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Realistic? Renewable Energy. Unrealistic? A Cheap, Easy, Risk-Free Transition to It

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Vaclav Smil, distinguished professor in the faculty of environment at the University of Manitoba, makes an important point today about managing expectations regarding new forms of energy.

According to Smil, we were all set up for disappointment by overly optimistic time frames issued in challenges, like this one from Al Gore in 2008:

“Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years. This goal is achievable, affordable, and transformative.”

Smil notes:

Transformative it would be, but it would certainly not be affordable, and, even if it were, it could never be accomplished in such a short period of time.

The reason, he explains, is that "Energy transitions—be they from coal to oil, from oil to natural gas, or from coal-fired electricity generation to a system relying primarily on renewable solar and wind flows—are inherently prolonged affairs. New energy sources and conversion techniques become commercially viable only after decades spent establishing new and often expensive infrastructures. In the case of wind and solar power, this would require not only massive construction of large wind farms and extensive fields of solar panels but also new, transcontinental, high-voltage transmission links. And even if this infrastructure were already in place, the United States would have to create in a single decade nearly twice as much the capacity for new electricity generation as it built in the past 50 years."

But, as Smil points out, the slow pace of progress is not for lack of good ideas. The infrastructure simply does not yet exist to handle all the excess power generated by new technologies, as we pointed out recently.

In the end, professor Smil concedes that "Al Gore was right: America needs a fundamental re-powering." However, it will take "decades of sustained investment and unprecedented innovation."

We can do it. Though, like most everything else in the world, it will take twice as long and cost three times as much.
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