As climate change fuels more extreme weather events, and environmental disasters like last weekend’s oil spill threaten wildlife and human health, more people are banking on clean, carbon-free energy to speed the world’s transition away from fossil fuels and usher in a net-zero future.
Ending the planet’s reliance on fossil fuels is critical to curbing the climate crisis, but Vijay Modi, a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University, said there are still hurdles to overcome before we can fully transition to renewables: energy storage, public acceptance of transmission lines and adoption of electric vehicles and alternative home heating.
“Once the population begins to understand that it is possible to (live) without fossil fuels, it will be easier because then they will demand the local constituencies or local bodies to push for cleaner sources,” Modi told CNN. “I personally think that with the low cost of solar and wind, ample land area in the US and some appropriate government policies, this transition can come fast.”
CNN spoke with energy transition experts about the most reliable energy sources — and their challenges — to replace coal, oil and gas and halt the climate crisis.
Humans have used solar energy since around the 7th century BC, when they used sunlight and glass to ignite fires. But the modern solar cell wasn’t invented until the mid-1900s. Unlike fossil fuels, solar energy systems do not emit greenhouse gas or air pollution, which makes solar power one of the best potential solutions to the climate crisis.
Modi said the US could see solar dominate the electricity grid as early as 10 years from now.
In September, a report by the US Department of Energy outlined a path that would exponentially increase the use of solar energy in the country, with the sun powering nearly half of the US electricity. To achieve 40% solar electricity by 2035, the DOE says the US would need to install 30 gigawatts of new solar capacity every year for the next four years — enough to power around 3 million homes, depending on their location — and double that number again each year until 2030.
According to K. Max Zhang, an engineer and faculty director at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for Sustainability, the US has more than enough land to support the deployment of solar, which would also create jobs.
“If you have enough land for a solar farm, you’re going to need to build solar panels,” Zhang told CNN of the economic benefits. “And in order to build them, they need to be manufactured, and in order to have those structures mounted, you’re going to need labor to install them.”
Similar to solar energy, wind energy could also ramp up in the next 10 years, said Modi. According to the US Energy Information Administration, wind electricity generation in the US has grown significantly in the last three decades, from about 6 billion kilowatt-hours per year in 2000 to roughly 338 billion in 2020.
Wind energy is generated with turbines. Wind propels the blades of the turbines, which are linked to a drive shaft that turns an electric generator, which produces electricity.
Much like solar, Modi and Zhang said the US has enough land to build wind farms. And there’s a vast area with high wind-power potential offshore.
“If you look all the way from Maine, to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, we have a really amazing offshore wind resource, which is a very high-quality resource in this part of the country,” Modi said.
“The good news about the United States is we are blessed with two things,” he added. “We are blessed with land, and we are blessed with good wind and solar.”