Securing public health forever with clean energy

Switching from conventional energy resources to wind, water and sunlight is essential for the future of our planet.

air pollution
Energies from wind, water and sunlight are essential for building a green and safe future [GALLO/GETTY]

Palo Alto, CA – I ask myself, why is it so difficult for nations to reach a consensus on solving the three major problems of our age: air pollution mortality, global warming and energy security. These problems are caused by the same thing – how we obtain our energy. The solution is simple: change our sources of energy. Why hasn’t this been done? Because politicians and the public have been led to believe by industries with a financial interest in the current infrastructure that, given enough time and money, they can solve the problems themselves, or that their latest products are good enough.

Don’t be fooled by the smoke and mirrors.

Let’s look at the scope of the problems, why the most advertised solutions don’t solve them, and what will solve them.
Currently, 2.5-3 million people worldwide, including nearly one million children younger than five, die prematurely each and every year from air pollution caused by the burning of biofuels and fossil fuels. Millions more become ill due to respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, asthma, pneumonia and other diseases exacerbated by air pollution.

Earthrise: 24/7 Solar

Global warming, to date, has increased global temperatures by about 0.8 degrees Celsius. Another 0.8 degrees Celsius warming is in the atmosphere but is being masked by death-causing air pollution particles, most of which cause cooling. As we clean up these cooling particles, temperatures will rise further. One particle type, black soot, causes warming and death. It is the second-leading cause of global warming after carbon dioxide and its control, in isolation from the cooling particles, is the fastest method of slowing warming and possibly the only method of preventing the imminent loss of the Arctic sea ice.

Global warming is causing the Arctic sea ice to disappear, possibly entirely within 20-30 years. The world also has 60-70 metres of total ice pack that, when melted completely, will flood seven per cent of the world’s land. In addition, global warming increases deaths from heat stress, malaria and influenza, severe storm intensity and drought in dry locations. Higher temperatures and water vapour from global warming currently increase ozone and particle air pollution deaths by another 20,000-30,000 per year. Carbon dioxide domes that form over cities contribute to these deaths. Additional global warming deaths occur today due to increased wildfires and their pollution.

Although temperatures 100 million years ago were warmer than those today, no-one lived on Earth at that time. Today, the rate of increase of temperature is nearly the fastest in recorded world history.

Dangers of conventional energy

What about advertised solutions to these problems, such as “clean coal” natural gas, biofuels and nuclear power? Here are the facts: “Clean coal” requires 25 per cent more coal, thus 25 per cent more coal mining and transport. As a result, it emits 25 per cent more traditional air pollutants than “dirty coal”. The only gas it reduces is carbon dioxide; yet by not reducing mining or transport and not reducing all smokestack emissions, “clean coal” results in 50 times more carbon dioxide per unit energy generated than does wind energy.

Conventional natural gas emitted today causes about 50-60 times more warming and air pollution death per unit energy generated than does wind power over the next 100 years. Natural gas from shale rock formations causes more than 60 times such warming and mortality. Methane from leaking natural gas causes more warming over the next 20 years than over the next 100 years because methane degrades chemically after a decade or so. As such, enhanced natural gas use is a danger to the Arctic sea ice and does not come close to addressing air pollution, global warming or long-term energy security issues.

Today, the rate of increase of temperature is nearly the fastest in recorded world history.

Nuclear power causes up to 25 times more warming and air pollution deaths per unit power output than does wind, due to the energy intensity of uranium mining and refining and to the long time to permit and construct a nuclear power plant relative to a wind farm, during which time current power grid emissions occur. In addition, to date, 1.5 per cent of all nuclear reactor cores ever built have melted down to some degree. Five countries have also developed nuclear weapons capabilities secretly under the guise of nuclear energy facilities. Thus, an expansion of nuclear power to more countries of the world will increase proliferation and meltdown risk in addition to increasing radioactive waste.

Liquid biofuels for transportation cause anywhere from 50 to 150 per cent of the carbon emissions – and 90 to 150 per cent of the air pollution mortality and illness of gasoline or diesel vehicles, whereas wind energy powering battery-electric vehicles causes less than one per cent of such emissions. The land required for a crop to produce a liquid biofuel used in a vehicle is about 100 times that required for solar photovoltaics (PVs) providing electricity for an electric car travelling the same distance. Similarly, a crop that is burned to produce electricity and heat directly requires 70 times more land than solar PV needs to produce the same energy.

So, what is the solution?

It is to convert our energy infrastructure to electricity and electricity-produced hydrogen for all purposes, where the electricity is generated by technologies running on wind, water and sunlight (WWS). WWS electric power technologies include wind turbines, concentrated solar power plants, solar PV power plants, rooftop solar PV panels, geothermal power plants, hydroelectric power plants, tidal turbines and wave devices.

Transportation technologies using WWS energy include battery-electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and electric-hydrogen hybrids. Air and water heating and cooling technologies include heat pumps, electric resistance heaters and solar hot water pre-heaters. Buildings will also be retrofitted to conserve energy better. High-temperature industrial processes will run on hydrogen and electricity. Like the Space Shuttle, aircraft will run on cryogenic hydrogen.

Wind turbines can power the world up to 15 times over [GALLO/GETTY]

Such a conversion would reduce world power demand immediately by more than 30 per cent, because electricity is so much more efficient than internal combustion. For example, electric vehicles use only 20-25 per cent the energy of gasoline or diesel vehicles to go the same distance. In fact, the cost of electricity for running an electric car is one-fifth that of running a fossil-fuel car to go the same distance. Even if electricity for an electric vehicle comes from the current dirty power grid, carbon emissions still decrease by 30 per cent, and air pollution death rates go down further because people breathe less power plant exhaust than vehicle exhaust.

What about resources and space? Solar power in sunny locations can power the world for all purposes 30 times over; wind in low-cost, windy locations on or near land can power the world 6 to 15 times over. Only 0.4 per cent more of the entire planet’s land, and 0.6 per cent more of open space between devices, is needed to power the world for all purposes with WWS. Meanwhile, 40 per cent of the world’s land is used for agriculture and grazing.

What about reliably matching variable electric power demand with supply? This can be done. Geothermal and tidal power provide constant output. Wind and solar are variable, but complementary; when the wind is not blowing during the day the sun is usually shining, and vice versa. Wind also often peaks at night over land. Hydroelectricity can be turned on and off quickly, thus can fill in gaps as in the current system.

Legacy for our children

Combining WWS energy output has been shown to allow power supply to match demand hour by hour over two years in California with virtually no backup. Additional reliability can be obtained by providing incentives for consumers to use electricity at non-peak times. Also, because the new energy infrastructure will use hydrogen, the WWS electric power supply can be oversized to facilitate matching power demand with supply and to produce hydrogen with excess wind or solar. Expanding the grid to interconnect more geographically dispersed WWS resources also aids reliability.

When should a change occur? Starting now. By 2030, all new energy systems worldwide should be [wind, water and sunlight].

What about the risk of system failure? When a coal, nuclear or gas plant go down, a large fraction of the grid fails. When a wind turbine goes down, a minor part of the grid fails. The average maintenance downtime of modern wind turbines on land is two per cent and offshore is less than five per cent. That of France’s 59 nuclear reactors is 21.5 per cent. More important, the chance of catastrophe caused by nature or terrorists acting on wind or solar technologies is zero.

What about cost? Land-based wind, hydroelectric and geothermal are currently cost-competitive with conventional energy. Solar costs are higher but rapidly decreasing. When air pollution, global warming and environmental degradation costs – which we pay through higher health care premiums, insurance costs and taxes – are accounted for, all major WWS technologies are less expensive than are current technologies.

When should a change occur? Starting now. By 2030, all new energy systems worldwide should be WWS. By 2050, all existing conventional infrastructure should be gone. This is the best legacy we can leave for our children and grandchildren.

When this is accomplished, three major problems of our age will be relegated to the annals of history.

Mark Z Jacobson is Director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University. He and Dr Mark Delucchi of UC Davis developed and published the plan described to power the world with renewable energy in Scientific American and Energy Policy. He is also the author of the new textbook, “Air Pollution and Global Warming: History, Science, and Solutions,” Cambridge University Press, 2012.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.