Stanford research: The world will someday run on sun and the wind. Really?


According to the Stanford research article ,the world can be powered by alternative energy, using today’s technology. In 20-40 years according to Stanford researcher Mark Z. Jacobson, we can save 2.5 million to 3 million lives a year and simultaneously halt global warming, reduce air and water pollution and develop secure, reliable energy sources – nearly all with existing technology and at costs comparable with what we spend on energy today.

Jacobson asserts that “there are no technological or economic barriers to converting the entire world to clean, renewable energy sources” but what is rather preventing us from achieving that goal is whether or not we have  the societal and political will.

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Jacobson envisions a world run by  wind, water and solar energy to generate power, with wind and solar power contributing 90 percent of the needed energy while Geothermal and hydroelectric sources would each contribute about 4 percent in their plan.

I totally agree with the notion that the world should slowly be moving away from fossil fuel and embracing alternative sources of energy — in this case renewable energy. Why would this be?
Firstly because fossil fuel reservoirs are only finite. With the ever growing demand of energy to power our cities, industries, automobiles and homes, it’s predictable that at a certain time t, these reserves will run out! It’s not a matter of if, it a matter of when.
Secondly with global warming on the rise, the need for energy sources that contribute little or zero carbon foot-print are more desirable or else we race towards a climatic  Armageddon.

Although I share Jacobson’s noble vision, it’s not without extreme challenges, one of them as he has already mentioned being lack of political and societal will.
On the technological front, however, as he  mentioned is the fact that both wind and solar are very variable sources of energy. By variable we mean the sun doesn’t always shine and neither does the wind always blow(sometimes even when you really need it). Hence when it does blow, there’s a need of storing that energy so that you can compensate for those times when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.

For hundreds of years, batteries have been used to store charge/energy from another energy source. Even though batteries are centuries old, even with the current technology, we still aren’t been able to store as much energy as we would need for a given period of time to accomplish specific tasks. Your phone battery for instance can only go for an average of 8 hours of constant voice calls over a 3G network.

While many homes and industries run off clean energy(mainly hydroelectric power), our transportation systems — that’s our cars — still heavily rely on fossil fuels. The advantage that fossil fuels have is that they are portable and mobile just like our automobiles. They do not run off some sort of transmission line like hydroelectric and therefore the energy source is “decoupled” from the consuming unit. You can’t for instance run your car off the power grid, but you can do that with your smart phone.
It might, however, be feasible to have a solar panel (perhaps with a small wind propeller) on top of your car. On a hot sunny day, your moving car taps some of the sun’s energy and converts it to kinetic energy used to move your car. At the same time, since the car is already moving, the wind propeller could be used to turn the turbine inside your car which would in turn power your engine. The extra energy is stored in a large battery for those rainy days or in case you need to move at night. How much energy can be tapped from the sun over your car and the wind blowing, determines the viability of this energy option for your car.

The challenge is, for all this to work, we need ground breaking break-throughs in energy storage system i.e batteries. More research has to be put into how we can store more energy efficiently for a long time in a relatively small unit or in energy units proportional to the systems they empower. Coupled with political as societal will as Jacabson has asserted, we may be close to a world powered by clean and renewable energy.