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Another (renewable) energy is possible

By: 
Bradley Hughes

December 8, 2011

Review of Renewable Energy: What now?

Talk by Robin Macqueen, Thursday December 1, 2011

Final lecture in the fall Langara College Community Lecture Series

By Bradley Hughes

When even noted progressive figures, such as George Monbiot, are turning to nuclear energy as the solution to climate change, it was refreshing to hear this lecture by Robin Macqueen. Rather than accepting the prevailing logic dominating the mainstream these days–where choices seem limited to coal, nuclear or nothing–Macqueen, looked at the problems with our current energy supply and genuine green alternatives.

The problems we face include finite resources, climate change and energy poverty. The answer to all of these problems is renewable energy.

Finite resources

Not only are do they emit carbon into the atmosphere, but oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear power are all based on finite resources that will run out some day. Renewable resources like wind, wave, solar and geothermal power will exist as long as the planet does.

Energy poverty

While energy consumption continues to soar, consumption of that energy is not equally shared by the earth’s population. Our current energy systems leave 1.3 billion people without electricity. An interesting measure of this electricity consumption is the number of people it would take, riding bicycle-powered generators 24/7, to provide a person with the power they use. Mr. Macqueen pointed out that using this measure, people in North America would require 100 bicycle riding “energy servants,” people in Europe would need 50, while the global average is only 25. This is neither sustainable, nor equitable.

Our current system is based on large centralized electricity plants, many renewable sources like solar power and geothermal could easily be provided on much smaller and local scales that would allow many more people access to electricity,

Alternatives

Those who pan alternative energies, often do so with the understanding that our energy consumption will continue to increase. Mr. Macqueen, however, emphasized that in addition to changing our sources for power, a great deal could be accomplished with efficiencies.

He referred to a study published in Scientific American in 2009, to address the question, is there enough renewable power to supply our needs? The study determined that from all renewable sources we could produce 580 terawatts of power a year by 2030. (Your power bill is measured in kilowatts, A terawatt is one billion kilowatts.) In 2030, our projected global energy usage is 17 TW, (or only 12 TW if we make use of the available efficiencies.) That is more than 34 times enough renewable energy to replace all of our current, finite, dirty energy sources.

Having acknowledged that there is more than enough possible energy, Mr. Macqueen went on to discuss the already existing technologies that we have to capture this energy, emphasizing how real an alternative these technologies actually are.

We will need 30 times more wind power by 2030. Since wind power generation has increased by at least that much in the last 15 years, we can easily do this.

To get enough solar power by 2030 we would need to increase our capacity by 200 times. But again, we have already seen that magnitude of increase over the last couple of decades.

Beyond these, there are several ways of using the Earth’s heat for heat and power. At the scale of a neighbourhood, small systems can use the difference between the temperature on the surface and the temperature underground to heat and cool our homes.

Another technology, know as enhanced geothermal, uses very deep pipes that go three to four kilometers underground to heat water that can be used to produce electricity. Mr. Macqueen pointed out that in a country with such a huge oil and gas drilling industry, we already have extensive technology and experience needed to produce such plants. Only a hundred plants would be needed to cover most of our electrical needs.

In a year in which possibilities for another world have been raised profoundly by the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement in which people have posed a radical alternative to the status quo, it is refreshing to hear a talk on renewable energy that reflects those high horizons. Absent was pessimism and negotiation, instead we were treated to optimism and the possibility of a real, green alternative.

Mr. Macqueen ended his talk with some suggestions for reducing personal energy use, but concluded that individual solutions will not be enough. We need collective action to transform our energy systems and change over to clean, renewable and just power production.

The details of all manner of energy systems will be covered in a new course that Robin Macqueen is set to teach at Langara college in May of 2012. The course is called PHYS 1124 Energy and the Environment. http://www.langara.bc.ca/programs-and-courses/courses/PHYS/1124.html

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