We will at some point cease to produce electrical energy by burning fossil fuels, either (sooner) because we realize the harmful effects of using the atmosphere as a toilet, or (later) because we simply use them all up. These fuels can be replaced with sustainable sources, principally wind and solar. Where are we now and where are we going?
In the United States we currently get 13 per cent of our electrical power from renewables. The majority of that from hydropower, followed by wind biomass and solar power as a distant fourth. There seems to be limited potential for growth in hydropower or biomass but the sky the limit for wind and solar, assuming that the issue of intermittency can be overcome.
Although we have no national policy for the country, president Obama has mandated that the federal government get 20% of its electrical energy from renewables by 2020. Various states have renewable portfolios that range from trivial to ambitious: The old south, a couple of coal states in the Appalachians, a few midwest to rocky mountain states have none. Hawaii has the most ambitious, with a target of 40% by 2030.
Internationally, it’s a mixed bag. Mountainous Costa Rica, with a population of about 5 million, gets from 90 to 100% of its electrical energy from renewables, mainly hydro and geothermal. Similarly Norway with twice the population of Costa Rica produces very close to 100% of their electric power from hydropower plants.
Because of availability of cheap electric power they have developed energy intensive industries such as the production high grade Silicon for solar cells. Interestingly a focus of World War II was on Norway. Germany invaded Norway to gain access to energy intensive production of heavy water for their experimental nuclear reactor program.
The real potential for expansion of renewable power is in the wind, especially in countries with lots of coastline. At one point last week, Denmark was producing 140 % of its electrical energy, exporting the excess to Sweden and Germany. Their current average wind produced electricity is approaching 40%, and they are still building out.
Germany is an interesting study. They have a vigorous low carbon energy transition plan (Energiewende.) Their target is an astounding 80% renewable by 2050! They are currently installing wind and solar PV faster than anybody on the planet. Currently they are around 27% with very little hydropower, twice the US average.
The biggest player of course is China. They are the current world leader in carbon emissions, having surpassed the US a few years ago. China’s air pollution problems are legendary. Smog from from eastern China can be tracked across the pacific to our west coast. They recognize they have a problem and are aggressively addressing it by moving away from fossil fuels and toward efficiency and renewables. In 2014 they installed three quarters of the new solar capacity on the planet.