Volume 86 Issue 7 | p. 35 | Insights
Issue Date: February 18, 2008

A Major Shift Beyond Fossil Fuels

Massive moves to wind and solar power are feasible, affordable, and necessary
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Climate Change
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN

TO THE CHAGRIN of some readers, I have often been on the "wrong" side of issues. Back in 1982, shortly after I took a job for the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T), I wrote a long article about climate change that suggested it might eventually cause serious problems. At the time, most scientists felt the topic was not important and would not become so for many decades, if ever.

My earliest article about endocrine-disrupting chemicals—"Environmental Estrogens Linked to Reproductive Abnormalities, Cancer"—is another example of a story that was ahead of its time (C&EN, Jan. 31, 1994, page 19). Then, the theory was obscure, discussed primarily in a handful of technical articles. Few researchers believed that chemicals found at low levels in the environment could adversely affect animal or human development. Now, endocrine (hormone) disruption is an increasingly important field that encompasses the potential health effects of bisphenol A and phthalates and has entered the popular lexicon.

In my view, most of the experts may now be wrong about another crucial issue: carbon sequestration. The dominant opinion among environmentalists and energy researchers is that capturing carbon dioxide from gasified coal or coal plant emissions and sequestering it in geological repositories will be necessary for stabilizing atmospheric levels of the gas. They argue that the U.S. will be using coal for many years, and the only way to do it responsibly is with carbon sequestration. But they also estimate that R&D necessary to do this safely on a large scale would take at least two decades.

On the other hand, there is also a widespread view that we as a society have only 10 years to begin stabilizing CO2 emissions. If emissions continue increasing at the current rate for another decade, Earth may cross critical tipping points that push climate change out of control. The huge increase in the rate of ice sheet melting in Greenland and West Antarctica as well as the rapid reduction in sea ice in the Arctic lead me to believe we may well have very little time to avert a catastrophic rise of sea levels.

That is why it may be more productive to focus on available technologies that could put the Earth on a path to very large CO2 reductions over this decade. Energy audits of manufacturing plants and switching to fluorescent bulbs can reduce energy use but not nearly enough to avoid disastrous climate disruption.

According to Lester R. Brown, one of the U.S.'s most respected environmentalists, much of the answer to reversing the warming trend could be accomplished with wind power, which in many areas costs about as much as coal-fired power generation. Building 1.5 million wind turbines by 2020 could supply 40% of the world's energy needs, he observes. This sounds like a daunting task, he says in his latest book "Plan B 2.0," but there is a precedent for taking on such a large endeavor. After the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. mobilized in a novel manner. The automobile industry stopped making cars for three years and built 229,600 war planes instead. If society decided the need is urgent enough, factories in many countries could turn out windmills on a vast scale, Brown writes.

Solar technologies also seem to be an especially promising method of cutting emissions. In an article in the January 2008 issue of Scientific American, Ken Zweibel, president of PrimeStar Solar, proposes a way to use solar power on a massive scale by 2050 by employing technologies that are already developed. According to him, at least 250,000 square miles of land in southwestern U.S. are suitable for constructing solar power plants. That land receives more than 4,500 quadrillion Btu of solar radiation a year, and converting only 2.5% of it into electricity would equal the nation's annual energy consumption, he notes.

"A VAST AREA of photovoltaic cells would be erected in the Southwest, and large solar-concentrator power plants would be built as well," Zweibel says. New direct-current transmission lines, which lose much less energy than AC lines, would deliver solar electricity to compressed-air storage facilities across the country. When released, the compressed air would turn turbines, generating electricity. This system would overcome the major drawback of most photovoltaic systems—the fact that the sun does not shine all the time, Zweibel explains.

"The U.S. needs a bold plan to free itself from fossil fuels," he says. He proposes building plants that produce 3 gigawatts of solar power over each of the next five years, and subsidizing the enormous solar energy project with a total of $400 billion over the next 40 years. Over time, he calculates, the cost of solar electricity would decline from a current 16 cents per kWh to 5 cents per kWh, which is about as cheap as it gets.

I agree with James E. Hansen, director of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, when he said that society "faces a stark choice." It can either move to the next phase of the industrial revolution that runs without fossil fuels, "or it can ignore the problem, sentencing humanity and other creatures to struggle on an increasingly desolate planet." It is time to stop concentrating on changes around the edges of energy systems.

I will continue to monitor this issue, but I will no longer be writing about it in the pages of C&EN because I am set to retire this week. I'm grateful that I have had editors—both at C&EN and during my tenure at ES&T—who were willing to go against the grain to give me the opportunity to delve thoroughly into frontier topics over the years.


Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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