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All of humanity could shift to solar, wind energy in less than 25 years, policy study group claims

By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, March 31, 2011 10:37 EDT
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Humankind has the technology, resources and capabilities to adapt to and help avert serious climate change and the crunch of a dwindling energy economy, if only the political will can be mustered — and it’s not just idealistic progressives who are saying so anymore.

In a recent report, the British non-profit Institute for Policy Research & Development (IPRD) claimed that, with targeted investments by world governments, solar power could become humanity’s main source of portable energy in 25 years or less.

The catch: “Spending priorities” must change — something that seems remarkably difficult even in the U.S., ostensibly one of the world’s most advanced democracies.

Starting with the assumption that hydrocarbon energy markets are dying and renewable energy tech is the inevitable future, the group calculated how much electricity humans consume today and how much growing populations are projected to consume by 2030.

What they found is that in 19 years from now, humanity will be consuming 724 exajoules (EJ) of energy annually. Today, that figure is about 39 percent less.

Figuring in the efficiency of today’s solar and wind power tech, they were able to model what it would take to rapidly replace the current petroleum power infrastructure with renewables.

“We find that we can replace the entire existing energy infrastructure with renewables in 25 years or less,” they wrote, “so long as [energy return on energy invested] of the mixed renewable power infrastructure is maintained at 20 [percent] or higher, by using merely 1% of the present fossil fuel capacity and a reinvestment of 10% of the renewable capacity per year.”

IPRD researchers also claimed that “an annual contribution equal to 2% of the present energy fossil fuel capacity” would allow the mixed-tech energy infrastructure to grow along currently forecasted routes — quite the opposite of the fearmongering so often broadcast by the more traditional energy industry.

This would ultimately allow a distributed, peer-based clean energy infrastructure to scale outwards, providing enough electricity for every person on the planet to live at “high human development requirements.”

But it’s not all sunshine and good news from the IPRD.

“As optimistic as our findings seem, it would be misleading if we didn’t mention some of the potential roadblocks,” they cautioned. “We observe four potential obstacles to this transition. Firstly, we note that world governments do not seem sufficiently motivated to support a timely overhaul of the global fossilfuel based economy nor the creation of one that will be cleaner and more secure. In particular, the U.S. government projects that renewables will only account for 14% of the world’s total energy mix in 2035, with a minimum of 75% coming from fossil-fuels.

“We submit that sufficient political will and determination can overcome this resistance, just as in earlier eras when the stakes were set high enough—e.g., retooling the American automobile infrastructure for World War II armaments and racing to land a human on the moon.”

Whether or not the American people are up to that challenge, however, is another question entirely.

The full IPRD study was available online (PDF).

Image credit: Flickr user astig!!.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
 
 
 
 
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