How To Power The Entire Country With Renewable Energy: Fun With Maps Edition

So with Al Gore calling for 100% renewable energy in 10 years a lot of people might wonder where the heck we are going to get all that energy from (if we are not using coal/oil/gas). Well my friends take a gander. What you see below is where we are going to get all that energy.

As you can see America has some amazing wind resources. Most of the east coast, the great lakes, and the entire middle of the country are EXCELLENT wind resources. Many places in the west and even some places in the south west are commercially feasible sources. The upper mid-west has been called the Saudi Arabia of wind. There is enough wind going through there on a daily basis to power much of this country (if not all of it on some days). The real problem however is not space (anyone who has been there knows there is space), and it is not NIMBY land owners (the ranchers and farmers would love to get extra revenue from their lands) the problem is transmission.

There are few major cities in that area, and even fewer heavy duty low loss transmission lines. To tap this excellent resource the government would have to invest in transmission lines, or make it easy for private companies to do so. We have the technology, we have the turbines, we even have the market forces to make it happen. What we don’t have is a policy that encourages it. American could certainly use the jobs however…

America also has a superb solar resource. Almost every single square inch of this country is suitable for home scale solar. Only the darkest parts of Alaska are unsuitable for home scale solar (even then some solar thermal would work). However if we are talking major solar projects, utility scale in the 100’s of megawatts, then we are most likely talking concentrated PV, and concentrated solar thermal. That means the south west.

Several entire states rate as very plentiful solar areas. Again the problem is not space, or Not In My Back Yard activists (the desert is largely federal land, and empty), it is transmission, and lack of effective policy. Again we have the technology, this would not need a large research push, we have everything we need. We know how to build the collectors, we know how to build the transmission lines, we simply need to do it. A policy that mandates renewable energy sources would mean that the billions of dollars we currently ship off to the middle east, and other politically unstable areas, would instead be going to create jobs here in the united states.

Geothermal is the forgotten player in the renewable energy game. But as you can see almost every single square inch of this country is suitable for home scale geothermal heat extraction. That means that if you wanted (and could afford to do so) you could almost certainly heat your home fuel free from the ground. However if you are really interested in large scale geothermal you would head west, and some places in the upper east, and even a patch or two in Texas/Louisiana. What is not shown on this map is that Hawaii could be the hydrogen production capital of the world if it simply used its ample geothermal energy (cough most active volcano on earth cough) to make hydrogen from sea water. It could also use the geothermal energy is has under it to power itself, making it the only energy self sufficient state (not to mention Hawaii has excellent solar and wind resources as well). Geothermal may be a little lacking in technology, but with the right encouragement from the government it could become an excellent base load generator, again it would need investment in transmission.

Most people when they think of renewable energy do not think of biomass. Biomass, to put it simply, is anything that grows that you can burn. This includes things like left over farm waste, switch grass, wood chips from logging, sugar cane waste and things like municipal yard wastes. It also includes things like pig shit, cow shit, and maybe even human shit. When you get a lot of poo together you can digest it using bacteria and then burn the resulting methane gas. Biomass is great because you can store it up and burn it when you need it.

As you can see there are plenty of places all over this nation that produce a lot of biomass, and this map does not include the potential for human/pig/cow/chicken waste gas creation. With a little rail transport, and a couple of storage areas we would be all set. Biomass is one of the easiest to implement technology because when it comes right down to it, its just burning stuff.

Say it’s ten years from now and we have followed Al Gores excellent suggestion and most of our country is powered by wind and solar with geothermal base load backup in areas that can sustain it. This works well because whenever it’s not windy in one place it is windy some place else, and our high tech transmission system (that we built) can route the power around. However what if it’s a calm day in a lot of places, and maybe the sun is only shinning in a couple places, and we need a little boost, well thats when we fire up the quick start biomass plants and burn a couple hundred tonnes of old corn waste and pig shit gas. Tada! Renewable energy powered country, screw you oil barons.

But wait you say, isn’t burning stuff dirty and going to cause more global warming? Well lucky for us biomass is carbon neutral. All the carbon put into the air by burning the plant waste, is the same carbon the plants sucked up, so you are just recycling the carbon already in the air. Some people even claim that biomass, if done right, can be carbon negative, that is you suck a little carbon out of the air in each grow/harvest/burn cycle. But this has yet to be conclusively proven (at least in my opinion).

As far as air pollution goes, there are several biomass plants in Europe that are sparkling clean, and use a particulate trap to make sure the only things that enter the air meet strict regulations. Here is a video of how some German scientists are using a similar approach to prove that wind/solar/biomass can provide all of their countries power power.

So there you have it, with a couple hundred billion dollars, the creation of a couple hundred thousand American jobs, and a little rethinking of how we run this nations energy grid we could be 100% carbon neutral using only 4 simple technologies. Of course this would be EVEN easier if we had mandates for more efficient electric cars, more efficient construction standards, and more efficient rules for energy use of commercial products, but hey when has America ever done thing the easy way.

Easy or hard, this solution will work. It will work with technology we have on the shelves today. We do not need to wait 50 years for the hydrogen economy to get here, we don’t need to do more studies, we don’t need to wait for anything. What we need is strong government policies, and a large investment in American prosperity in the form of jobs and domestic spending. I

37 thoughts on “How To Power The Entire Country With Renewable Energy: Fun With Maps Edition”

  1. Every state across the country should not hesitate to immediately implement a plan of action and a type of legislation termed Renewable Energy Payments or REP’s. The policy behind REP’s has been called “the world’s best renewable energy law”. It has proven to promote the fastest, cheapest, and widest growth of renewable energy. Its core principles are: 1. access to the power grid, 2. long-term guaranteed prices, and 3. no limit to the amount of renewable energy that can be sold to the utility companies.

    In the US, energy policy is set at the national and state levels. Recognizing that our Federal Government is doing far too little to promote renewable energy, every state government needs to take leadership.

    The US consumes 25% of the world’s oil, but only has 3% of the world’s oil reserves. Our national and state economies are overly dependent on oil. Developing our own renewable energy breaks our dependence on Middle East and other foreign oil, thereby increasing our energy security. Renewables will help to solve global warming, and create millions of new well-paid jobs.

    Every state has more than enough renewable energy from the sun, wind, water, biomass and/or heat from the earth, to meet their needs. Renewable energy can be used for heating, cooling, electricity, and as fuel for machinery and transportation.

    Once the investments are made to buy, install and maintain solar panels, wind turbines, etc., the actual “fuel” is free and ongoing. Compared to the costs related to fossil fuels-extraction, production, transport, pollution, illnesses, and wars-clean renewable energy is cheap. While fossil fuels pollute the environment and cause global warming, renewable energy is clean.

    The most effective legislation to stimulate a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy has been pioneered in Germany. This has made Germany the world leader in the production of solar panels, creating 234,000 jobs. In the 1980s the US had an 80% share of the solar panel market; today we have 25%. The German legislation is so effective that over 45 other countries, states and provinces have adopted similar laws with great success. We must remember Germany has the same number of peak sun hours (3) per day as southern Canada. Most states receive an annual average of twice this amount of solar resource per day.

    This legislation encourages people and groups to install solar panels, wind generators, etc. to produce energy and sell it to their power company at a price guaranteed for 15 to 20 years. People are eager to install this equipment, as they will recoup their investment in about 9 years and have a steady stream of income after that. This increased demand creates jobs, conserves fossil fuels, and lowers greenhouse gas emissions-Germany is on track to meet its reduced CO2 emissions targets three years early.

    This simple idea that is producing astonishing results elsewhere has received little attention in the USA. It can help states reach their CO2 reduction targets, and their goals to have a percentage of their energy come from renewables by a set date. Climate chaos, escalating fuel prices, and wars show us that we need to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy. We have the technology, know-how, and resources. Now we need leadership from our state government.

    We can all be innovative leaders in renewable energy. With REP’s we can do the most to help our country make a rapid transition from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy. By being a leader in clean renewable energy, we will create many thousands of well-paid jobs, improve public health, and help stop global warming. By reducing our dependence on imported fuels, we will keep the revenues of the energy industry within each state and increase our national security.


    With Decentralized Renewable Energy we create:

    Efficiency – Renewable energy can be produced right where it’s used, so almost nothing is wasted.

    Security – Currently, accessible renewable resources can deliver six times more energy than all the people on this planet use every day.

    Investment – Governments should support future technology that has the capacity to solve energy problems with clean, affordable energy for everyone.

    Ecology – Most renewable-energy fuels produce no emissions. The quicker we switch, the quicker we can stabilize our climate and prevent catastrophes.

    Independence – Renewable-energy technology produces energy in diverse, small-scale ways, allowing energy independence for everyone, everywhere.

    Cost – Renewable-energy fuels are free. The sun and wind do not increase their price, and technology will become cheaper as the market grows. As a result, our valuable water supplies are left to meet other needs.

    Economic Growth – Renewable energy provides stable fuel prices while creating a large number of high-skilled jobs in many sectors. The benefits are spread throughout society.

    Similar legislation is being introduced in Washington, DC, Florida and Michigan.

  2. I have a question that I’ve never heard asked before regarding solar and wind.
    Just like taking oil or coal out of the ground has environmental repercussions (not actually burning the oil and coal, but simply removing this mass from the earth). What are the repercussions of removing wind and sun rays from the earth?
    With enough wind farms, you could theoretically disrupt the wind flow.
    With enough solar farms, you could disrupt the heating of the earth.
    Wind and solar energy are not completely “green” technologies (nothing is)… just more green than coal and oil.
    I would just like to hear scientific feed back regarding this.

  3. Excellent post! Thanks for shining some much needed practical optimism on the crisis.

    @Question… While I don’t have an answer at hand for your question re: wind disruption, I wanted to comment on solar. Solar energy does *not* disrupt the Earth’s heating, because the energy from the sun is converted to electricity which in turn eventually gets converted to heat, right in accordance with the law of preservation of energy. It does, however, discourage us from converting the chemical energy in oil into heat, which IMHO isn’t an entirely bad thing. ;-)

  4. The NIMBY problem is what’s holding up the transmission lines. Quack science has convinced most Americans that high energy transmission lines (or whatever the correct term for them is) cause cancer and birth defects. Any attempt to build them is quashed instantly. Maybe with the economy as bad as it is, some areas will see the value in them, but as things stand they’ll never be viable in the vast majority of the country.

  5. josh: Building and installing wind turbines is not carbon neutral, but wind turbines and solar panels quickly “pay back” the amount of carbon it takes to make them.

    If you think about things that burn coal/oil/gas have an infinite bayback period because you always have to buy more fuel. Wind and solar eventually break even. Now if you create wind and solar technology using the energy from wind and solar technology…well then you have no carbon to pay back. So at some point we need to bite the bullet and install a majority of our energy needs using renewable energy and then we will be good to go for the future.

  6. This is all fine and dandy but if you look more at the engineering factors it does not look as good. In one of my classes we looked at the payback period for a solar panel. We ended up in the relm of 50 years. That was with 12hours of sunlight a day 365 days a year with no loss of output over time. It fun to talk about having all renewable energy sources but the bottom line is that it costs a lot more. Wind power is definately becoming a competitive energy source but that much solar is a pipe dream at this point.

  7. zomg. @The Naive, I read the link to the payback calculations.
    You guys are a crackup. Claiming a 6 month payback for a wind power station is simply false. They have cooked up some numbers that are what we like to call BS. Read the cover story itself and notice that “engineering calculations” were discarded for an entirely fictious means of measuring costs. Instead of adding up the costs, in time, energy, materials, and dividing by the amount of energy produced per year times the cost of producing that same KW by other means and you will arrive at the number of years it takes to payback the energy put in.
    Hint (the answer is many many many years).

  8. Surely you realize that there is no (practical) power storage in the grid?

    Nate Lewis @ CalTech does a great job of matching potential energy supply with projected demand, framing the realisitc potential for renewables:

  9. HA! You totally omitted the most practical and unlimited source of energy that we already have the transmission lines and the technology for: NUCLEAR. Nothing else comes close to making as much energy and nothing ever will, unless we figure out how to do fusion.

  10. i’d be curious to see what you’re thoughts on this would be:

    sure there is wind, solar, wave, tidal, and geo to be harvested.. but the real question is how much power can we generate from each of these sources per person.. and how much energy do we consume per person?

    the article gives empirical evidence, though based on the UK, that in fact its not as easy as it seems. unless we consume less (which i am also for).

  11. “HA! You totally omitted the most practical and unlimited source of energy that we already have the transmission lines and the technology for: NUCLEAR. Nothing else comes close to making as much energy and nothing ever will, unless we figure out how to do fusion.”

    JC, Nuclear is not practical or unlimited. Uranium is mined out of the ground, just like coal or oil. According to wikipedia, “current economic uranium resources will last for over 100 years at current consumption rates, while it is expected there is twice that amount awaiting discovery. With reprocessing and recycling, the reserves are good for thousands of years.”

    Thousands of years may sound nice, but it’s not “unlimited.” Why bother, when we have the technology to utilise genuinely unlimited alternative energy sources?

    Nuclear causes nuclear waste: big problem: no-one wants it, storage problems are extremely serious, and extremely long term, and if something were to go wrong, significantly dangerous. Why take that risk when we has risk-free, unlimited alternatives sitting there just begging to be used.

    Nuclear can also screw-up bigtime, like a Chernobyl. It has happened, and it could happen again, whether by accident or by malice.

    We have been thinking too short-term for years now with coal and oil. We have the technology right now to implement true safe green sustainable renewable energy supplies as listed above. Why on EARTH would we look at Nuclear again? I will never understand it.

    The only reason surely that we are considering it again is because there are some people hoping to make big bucks.

  12. It is time for us to look in the future and be part of the green energy use. it is time to be more independent from the oil industry and by more creative with solar,wind,wave and other renewable energy resources that Mother Nature is giving us for free.

  13. The article does not mention ocean wave or tidal power or using currents like the gulf stream to drive turbines. These are still young technologies, but very promising because of the high density of the medium. Water is 800 times as dense as air, so an 5mph ocean current has 800 times as much energy as a 5mph wind.
    Another big advantage is that currents and tides are much more regular than the wind in most areas, so they are a more dependable power source.
    I suspect that combining offshore wind turbines with water turbines mounted on the same tower would be both economically and technically feasible.

  14. I give you a lot of credit for mentioning the huge infrastructure investment required to bring these ideas to fruition. But you’re a little short on the other important details. Making blanket statements is not enough. Let’s see the math:
    How much energy will you get from each source?
    How efficiently will that be turned into usable energy?
    How much land resources will they consume?
    How much will each cost?

    Only when these questions are asked and answered in detail, then peer reviewed, can this be taken credibly. That’s not to say the answer won’t be what you promise, just that you can’t get meaningful agreement to do these things until you work the details.

    To date, the details have always made these options unattractive. I started looking into practical biomass energy in the late 1980’s. Not workable then, still not workable today. A lot of work remains.

    Wind is coming close to parity with other energy sources. Solve the land acquisition and transmission issues, and it can be a winner.

    PV solar is still a joke. Not even close to practical as long as alternatives exist. Thermal solar can work if you have several thousand acres whose ecology you want to destroy.

    Geothermal is the sleeper with real potential. Hawaii is a great example – isolated from other energy sources, and generously endowed. Like Iceland, except you don’t have any use for free heating in Hawaii. Oops, think I found why it isn’t being done.

  15. “current economic uranium resources will last for over 100 years at current consumption rates, while it is expected there is twice that amount awaiting discovery. With reprocessing and recycling, the reserves are good for thousands of years.”

    Considering that sea water has 4.6 billion tonnes of uranium in it and it can be recovered for approximately $300/kg-U Nuclear in not such a bad idea. Remember the cost of electric from a Nuclear plant is not strongly linked to the price of fuel like in a coal plant.

  16. I would rather see a focus on LESS CONSUMPTION of energy with common sense measures…

    Don’t take the elevator down one floor. In fact, don’t take the elevator at all unless it is necessary. Stop building structures where elevators instead of stairs are the main focal point of movement.

    Remove/stop installing moving sidewalks and escalators. Not to mention powered doors.

    More car sharing… do you really need a 4,000 vehicle to drive 1 person to the grocery store?

    Get rid of all the useless lights that light up interior buildings that don’t need it or convert to power saving LEDs. Plus this would help bring back the night sky.

    Lighter, less powerful cars. Force gov’t business to adopt clean cars to develop infrastructure and slowly move to all cars/buses/trucks.

    Make gas powered engines illegal for chainsaws, lawn mowers, etc (except where deemed necessary or grandfathered in). Again, this will help to slowly build up infrastructure for the next energy source.

    City planners need to make walking/biking friendly areas so cars are used less. Australia does this well. Build green roof tops, solar rooftops. City farms, etc.

  17. I still don’t understand what happens when you take that energy out of the wind/solar/ocean currents. What is the effect on the surrounding environment? I think it could be VERY serious like it is when we install hydroelectric dams.
    Sure, we could capture the energy in the ocean currents, but on a large enough scale and we take all that energy out of the ocean… probably not a good thing.

  18. “I still don’t understand what happens when you take that energy out of the wind/solar/ocean currents. What is the effect on the surrounding environment? I think it could be VERY serious like it is when we install hydroelectric dams.
    Sure, we could capture the energy in the ocean currents, but on a large enough scale and we take all that energy out of the ocean… probably not a good thing.”

    I think you may be looking at this the wrong way. The amount of energy that we would be using in comparisson to the whole would be so slight that it would not even be noticed. A skyscaper does not change weather patterns. Thousands of airplanes aren’t creating weird air currents. As far as solar panels are concerned, the same amount of the suns energy is incident on 1 m^3 whether its on the ground or a solar panel. The solar panel is converting a very small amount of this into electrical energy. I would say it would be like taking a drop out of the ocean. Not even close to being measureable when compared to the overall energy we recieve from the sun.

  19. Daniel Osterberg…
    You don’t think sky scrapers change weather patterns? Well, maybe not 1, but certainly the city of Chicago changes weather patterns. Hell, in my downtown city with all the concrete holding the heat in, it is normally 5 degrees warmer than outside the city and that certainly must change weather patterns.
    Think of how much a 10 mile by 10 mile slab of basically concrete changes things compared with its natural state of plants and wildlife.

  20. Hi, I read your article its to informative. i like it. We have to look in the future and be part of the green energy resources uses. Now we have to use renewable energy resources and be independent from the oil & Gas industries.

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