Panel discusses potential of renewable energy

by Zachary Benjamin | 1/20/16 7:45pm

About 150 Dartmouth students and Upper Valley residents gathered in Filene Auditorium yesterday evening to hear a discussion about transitioning to a fully renewable energy fueled world by the year 2050.

The panel featured four panelists who discussed the possibilities of transitioning to renewable energy on national, state, local and individual levels.

Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University professor of civil and environmental engineering, spoke via Skype about the possibility of transitioning on a national scale to rely solely on renewable energy sources — primarily water, wind and solar power. Jacobson recently completed a study that says it is possible for the United States to transition to a fully renewable energy economy by the year 2050.

Jacobson cited several statistics about the harmful effects of air pollution. He said that air pollution kills between four and seven million people prematurely each year and costs around $25 trillion annually, while global warming will cost $17 trillion a year by 2050. To respond to this, the world should move towards electrifying their energy systems for all fuel purposes, using technologies like photovoltaic solar panels, onshore and offshore wind turbines, geothermal energy and existing hydroelectric power structures, he said.

“These are all drastic problems that require immediate and drastic solutions,” Jacobson said.

World energy demands are expected to reach 19.5 terawatts a year by 2050, Jacobson said, though the process of switching to electric power sources would reduce this to 11.8 terawatts by virtue of the increased efficiency of renewable energy sources compared to fossil fuels. Using about 50 percent wind power, 40 percent solar power and 10 percent other sources, the United States would be able to meet their national energy demands, he said, while also freeing up usable land in the process.

Though some critics of renewable energy have raised concerns about the intermittent nature of wind, water and solar energy, Jacobson said this would not be an issue. Using a model of projected wind and solar patterns for the years 2050 to 2055, combined with estimates about energy demand in the same years, Jacobson found that renewable energy sources were capable of matching energy demands.

The switch would also lead to a projected net gain of 22 million jobs, Jacobson said, helping to boost the economy.

Ideally, 80 percent of U.S. energy would be generated by renewable energy sources by 2030, Jacobson said, with a full transition by 2050. This would reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to below 350 parts per million by the year 2100, significantly more optimistic than current predictions and in line with levels from the eighteenth century.

Clay Mitchell, environmental policy and sustainable energy professor at the University of New Hampshire, discussed energy policy and climate change for the state of New Hampshire. Currently, New Hampshire is a net exporter of energy, he said, with most energy generation coming from natural gas, nuclear energy and renewable energy.

Mitchell, however, believes that the state is currently underutilizing renewable energy resources, especially wind and solar. He criticized caps on solar energy generation, saying that a proposed 75 megawatt cap would make up only 0.0008 percent of current annual electricity generation in New Hampshire.

“You would think that the solar industry is trying to bankrupt utilities the way it’s discussed,” he said.

With the most efficient solar panels, Upper Valley residents would only need 2,390 square feet of roof paneling, or 4,600 square feet on flat ground, Mitchell said.

Mitchell also discussed public attitudes towards climate change, especially among political independents. He cited a study showing that while levels of concern about climate change remain fairly consistent over a period of time among Democrats and Republicans, independents’ levels of concern will vary day-to-day, correlating positively with changes in temperature.

Change in New Hampshire will require grid modernization, renovations of old buildings and concerted efforts from state residents to influencing the state legislature, Mitchell said.

Vice president of campus planning and facilities Lisa Hogarty discussed Dartmouth’s current energy consumption patterns and proposed changes. The College currently uses steam for heating and cooling, electricity for lights, computers and other electric needs and fuel for transportation and backup generators, she said. It inputs 3.6 million gallons of No. 6 fuel, 3.1 megawatts of electricity and 6 million gallons of makeup water. Sixty-five percent of consumption comes from fuel oil, 25 percent from electricity and 10 percent from other sources, she said.

In 2008, then College President Jim Wright put out a formal pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2014 the College met the first part of its target, reducing emissions by 20 percent, Hogarty said. Further targets have been set for 2020 and 2030.

In the future, the College hopes to transition away from using No. 6 fuel as a power source and steam as an energy distribution method, Hogarty said. In place of steam, the College hopes to move towards using hot water, which is a more efficient substance, she said.

“We’re feeling very bullish about complete transformation for Dartmouth’s energy system,” she said.

Thayer School of Engineering professor Solomon Diamond discussed his home, which is fully supported by renewable energy. The walls have double studs with gaps and high levels of cellulose insulation, he said. The seams are well sealed to prevent heat leakage, the walls have triple rubber seals and the windows are made with triple panels.

An air source heat pump provides heat for the house, while the hot water heater is electric and highly insulated, he said. The house also features heat transfer systems for the water and ventilation, he added, reducing energy costs. Outside, solar panels generate power for the house. In total, the house comes within five percent of zero net energy production, he said, offsetting the increased costs of building the house.

After the panelists’ presentations, the floor opened up for questions. One audience member asked if it would be wiser to wait before installing solar panels, in anticipation of future price decreases. Mitchell responded that the loss of government incentives for installations in the future would offset the reduced prices.

Another member of the audience asked Jacobson about structural market barriers against environmentally efficient energy sources. Jacobson discussed how different states provide different incentives for green energy. Florida, for example, has low levels of incentives, and California has higher ones. Mitchell mentioned that energy subsidies to fossil fuels mask the true cost disparities between current energy sources and green alternatives.

In an email, Hanover town manager Julia Griffin wrote that the goal of the event was to raise awareness of what a zero net emissions future would look like, and to serve as a precursor for Hanover’s own efforts to transition to such a system.

Larry Litten, an audience member, said that he chose to attend the event because of its focus on civic duties for reducing emissions. He liked that the event focused on both the micro and macro levels of the issue.

Another audience member, Jonathan Chaffet, said that while he arrived late to the event, he thought the parts he saw were very exciting. He attended to learn more about sustainability.

Bobbi Dagger, a Woodstock, Vermont resident in attendance, said she came to learn more about the added value of energy efficient additions to home, which she can use in her capacity as a real estate agent. She said she found the event “fascinating.”

The lecture was sponsored by the Sierra Club Upper Valley Group, Energy and Climate-Upper Valley, Donella Meadows Institute, NextGen Climate, Sustainable Hanover, the Office of Sustainability at Dartmouth and the Dartmouth Club of the Upper Valley.