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Page added on October 29, 2009

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Can Renewable Energy Save The World?

We can replace some fossil fuel power with renewable power without a major cost increase, but we cannot hope to replace a major fraction of our fossil power with intermittent power sources such as wind and solar – unless we can develop storage technologies. Being able to store power and smooth the output of intermittent power sources would greatly enhance the attractions of renewable power.
Without such storage technology, we will have to rely on non-renewable but carbon-free power sources – such as nuclear power and coal with carbon capture and storage – to provide a significant part of our power. As noted earlier, nuclear is no more expensive than coal with a carbon charge, although of course there are risks that are specific to nuclear power (Heal and Kunreuther 2009). The cost of capturing and storing CO2 emissions from coal power stations are not yet known, though we do know that this can be done from successful pilot projects. It will probably take the cost of electricity from coal above 10 cents/kWh.

To replace 25% of current electric capacity in the US by wind power would require an investment of at least $2 trillion (Heal 2009), more for solar, without allowing for extensions and enhancements to the grid. To do this over the next 15 years would require allocating about 1% of current GDP to renewables each year – a large but feasible number.

The bottom line is that neither costs nor capital requirement will prevent us from decarbonising the electricity supply. The real obstacle to doing this largely with renewables is our current inability to store power, and as long as we cannot store power we will need to use non-renewable sources like nuclear and coal with carbon capture and storage.

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