Can Renewable Energy Power the World?

Clean energy had once been considered a fantastical idea that would never become a reality. Today, there are more renewable energy systems producing electrical power for the world than there has ever been, and these energy systems are becoming more plentiful with every passing year. In a world dependant on fossil-fuels, however, the potential of renewable energy is skewed, with some not knowing whether or not clean power is actually worth supporting.

Solar, wind, hydrogen fuel, and other sources of clean energy have the potential to satisfy the entire world’s energy demands. The world currently consumers as much as 524 quadrillion Btu of electrical power, the vast majority of which is produced from fossil-fuels. Despite this massive amount of energy production, there are still many places in the world where energy is hard to come by. The world already has the infrastructure needed to continue using fossil-fuels, but this infrastructure is not suited for clean energy. Modernizing this infrastructure to support clean power is a costly endeavor, so why do it?

One reason is because fossil-fuels are finite. There is not a source of oil or coal that will last forever, and even if we had enough of these fuels to last us a thousand generations, it would run out eventually. Moreover, the aggressive consumption of fossil-fuels is flooding the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, creating a largely unmitigated greenhouse effect that is changing the climate. As a finite resource, fossil-fuels are often the subject of political battles and these issues can quickly turn violent. So, with only a few of the problems associated with continued use of fossil-fuels considered, is renewable energy able to power the world?

Solar energy alone has the potential to meet the world’s energy needs. The sun delivers more solar power to the earth in one hour than the entire human population uses in a single year. It would take a 496,805 square kilometer solar farm to meet the world’s demand for electrical power. Such a solar farm could exist in many places in the world and if such a farm were separated into 5,000 square kilometer segments that could be installed in various places, the effort needed to build such a solar energy system becomes more reasonable.

Wind is another resource that can meet the world’s energy needs. A recent study from Stanford University’s School of Engineering and the University of Delaware showed that 4 million offshore wind turbines and 2 million onshore wind turbines taking up 1% of the planet’s land surface could meet the world’s energy needs. The study assumed that these turbines could be built anywhere, regardless of societal, environmental, or political concerns.

Despite the potential of clean energy, fossil-fuels reign supreme in the energy world. This has to do with various political and economic factors that make it impossible for clean energy to flourish.

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