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Greenpeace's 7 steps to future fueled by renewable energy

What would the ghost of our energy future tell us?
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

One of the surefire ways to get my father-in-law all worked up is by mentioning the oil spill clean-up mess (or is that mess clean-up?) in the Gulf of Mexico. Not that he doesn't think it's a tragedy; he does. But he considers it sort of an occupational hazard that was bound to happen. He doesn't really see the spill as an imperative to reconsider other energy sources at the expense of reduced subsidies to fossil fuel.

Before you jump down my throat, rest assured that I've just printed for him (sorry, he doesn't have a computer, I HAD to print) the third edition of what Greenpeace calls its "Energy [R]evolution" report. This mini-manifesto urges us to strive for a world -- in 2050 -- where 80 percent of the primary energy demand comes from renewable energy sources. That's the flip of what's real now: about 80 percent of today's primary energy demand comes from fossil fuels.

I know how some of you feel about Greenpeace, but let me assure you that this is not mere rhetoric. The report was research and written in conjunction with scientists from the Institute of Technical Thermodynamics at the German Aerospace Centre, and its focus is on how to phase out fuels and cut carbon dioxide emissions without compromising "energy security." It offers several prospective scenarios for what COULD happen -- sort of like the ghost of our energy future.

I can't provide all the numbers for all three scenarios, so I'm going to concentrate on the numbers for the middle one, what Greenpeace calls the Energy [R]evolution Scenario. Here are a few possible outcomes, according to Greenpeace, if we take the actions it suggests:

  • Worldwide reduction of carbon dioxide emissions to around 10 gigatonnes by 2050 in the Energy [R]evolution Scenario. That's about 80 percent lower than today. The scenario calls for growth in carbon dioxide emissions to peak by no later than 2015.
  • Global phaseout of nuclear power
  • Gross domestic product (GDP) growth of about 3.1 percent over the period of 2007 to 2030 (that's the same as in the Reference Scenario, in which things from an energy standpoint stay pretty much status quo)
  • Under the Reference Scenario, investment in renewable energy and fossil fuels remains approximately equal, about $5 trillion for each sector, between now and 2030. In the Energy [R]evolution Scenario, we spend $11.3 trillion on renewables (an even more advanced scenario calls for $18 trillion in global investment.
  • The Energy [R]evolution Scenario could create about 10.6 million jobs by 2030, which is about 2 million more than would be created by the Reference Scenario

So, what can we do to get there?

Greenpeace suggests 7 ways we (the collective) can take action.

  1. Phase out subsidies for fossil fuels and energy
  2. Embrace "cap and trade" emissions trading, which would force organizations to internalize the external social and environmental costs of energy production
  3. Mandate energy efficiency standards for any energy-consuming appliance, building or vehicle
  4. Set "legally binding" targets for renewable energy and combined heat and power generation
  5. Guarantee priority access to the grid for renewable power generators
  6. Ensure specific and stable returns for investors on their renewable energy investments
  7. Set aside additional research and development budgets for renewable energy and energy efficiency

The report devotes a fair number of pages exploring how the technical potential for certain renewable energy sources relates to the primary energy demand in 2007. For instance, the technical potential of geothermal as a source of heat is about 9.9 times the world energy demand in 2007. The technical potential for solar photovoltaic is about 16 times the world energy demand in 2007.

According to Greenpeace, the thing that we often overlook when we calculate how much it "costs" for renewable energy is the ongoing cost of fuel. Once you invest in solar panels, you don't have to keep buying sunlight to run them. Of course you HAVE to have sunlight to get use out of them, so that's where energy storage technology comes into play. Anyway, there are some interesting statistics about how fuel costs might factor in the future.

Mind you, Greenpeace, isn't putting all of the burden on the development of renewable energy. It believes that energy efficiency measures alone -- retrofits on homes and buildings and the adoption of more energy-efficient technologies and appliances -- could help industrial nations cut energy consumption by 20 percent over the next decade.

It also is calling for a much more decentralized approach to energy distribution, through the creation of microgrids that would serve smaller consumer areas, such as an office building or a subdivision of a suburb.

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