In Back to the Future, the classic Michael J. Fox film, the inventive Doc exclaims, “1.21 Gigawatts!!!!!” in horror when he realizes how much energy he needs to send his DeLorean back to the future. It turns out that we need to bring that much new clean energy online every day for the next 25 years.
1.21 Gigawatts???? Impossible???
Let’s say you want to turn on a 100 Watt bulb in your house. (You’ve probably already changed your light bulbs to compact fluorescent or LEDs so it might be a lot less than 100 watts, but go with me.) To light that light bulb, you’re most likely getting energy from coal, gas, nuclear, hydro, or wind. In the US, a bit less than half of the electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Coal produces wonderfully inexpensive power, but it also emits the highest amount of CO2 of any of the major energy sources used in the US.
Recent studies and calculations have figured out that we need to produce about 13,000 Gigawatts of new zero-carbon energy in the next 25 years in order to prevent a climate change catastrophe.
That’s a gigawatt of new clean energy a day, every day, for the next 25 years and more. And that’s the minimum we’ll need. Scientists, led by NASA’s James Hansen have told us that we need to ensure that the level of carbon in the atmosphere stays below 450 PPM. Author Bill McKibben has spearheaded a campaign to bring our carbon level back to 350 PPM, conveniently named 350.0rg.
Back to our lightbulbs. The big question is how we produce the energy we need and still keep the level of carbon in the atmosphere below 450 PPM. Creating 13,000 gigawatts of new clean energy in the next 25 years is no small feat. A gigawatt is 1,000 megawatts of energy, or a billion watts. A large coal fired power plant or nuclear power plant produces about a GW of energy. A gigawatt is enough to power 1,000,000 100 watt bulbs.
So how do we get there? We could do it by building a new nuclear power plant every day for the next twenty-five years. That seems unlikely. According to Steve Kirsch, we could it with wind power, by “installing more than 1,500 large (2 MW, with enormous 100m diameter blades) wind turbines every day for 30 years.” And doing it with solar power alone is even more difficult.
The answer will lie in bringing all of these technologies together, along with a host of new technologies and transmission infrastructure to power our lives. Efficiency is always the first investment. In the 13,000 GW model, there’s a 50% energy efficiency calculation built in. We’re also going to have to find ways to increase our quality of life while using less electricity. I bike or walk to work whenever I can; it saves energy, but it’s also more fun.
The Breakthrough Institute, in Oakland, California, is calling for a $50 Billion a year US Federal investment in making clean energy cheap and available. The reality of the challenge we face in changing over our energy supply requires that we think that big. Getting to 13,000 new gigawatts of clean energy in the next generation will be no small task.
Discuss This »