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Friday, October 3, 2008

Clean Energy 2030: Google's plan to save the planet

By Jonathan M. Gitlin

The twin pressures of climate change and the reliance on imported oil from politically unstable regions of the globe both point to a need to transform the way that the US sources, generates, and uses power. To that end, the search engine giant Google (which is developing itself some impressive green credentials) has issued a plan, Clean Energy 2030, that lays out a possible future for the energy and transportation sectors that promises to cut CO2 emissions, reduce dependence on foreign fuel imports, and save the economy billions over the next 22 years.
he Google plan is nothing if not ambitious. To begin with, Google proposes a massive push toward energy efficiency, which will reduce electricity demand to 2008 levels (accounting for around 1,000 terawatt hours/year. It also calls for a complete cessation of oil and coal for power generation (currently, coal provides around half of the electricity used in the US). Taking up the slack would be wind, solar, and geothermal power generation.

Wind power would grow from a current 16GW to 350GW, solar from 1GW to 250GW, and geothermal from 2.9GW to 80GW. These would be concentrated in the Great Plains, the southwest, and in offshore wind farms, placing power generation near population centers where energy consumption is highest.

Google's plan to transform US power generation by 2030

With regard to transportation, the report proposes almost logarithmic growth in plug-in hybrids, from 100,000 sales in 2010 to nearly 4 million by 2020, finally reaching 22 million by 2030. Coupled with measures to remove older, more-polluting, less-efficient cars from the roads, and an increase in fleet efficiency from 20 mpg now to 45 mpg in 2030, this would see a reduction in transportation-derived CO2 emissions of nearly 40 percent.

The overall effect of these proposed changes would be a reduction in annual US carbon emissions from a current 6 Gt/year to 3 Gt/year, which would take us halfway to the IPCC's 2050 CO2 target. Google also claims that implementation of this plan would realize significant savings to the economy in the range of $1 trillion over 22 years, coupled with the creation of more than a million new jobs building and operating wind turbines, solar panels, and associated fields.

The question of whether these are realistic aims probably depends upon the amount of political will to wean the nation off fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. Not that there aren't good arguments in favor of this being made from both ends of the political spectrum; Former CIA director and current McCain policy advisor James Woolsey gave a memorable and interesting talk on just this subject earlier this year, framing the need to move away from fossil fuel dependence in terms of national security rather than with an ecological bent, but it would be naïve to think that such measures wouldn't face opposition from entrenched business interests. The proposed shift away from fossil fuels will be vital though, should we wish to mitigate the more severe aspects of climate change.

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