New energy: climate change and sustainability shape a new era
A new energy revolution – similar to shifts from wood to coal to oil – is inevitable as climate change and oil scarcity drive a global search for sustainability in power production. But even the promise of renewable energy holds drawbacks.
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If smokestacks defined the landscape of the Industrial Revolution, then the monstrous spinning wind turbines and sprawling fields of solar collectors will become landmarks of the new energy age.
It goes like this: All of the oil wells, strip mines, refineries, and pipelines needed to extract fossil fuels worldwide cover an area the size of Belgium, says Smil. That sounds big until you consider the alternative.
Electricity-producing solar cells provide about a tenth as much energy per acre as fossil fuel extraction does. Wind farms produce 1/30th to 1/100th the energy per acre. And biofuels like corn ethanol fare even worse: from 1/300th to 1/1000th the energy per acre.
Even if you use the entire US corn crop for ethanol, declares Smil, "you would supply 13 percent of [US] gasoline."
A study published last year in the journal PLoS One forecasts that by 2030, the shift toward renewables will push energy production onto 80,000 square miles more land than it currently occupies in the United States – an area equal to Nebraska.
Energy sprawl will create pressure to place wind farms on land already used for pasturing or farming crops. It will prompt efforts to cover rooftops with solar collectors even in cities with marginal sunlight. And it will mean spreading energy production across multiple sources to minimize the impact on any one habitat – even if some sources, like geothermal or tides, have less inherent potential.