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A Global Transition to Renewable Energy Will Take Many Decades

The great hope for a quick and sweeping transition to renewable energy is wishful thinking

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Renewable energy sources could take the world by storm. That is what well-known advocate Amory Lovins envisaged in 1976. He claimed that by the year 2000, 33 percent of America's energy would come from many small, decentralized renewable sources. Decades later, in July 2008, environmentalist Al Gore claimed that completely repowering the country's electricity supply in a single decade would be “achievable, affordable and transformative.” And in November 2009 Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi published “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables” in Scientific American, presenting a plan for converting the global energy supply entirely to renewables in just two decades.

Yet from 1990 to 2012 the world's energy from fossil fuels barely changed, down from 88 to 87 percent. In 2011 renewables generated less than 10 percent of the U.S. energy supply, and most of that came from “old” renewables, such as hydroelectric plants and burning wood waste from lumbering operations. After more than 20 years of highly subsidized development, new renewables such as wind and solar and modern biofuels such as corn ethanol have claimed only 3.35 percent of the country's energy supply.

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