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According to a recent announcement by the Obama administration, federal spending on clean energy projects in the U.S. is on track to total about $11 billion per year by 2014. This may seem like a lot of money, but it reflects a precipitous decline over the past few years and is paltry compared to the $130 billion we spent each year ($1.3 trillion total) on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011.
Raising our spending to the same level of our recent war spending may seem like an impossible dream. But if we were somehow able to do so, miracles could begin to happen. Spending $1.3 trillion could pay for:
· The construction of large solar arrays that would have generated 57 percent of the electricity that we currently generate using fossil fuels, while consuming only .08 percent of our land
· The outfitting with solar energy panels of more than 48 million single family homes. This would have reduced the demand for electricity that is currently generated by fossil fuels by 20 percent.
· The construction of mega wind farms that would have generated 125 percent of the electricity that we currently generate using fossil fuels, while consuming only 1.15 percent of our land.
The table below provides the data and information behind these estimates.
Total land area, continental U.S.: 2.3 billion acres
Total U.S. electricity consumption: 475,000 megawatts per year
Total from fossil fuels: 350,000 megawatts per year
Number of single family homes in the U.S.: 90 million
Total electricity consumption: 130,000 megawatts per year
Total from fossil fuels: 95,800 megawatts per year
LARGE SOLAR ARRAY PROJECTS
A recent solar array project cost $700 million to produce 110 megawatts, which is about $6.4 million per megawatt. It would cover approximately 950 acres of land, which is about 8.6 acres per megawatt. From these numbers, it can be estimated that $1.3 trillion would purchase about 200,000 megawatts of electrical power and use up about 1.7 million acres of land.
RESIDENTIAL SOLAR EQUIPMENT
It costs about $27,000 to equip a single family home with solar power for electrical purposes. $1.3 trillion would equip about 48 million homes, which is 53 percent of the total number of single family homes in the U.S. This would reduce grid consumption by about 70,000 megawatts per year.
MEGA WIND PROJECTS
A mega wind project was recently budgeted at $12 billion to produce 4,000 megawatts, which is about $3 million per megawatt. It would cover approximately 240,000 acres of land, which is about 60 acres per megawatt. From these numbers, it can be estimated that $1.3 trillion would purchase about 433,000 megawatts of electrical power and use up about 26 million acres of land.
What would this spending have yielded in terms of CO2 emissions? Depending on which approach we used, these changes would have reduced our CO2 emissions by from 890 million to 2.3 billion tons per year. The higher number – which would result from spending all of the money on mega wind projects – is equal to all of the CO2 the U.S. is estimated to generate each year and more than 17 percent of total estimated global CO2 emissions from electrical power generation.
The same level of global spending ($180 billion) divided equally among these three types of projects has the potential to reduce total CO2 emissions by more than thirty percent by 2050. But this is only half of the $269 billion that the DOE estimates is being spent worldwide on clean energy projects. This level of spending – it was directed toward eliminating the burning of fossil fuels for electrical power – has the potential to eliminate more than 60 percent of related global CO2 emissions by 2050.
But is that enough? According to some scientific models, there must be a complete elimination of CO2 emissions by 2020 if global catastrophic climate change is to be avoided. For all electrical power emissions, this would require an increase in global spending to more than $2 trillion per year.
The table below provides the data behind these estimates.
Total CO2 emissions, U.S.: 5.5 billion metric tons
CO2 emissions from electric power generation: 2.3 billion metric tons
Total CO2 emissions, global: 30 billion metric tons
CO2 emissions from electrical power generation: 13 billion metric tons
Total global 2011 GDP: $62 trillion
Total global electrical power generation: 2.7 million megawatts
GLOBAL SPENDING AND IMPACTS
Total annual global spending: $130 billion
Percent of global 2011 GDP: .2 percent
Total annual global electrical power production: 23,000 megawatts
Percent reduction in current CO2 emissions:
By 2020: 6.0 percent
By 2050: 31.0 percent
Total annual global spending: $260 billion
Percent of global 2011 GDP: .4 percent
Total annual global electrical power production: 46,000 megawatts
Percent reduction in current CO2 emissions:
By 2020: 12.0 percent
By 2050: 63.0 percent
Total annual global spending: $2.1 trillion
Percent of global 2011 GDP: 3.4 percent
Total annual global electrical power production: 375,000 megawatts
Percent reduction in current CO2 emissions:
By 2020: 97.2 percent
These data show that the seemingly high level of current global spending (more than $260 billion) on clean energy sources is nowhere near enough to eliminate electrical power CO2 emissions within forty years, let alone by 2020. To do that, annual spending would need to be increased nearly eightfold, to more than $2 trillion. While high, this is only equal to about half of what is currently spent by the nations of the world to prepare for war!
Clearly, the technology and the resources exist to eliminate CO2 emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels for the generation of electrical power. What (of course) has been and is missing is the will to do so, both here in the U.S. and in the world at large. The inertia will not – cannot – be overcome without serious institutional change. One possibility would be the designation of a multi-national body that would be responsible for developing a global intervention strategy. Members of the body would be appointed on the basis of their credentials and geographic representation. An overall strategy would be developed and technical assistance provided to develop local or regional projects that are consistent with timeline and spending strategies. Projects would be carefully monitored and used to inform an evolutionary approach that leads to new and better methods and technologies. Funding could be through a bank that is financed with contributions from each nation based on its percentage contribution to global CO2 emissions.
The implementation of such a strategy won’t solve the problem of CO2 emissions entirely. The effects of transportation – which emits some 2 billion tons of CO2 per year – will not be addressed. And as progress is made in reducing transportation emissions, there is likely to be increased demand for electricity as electric-powered vehicles replace combustion engine vehicles. (Of course, CO2 emissions would also be reduced as a result of this switchover.) It is also true that not all regions of the globe will be able to adopt all three of the approaches, either in terms of level or mixture. Mega wind or solar projects or the outfitting of homes with solar panels may simply not be feasible everywhere or worth the investment in terms of payoff in terms of reduced electrical consumption or CO2 emissions. Nor does it consider new technologies or technological innovations (one noteworthy example being a proposal to build a “space cup” in outer space, as reported in the November issue of National Geographic magazine). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it needs to be recognized that there will continue to be growth in the global demand for electricity for the foreseeable future, perhaps at a rate of 2-3 percent per year. This amounts to a need for new power generation of 60-70,000 additional megawatts per year, which equates to more than $300 billion in annual spending (roughly what we’re currently spending).
Still, this analysis suggests that a drastic reduction in our domestic emissions of CO2 is possible using existing technology. Moreover, we can do so by spending no more than we spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the U.S. takes effective unilateral actions, it will likely translate into global action. Because every country in the world, when faced with the climate change challenge, asks itself, “If the U.S. continues to poison the world with its high levels of CO2 emissions, what good will it do if we eliminate ours?”
This means that the global problem won’t be solved until we make a serious effort to solve our problem here at home, one that is many times as large as that contemplated by the Obama administration.
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About the Author
Edward J Jepson
Edward J. Jepson, Jr. has a masters degree and a Ph.D. in Urban and Regional Planning. Before its closure in 2009, he taught planning for e
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