Usually when people talk about converting to renewable energy, the conversation covers what it would actually take to replace fossil fuels. It’s a good conversation to have, and a lot of good work has gone into working out how much surface area would need to be devoted to wind and solar, what other sources of power could be used, how much it would cost in the short term, and how much it would save in the long term. The end result of all this is that converting the United States – one of the highest per-capita energy consumers in the world – to renewable energy is entirely doable. The only thing lacking is political will.
That said, why stop at what’s needed?
Most estimates say that we could supply all the power the U.S. needs with less than 1% of the country’s surface area. While we need to be careful where and how things like PV, solar thermal, and wind power generators are deployed, it’s worth noting that as of 2009, somewhere around 3% of the country’s surface area is urban land, and on top of that we have roads, rural homes, and so on.
Technology has reached a point where there’s an awful lot we can do, given enough energy. Since we know what it would take to meet our current needs, what could we do if we doubled that? If we devoted 1% of our country’s surface area to generating power from the sun and the wind, and threw in power generation from sewage and other waste, plus some geothermal power, and a country-wide push toward high-efficiency construction, what are the possibilities?
A few ideas spring to my mind. First of all, it would remove any doubt about whether we could store enough power for when we needed it. Even without the continued advances in battery efficiency, we’d be able to store large amounts of power despite what’s lost in conversion from electricity to chemical, potential, or kinetic energy. Powering rail-based public transit would be a whole lot more feasible, as would the notion of large-scale indoor farming, both as a way to have food production in cities, and as a way to have farms that aren’t subject to the whims of anincreasingly unfamiliar climate. Indoor farming is pretty energy intensive, but in this scenario, we’re generating something like twice what we need, and that opens doors. It could even free up farmland for things like restoring natural habitats.
I guess what I’m asking is, what could we do if the amount of electricity we generated wasn’t based on demand, but on how we could use that power to make life better for people living here and around the world?