Globo-renewables all electric future touted again

Still requires population freeze + universal poverty


Analysis Another American environment professor has asserted that the entire world can easily power itself using only pure-green generation methods - "wind, solar and water". As with other recent plans, the idea would seem to be to keep the developing world in misery - and the developed world in penury.

The new scheme comes to us courtesy of Mark Jacobson, a hard-green environment professor at Stanford. Jacobson and his colleague Mark Delucchi at UC-Davis have drafted an article outlining their thoughts which is to be on the cover of Scientific American next month.

To begin with, Jacobson and Delucchi assert that shifting everything onto electricity - electric cars and trucks, electric trains, electric heating and hot water and industry, electric ships etc etc - would reduce the amount of energy the human race required, by a matter of 32 per cent. This is about the only new thing the two bring to the global energy debate.

It's actually a bit of a no-brainer, though. Any reasonably well-informed person knows that an electric car uses energy supplied to it more efficiently than a fossil-fuelled one; it has to, as it can't hold anything like as much energy. Domestic use of electric power for heating, hot water etc also tends to be more efficient - in terms of energy for results, if not money for results - than burning hydrocarbon in the home. These are not new facts.

In fact the 32 per cent reduction also seems a bit of a fudged no-brainer, as there are quite a few things which can't be or aren't yet done using electricity - aviation, space, various important industrial processes. Jacobson and Delucchi propose that any applications of this sort use hydrogen produced using electricity instead, but this is liable to introduce a lot of inefficiencies.

Hydrogen is difficult to store and transport - hydrogen-fuelled aircraft, for instance, would be mostly fuel tank. Economy-class air travel would probably disappear; long-distance travel would, as it was in the days before airliners, become a luxury for the rich only. Ordinary folk might travel the world on occasion, but only to migrate or to go to war. There would be other consequences - concrete would become enormously more expensive than it now is, for instance, and this plan calls for a hell of a lot of concrete.

But skip that - take the enviro-profs at their word and assume that an electric- and hydrogen-powered civilisation would require only 68 per cent as much energy as today's. They calculate that this means a global energy demand of just 100 petawatt-hours annually, as opposed to say 150. They then go on to happily (and meaninglessly) assert that building wind turbines and solar plants on "just 1.3 per cent of the world's land area" would meet such a demand.

Problem solved, eh? That's cover-story stuff in SciAm, all right.

Not so much. World power demand in the 100-150 PWh range ignores an uncomfortable truth: that most of the world's population currently lives in conditions that Westerners - and often enough the people themselves - consider quite rightly to be abject misery. Luxurious powerhog Americans, for instance, each use 91 megawatt-hours per year. Even relatively restrained Europeans require 46 MWh/year. These figures, if applied to the whole human race, equate to global demands in the 600+ PWh/yr range.

Let's assume that the world's population magically stabilises at 7 billion people (a big ask, but let's assume). Let's further assume that these people - including us - deserve to have some of the finer things in life: lighting, regular showers, clean laundry, habitable homes, enough personal mobility and industry to have a job other than shovelling muck. In other words let's say they deserve as much energy as Europeans, but not Americans.

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