Project Planet: Can Earth’s energy go green?

Several recent studies show that our energy can go 100% green. But if that is true, why aren’t we?
ProjectPlanet-Earth's energy


We’re here to talk about one complex topic: the future of Earth’s energy. Where does it go next? That’s a decision that you and your family probably get to be a part of!

Let’s begin with what Earth’s energy needs are.

It is estimated that powering Earth for one year requires somewhere between 18 and 20 terawatts—or 18 to 20 trillion watts. If you can imagine around 200 billion standard light bulbs all burning at once, you’re starting to get the idea!

Yup, our energy needs are huge. And growing quickly.

For almost 200 years, we have fed these needs primarily with fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas. Have a look at Canada’s energy breakdown:

  • Oil: 31%
  • Natural gas: 28%
  • Hydroelectric: 26%
  • Nuclear: 7%
  • Coal: 6%
  • Others (wind, solar, etc.): 2%

An exhausting conversation

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Though now less common in North America, carbon-producing coal plants still make around 30% of the world's energy. (Getty Embed)

The fossil fuels listed above make up 65% of Canada’s energy. But they have two major strikes against them.

First, they are exhaustible, meaning they can one day run out.

Second is their exhaust itself. Burning fossil fuels sends tons of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere and is a leading cause of climate change.

It’s clear that at some point, we need to commit to more Earth-friendly energy sources that are:

  • Renewable (will not run out)
  • Clean (as close to zero carbon emissions as possible)

Put these two things together and you get sustainable energy—sources that can be used continually without negative consequences for the planet. That’s the goal!

What is sustainable?

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Hydroelectric power is renewable and exhaust-free, but its dams can block migrating fish and be harmful to wildlife. Though hydro is pretty green, it is not a 100% sustainable option. (Getty Embed)

Right now, the two greatest hopes of sustainable energy are:

  • Solar: using panels to capture the energy of the Sun
  • Wind power: using wind to turn giant turbines

Another option is geothermal, which uses steam from hot springs to power turbines. However, hot springs are relatively rare, so they cannot be a worldwide power source. Meanwhile, solar and wind are appealing because sunshine and breezes are found just about everywhere.

But critics say that these forms of power are not practical as our main source of energy for three main reasons:

  • Their power plants take up too much space
  • The energy they produce is too costly
  • They’re unreliable

We had to ask: Is that true?

Not so bad

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Though solar farms, like this one in Morocco, take up a lot space, it's space we can afford to give up to get clean, sustainable energy. (Getty Embed)

It is true that solar panels and wind turbines both need a lot of room to function. But studies have been done to estimate how much space would be required to generate the 20 TW of power we need to cover Earth’s energy bill. And it’s not so bad.

  • Solar: If we covered around 2% of the Sahara desert—a place with year-round sun and almost no clouds—in solar panels, we could produce 20 TW.
  • Wind: We would need around 3.9 million turbines to power humanity. Spaced apart at a reasonable distance, that would be about the area of Spain.

Of course, no one is talking about clustering all of our power plants in one small corner of the world! That would be silly. But not having enough room doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Actually affordable? Really reliable?

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The open sea is an excellent place for wind farms. Winds are stronger over the water, so more power is created. (Getty Embed)

The biggest concerns with solar and wind are price and reliability.

Natural gas is currently one of the cheapest forms of reliable power in the world. Depending on where you live, natural gas can be around half the price of wind and a quarter of the price of solar. Are people willing to pay four times as much for their power?

And then there’s reliability. What happens when the wind dies down? Or when we run into a patch of cloudy skies? These are fair concerns.

Technology is catching up

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Will solar-powered parking spots replace gas stations in the future? Sounds good to us! (Getty Embed)

Supporters of solar and wind energy remind us that these are still new technologies. The solar panels and wind turbines of today are already many times more efficient than those of even five years ago. Meanwhile, battery technology—which is used to store excess energy for later use—is also improving dramatically.

As this technology gets better, reliability and efficiency increase, and costs go down. Want proof? In 2016, solar plants in Chile produced way more energy than expected, making it cheaper than expected as well.

Final answer?

Okay, so sustainable energy can provide 100% of the energy needed by Earth. Might it cost more at first? Will it be a little awkward getting to that goal?

Probably.

In the meantime, we need reliable, powerful, and cheap energy sources to keep the lights on (all 200 billion of them!). But if we’re looking for a greener way forward, it’s good to know that options already exist!

Stay tuned for our second story in this special Project Planet series! Come back on Thursday, April 12 to read "Keeping Our Cool: Can the Ice Caps Recover?"


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  1. I don’t appreciate your magazine using fear on our kids to push a political agenda. We already talk to our kids about these issues, as most parents should. Keep it light and fun, Owl.

    1. Thank you for your comment and concern. Our intention is never to fear monger or push a political agenda. Science, tech, and nature are big parts of the work we do here at OWL and OWLconnected. We get a lot of questions from our readers about things like energy and climate change, and we do our best on the website and in the magazine to provide some answers and context to these questions. We also always try to provide a positive angle—and in the case of this article, it’s that we have the resources available to provide Earth’s energy needs. We think that’s encouraging news!

    2. This article is just an overview to give kids some idea of the current and real concern. There is no “push” and any hint of “political agenda”. People at our time should start waking up from our old habits and realize resource is not unlimited, and that there are people out there working hard on alternatives to save our planet, for our next generation.

    3. There is no political agenda in this article, just a realistic but positive presentation of information our kids need to think about as they will be the ones responsible for these new technologies and our future energy consumption. OWL connected does a great job of teaching out kids about subjects that are both interesting and relevant.

  2. I agree with all the points in the article, but feel like one major element is missing if we are talking about green, sustainable energy for the long term. We also need to look at our culture of energy use and reducing our consumption and waste of energy. Yes green energy is vital and a realistic option, but there will continue to be energy issues and shortages so long as we don’t use energy more efficiently.

  3. I don’t see why we don’t used sun and wind power. Why we are building dams in this day and age?
    Europe and now even more areas of the world are so far ahead of us. It is time we caught up

    Our grandchildren travel in Europe and are full of questions about wind and sun power and
    why do we do so little here.

  4. Very informative! Loved seeing the Morrocan picture! We greedy North Americans can definitely learn from other countries about how to use greener energy and lessen consumption. Young people are open to change and I am happy to see this article with a children’s magazine. Keep up the good work!

  5. Owl,
    This is a great article! Is there anything that I can do, though? Next time, please include something that us kids can do to help the earth. Otherwise, I loved it! I am so excited for the next one!
    Bye,
    Mollie W.

  6. Great article, I think that our kids need to learn about real life problems, what we as a people have done to our planet is real and its relevant and it needs to be dealt with. Putting our heads in the sand is not the right thing to do, and sugar coating things for our kids does not help. Our kids need to grow up knowing about and thinking about how we NEED to do things differently, its not an option. things need to change, and learning about it from a kids magazine is perfect, because they hear it at school, and they hear it in the news and they hear it from us. I think when kids learn it from an “entertainment” source it really makes it sink in that this is for real, this is a real problem. My daughter loves learning about this kind of thing, she often takes stuff like this to school, and informing her friends or her teachers, or anybody who will listen to her. Great article

  7. Our class enjoyed the article and learning what a terrawatt is. We would like to see sustainable energy production around the world. Thanks for sharing this article with us.

  8. I have read that the manufacture of solar panels uses rare earth which is finite and costly and that wind turbines are als a problem. Is this true?

  9. I really appreciate OWL writing an honest article about renewable energy. More people need to know about it, that way it can be easier to access and create. It may be tough now but we need to begin creating more renewable and green energy sources. As I have read and researched much on wind and solar energy it is well worth it if we all pitch in and support planet Earth. The article was informative and effective as it was all spot on information. Sometimes that surprises people how easy clean energy can be. These are the type of new and innovative articles people should be reading and OWL always does an amazing job of writing them.
    Happy Earth Day everyone! 😉

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