Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Posts Tagged ‘Amory Lovins

Solar power – can we get enough of it?

with 47 comments

Over recent days, I have promoted and engaged in – but mainly observed – online discussions regarding the feasibility of modern civilisation meeting its projected energy needs from renewables alone.  Some say we can (and must) do this; whereas others say we might need (but cannot possibly hope) to do so…  I remain confused and hope that, by posting this, I may facilitate some polite discussion of the issues by people whose knowledge of the subject is better than my own. First of all, however, some context:

A few weeks ago, I posted an item on my blog that included a video of an old Nova programme (originally broadcast in 2007), which featured Dr Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) – who has proposed a 40 year plan to decarbonise the USA’s power generation systems without resorting to nuclear power (i.e. renewables alone).   However, when I asked fellow blogger Schalk Cloete to review this, he declared himself thoroughly sceptical; and referred me to a piece he had written on the subject of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which includes the following assertions:

On average, the surface of the earth receives about 180 W/m2 over a 24 hour period, but, because energy does not like to be concentrated, we can only get access to small amounts of this solar energy influx. More specifically; solar panels made from common materials which are sufficiently abundant for mass production typically manage to convert about 10% of the incoming solar radiation to useful electricity and solar thermal is even worse. When considered relative to the solar radiation falling on the total plant area, a large solar thermal power plant produces electricity at an efficiency of less than 3%.

Solar panels therefore can generate about 18 W/m2 of electricity on average while solar thermal is restricted to about 5 W/m2. This implies that you would need 5.5 m2 of solar panels or 20 m2 of solar thermal power plant to power a single traditional 100 W light bulb 24/7 (if you have the energy storage capacity to smooth out the intermittent nature of solar power of course).

In an attempt to promote discussion of this, I posted a link to it on Peter Sinclair’s Climate Denial Crock  of the Week (with some interesting results).  Schalk has also prompted further discussion by commenting on a more recent post (although Peter Sinclair now appears to be ignoring him).

Schalk has since provided me with a more carefully considered critique of the Lovins plan (as detailed in his book Reinventing Fire – see RMI website link above), which he has kindly granted me permission to publish here:

I spent some time on Youtube and the internet in general to get more informed about Dr. Lovins’ ideas. His strong emphasis on demand reduction through efficiency is definitely a step in the right direction and I strongly support that. The profit-driven private enterprise route also makes a lot of sense and, if green business practices can in fact give an obvious competitive advantage, it will definitely be adopted very rapidly. However, I can still see many challenges, the most important of which I summarize below:

  • The enormous scale of this challenge. The requirements in terms of energy, capital, materials and specialized human labor needed to revamp all of our buildings and industry, our entire transport fleet and, most importantly, our entire energy industry is truly colossal and I still think that it will require many decades to get the job done.
  • The gradual unraveling of our great Ponzi scheme economy will make innovation very challenging through greater uncertainty, tight credit markets and increasing social welfare demands.
  • Some success with demand reduction will once again make fossil fuels dirt cheap. For example, we just need to cut our oil use by about 10% in order to get off unconventional oil and slash crude prices by a factor of five.
  • Putting theory into practice in the real world is always harder than it seems. For example, Dr. Lovins has been working on these ideas since 1976 already and, although he has been doing excellent work for almost four decades, his impact is hardly earth-shattering.

That being said, however, I definitely think his ideas are a lot more feasible than others advocating a massive government-sponsored renewable energy revolution. In essence, he goes one level down from government to private enterprise for the purpose of increasing the efficiency of this great transition. Personally, I think we need to go another level down from there to the individual consumer in order to get access to loads of environmental, economic and societal benefits that do not require any energy, capital or natural resources. I don’t see how we can get through this transition unscathed without liberally tapping into these totally free benefits.

Therefore, since I remain completely bemused by all this, I invite anybody who can reconcile Schalk’s assertions (i.e. quoted and/or linked to above) with the infographic image (below) to which I have been referred by Roger Lambert (i.e. a contributor to the recent discussion linked to above).

Surface area required to power the World (

Surface area required to power the World (

To me, Schalk’s assertions regarding the low energy-conversion efficiency of all forms of renewable power generation (compared to burning fossil fuels, nuclear power, and even photosynthesis) are incontrovertible facts; facts which do not appear to accord with the information on the above infographic.  Furthermore, in light of the agreement of people like Dr Samuel Alexander of the Simplicity Institute (e.g. as seen here in this part of a serialisation of his Alexander’s paper on Learning from Dogs), I would also like to know what our chances are of replacing fossil fuel use with renewable power generation in the timescale that climate scientists say we need to act (i.e. years not decades).

As things stand, my provisional conclusion is as stated on Learning from Dogs:

…Dr Alexander provides the solution to the conundrum that has been troubling me: He too acknowledges that we have no way (neither renewables or nuclear) to power anticipated economic or population growth but says that we must also get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible… His solution is not just energy efficiency or even self-sufficiency (i.e. independence) – it is far more radical. What scares me, however, is that this too is impossible:  In 1968, Garrett Hardin (Tragedy of the Commons) said that solving the problem would require mutual restraint to be exercised by all of us, but this is never going to happen. Therefore, I think I know how the story will end… Humanity will refuse to change and therefore William Ophuls will be proven correct – If we fail to heed the warning signs, like an aeroplane landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier is brought to rest by a steel cable, nature will intervene (to re-establish a balance between supply and demand).

I am, however, not an expert on renewable energy; and I would like to know who is mistaken here because – one things seems clear – someone definitely is.

Yours hopefully,

Martin Lack.

Nuclear, wind and wave power chiefs in joint appeal on green energy

with 4 comments

I have been very critical of the UK’s Coalition Government recently – and I am particularly concerned about the completely opposing views of Energy Secretary (John Hayes) and Climate Change Minister (Ed Davey).  However, I am clearly not the only one who is concerned…  As is made clear by this very significant article published on the website of The Independent newspaper on Monday:

The leaders of Britain’s nuclear, wind and tidal industries today put aside years of mutual suspicion and antipathy with an unprecedented joint appeal to ministers not to abandon their commitment to combat climate change…

John Hayes really needs to stop basing what he says on the completely discredited views of people like Lord Lawson and Christopher Monckton and start paying attention instead to what actual scientists say.

It is also good to see that Greenpeace may be willing to abandon its axiomatic rejection of nuclear power generation. However, I remain bemused as to why Dr Amory Lovins’ assertion (in Reinventing Fire) that we could survive on renewables alone is not taken seriously…

It is good to see unanimity in the face of Government duplicity.  However, Carbon Capture ans Storage (CCS) is just fossil fuel industry propaganda to provide an excuse to keep burning fossil fuels. We may need the technology to help prevent an ecological catastrophe but, CCS should not be used as an excuse to perpetuate the insanity of burning all fossil fuels simply because they are there. Humanity must exercise some self-restraint and leave some fossil fuels in the ground. If we do not, our civilisation will go the same way as all those that have previously disappeared because they failed to respect the fact that their environment had a finite capacity to cope with the scale of their activities.

Since we now know this, failure to modify our behaviour will be the ultimate human folly.

Saved by the Sun

with 12 comments

(yes we could be)

A comment posted on this blog on Monday concludes with the words “…I look forward to your next blog but some solutions would occasionally be welcome.  As it happens, I stumbled upon a TV programme (in the Nova series), which was re-broadcast on Sky on the PBS America channel on Monday night.  The most amazing thing about this programme is that it was first broadcast in 2007.  Its main message is a very clear one – we have the solution to our energy crisis.  Therefore, its main question is a very clear one too – why are we not implementing it?

I have now found it on You Tube; and have appended it below.  However, here is a brief summary:

  • Solar Farms (using parabolic mirrors to focus energy onto oil-filled tubes that generate electricity by boiling water to make steam [i.e. solar thermal]) have been around for over 20 years.
  • Solar Farms (using photovoltaic panels that convert radiation directly to electricity [i.e. solar PV]) have also been around for quite a while and are getting cheaper all the time.
  • Both of the above can be developed on land not being used for any other purpose (other than perhaps grazing animals), whereas Solar PV can be installed on the roof of any suitable building.
  •  Since this Nova programme was first broadcast, solar thermal plants have been built with capacitors (huge tanks of salt solution) that enable electricity to be stored and discharged when the Sun is not shining – therefore making them capable of providing power 24/7.
  • Solar PV panels have a very low energy conversion efficiency and they are expensive.  However, even in 2007, it was noted that, as with all other forms of new technology, the price was coming down as the scale of production increased.  Despite this, most households who invest (especially if given financial incentives to do so) can generate income from their solar PV panels by “exporting” unused electricity to the network to which they remain connected (and thereby – at very least – halve their energy bills).
  • Similarly, even in 2007, there were already companies marketing solar PV systems to the owners of large buildings with flat roofs (another suggestion made on Monday).  Knowing the cost of manufacture and the durability of the panels, the manufacturer/distributor can offer the building owner fixed price carbon-free electricity for decades.
  • Although the proportion of power generated in the USA by solar means was extremely small in 2007 (and still is), in Germany solar power was noted as well on target to provide 20% of all power by 2020 (actually it has all but reached this target this year).

Critics claim that solar power is not sustainable because it can only be made competitive by means of government subsidy.   However, this is patent nonsense because it ignores the fact that burning the Earth’s finite resources of fossil fuels is destabilising the Earth’s climate.  There is, therefore, only one thing that is not sustainable – and it is not the generation of electricity from renewable (i.e. effectively infinite) sources.

Towards the end of the programme (view from 45:30), Dr Amory Lovins is interviewed.  He summarises the situation in a very incisive way (as I believe he is well-known for doing):

“We do have a national energy policy, it is basically to keep wasting lots of energy, import it at whatever price and by whatever means are necessary; keep stealing from our kids; and keep screwing up the climate.  You may think this is a senseless, immoral, and wasteful energy policy; and you would be right.”

So what the **** are our politicians waiting for?  Oh yes, I forgot:  A bit like a delegate at a meeting of the UN in New York connected to a simultaneous translator in a little room somewhere by an earpiece; our politicians are continually being told by the fossil fuel lobby that it will take decades to reduce our dependence upon fossil fuels.

This is quite clearly bullshit; we could do it now – all that is required is for our politicians to tell the fossil fuel lobby that the game is over.

We need to end the subsidies given to fossil fuel companies; and give them to renewable energy companies instead.  End of story.


If you have the time, please do watch the Nova programme (and remember it is already 5 years old):


Addendum:  In order to determine how far things have moved on in 5 years and/or whether the UK has embraced this rent-a-roof business model, I emailed Peter Bennett at the solarpowerportal website.  With his permission, I publish here the relevant part of his response:

As for your question – there are a number of companies in the UK offering ‘free commercial solar installations’. The scheme is exactly the same as the rent-a-roof residential model that has been so popular over the last 18 months. A commercial organisation leases their roofspace to a solar company who installs and operates an array on it. In return the organisation receives unlimited use of the clean, green electricity generated and the solar company recoups the cost of the installation through the associated feed-in tariff payments.  Here’s a (very) small selection of companies offering the service:


Written by Martin Lack

10 October 2012 at 00:02


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