Can Renewable Energy Solve the Global Climate Change Challenge?

by Diana Drake

Maanasa Mendu is relying on innovation and electric charges to tackle the global energy crisis. The freshman at Mason High School in Mason, Ohio, will travel this month to St. Paul, Minnesota, as a top 10 national finalist in the 2016 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge. While there, she’ll present her invention that helps make wind power a globally applicable energy source. “Wind power is a powerful and popular form of renewable energy with enormous potential,” says Mendu in her competition video. “We need to make wind power an efficient and globally applicable energy source.” Mendu has created a device that uses piezoelectricity materials that are eco-friendly and cost-efficient to provide wind power to the world.

Mendu’s invention and passion for the future of energy generation are well in tune with the critical needs of the global economy. The adoption of renewable energy, generated from natural resources like sunlight, wind, tides, plant growth and geothermal heat, is a key strategy in combatting greenhouse gas emission-fueled climate change, which the World Economic Forum identifies each year as a serious global risk. Traditional fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and petroleum – which renewables seek to replace — contribute to the air pollution that causes global warming.

An article published this month by our parent publication, Knowledge@Wharton, explores today’s market for wind and solar power and the realities of climate change. Says Wharton business economics professor Arthur van Benthem: “The renewable energy industry has experienced dramatic growth over the last couple of years.”

Here are some fast facts shared by van Benthem and other climate change experts about the global challenge to deal with greenhouse gas emissions:

  • Wind and solar power prices have plunged. As the cost of renewable generation nears the cost of fossil-fueled electricity, more people are likely to spend money to install this energy and use it.
  • Projections about future wind and solar deployment have become more optimistic, especially in the U.S. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a company that analyzes the energy system, expects total installed solar will more than quadruple between now and 2022, on the strength of continued cost declines. And the projection made in the year 2000 by the International Energy Agency of how much wind power capacity there would be in 2040 has been revised upward, fivefold.
  • Solar power use in the U.S. is on the rise in part because companies have found efficient ways to acquire customers, process the applications and install the panels on people’s roofs. SolarCity, based in Silicon Valley, Calif., is one of the country’s leading residential solar companies. Tesla, the electric-power car company founded by Elon Musk, is expected to acquire SolarCity in November.
  • The power generation industry is only responsible for a part of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. The other sectors combined — which include transportation, heating and cooling, cement making and industry — make up a larger share of emissions than power.
  • As part of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, reached in December 2015, every nation pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Electric vehicles can help nations meet their emissions-reductions targets, but not everyone is convinced just yet that they need to buy an electric car. Sales of electric vehicles have been far lower than what some of the more optimistic observers in the industry had projected a few years back.
  • Chevy’s Bolt and the upcoming Tesla 3 are expected to have ranges of 200 miles, for the same price at which cars were selling six years ago, which should help.
  • In order for a true renewable energy revolution, governments need to cap fossil fuel emissions – designate a level above which emissions can’t exceed. The oil industry opposes this move, but experts believe such drastic measures will lead to more green innovations and emissions-abatement technologies. In other words, more and more scientists and entrepreneurs will think like Maanasa Mendu.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

Can the growth in renewables like wind and solar alone solve the climate change challenge? Why or why not?

Do you have any personal experience with renewable energy? For example, solar panels on the roof of your house? Is renewable energy a topic of interest in your school or your community? What about the use of electric cars? Research some local strategies for fighting the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

Why do you think the oil industry opposes capping fossil fuel emissions? Similarly, The Obama administration attempted to cap emissions through the Clean Air Act, but the legislation is under review by the Supreme Court. Why would there be opposition to laws and changes that clean our air and help to save the planet? Discuss different dimensions of the relationship between business and the environment.

Using the “Related Links,” research SolarCity. Who is Lyndon Rive? What did you learn about him and the business of renewable energy deployment, in particular solar power?

3 comments on “Can Renewable Energy Solve the Global Climate Change Challenge?

  1. 1750 is generally accepted as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, CO2 levels were 278 PPM. CO2 levels are now 400 PPM. 67% of all electrical power in this country is produced from fossil fuels. BUT fossil fuels only accounts for 30% of all sources of carbon gas associated with Climate Change. 100% renewables is only 30% of the problem. The first power plant was built in 1882.

    World population reached 1 billion in 1804, just under 3 billion in the 50s when CO2 begin to rise, just over 5 billion in 1992 when the UN Conference on the Environment and Development is held in Rio de Janeiro that resulted in the Framework Convention on Climate Change, 6 billion in 99 and 7 billion in 2011. Climate Change is the result of carbon gas emissions which are caused by Industrialization which is driven by Population growth. By 2023, world population will have increased 33% over 1999. Many scientists consider game over at 9-10 billion.

    CO2 levels are now over 400 PPM. To reduce CO2 levels in our atmosphere ONLY 1 PPM requires the removal of 7.81 billion tons of CO2 PLUS THE AMOUNT WE ARE NOW ADDING. To put this in perspective, Ivanpah 400 Mwe Solar Power Plant will offset 400,000 tons/yr of GHG. It would require 19,525 Ivanpahs to offset CO2 levels 1 PPM.

    Weather is the state of the atmosphere at a place and time as regards to heat, dryness, sunshine, wind, rain, etc. Climate is the weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period. Climate Change is a Long Term change in global or regional climate patterns. Climate Change does not 10-20 years make, to short of a period. The weather service uses super computers to predict the weather one day in advance and sometimes wrong. All of this complexity we experience as “weather” is simply the result of uneven heating of the Earth, and the atmosphere ‘trying’ to reduce the differences in temperature. Note hurricanes generally start near the equator. A hurricane’s source of energy or fuel is water vapor which is evaporated from the ocean surface and rises to the upper atmosphere where it condenses into clouds and heat radiated into space keeping the planet cool. Surface ocean temperatures are cooler after a hurricane. So even minor global temperature increases may not be the proof needed and one reason there isn’t any consensus among scientists. To determine Climate Change we need to observe Changes in migratory patterns of animals and changes in plant habitats.

    • This is a very informative comment. After reading it, I have a few responses. First you address the fact that 100% renewables are only 30% of the problem. I would argue that they solve for even less, especially given the difficulty of implementing clean energy sources. In order to solve the problem, we need the right policies and legislation to actually implement the technologies in an effective manner. This part has always been harder. People like familiarity, and the status quo is as familiar as it gets, even if the status quo is extremely problematic. Therefore, even with fully developed renewables that are becoming more and more affordable, people are still more likely to stick with something that has always worked for them: fossil fuels.

      Next, you name statistics about world population. I agree that we are approaching our carrying capacity and we really need to start thinking about ways to combat this. There have been many efforts to decrease fertility rates including China’s one-child policy, raising the minimum legal age for marriage, providing low-cost, safe access to contraception and other reproductive healthcare, and improving education and workforce opportunities for women. The UN says that 42% of governments have adopted one or more policies to lower their fertility levels. While the government should not actively try to limit families to a certain size through legislation, such as the one-child policy, workforce and education equality for women is a must, as well as safe and reliable access to healthcare. If these two beneficial actions happen to decrease fertility rates, then I definitely support them as a means to slow the growth of the world population and feel that they should be implemented universally.

      Moving on, I found your next point to be very insightful. It really highlighted all the work that we have to do and how decreasing a single ppm would actually require that we remove several billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. Your visualization about the Ivanpah 400 Mw Solar Power Plant depicted just how much CO2 is still in the atmosphere, how much we have left to solve, and how pressing this issue is. However, you should consider how the climate crisis is a complex issue that requires solutions in renewable energy, population management, and policy. Industrialization and population may be inherently linked, but enacting green policies is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Doing something as simple as creating a law that prevents companies from selling internal-combustion-engines immediately puts a large dent in the 3 billion metric tons of CO2 that come from just passenger cars each year. However, this is even greater, since most of the cars in the US are not even passenger cars, they are SUVs and trucks, so by preventing companies from selling gas-guzzlers, we take a huge chunk out of the emissions from passenger cars and we take out of the additional emissions from SUVs and trucks. Another simple legislation is making net-metering widely used. Net metering is when renewable sources are used to power each home, individually, and the excess power goes to the grid, which offsets the price of using the utility for customers, incentivizing them to do it.

      On your last point, while I see the reasoning, I have to disagree. The evidence of climate change is blinding. The difference between weather and climate is that weather is a short-term gauge, which you can see in the Weather app on your phone, whereas climate is a long-term measurement. The complexities in weather are not from the atmosphere trying to reduce the heat of the Earth. Weather, even with our advanced technology, is practically impossible to predict because of how chaotic it is. There are so many different aspects to consider, wind patterns, temperature, geography, topography, humidity, precipitation, atmospheric pressure, and the list goes on. Weather complexity cannot be simplified to the idea of “uneven heating” in the Earth and the atmosphere trying to cool itself.

      Furthermore, I was intrigued by your theory about how climate change can only be proven by the migratory patterns of animals and birds. While I do not necessarily agree with this point, I am curious to see your logic behind it.

  2. We are a carbon cycle life, we exhale carbon dioxide and are flatulence is methane or CH4. Our plastics, pharmaceuticals, and just about everything we consume contains carbon. The amount of carbon in our atmosphere began its meteoric rise about the time of the beginning of the industrial revolution. Therefore carbon gases are the result of industrialization. Industrialization is production of cars and everything else that makes are life easier and is driven by Population growth. 68% of our elect power is from fossil fuels, but Power is only 30% of the carbon gas problem. But note from above, our problem is not carbon gases but with our explosive population growth we have reach the limit of the planet to support us without drastic changes in lifestyle.

    RE was a Project Manager with engineering and construction of the world first utility scale solar power stations at Luz Kramer, pending solar direct steam patent and developer of several solar power plants. But I don’t sell cars

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