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Editorial: The possibility of a clean energy future

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | AUGUST 04, 2014 5:00 AM

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Extreme weather in Iowa during the summertime appears to be on the rise. We often start with torrential rainfalls and conclude with severe dry spells, both of which devastate crops and livestock.

Given rising global temperatures and growing carbon dioxide and methane emissions, this appears to be the new normal, as hundreds of Iowa climatologists stated in the Iowa Climate Statement 2013.

Dubuque Street, the major entrance to Iowa City from Interstate 80 has been flooded repeatedly, as has City Park in the past couple years, leading to millions of dollars in repair costs, not to mention the devastating 2008 flood.

To keep the situation from getting substantially worse, both in Iowa and around the world, making new investments in renewable energy that help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is the best path forward.

Last month, one research team, led by Stanford environmental engineering Professor Mark Jacobson, proposed a plan that would get each individual state to rely completely on wind, water, and solar energy by 2050.

Iowa is on its way, with around 27 percent of its energy generated by wind turbines, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The American Wind Energy Association reports that wind farms in Iowa produce slightly more than 1 gigawatt of electricity annually, enough to power 1.5 million homes for a year.

The Stanford researchers determined that if Iowa made the leap to wind, solar, and hydropower, the state would save nearly $14,000 per person annually in costs associated with poor health, high energy prices, and climate change that we face with our heavy consumption of fossil fuels.

Approximately 68 percent of energy would come from wind sources, while just under 32 percent would come from solar.

Admittedly, some job losses will occur after a switch to rely solely on renewable energy. However, Iowa would gain a projected net 52,000 full-time jobs from building and operating new facilities.
In fact, only three states, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Wyoming, would actually experience net job losses. Still, this is nothing that job retraining programs can’t fix.

But is such a dramatic transformation actually possible? According to Jacobson, the lead author of many similar proposals published in the academic journals Energy and Energy Policy, on an economic and technological front, society has the tools it needs to start transitioning. It’s the political and social realm that has made change difficult.

In the journal Climate Change Economics, David McCollum and his colleagues estimated that for the world to prevent a rise in global temperatures of more than 2 degrees Celsius, beyond which point climate scientists generally say truly catastrophic events would likely occur, it would require an annual global investment of $1.1 trillion.

The entire world spends approximately $300 billion on clean energy and puts $500 billion toward fossil-fuel subsidies. Although that $500 billion can’t necessarily be directly reallocated, it highlights how surprisingly affordable a massive shift toward renewable energy would be.

In the past, struggles with storing energy generated from clean sources have been a point of criticism, but in January, Scientific Americanreported on a new “flow battery” that can store substantial quantities of energy cheaply.

Other proposals have suggested simply building more wind turbines and solar panels than we actually need to produce enough energy when the sky is overcast or the wind isn’t blowing or investing in demand-response-management systems for the electric grid that can micromanage and divert power from one location to another with relative ease.

Society has the know-how and the resources needed to keep the planet’s climate in-check. Now, it’s just a matter of building the social and political willpower to get the job done.


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