By Peter D. Schwartzman & David W. Schwartzman
Arguably no challenge is more serious for the world’s future than bringing about a rapid decarbonation of the energy infrastructure with the possibility of preventing the onset of catastrophic climate change. With a mathematical model we demonstrate that this transition is technically plausible using modest inputs of existing fossil fuel reserves in the creation of a global solar power infrastructure even with existing solar technologies such as wind turbines. In addition, this global power capacity can likewise provide energy consumption per person levels for all of humanity consistent with high human development requirements.
An energy infrastructure that depends largely on renewables appears inevitable as easily mined fossil fuels will be exhausted. Given the potential for catastrophic climate change and the inherently negative environmental externalities of non-renewable forms of energy production, we must find ways to transition to renewables as soon as possible. Studies of this potential transition have pointed to the possibility of a swift shift from fossil fuels to renewables, using existing technologies, while providing sufficient long-term energy needs for all humanity. Smil’s, Kramer and Haigh’s pessimism with respect to the timing of this change stems from a preoccupation in the history of major energy shifts but in our view fails to consider the power of exponential growth in R&D investments to usher in more rapid change. We submit that the massive economic investments to propel this switch are available if spending priorities are changed.
We model the conversion of our present global energy infrastructure to a fully renewable alternative, inputting properties of current state-of-the-art renewable technology, notably its EROI (energy return on energy invested) and lifetime. Energy investments come from the depletable (i.e., non-renewable) energy sources dominated by fossil fuels as well as the growing renewable infrastructure. We find that we can replace the entire existing energy infrastructure with renewables in 25 years or less, so long as EROI of the mixed renewable power infrastructure is maintained at 20 or higher, by using merely 1% of the present fossil fuel capacity and a reinvestment of 10% of the renewable capacity per year. Furthermore, in this time frame, for an annual contribution equal to 2% of the present energy fossil fuel capacity, the global power capacity can grow relative to the present level so as to provide energy consumption per person levels sufficient for every one on the planet to live at high human development requirements, while radically reducing carbon emissions. Even faster replacement times result from higher dedicated commitments of depletable energy and energy invested from the growing renewable capacity.
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