. Even Denmark, which has done more than any other country to boost wind power, struggles to integrate an intermittent generating resource into a grid whose customers expect the lights or the television to come on whenever they flick the switch.

As the world attempts to wean itself from fossil fuels — a result of the converging desires to combat climate change, improve energy security, and create green jobs — renewables such as the sun, wind, water, and hot rocks will play a larger role. So will energy sources, such as nuclear and natural gas, that are cleaner than the current favorites, coal and oil. The question is: Can any of these resources — or even all of them put together — begin to approach the scale needed to transform the world’s energy supply?

And even if the world’s economies can muster the resources and willpower to wean themselves off fossil fuels, how many decades will it take? And can we move fast enough to stave off the potentially calamitous effects of climate change?

Read the rest on Yale e360.

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David Biello

is an award-winning journalist writing most often about the environment and energy. His book "The Unnatural World" publishes November 2016. It's about whether the planet has entered a new geologic age as a result of people's impacts and, if so, what we should do about this Anthropocene. He also hosts documentaries, such as "Beyond the Light Switch" and the forthcoming "The Ethanol Effect" for PBS. He is the science curator for TED.

One thought on “The Problem of Scale”

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