NEWS How to keep the lights on without burning the planet

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By Peter Fair­ley

TO STAND any chance of halt­ing run­away cli­mate change, we need to squelch car­bon emis­sions down to near zero by mid-​​century. That means get­ting off filthy fos­sil fuels – and fast. Few sci­en­tists would dis­agree with that, but there is pre­cious lit­tle con­sen­sus on how to do it. Nuclear fis­sion power is expen­sive and mired in con­tro­versy. Nuclear fusion, directly har­ness­ing the kind of reac­tions that power the sun, remains a dis­tant dream. Mean­while, renew­able energy is too unre­li­able to meet all our power demands.

Or is it? Clean energy tech­nolo­gies have come on leaps and bounds in the past decade or so. More recently, an impas­sioned debate has bro­ken out among energy experts as to whether “100 per cent renew­ables” is now within our grasp and, if so, how we get there. “We can really mess this up,” says Dan Kam­men, an energy researcher at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. “Just because we can make the shift doesn’t mean we will.” But the path we need to take – and the hur­dles we face – are increas­ingly clear.

The renew­ables rev­o­lu­tion has gath­ered momen­tum in recent years thanks to free-​​falling prices. And as clean becomes cheap, instal­la­tion is surg­ing. The world added 98 gigawatts (GW) of solar energy last year – more than any other energy source. Over half of that, 53 GW, was in China, which has long been the world’s biggest con­sumer of dirty coal.


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