Coauthored by Mark Z. Jacobson
What happens when you put a movie scientist in a room with a real scientist?
In The Avengers movie, everyone is fighting over something called the Tesseract. It is a source of unlimited energy and whoever controls it is the winner. That may be a movie device, but the truth is, the Tesseract is here. The Tesseract for us is the power of wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) -- natural, clean, and renewable energy resources.
Movies give flight to our collective imaginations. Science mixed with inventive imagination and pop culture collectivism can change our world for the better and give us a vision of our future. On May 20, in his blog post, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu mentioned The Avengers when asking Congress to extend the renewable energy tax credits. He is right to ask for such a thing, but we are capable of so much more. We are standing on the threshold of an energy revolution and are determined to let the world know.
Our vision is to convert the world's energy infrastructure for all purposes to one powered by WWS technologies. This vision sounds like a fantastic movie; but it is real and based on science. It is not 100 or 50 years away. It is now, and each individual can and should strive to make it happen for the benefit of humankind.
The consequence of not acting is the continuation of 2.5 - 3 million annual air pollution deaths worldwide, land and water pollution, global warming, Arctic ice disappearance, coastal flooding, heat stress deaths, agricultural loss, severe weather, ocean acidification, higher damage costs to us all, and energy, economic, and political instability.
The vision involves converting our energy infrastructure to electricity and electricity-produced hydrogen for all purposes. WWS electricity sources include wind, solar (photovoltaics and concentrated solar), geothermal, hydroelectric, tidal, and wave power. Vehicles, ships, and trains will run on batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, and battery-hydrogen hybrid technologies, where the electricity or hydrogen is produced from WWS power.
Air and water heating and cooling will run on electric heat pumps, heat exchangers, and solar hot water heaters. Industrial processes will run on hydrogen and electricity. Buildings will be retrofitted to conserve energy.
The conversion from combustion to clean electricity will reduce world power demand by a third due to the efficiency of electricity. Sunlight in sunny locations and wind in windy locations over land can provide 30 and six times, respectively, the resulting world power needed for all purposes. The area required for such power is equivalent to only half the Sahara desert, with most being open space between wind turbines that can be used for many purposes.
Reliably matching power demand with supply is feasible. Wind and solar are complementary; when the wind is not blowing during the day the sun is usually shining, and vice versa. Hydroelectricity can fill in gaps as it does now. Additional reliability can be obtained with incentives to use electricity at non-peak times and by producing hydrogen with excess electricity.
What about system failure? The average maintenance downtime of new wind turbines is 2 percent on land and less than 5 percent offshore. That of France's 59 nuclear reactors is 22 percent. When a coal, nuclear, or gas plant fails, a large fraction of the grid fails. When a wind turbine goes down, only a minor part fails. 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, hydro, and geothermal are currently competitive with conventional energy. Solar costs are higher but rapidly decreasing. When health and environmental costs, paid through health care premiums, insurance costs, and taxes, are accounted for, all major WWS technologies are less expensive than current technologies.
An energy revolution is not only affordable but will also create jobs and revitalize the economy.
If America is known for anything it is for our dreamers. If America is great for any reason it is for our science. Today, science is capable of delivering a world of renewable energy. Today with social media and the reach of pop culture, we can educate people and achieve what was unthinkable five years ago. It is up to us to grab hold of our potential and change our world for the better.
What happens when you put a film scientist in the room with a real scientist? You hope to inspire millions to take part in an energy revolution.
Mark A. Ruffalo is an Oscar-nominated actor and plays Dr. Banner-The Incredible Hulk in The Avengers.
Mark Z. Jacobson is Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University.
Jacobson, M.Z., and M.A. Delucchi, Providing All Global Energy with Wind, Water, and Solar Power, Part I: Technologies, Energy Resources, Quantities and Areas of Infrastructure, and Materials, Energy Policy, 39, 1154-1169, doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2010.11.040, 2011.
Delucchi, M.Z., and M.Z. Jacobson, Providing All Global Energy with Wind, Water, and Solar Power, Part II: Reliability, System and Transmission Costs, and Policies, Energy Policy, 39, 1170-1190, doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2010.11.045, 2011.