The shift from our current fossil fuel based economies to sustainable renewable energy economies is usually presented as a great challenge. That is also the message coming from the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen. Oil companies tell us that it can be done but that we need decades to get there. The numbers tell a bit of a different story. Total world energy consumption is about 15 terawatts (2005). All that energy can be generated by today's solar panel technology on a sunny piece of land of about 550 by 550 kilometers (340 square miles). That is for instance about 3% of the surface of the United States and China, 4% of the surface of Australia, 3.5% of Brazil and 9% of India. And we just need to capture about 20% of the solar energy that hits such an area. Of course the beauty of solar energy is that it can be generated locally. So we are not going to see such a centralized production. But the numbers clearly convey that the challenge is not as huge as it is often presented.
Another argument that is frequently used goes that renewable energy is not always available where it is needed. That is true. There are places where there is not enough sunshine, not enough wind etc. But again that challenge is not as big as it is made out to be. Scientific American recently calculated the renewable power available in readily accessible locations. The numbers are staggering: there is 2 terawatts (TW) hydro energy easily available, 40-85 TW wind energy and 580 TW solar energy. So there is about 40 times more clean energy available than we need for the present world consumption. All that energy can be captured with technology that already exists! From that perspective the generation of renewable energy is hardly the huge challenge that we are told it is.
The challenge that we do face is another one. There are deeply vested interests connected to the current fossil fuel based energy supply. The current leading energy companies need to undergo a huge transformation to be able to play in the very local energy supply world of the future. There is a big difference between oil refineries and big power plants and a few solar panels on a roof and a windmill in the garden. Such transformations are challenging and, no doubt, painful.
Governments can support the necessary transformation in two ways. They can support renewable energy development with taxation that punishes polluting and unhealthy power generation. That is the simplest and most effective way to stimulate the creation of the clean energy economy. At the same time they can help the current big energy companies re-structure and transform in the very same way as they have done in the past with farmers, shipping companies and most recently in Detroit.
This is the conversation that should take place in Copenhagen. And we should talk about the many inspiring renewable energy solutions that are already in the works. Ode Magazine presents a nice selection in a special Copenhagen issue that is available for free here. We have many problems in our world but the generation of renewable energy to fight global warming is certainly not among those.