Canary in the Coal World

It is only a tiny island, you say, and a remote one at that. Still, the 107-square-mile El Hierro, one of the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa, could be considered a symbol of hope for a global warming-besieged world.

In a few months, the island's 10,000 residents will benefit from completion of an energy system that is self-sufficient and generated solely by renewable sources, namely wind and hydro power.

Latest statistics indicate humanity is losing the struggle to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions that scientists link to the gradual overheating of the planet. A key strategy for reversing that alarming trend is to shift from carbon emitting coal and other fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources such as wind and the sun.

Critics' knock against wind and solar is that they are too intermittent to be reliable main sources of energy. As for El Hierro, they say it is one thing to create a renewable energy delivery system as the sole source of power on a speck in the ocean. It's quite another to do the same thing for an entire nation.

But the storage technology for wind and solar in "dead" periods, often cited as the major impediment to their mass application, is coming on fast. Meanwhile, installation and operational costs are plummeting thanks to economies of scale.

So what is the hang up?

Impediments to the wholesale spread of renewables here as well as throughout the world appear to be political and social, not technical or economic. The politically influential international fossil fuel lobby has so far managed to keep a lid on mass application of renewables in our country.

At present, renewables provide approximately 11 percent of our domestic electricity generation. But due largely to industry-biased Republican congressional intransigence, we badly trail at least 30 other nations, which receive more than 20 percent of their power from renewables.

If you need convincing that technical and economic barriers to mass application of renewables are a red herring, your attention is called to a batch of scientific analytic projections.

The United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) forecasts that at current rates of expansion, renewables will constitute 17 percent of our energy mix by 2030 and 27 percent by 2050. But if the currently available technology is exploited to its fullest, the IPPC estimates that renewables could account for 80 percent of our energy mix by mid-century.

Nor is the IPPC alone in its optimistic projections of renewables' potential. The International Energy Agency says the technology is available for solar energy to provide a quarter of the world's power by 2050. What is required is the political will. That element is also referenced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in its forecast that renewables' electricity generation is capable of meeting 80 percent of our nation's demand by 2050.

Stanford University Civil Engineering Professor Mark Jacobson does NREL one better. According to his computations, if all the right buttons are pushed, renewables are capable of fulfilling all mankind's electricity demands by 2050.

That brings us back to tiny El Hierro. Guess what? Its experience is not as far removed from the outside world as one might have initially thought.