Renewable Energy: Enough to Fight Global Warming?

The shift from our current fossil fuel based economies to sustainable renewable energy economies is usually presented as a great challenge. That is also the message coming from the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen. Oil companies tell us that it can be done but that we need decades to get there. The numbers tell a bit of a different story. Total world energy consumption is about 15 terawatts (2005).

All that energy can be generated by today’s solar panel technology on a sunny piece of land of about 550 by 550 kilometers (340 square miles). That is for instance about 3 percent of the surface of the United States and China, 4 percent of the surface of Australia, 3.5 percent of Brazil and 9 percent of India. And we just need to capture about 20 percent of the solar energy that hits such an area. Of course the beauty of solar energy is that it can be generated locally. So we are not going to see such a centralized production. But the numbers clearly convey that the challenge is not as huge as it is often presented.

Some people argue that renewable energy is not always available where it is needed. That is true. There are places where there is not enough sunshine, not enough wind etc. But again that challenge is not as big as it is made out to be. Scientific American recently calculated the renewable power available in readily accessible locations. The numbers are staggering: there is 2 terawatts (TW) hydro energy easily available, 40-85 TW wind energy and 580 TW solar energy. So there is about 40 times more clean energy available than we need for the present world consumption. All that energy can be captured with technology that already exists! From that perspective the generation of renewable energy is hardly the huge challenge that we are told it is.

The challenge that we do face is another one. There are deeply vested interests connected to the current fossil fuel based energy supply. The current leading energy companies need to undergo a huge transformation to be able to play in the very local energy supply world of the future. There is a big difference between oil refineries and big power plants and a few solar panels on a roof and a windmill in the garden. Such transformations are challenging and, no doubt, painful.

Governments can support the necessary transformation in two ways. They can support renewable energy development with taxation that punishes polluting and unhealthy power generation. That is the simplest and most effective way to stimulate the creation of the clean energy economy. At the same time they can help the current big energy companies re-structure and transform in the very same way as they have done in the past with farmers, shipping companies and most recently in Detroit.

This is the conversation that should take place in Copenhagen. And we should talk about the many inspiring renewable energy solutions that are already in the works. Ode Magazine presents a nice selection in a special Copenhagen issue that is available for free here. We have many problems in our world but the generation of renewable energy to fight global warming is certainly not among those.

Jurriaan Kamp is Editor-in-Chief of Ode Magazine. A free copy of Odes special Copenhagen issue is available here.

Global Warming is a big topic, the Climate Change Conference is a big event, and there are many points of view on both: Be sure to check out Care2s daily coverage of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference which is taking place now at Bella Center in Copenhagen.

60 comments

Jo S.
Jo S.about a year ago

Thank you.

Beng Kiat Low
low beng kiat6 years ago

Thanks

Elizabeth Vanderpool

any little bit helps

Josh Townsend
Josh Townsend6 years ago

While it's not a be all end all, the fact that we have the ability to replace fossil fuels that pollute the Earth with renewable energy is a dramatic step forward, and will ultimately be a blessing.

Odin Torchwood
Odin Torchwood6 years ago

The problem is not about finding another 5 Earth's to solve this (although I favour the idea of discovering them). We live on THIS Earth and changing for sustainability and exploiting renewable resources is the way forward and needs more support and government backing on a global scale.

Ben Oscarsito
Ben Oscarsito6 years ago

Right, it's about Sustainable Development.
If we go on like we have done for the last hundred years,
we won't stand a chance.
(If we can't find 5 more Planets Earth, that is)

Bee Hive Lady
Fiona Ogilvie6 years ago

My position is unique. I am writing after Copenhagen went bust. The question now is how can we convince goverments that all of humanity has a vested interest in sustainable clean energy.

Connor H.
Past Member 6 years ago

if u live in md, usa, check out cleancurrents.com to get windpower for a little cheaper than coal

Romana G.

Thanks for the info.

Ben Oscarsito
Ben Oscarsito6 years ago

Solar Power! Wind Energy! Wave/Tidal Energy!
Geothermical Energy! Yes!
Sustainable Development...
Reduce - Re-use - Recycle. Low energy bulbs.
Public Transportation. High speed trains. Bike Lanes.
Electric cars. Airpowered cars. Zero emissions!
Passive Houses.
Organic food. A compost in every garden.
Go vegetarian!
Let's jump off the train to the Point of No Return!