Transition to Renewable Energy

Despite its environmental and economic benefits, the transition to large-scale use of renewable energy presents several difficulties. Renewable energy technologies, all of which require land for collection and production, will compete with agriculture, forestry, and urbanization for land in the United States and world. The United States is at maximum use of its prime cropland for food production per capita today, but the world has less than half the cropland per capita that it needs for a diverse diet (0.5 ha) and adequate supply of essential nutrients (USDA 2004). In fact, more than 3.7 billion people are already malnourished in the world (UN/SCN 2004, Bagla 2003). With the world and US populations expected to double in the next 58 and 70 years, respectively, all the available cropland and forestland will be required to provide vital food and forest products (PRB 2006).

As the growing U.S. and world populations demand increased electricity and liquid fuels, constraints like land availability and high investment costs will restrict the potential development of renewable energy technologies. Energy use based on current growth is projected to increase from the current U.S. consumption of 102 quads to approximately 145 quads by 2050. Land availability is also a problem, with the US population adding about 3.3 million people each year (USCB 2007). Each person added requires about 0.4 ha (1 acre) of land for urbanization and highways and about 0.5ha of cropland (Vesterby and Krupa 2001).

Renewable energy systems require more labor than fossil energy systems. For example, wood-fired steam plants require several times more workers than coal-fired plants (Giampietro et al. 1998).

An additional complication in the transition to renewable energies is the relationship between the location of ideal production sites and large population centers. Ideal locations for renewable energy technologies are often remote, such as deserts of the American Southwest or wind farms located kilometers offshore. Although these sites provide the most efficient generation of energy, delivering this energy to consumers presents a logistical problem. For instance, networks of distribution cables must be installed, costing about $179,000 per km 115-kV lines (DOE/EIA 2002). A percentage of the power delivered is lost as a function of electrical resistance in the distribution cable. There are complex alternating current electrical networks in North America, and 3 of these are tied together by DC lines (Nordel 2001). Based on these networks, it is estimated that electricity can be transmitted up to 1500 km.

A sixfold increase in installed technologies would provide the United States with approximately 46 quads (thermal) of energy, less than half of current US consumption (Table 1.1). This level of energy production would require about 159 million ha of land (17% of US land area). This percentage is an estimate, and could increase or decrease depending on how the technologies evolve and energy conservation is encouraged.

Worldwide, approximately 473 quads of all types of energy are used by the population of more than 6.5 billion people (Table 1.1). Using available renewable energy technologies, an estimated 200 quads of renewable energy could be produced worldwide on about 20% of the world land area. A self-sustaining renewable energy system producing 200 quads of energy per year for about 2 billion people (Ferguson 2001) would provide each person with about 5,000 L of oil equivalents per year, approximately half of America's current consumption per year, but an increase for most people of the world (Pimentel et al. 1999).

The first priority of the US energy program should be for individuals, communities, and industries to conserve fossil fuel resources and reduce consumption. Other developed countries have proved that high productivity and a high standard of living can be achieved with the use of half the energy expenditure of the United States (Pimentel et al. 1999). In the United States, fossil energy subsidies of approximately $40 billion per year should be withdrawn and the savings invested in renewable energy research and education to encourage the development and implementation of renewable technologies. If the United States became a leader in the development of renewable energy technologies, then it would likely capture the world market for this industry (Shute 2001).

The current subsidies for ethanol production total $6 billion per year (Koplow 2006). This means that the subsidies per gallon of ethanol are 60 times greater than the subsidies per gallon of gasoline!

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