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Sierra Daily

Jan 20, 2011

Scaling Up

Solar panels

Suddenly everyone wants to talk about what it would take to get Beyond Oil in 20 Years.  Today's contribution is from David Biello in the always-smart Yale environment360 with Green Energy's Big Challenge: The Daunting Task of Scaling Up. Like Mark Delucchi and Mark Jacobson, Biello is trying to tease out whether it is possible to wean the world from fossil fuels in the near future. He concludes that it is--but at the cost of the total transformation of the country and the globe.

One thing is certain: If the global economy does succeed in making the transition to renewable energy, the face of the planet will be significantly changed, with solar energy farms and wind turbines a common feature of many landscapes and seascapes.

Producing 10 percent of the energy the United States used in 2009 from wind farms, for example, would require turbines covering an area the size of New Hampshire. Meeting global energy demand from solar power would mean covering 1 percent of the earth's surface with solar panels. The problem is that pollution problems notwithstanding, fossil fuels are pretty darn efficient:

A coal-fired power plant produces 100 to 1,000 watts per square meter, depending on the type of coal it burns and how that coal is mined. A typical photovoltaic system for turning sunlight into electricity produces just 9 watts per square meter, and wind provides only 1.5 watts per square meter. . . . “Ultimately [says Jon Wellinghoff, chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission], we are going to have to accept the fact that wind turbines and solar systems are going to take up fairly large pieces of land."

Given the fervent opposition to relatively modest wind projects like Cape Wind and the battles over the siting of large solar projects in Southwestern deserts (about which the Sierra Club and its members have many strong opinions), it won't be an easy transition. But having taken the position that it is a necessary one, it's something we need to start envisioning now.

--Paul Rauber

Image: iStock.

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