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Desert Companion

Do the Math

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George Rhee
Photography by Brent Holmes

A UNLV professor quantifies the difference that a shift to renewables makes in a rapidly changing climate

In late November, citing potential disruption to aviation radar, mining claims, and natural vistas, the Bureau of Land Management turned down a Swedish company’s offer to build a 200-turbine wind farm outside of Searchlight. Nearby residents and bird advocates hated the plan, too.

This is precisely the kind of situation for which UNLV astronomy and physics Professor George Rhee created his online climate-change calculator. It allows interested parties to measure how much various sustainable-energy technologies could cut the state’s fossil-fuel use.

“When you go into this universe of renewable energy, people are very vocal about what they don’t want,” he says. “If you want to build a wind farm somewhere, they’ll say no. A solar farm, no. Nuclear power plant? No. But if we want to solve the problem, we have to make plans that add up … We’ve got to get off fossil fuels, because they’re going to run out. How do we do that?”

In other words, Rhee’s calculator is meant to help people get to “Yes” by setting aside the emotion and starting with the numbers. It’s based on the simple idea of supply and demand, and focuses specifically on Nevada. How much does the state need to increase its renewable energy production and decrease its fossil fuel consumption to meet the goals set by the International Panel on Climate Change?

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Anyone can toy with Rhee’s calculator at NV2050.physics.unlv.edu. On the left is a column of supply choices — geothermal, hydroelectric, nuclear, wind energy, and a variety of solar options. Each one has a drop-down menu with four choices, from the status quo to the most radical potential change. In the case of rooftop solar, for instance, you can opt to keep it at 2015 levels, use the entire available resource by 2050, or take one of the other two intermediate steps. Then, you do the same thing for the demand choices in the column on the right — from aviation and transportation, to commercial and residential heating, each with a similar selection of four drop-drown options.

Once you’ve picked all the changes you want to make, you click “submit,” and a small table at the top shows the impact they’d have. For instance, I went through and selected the second-most conservative option for every item on both the supply and demand side, and found that it reduced the state’s total fossil fuel demand to 7.2 gigawatts, well within the IPCC goals. There are also tabs to convert the information to energy graphs and flow charts.

British physicist David McKay’s work inspired Rhee to create his calculator. In Ted Talks and YouTube videos, McKay uses easily graspable concepts to demonstrate that individual changes aren’t enough to solve the problem of climate change — that we’ll have to make sweeping changes, sometimes involving vast resources (say, thousands of acres of BLM land for a wind farm) to turn that ship around.

Rhee hopes that business leaders, government officials, and policy-makers will use his calculator to have serious conversations about renewable development. As a state with practically unlimited solar potential, he says, Nevada has the opportunity to show the rest of the world how smart renewable planning can make a measurable impact on climate change.

As for his motivation, Rhee says the calculator isn’t for profit; it’s purely a passion project. “It is up to us to make sense of our lives by living responsibly and caring for other human beings, our communities, and the environment,” he says, “not just for us here today but also for future generations.”

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