Sleepwalking off a Cliff: Can we Avoid Global Collapse?

‘Without significant pressure from the public demanding action, we fear there is little chance of changing course fast enough to forestall disaster’
Drs. Paul and Anne Ehrlich

WHO: Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich, Department of Biology, Stanford University, California, USA

WHAT: An ‘invited perspective’ from the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (the Royal Society) on the future of humanity following the election of Dr. Paul Ehrlich to the fellowship of the Royal Society.

WHEN: 26 January 2013

WHERE: Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences (Proc. R. Soc. B) 280, January 2013

TITLE: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?

Dr. Paul Ehrlich has been warning humanity about the dangers of exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity for decades. He first wrote about the dangers of over-population in his 1968 book The Population Bomb, and now following his appointment to the fellowship of the Royal Society, he and his wife have written what I can only describe as a broad and sweeping essay on the challenges that currently face humanity (which you should all click the link and read as well).

When you think about it, we’re living in a very unique period of time. We are at the beginning of the next mass extinction on this planet, which is something that only happens every couple of hundred million years. And since humans are the driving force of this extinction, we are also in control of how far we let it go. So the question is, will we save ourselves, or will we sleepwalk off the cliff?

Drs. Ehrlich describe the multiple pressures currently facing the planet and its inhabitants as a perfect storm of challenges. Not only is there the overarching threat multiplier of climate change, which will make all of our existing problems harder to deal with, we have concurrent challenges facing us through the loss of ecosystem services and biodiversity from mass extinction, land degradation, the global spread of toxic chemicals, ocean acidification, infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance, resource depletion (especially ground water) and subsequent resource conflicts.

you have humans Wow. That’s quite the laundry list of problems we’ve got. Of course, all these issues interact not only with the biosphere; they interact with human socio-economic systems, including overpopulation, overconsumption and current unequal global economic system.

If you haven’t heard the term ‘carrying capacity’ before, it’s the limit any system has before things start going wrong – for instance if you put 10 people in a 4 person hot tub, it will start to overflow, because you’ve exceeded its carrying capacity.

The bad news is we’ve exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity. For the planet to sustainably house the current 7 billion people it has, we would need an extra half an empty planet to provide for everyone. If we wanted all 7 billion of us to over-consume at the living standards of the USA, we would need between 4 – 5 extra empty planets to provide for everyone. Better get searching NASA!

The Andromeda Galaxy (photo: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/NHSC)

The Andromeda Galaxy (photo: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/NHSC)

The next problem is that a global collapse could be triggered by any one of the above issues, with cascading effects, although Drs. Ehrlich think the biggest key will be feeding everyone (which I’ve written about before), because the social unrest triggered by mass famine would make dealing with all the other problems almost impossible.

So what do we need to do? We need to restructure our energy sources and remove fossil fuel use from agriculture, although Drs. Ehrlich do point out that peaking fossil fuel use by 2020 and halving it by 2050 will be difficult. There’s also the issue that it’s really ethically difficult to knowingly continue to run a lethal yet profitable business, hence the highly funded climate denial campaigns to try and keep the party running for Big Oil a little longer, which will get in the way of change.

The global spread of toxic compounds can only be managed and minimised as best we can, similarly, we don’t have many answers for the spread of infectious and tropical diseases along with increasing antibiotic resistance that will happen with climate change.

Helpfully, Drs. Ehrlich point out that the fastest way to cause a global collapse would be to have any kind of nuclear conflict, even one they refer to as a ‘regional conflict’ like India and Pakistan. But even without nuclear warfare (which I hope is unlikely!) 6 metres of sea level rise would displace around 400 million people.

One of the most important things that we can be doing right now to help humanity survive for a bit longer on this planet is population control. We need less people on this planet (and not just because I dislike screaming children in cafes and on airplanes), and Drs. Ehrlich think that instead of asking ‘how can we feed 9.6 billion people in 2050’ scientists should be asking ‘how can we humanely make sure it’s only 8.6 billion people in 2050’?

How can we do that? Firstly, we need to push back against what they refer to as the ‘endarkenment’, which is the rise of religious fundamentalism that rejects enlightenment ideas like freedom of thought, democracy, separation of church and state, and basing beliefs on empirical evidence, which leads to climate change denialism, failure to act on biodiversity loss and opposition to the use of contraceptives.

And why do we need to push back against people who refuse to base their beliefs on empirical evidence? Because the fastest and easiest way to control population growth is female emancipation. Drs. Ehrlich point out that giving women everywhere full rights, education and opportunities as well as giving everyone on the planet access to safe contraception and abortion is the best way to control population growth (you know, letting people choose whether they’d like children).

More importantly, Drs. Ehrlich want the world to develop a new way of thinking systematically about things, which they’ve called ‘foresight intelligence’. Since it’s rare that societies manage to mobilise around slow threats rather than immediate threats, there need to be new ways and mechanisms for greater cooperation between people, because we are not going to succeed as a species if we don’t work together.

They’d like to see the development of steady-state economics which would destroy the ‘fables such as ‘technological innovation will save us’’. They’d like to see natural scientists working together with social scientists to look at the dynamics of social movements, sustainability and equality and to scale up the places where that kind of work is already happening.

They point out that our current methods of governance are inadequate to meet the challenges we face and that we need to work with developing nations who are currently looking to reproduce the western nation’s ‘success’ of industrialisation, so that they can instead be leaders to the new economy, because playing catch up will lead to global collapse.

Do Drs. Ehrlich believe that we can avoid a global collapse of civilisation? They think we still can, but only if we get fully into gear and work together now, because unless we restructure our way of doing things, nature will do it for us. It’s your call humanity – shall we get going, or will we sleepwalk our species off the cliff?

Don’t go in the Water

Warming sea surface temperatures in low-salinity oceans like the Baltic Sea is increasing cases of Vibrio bacteria infections

WHO: Craig Baker-Austin, Nick G. H. Taylor, Rachel Hartnell, Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, Weymouth, Dorset, UK,
Joaquin A. Trinanes, Laboratory of Systems, Technological Research Institute, Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Spain, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service, CoastWatch, Maryland, USA
Anja Siitonen, Bacteriology Unit, National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), Helsinki, Finland
Jaime Martinez-Urtaza  Instituto de Acuicultura, Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Spain

WHAT: Establishing patterns between Vibrio bacteria infection outbreaks and climate change in the Baltic Sea to be able to predict future outbreaks.

WHEN: January 2013

WHERE: Nature Climate Change, Vol 3, January 2013

TITLE: Emerging Vibrio risk at high latitudes in response to ocean warming (subs. req)

Imagine that it’s a hot summer’s day in Northern Europe. The heat wave has lasted for more than three weeks now and you’re just dying to get into the ocean for a swim to cool off, except that you can’t, because there’s been a bacteria outbreak in the water and going swimming will make you sick.

Looks great! Can’t swim. (photo: flickr)

Looks great! Can’t swim. (photo: flickr)

It doesn’t sound like fun does it? But it’s happening increasingly in the Baltic Sea, and it looks like climate change is providing the exact conditions these bacteria love.

Vibrio is a type of bacteria that grows really well in warm (>15oC) low-salinity (<25 parts per trillion salt) water. The most common type in estuaries and other shallow water is Vibrio vulnificus, which is related to the same bacteria that causes cholera (Vibrio cholerae). Not a nice family, really.

When you swim in water that has Vibrio bacteria, it immediately gets excited (yes, I’m aware that bacteria don’t have feelings) about any cuts or wounds you have and infects them giving you symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pains and blistering dermatitis. Well, that’s a way to really ruin your summer.

If you’re really unlucky or immuno-compromised, Vibrio will give you blistering skin lesions, septic shock (life threatening low blood pressure) and possibly kill you 25% of the time. It’s an efficient bacterium though, and will kill you in only 48hrs.

Vibrio vulnificus (Wikimedia commons)

Vibrio vulnificus (Wikimedia commons)

So why is Vibrio moving into the Baltic Sea more often? Climate change, combined with location.

The Baltic Sea is the largest low-salinity marine ecosystem on Earth, and is surrounded by highly populated countries, meaning there are 30million people living within 50km of the shores of the sea. The Baltic Sea is also warming rapidly.

The Baltic Sea (Google maps)

The Baltic Sea (Google maps)

The researchers found that the sea surface temperature has been warming in excess of 1oC per decade, which is seven times the global average rate of warming. The rate is also increasing. From 1850 to 2010, the rate of warming was .51oC per century. The warming between 1900 to 2010 was at a rate of .77oC per century, and more recently the warming from 1980-2010 has been at a pace of 5oC per century, which is scarily fast for planetary systems.

Their data shows that for every 1oC increase in the summer maximum sea surface temperature, the rate of observed Vibrio infections increased by almost 2 times. This of course, gets compounded with the fact that increased summer maximum sea surface temperatures mean the air temperature is also hotter, and a hotter summer means more people head to the beach and get infected.

Even worse, recent research shows that some Vibrio bacteria’s ‘pathogenic competence’ (which is scientist for how good it is at infecting you) could be improved by increased temperatures.

Which all adds up to a nasty sequence of events where many more people than usual get nasty skin lesions. So what should we do about it? The researchers suggest monitoring conditions and sending out health advisories for when the sea surface temperatures are >19oC for three weeks or more as well as using predictive models to try and work out where/when the worst outbreaks might occur.

I don’t know about you, but nasty bacterial infections from a warmer ocean on a slowly cooking planet doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. So I’d also like to suggest we stop burning carbon so I and the people of Northern Europe can continue to swim in the summer.

Hot Enough Yet? Warming in Western North America

How much and in what ways has the western part of North America warmed from climate change between 1950 and 2005?

WHO: Evan L. J. Booth, James M. Byrne and Dan L. Johnson, Water and Environmental Sciences, University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada

WHAT: Collating all of the weather station data from North America west of the Mississippi River and looking at the long term trends.

WHEN: 13 December 2012

WHERE: International Journal of Climatology (Int. J. Climatol.) Vol. 32, Issue 15 (2012)

TITLE: Climatic changes in western North America, 1950–2005

As we all know, climate change is a global problem with regionally specific impacts. How the climate changes will depend on what your local climate was originally like. So how much has the western end of North America changed from 1950 to 2005? That’s what these researchers in Alberta set out to discover.

Firstly, for this research paper their area of western North America is more than just the Pacific Northwest. They decided to go with everything west of the Mississippi River in the USA and everything west of Manitoba in Canada, which is pretty diverse in terms of climate ranging from desert to mountains to prairies.

Climate study regions (from paper) and Google maps (for geographic locations)

Climate study regions (from paper) and Google maps (for geographic locations)

The researchers wanted to look at 50 years worth of data so that they could take out the natural variations like El Niño and La Niña years as well as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and just focus on the human-caused effects of warming (aka anthropogenic warming for those who like big words).

The researchers looked at several different climate indicators. They counted the number of frost days, the length of the growing season, number of warm days and warm nights, number of wet days (>5mm of rain), very wet days (wetter than >95% of all the other days), daily rain intensity, and annual rain totals.

They noted that while climate change will definitely increase the intensity of the hydrological cycle, the future trends of rain (where it will be, how much there will be) are much more difficult to predict. However, the overall trend found was for rain increasing in the Pacific Northwest (sorry Vancouverites!) more than other areas.

Another interesting thing they found was that natural variability in climate may be masking the effects of climate change in Canada more than in the USA, given the large number of extreme weather events recently observed in the US compared with relatively few extreme events in Canada. Which doesn’t mean we’re getting off scot-free Canada, it means climate change is coming for us later!

There were 490 weather stations that contributed data to the paper, which meant for some massive number crunching, added to the fact that they had to develop an additional computer program to convert all the US measurements into metric (Dear USA, please join the rest of the world and go metric!).

As you can see from the map above, the area was broken down into six different regions and analysed for climate trends. The results were:

Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest saw a significant decrease in frost days at a rate of 2.4 days/decade and a significant increase in warm nights. There was a general increasing trend for all the other measurements – the growing season was extended, and all the rain indicators went up (yeah, winter really is getting wetter Vancouver). The researchers noted that the Pacific Northwest has experienced ‘significant warming’ over the 50 year period, and that the reduction in frost days has severe consequences for Pine Beetle infestations and increasing wildfires.

Frost days: significantly decreasing (from paper)

Frost days: significantly decreasing (from paper)

The one exception to the rule was Oregon, where a significant warm and dry patch in the southern part of the state is a sign of the Californian desert climate moving north as the temperature increases.

Rain totals: Dry patch over Oregon (from paper)

Rain totals: Dry patch over Oregon (from paper)

Northwest Plains (Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, Saskatchewan)

The Northwest plains saw a significant decrease in frost days at a rate of .16 days per year. There was a significant increase in the number of warm days and warm nights, with an increase in all other factors. While the increases in growing season and precipitation are beneficial so far, the researchers noted that continued warming will have detrimental effects on soil moisture and that the earlier spring runoff will pose challenges for water management.

Humid Continental Plains (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Manitoba)

Changes in this area were more extreme than the Pacific Northwest or the plains. There were significant increases in all indicators except for frost days, which saw a significant decrease. The researchers were concerned to note that warm nights are outnumbering cool nights in the continental plains by 5:1. The average rainfall is increasing by .11mm per year which will eventually have serious consequences as the paper notes that most farmland and urban areas in the continental plains are located on flood plains.

Gulf (Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana)

The Gulf States saw the most significant increase in rain totals with annual averages going up by 2.8mm per year. There were also significant increases in the number of warm nights, wet days and rain intensity. While there was a significant decrease in the growing season length, it was most pronounced in the northern states and possibly linked to the significant decrease in frost days. Interestingly, there was a significant decrease in warm days, which the researchers think could be linked to the increase in rain (more clouds = less sunlight beating down on you).

American Southwest (Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico)

Climatically, this one is a real mixed bag going from amazing ski mountains all the way to New Mexican desert. However, there were still some overarching trends. There were significant increases in warm days and nights, rain totals, rain intensity and wet days. There was a significant decrease in frost days and an increase in very wet days and the growing season. The paper noted that while the increase in rain in the Southwest is currently positive, that growing extremes in temperature and the evaporation associated with it will likely negate this factor in the future.

One large concern was the decrease in frost days, given that much of the flow from the Colorado River comes from snowmelt, which was wonderfully understated as:

‘While best management practices may be able to mitigate the risk of widespread system failure, current levels of development in arid areas of the region may be unsustainable.’

This is scientist for ‘you either deal with this now, or something’s going to give in a really nasty way later’. Or, as one of my favourite climate bloggers Joe Romm says ‘Hell and High Water’ which will bring us the next Dust Bowl.


The final segment in Western North America had significant decreases in frost days (as did all of Western North America), significant increases in warm nights and increases in all the other indicators. This may seem milder; however the researchers warn that California had substantial warming with only a slight increase in precipitation. This will be deadly as climate change continues. As the paper states:

‘A decline in the availability of water supplies may make the current intensive agriculture industry in California’s Central Valley unsustainable in the long term.’

Did you hear that? It’s the sound of your favourite Napa wine grapes shrivelling and dying in the heat.

The end of irrigated agriculture in California? (photo: flickr)

The end of irrigated agriculture in California? (photo: flickr)

So what does this all mean? Well, long story short it means that while we here in Canada aren’t experiencing the worst of climate extremes yet, and while each region of North America will change specifically based on their local climate, we haven’t seen anything yet.

The long term trends are pretty clear for most areas (or at least statistically significant) and the consequences for communities and industries aren’t good. And that’s even before you start to think about non-linear climate responses and ecosystem tipping points. So, for the sake of the wine in Napa, the skiing in the Rockies, the agriculture in the prairies and the people who call New Mexico home, let’s stop burning carbon.

Let Them Eat Cake? Feeding 9 Billion People

What changes will need to be made to agricultural practices in order to double food production for predicted population growth this century?

WHO: Jonathan A. Foley, Kate A. Brauman, Emily S. Cassidy, James S. Gerber, Matt Johnston, Nathaniel D. Mueller, Christine O’Connell, Deepak K. Ray, Paul C. West, John Sheehan, Institute on the Environment (IonE), University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA
Navin Ramankutty, Department of Geography and Global Environmental and Climate Change Centre, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Christian Balzer, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, University of California, Santa Barbara, California, USA
Elena M. Bennett, School of Environment and Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Stephen R. Carpenter, Center for Limnology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, USA
Jason Hill, Institute on the Environment (IonE), University of Minnesota, Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA
Chad Monfreda, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO), Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA
Stephen Polasky, Institute on the Environment (IonE), University of Minnesota, Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA
Johan Rockström, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
Stefan Siebert, Institute of Crop Science and Resource Conservation, University of Bonn, Bonn, Germany
David Tilman, Institute on the Environment (IonE), University of Minnesota, Department of Ecology, Evolution& Behavior, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA
David P. M. Zaks, Centre for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, USA

WHAT: Looking at all of the recent research on agricultural processes and working out how we can feed 9 billion people without also cooking the climate

WHEN: 20 October 2011

WHERE: Nature, Vol. 478, October 2011

TITLE: Solutions for a cultivated planet (subs req.)

Currently, 1 in 8 people globally lack access to food or are chronically malnourished. This alone is a large problem for world food systems, however with the population expected to increase to 9 billion by 2050 the problem just got even bigger. Our agricultural food systems are estimated to require doubling in order to feed all those extra people.

How will agricultural food systems have to change this century to provide global food security while also reducing the environmental impacts that agricultural practices have caused leading to increasing climate change?

This is the question these researchers set out to answer in another wonderful example of science being a collaborative sport.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

Agriculture currently uses 50% of the earth’s ice-free surfaces. 12% is used for crops we eat directly, while 38% is used for pasture to grow livestock as well as other things like biofuels (2%). We as a species have used pretty much all the land that is available on the planet for agriculture – the land we haven’t farmed is tundra, desert, mountains or cities. Agriculture is the single biggest land use on the planet.

Innovation is going to be the major key to increasing global food production in this century, given that there’s not much more land we can farm on effectively. Global crop yields increased by 56% between 1965-1985 with the advent of mechanised and industrialised agricultural practices. However, between 1985-2005 yields only increased by a further 20%, and yields are increasing by smaller margins each year.

The four major solutions this group of researchers came up with to feed the world sustainably were:

1. Ending Agricultural Geographical Expansion

Most of the land currently being cleared for new agriculture is in the tropics and contributing to tropical deforestation. This is an issue for two reasons: firstly because deforestation worldwide is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, but also secondly because most tropical land is less productive than land that is already being farmed. This means that the productivity gained is less than the greenhouse gasses emitted through the deforestation.

Luckily for the authors of the paper, one of the major drivers of tropical deforestation is local economic drivers, which means the solution to this issue is socio-economic and this group of scientists will leave that for the economists.

2. Closing Yield Gaps

Recent research has looked at ‘yield gaps’ which is where different farms in the same area with the same soil and climate conditions end up with different crop yields. Closing those yield gaps and making sure each farm is as productive as possible is one gap that could contribute greatly to feeding the world. The research shows the greatest room for improvement is in areas of Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Closing the yield gap by 95% (so that your farm is 95% as productive as your neighbour’s farm) could increase world food production by 58%. If we only managed to close the yield gap by 75%, there would still be a 28% increase in food production.

However, doing this while simultaneously reducing the environmental impacts from intensive agriculture requires farmers to look more at Precision Agriculture methods.

3. Increased Efficiency

The current agricultural usage of water, nutrients and chemicals is unsustainable. Excess nutrient use has affected Nitrogen and Phosphorus cycles which has led to farmland without enough soil nutrients because of losses in the agricultural processes and deadzones in oceans from too much nutrient runoff.

The research found that nutrient excesses were worst in areas of China, Northern India, the USA and Western Europe, and recommends that these countries implement nutrient recycling and recovery programs to minimise use.

4. Food Delivery Systems

Food delivery systems need to be reformed in order to feed 9 billion people. The paper points out that a dietary shift away from meat would make land much more productive as it would be growing crops for direct human consumption, but they’re also realistic about how unlikely it is that we’ll all become vegetarian.

However there are much more immediate efficiencies to be found reducing waste in supply chains. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 1/3 of all food is never consumed. It either gets damaged in transit, or is not sold and gets thrown out. Making our supply chains from farm to table shorter and more efficient will be key to feeding the world.

Feeding the world: Don’t forget the wine! (Chris Gin, flickr)

Feeding the world: Don’t forget the wine! (Chris Gin, flickr)

The researchers point out that feeding 9 billion people successfully will only be possible if all of the above strategies are implemented at once. Better yields and food delivery systems won’t be very useful if deforestation continues and climate change starts wiping out all the yield gains. Similarly, ending deforestation alone won’t be very useful if water and nutrient use don’t become more efficient and yields are affected by shortages.

The paper suggests scaling up some solutions that are already being implemented by some farmers like precision agriculture, drip irrigation, organic soil remedies (like no-till farming), buffer strips and wetland restoration in low lying areas, drought resistant crops and low fertilizer crops, perennial grains and paying farmers for environmental services.

As with combating climate change, feeding the world is going to take new and innovative practices which not only improve the farming business, but also improve the resilience of agricultural food systems, and all of these solutions need to be tried simultaneously. But I guess no-one ever said solving the world’s problems was going to be easy!

Renewable Reality: Feasible and Inexpensive

‘Aiming for 90% or more renewable energy in 2030 in order to achieve climate change targets of 80-90% reduction of CO2 from the power sector leads to economic savings, not costs.’

WHO: Cory Budischak, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Delaware, Newark, Department of Energy Management, Delaware Technical Community College, Newark, USA
DeAnna Sewell, Heather Thomson, Dana E. Veron, Center for Carbon-Free Power Integration, School of Marine Science and Policy, College of Earth Ocean and Environment, University of Delaware, Newark, USA
Leon Mach, Energy and Environmental Policy Program, College of Engineering, University of Delaware, Newark, USA
Willett Kempton, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Delaware, Newark, Center for Carbon-Free Power Integration, School of Marine Science and Policy, College of Earth Ocean and Environment, University of Delaware, Newark USA, Center for Electric Technology, DTU Elektro, Danmarks Tekniske Universitet, Lungby, Denmark

WHAT: Working out how you could power a region with renewable electricity and the cost of doing it

WHEN: 11 October 2012

WHERE: Journal of Power Sources, 225, 2013

TITLE: Cost-minimized combinations of wind power, solar power and electrochemical storage, powering the grid up to 99.9% of the time

This research from the US is quite practical. The researchers looked at the electricity use from 1999 – 2002 in the ‘PJM Interconnection’ which is a power grid in the North Eastern USA that includes Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and parts of Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

They wanted to know what a renewable power grid would look like, how much it would cost and how you could do it. Research excitement!

The PJM Interconnection power grid area in the blue lines. Pink stars are the meteorological data sites (from paper)

The PJM Interconnection power grid area in the blue lines.
Pink stars are the meteorological data sites (from paper)

So what does a renewable power grid look like in this area? It involves a combination of renewables, which are onshore wind, offshore wind and solar in multiple locations which provides the greatest range of renewable power sources (if the wind is still in one state, it may be blowing in the next state).

The first hurdle this team had to jump was storage. The most popular storage model for renewables is wind-hydro hybrids (which I’ve written about previously here), however in this corner of the USA, there’s not much hydro power. So the paper looked at the options of electric vehicle grid storage, hydrogen storage and battery storage (lithium titanate batteries for those playing at home).

They used the data from 1999-2002 to model the hourly fluctuations of electricity demand, which averaged out at 31.5 Gigawatts (GW) of 72GW of generation. They then matched the load hour by hour with renewables and worked out which was cheapest.

They calculated the costs with a level playing field, which means no subsidies. No subsidies for renewables, but also a magical time when there’s not billions upon billions of dollars each year for fossil fuel subsides as well.

The results were that a renewable grid with 30% of coverage produced 50% of the power required for the sample years, while a renewable grid that provided 90% of the power coverage produced double the power required and a renewable grid that provided 99.9% of the power coverage produced three times the energy required. The researchers found that an overproduction of renewable electricity was preferable to trying to exactly match the power required and also reduced the need for storage.

A few of the benefits they found were that offshore wind and solar often generate when inland wind doesn’t, and that there was greater over-supply of power in the winter months which could allow for natural gas heating to be replaced by renewable electric heating.

Renewable power in the 99.9% model only needed fossil fuel back up 5 times in 4 years (from paper)

Renewable power in the 99.9% model only needed fossil fuel back up 5 times in 4 years (from paper)

What about the costs? The researchers looked at what the cost was for power in 2010 dollars and then adjusted for efficiencies to estimate the 2030 cost of power for the model and the infrastructure.

The 2010 cost of power was 17c per Kilowatt hour (kWh), while a renewable grid with 30% coverage would cost 10-11c per kWh, a 90% renewable grid would cost 6c per kWh and a 99.9% renewable grid is at parity with the fossil fuel grid at 17c per kWh.

The reason the 99.9% cost is higher than 90% is because filling the gap of that final 9.9% requires more infrastructure to further diversify the grid, but I think the most important thing they found in their research is this:

‘The second policy observation is that aiming for 90% or more renewable energy in 2030, in order to achieve climate change targets of 80%-90% reduction of CO2 from the power sector, leads to economic savings, not costs.’

Yes, even in coal country in the USA, switching to a hybrid renewable system (in a level playing field) is cheaper than the current cost of fossil fuel electricity. It also comes with the added benefits of no mercury poisoning from coal fired power plants too!

The paper concludes that while excess power generation in a renewable grid is a new idea, it shouldn’t be too problematic since it saves on storage needs and is the most cost-effective variation.

Their advice for plucky leaders who would like to make this grid a reality? The most cost-effective way to build this grid is to aim for 30% renewables now, and phase in the rest to 90% in 2030. Each step along the way to more renewable power will not only be a climate saving step, it will save money as well.