By George Harvey
In May of 2015, a team of researchers headed by Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University published a paper, “100% clean and renewable wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy roadmaps for the 50 United States.” It proposed a set of roadmaps to eliminating of our use of fossil fuels, nuclear power, and generating electricity from biomass. (http://bit.ly/stanford-fossil-free)
That paper was not without controversy. Rather than dwell on that, I will refer the reader to an article I wrote in the August issue of Green Energy Times (GET), “We Don’t Need Fossil Fuels.” (http://bit.ly/GET-dont-need-fossil-fuels)
As I was writing that article, Dr. Jacobson told me in an email that a paper for 139 country roadmaps would come out in the journal, Joule in August. Now, that paper has appeared, as “Jacobson et al., 100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight All-Sector Energy Roadmaps for 139 Countries of the World, Joule (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.joule.2017.07.005.” (Somehow, I think Nancy Rae Mallery, GET’s editor, would have provided a shorter title, but we are not academics here. I will just call it 139 Roadmaps, maintaining the Italics to keep things visually clear, even though it is technically not proper style.)
139 Roadmaps describes pathways for 139 countries to eliminate fossil fuels, while also eliminating the use of nuclear power and biomass. This leaves wind, water, and solar (WWS) as the three prime sources of energy. Other, non-polluting power sources, such as batteries, wave power, and tidal power, are allowed in the mix, however, if they require comparatively little mining, do no wide-scale environmental destruction, and produce no waste.
There is an important point here, which is that this approach is not only possible, but practically achievable. In fact, it even looks like it may be one of the best investment and employment opportunities in history.
139 Roadmaps gives figures that will provide some sense of the scale for business. Moving away from fossil fuels entails a loss of jobs in mining, fuel transportation, processing, and other industries. But 139 Roadmaps concludes that converting to WWS would create over 24 million more permanent new jobs than are lost. These figures point to disruption of the fossil fuels industry, but it is replaced by a set of industries that show significantly greater opportunities.
One important point is that the technologies addressing the elimination of fossil fuels will also work to do away the use of unventilated indoor fires, which are used in poor areas of the world.
Another important point is that the industries that will be disrupted, the fossil fuels industries and those dependent on them, can be expected to attack 139 Roadmaps loudly. While a some fossil fuels companies are looking at new business plans, there are others that are trying hard to put off what I can only see as the inevitable demise of their industry.
Having the technology and the business reasons to eliminate our use of fossil fuels does not by itself provide an imperative to do so. It only means that is is possible and practical, and that there is no societal reason not to do so. But we have compelling reasons to move toward WWS, eliminating our use of fossil fuels, that go beyond business. They are the environmental destruction, climate change, human health problems, and mortality fossil fuels cause.
Outdoor air pollution kills about 3.5 million people each year. Energy-related indoor air pollution kills about the same number, bringing the total to about 7 million. (By comparison, World War II killed about 2.7 million combatants each year, on average. World War II is easily seen as an evil that was brought to an end, but air pollution is considered “normal” by some people, and it goes on.)
We have all the technology and tools we need to stop great numbers of people from being killed, and we have no reason not to do so.
Reading Dr. Jacobson’s papers, I have personally learned something that I had not really considered before. It is that the issue of climate change really should be conflated with the broader issue of air pollution. The two should be treated together because they go hand in hand; if you use WWS to eliminate either, you will also eliminate the other.
The issue of climate change is a matter of debate among politicians. Those who claim to believe it might not be happening (a group that is suspiciously similar to the group whose elections were financed by companies in the fossil fuels industry) have been keeping the debate “alive.” Many in the media find that debate a useful form of entertainment for audiences. By treating the problems of air pollution and climate change together, 139 Roadmaps takes a broader, and therefore less assailable, approach.
The fact that 139 Roadmaps does not use nuclear power or biomass is worth going into. Nuclear power has historically been too messy, even if we only consider the eleven acknowledged meltdowns that have taken place in grid-tied reactors. But it also entails mining, refining, enrichment, transportation, and waste handling. The mining is environmentally destructive on term longer than human history, and the waste handling is an unresolved problem. And on top of all that, it is so expensive that it would consume amounts of money that could be more effectively used elsewhere.
Biomass has its own problems. Not the least of these is the fact that it is inefficient, in terms of the amount of energy needed for production. It also represents environmental loss of plants that might otherwise be sequestering carbon. And it can pollute. Depending on how it is produced and used, it can be very destructive to the environment.
Ultimately, 139 Roadmaps, like its predecessors, paints a rather hopeful approach to dealing with what I believe is the most pressing issue since the beginning of human history. It is an approach that could enrich the lives of many millions of people while protecting the lives and health of many millions more. It makes clear that the job of dealing with climate change and pollution can be addressed, without great sacrifices for our countries and those living in them.