Lack of Environment

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

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.

47 Responses

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  1. This is a very interesting post. I am a former skeptic of climate change, but have had my eyes opened and am trying to do what I can to lessen my own and my family’s carbon footprint. I will be interested to see what kind of responses this post may generate.


    29 November 2012 at 05:48

    • I am very glad to hear you now number yourself amongst the ranks of the climate realists; and pleased also that you are not upset by this very open attempt to discuss the feasibility of the behaviour modification challenge that global humanity faces (some people like Peter Sinclair seem to get very angry very quickly but do not really answer the question).

      Martin Lack

      29 November 2012 at 09:04

  2. It appears to me that most of what is relevant and offering a “solution”,however unpalatable,to this absorbing,complex and vital problem for the whole planet,not only for mankind,has already been said,debated and analysed.However,since mankind finds it virtually impossible to renounce even a quantum of his new-found power over his environment the Ophulian prognosis would seem to offer the only imaginable outcome.While possessed of what we like to call high intelligence-self-referential-this intelligence is skewed,it grasps only the short term advantage-I am aware of Keynes’ dictum!-and the ultimate results of our industry escape us or are simply swept aside with the assurance that the very intelligence which is the root of the problem will also bring about its rectification.But I cannot see this happening,either in my life-time or in that of younger subscribers to this page.


    29 November 2012 at 11:10

    • Do you want to try that again Duncan? I am afraid I cannot discern what you are trying to say. Hint: Please try and use less commas and more full stops.

      Martin Lack

      29 November 2012 at 12:39

    • (Please do correct me if I’m wrong) My take on Duncan’s words is “Talk is cheap. Man’s inability to accept that He doesn’t own nature will result in Man losing His humanity. We’re not as smart as we’d like to think we are; those who suggest this may be the case are pooh-poohed. [Ageist comment elided ;)]


      1 December 2012 at 10:49

  3. Interesting post Martin-
    I think you can look at the issue from both directions- one is replacement, swapping fossil fuels for green ones. That would require finding energy to do all the things we did when energy was cheap and abundant. Like everything when we have a surplus we waste it. The other direction is need.

    If, say 50 years ago we had a different energy future [I mean past!] then energy wasteful activities like driving the kids the 1 mile to school in the chelsea tractor, leaving the heating on whilst out at work, driving to an out of town Mall and living 2 hours away from work would be expensive and impractical. I have the ‘freedom’ to commute to Paris for work but I don’t do it. [for the libertarians!]

    The market has driven us towards high streets with boarded up shops, middle class housing ghettos and even sink schools. [I best explain, despite no evidence, if the middle classes naturally send their kids to the nearest school then that will drive better results because middle-class parents are pushier]. Cheap energy pushes to waste even more energy.

    The market neglects the poor and disempowered [people who rent for instance] My solution would to be for government loans that were paid back via energy bills- you would pay no more after improvements and get the benefit when paid off. Landlords could also be incentivised.

    Carrot economics could bring shopping back into towns, and on a market level companies are already making appliances more energy efficient.

    We don’t know what we need until we know how much we really need to use.


    29 November 2012 at 12:29

    • Thanks Jules. Paul Handover has published the 4th part Dr Alexander’s thesis today, which is very interesting. I will comment on it here tomorrow.

      Martin Lack

      29 November 2012 at 12:43

    • @julesbollocks For my money you’re right on the nose.


      1 December 2012 at 10:52

  4. You have exceptionally great ideas on how the solar business all regulates and works… In the end its an extremely vicious cycle due to the unbalanced market between renewable and non-renewable resources. Its disgusting on the government’s part.

    -Sharone Tal

    Solar Installer NJ

    29 November 2012 at 18:25

    • Very grateful for the comment; I just wish I could understand its meaning (and which “you” it is that you seek to address)?

      Martin Lack

      29 November 2012 at 20:35

    • (Please do correct me if I’m wrong) My take on Sharone Tal’s words is “The current paradigm is all to cock. The government could sort this, but they won’t.”


      1 December 2012 at 10:55

  5. Hi Martin

    I really can’t see how the relative efficiency of renewables, say, PV, has any real relevance to the discussion. PV panels currently have an efficiency of between 10% and 20%. The Landart graphic assumes 20%, which is at the high-end, but it also underestimates the harvestable hours for a place like the Mojave Desert by about 50%. Whatever the efficiency and harvestable hours, the only relevant question is how many square meters of panel do we need to meet our energy needs. That number, it seems to me, is pretty well approximated by the landart graphic.

    Mr Schalk’s analysis has some major flaws, in my opinion. He correctly points out that at our current rate renewables will not account for anywhere near enough of our energy production in time to avert disaster. This, actually, is one of the major points that I make myself. But the reason for this lack of market share is not the inherent infeasibility of the technology, but is rather the infeasibility of our market-based approach to renewable adaptation. (Germany already has generated a high of 30% of their energy needs by renewables, and they have relatively lousy sunshine availability compared to U.S. resources)

    We have been spectacularly unsuccessful in implementing renewables in the U.S. because we have ONLY tried a market economy based approach. We have tried to improvise small incentives to make renewables more affordable to individual persons and businesses (like rebates toward the purchase of a Prius), tried to implement small disincentives to fossil fuel use (like a gas guzzler fee). These small incursions into a fossil-fuel based market dominated my multinational corporations, whose lobbying efforts remain so strong that their gruesomely profitable industries still receive massive amounts of government subsidies, have been, are, and will be IMO, an abject failure.

    It is therefore imperative that we start talking about, and hopefully implementing, a new paradigm to achieve a 100% renewable society. And that paradigm is to nationalize the production of renewable energy. The most efficient and most expeditious way to generate solar power is not rooftop by rooftop, especially in climes that are subpar for solar generation, but to make very large installations where sunlight is near constant. In the U.S., that means places like the Mojave Desert, where it is almost always intensely sunny.

    We do not need to restrict, regulate, or incentivize the fossil fuel industry. We need to make them irrelevant to the conversation. We need to use the power of the Federal government to build the massive infrastructure we need to completely replace every calorie of energy generated by burning fossil fuels with 100% carbon-free renewable sunlight (and/or wind, etc). It will be a huge expense. It will be a hundred times less expensive, however, than not doing it, and trying to cope with the consequences (estimated to be $1204 trillion dollars worth of adaptation costs by year 2100).

    How can we sell such an ambitious endeavor to the American people is an important issue and one to which I think I may have an answer. After all the infrastructure of a renewable generation system is in place, there is no continued expense for its ‘fuel’. Sunlight is free. And that is exactly what we should charge for it. Zero. Every single American man, woman, and child currently pays about $3800.00 per year for their energy. This includes gasoline, heating, cooling, cooking, etc. We would be asking the American public to add a significant amount of debt to the Treasury. But, at the same time, we would be freeing up $3800.00 per person in savings. I don’t know about you, but I would certainly be willing to have the Federal government become my utility if it saved me that much out of pocket every year.

    Mr Schalk makes another rather spectacularly flawed assertion when he claims that the Federal government would be less efficient at renewable generation than corporations or even individuals. This assertion, IMO, is so far out there it doesn’t deserve a refutation, but only contemplation as to the actual biases and motivations of someone who embraces such a right-wing talking point in conjunction with a viewpoint that dismisses the immediate potential of renewable solar out of hand.

    Roger Lambert

    29 November 2012 at 19:24

    • Thanks Roger. As Schalk is not Chinese, it would be normal to address him as Schalk or Mr Cloete. The person in question has indicated that he feels he will only repeat himself if he perpetuates discussion with you. However, he has once again given his permission for me to reproduce his comments (sent to me in an email):

      If we work with global primary energy consumption of roughly 20 TW (80% of which is fossil fuels), we can work out the area needed for CSP converting the 180 W/m2 average solar influx to electricity with an efficiency of 2.5% (CSP is selected because its thermal storage capability will be essential for anything over ~20% solar power). Using these numbers, the area required would be 20e12/(180*0.025) = 4.444E12 m2 = 4.444E6 km2. However, taking into account the 2:1 EROEI, you will need to cover another 4.444E6 km2 with CSP plants just to generate the energy required to replace all of these plants every 30 years, bringing the total up to 8.889E6 km2. This is roughly the total area of the USA, but of course you can only build these plants on flat areas and you cannot use agricultural, forest, urbanized or other protected land (which essentially leaves only the deserts).

      As will become clear if you read the next post on this blog (in just over 3 hours time), Schalk’s original point (that we need an awful lot of fossil fuels to manufacture all this renewable technology) is not really contestable (although many would argue that using fossil fuels to do this would be one of the very few sustainable things we could do with them). If so, it seems to me that, Schalk’s entire argument is indeed deeply flawed; because he has repeatedly asserted that the EROEI for solar is very low (if you use it to replicate itself).

      However, none of this changes the fact that our governments (US and UK) are constrained by the global debt crisis (itself partly the result of ever-increasing energy costs) from making the investment in the green economy the World so desperately needs. If, as the UK is about to do, the US makes consumers pay for this investment, this will probably trigger a rush to the renewable exits at domestic level – leaving our governments trying to get an ever-reducing number of consumers to pay for centralised investment. This seems to me to be completely insane.

      Martin Lack

      29 November 2012 at 20:57

  6. […] a challenge!  Here again, Dr Alexander appears to endorse Schalk Cloete’s arguments (see yesterday’s post on this blog) regarding the implications of the end of the era of cheap, abundant and dense forms of energy […]

  7. Quick figures (averages) etc.:

    5kw solar panel- 5,000-7,000 kwh a year
    UK average household consumption of Electricity = 3,500 Kwh a year.
    UK average household consumption of Gas = 16,500 Kwh per year
    Number of homes – 30 million
    Less houses facing the wrong way, less flats, less those in shade= a guess say a quarter = = 7 million
    7 million x 5 mw = a lot.

    Plus acres of roof space on factories, schools, churches, and offices.
    Plus gas consumption for households could be reduced in summer months = 25% with solar thermal and 25% of housing stock could utilise solar thermal. = ?

    Spare heat from new combined heat and energy power stations to new builds [works a treat in NY]

    Plus Offshore wind + insulation + 25 years for the natural replacement of most vehicles – 30 million [each with a battery] with some night-time base. [lets be really optimistic] + new rail/public networks + ground heat pumps to supply a % of domestic heat + French Nuclear + dozens of little changes industry and people make.

    OK, it is guess work – and a huge investment – but even if we leave it too late, we will eventually act, and just like a world war, a huge investment will happen in a short space of time. Of course we will cock it up, but, after casualties we will make it happen [humans do that] and our grandchildren’s children will be the ones paying the debt off.

    It is not can we do it – we could do now.


    30 November 2012 at 00:20

    • Thanks for having a go at the maths, Jules. I believe that Solar PV panels manufactured for use in non-tropical latitudes work best in daylight rather than direct sunlight. If so, roof aspect would not seem to be that important because most houses have a pitched roof with two sides facing in opposite directions. Therefore, if people were to decide that Solar PV is not unsightly on the front of their house, a lot more than 7 million homes could install them. That should keep the Chinese economy going for quite a while (although it is a shame it is mostly coal-fired – a classic case of emissions offsetting under UNFCCC). You see here that I cannot quite shake-off the arguments made by Schalk…

      Martin Lack

      30 November 2012 at 11:48

  8. Hi Martin,

    What a great question! Let’s separate the technical and the political aspects.

    The technical question you ask is how to reconcile different calculations for the land required to generate solar power.

    Lovins isn’t the only one doing calculations that demonstrate the technical feasibility of renewables.

    In Australia, Beyond Zero Emissions has a detailed plan for Australia’s electricity to be 100% renewable relies on Concentrated Solar Thermal (CST) and wind generators. Based on working CST plants (e.g. Gemasolar in Spain), they estimate that Australia could generate 40% of projected electricity needs using 12 solar sites that would occupy a total of 16km x 16 km (or 2,760 Australia is large enough and has many suitable sites. Indeed, one could anticipate a long term future where CST plants in Northern/Central Australia export electricity to SE Asia.

    The report quotes land use efficiency for one proposed CST site at 6.5ha/MW.

    Beyond Zero Emissions Stationary Energy Plan – see – I found these details on pages 57-58.

    Another reference is the NREL report that shows that it is technically feasible to supply 80% of US electricity from renewable sources by 2050.

    I put more emphasis on these practical, real-world reports than on back of the envelope theoretical calculations.

    So there seems to be reasonable evidence that it is technically possible – and that includes calculations about the amount of land required. Some countries (like Australia and USA) will have enough land, others won’t. In ‘Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air’, David MacKay acknowledges that the UK does not have enough land to have 100% renewable energy, and he recognises that UK will have to import energy from other countries, probably through something like the Desertec scheme.

    The question of finding the social/political will to make the shift to renewables is much harder! I suspect that we will get there in the end and suffer a lot of damage along the way. Damage to environments, civil society, economies and practically everything else. I wonder how many democracies will be left standing?

    Gillian King

    30 November 2012 at 00:53

    • I agree the UK has plenty of problems but density does have some advantages, however Australia has the wealth, resources, land and alternative resources of sun, sea and wind. Why they are not leading the world is a mystery to me. With a relatively small population and wide distribution [as well as mid-day energy peak demand] alternatives seem made for the country.

      Back of the envelope is where all ideas start- simple and completely optimistic- best to start and cock up later !-) than to spend decades reviewing the options.


      30 November 2012 at 10:51

      • One thing I forgot to say to Gillian – but applies equally to you Jules: Surely the trans-national or even trans-continental export of electricity will only ever be worth doing if we can solve the problems of energy loss in transmission? This would appear to require us to make superconductive electric cables a reality; something we are about as far from doing as harnessing nuclear fusion.

        I suspect you (or Gillian) will respond by saying that the ever-increasing costs of fossil fuel extraction will eventually make all alternatives seem worth pursuing. However, if so, why is not everybody paying the 25% deposit to get Solar PV installed on their houses and agreeing to use all revenue from surplus electricity to pay off the loan in the shortest possible time? To me, this is a no-brainer and, were it not for the fact that I have been out of full-time employment, I would have done this two years ago.

        Martin Lack

        30 November 2012 at 12:28

        • HVDC [high voltage dc] appears [to a lay person] to address the transmission loss. But I take Rogers point that it is not about efficiency but area of solar, numbers of wind turbines and extent of wave, and likewise if the energy in -energy out costs of manufacture, installation and maintenance we are dealing with ‘free’ energy. Lettuce convert sunlight, water and nutrients in a fairly inefficient way for the food returns they give but we still eat them.


          30 November 2012 at 20:16

      • No mystery Jules… Aust has hugely powerful fossil fuel interests with something like $250bn currently invested in new coal and gas proects for export markets. They’re fighting renewables tooth and nail. So are electricity utilities.

        The problem is politicaly, not technical.

        Gillian King

        1 December 2012 at 05:06

    • Dear Gillian, thank you for providing such an emotion-free response to Schalk’s assertions. This is what I had hoped for – but completely failed to get – when I posted links to his blog on that of others. Thanks also for all the references; I have been staring so hard at one place that I was no longer seeing the whole picture. Schalk has said he does not want to argue with emotive people who are rude to or about him; and who can blame him for that? However, to your great credit, you are neither, so I hope he will take notice.

      Martin Lack

      30 November 2012 at 12:09

    • Hi Gillian, I have just commented (in a separate thread – below) to just re-emphasize the point I am trying to make here (which seems to have become a bit lost in translation). I am not saying that 100% renewable energy is impossible, I’m just saying that it cannot happen fast enough to mitigate climate change. To illustrate this point in more detail, I will now also paste (into this thread) another comment I made earlier on another blog…

      BTW, I think Australia, essentially being one big desert with a very low population density and high per-capita GDP is an ideal place to roll out CSP on a large scale. Unfortunately, Australia is responsible for only 1.34% of global emissions so this will not have much of an impact on climate change.


      30 November 2012 at 14:57

      • With all due respect, Schalk, you have repeatedly suggested that it does not make sense to use fossil fuel energy to manufacture the SPV or CST infrastructure that will not last more than a few decades. To me, this was – and is – in severe danger of appearing to suggest investment in renewable energy is uneconomic. Whatever the mathematicians and economists say, the physics of climate change means that we simply must pursue it (and overall demand reduction) as fast as we can…

        Martin Lack

        30 November 2012 at 15:18

        • My honest and objective scientific opinion is that, barring some great global tragedy, the chances of keeping atmospheric CO2 concentrations below 450 ppm using renewable energy is exactly 0%. Thus, from where I stand, pursuing this strategy to combat climate change (even though it is ideologically very attractive) is a waste of precious time and resources. The primary role I see for renewables is long-term energy security (energy when fossil fuels actually run out), with some CO2 avoidance being nothing more than a byproduct of pursuing this primary role.

          In the previous ClimateCrocks post I gave some estimates of the costs of CCS, showing that it would be orders of magnitude easier to mitigate climate change through CCS than through renewables. I use the term “orders of magnitude” quite habitually, but perhaps I should elaborate a bit on what this actually implies. Even if it would be just one order of magnitude easier, the same amount of resources required to deliver 5% renewables by 2030 could deliver 50% CCS by that same date. Now while 5% renewables will make no meaningful impact on climate change, 50% CCS most definitely will.

          In the meantime we should of course not stop all work on renewables, but only focus on those areas where renewables make the most sense (rich areas with lots of sun and wind). The LCOE and EROEI of renewables vary widely from one area to the next depending on the local climate and there are places on earth where renewables will become cheaper than centralized fossil fuel power over the next couple of years. In these areas, we should install renewables up to the point where their intermittency starts causing problems, thereby continuing development of technologies and supply chains while intelligently adhering to Pareto’s 80/20 principle.

          In the final analysis it once again comes down to an honest evaluation of the risks of burning fossil fuels vs. the risk of not burning fossil fuels (i.e. leaving 80% of economically accessible fossil fuels in the ground). I really think that environmentalists severely underestimate the risks of not burning fossil fuels within our very fragile and unbalanced economy supporting our aging and massively unequal society. Technology like CCS (second to demand reduction of course) is simply the logical compromise between these two opposing (and enormous) risks.

          The world will be burning fossil fuels for many decades to come and, if we play this right, we can use close to 100% of this once-in-a-100-million-year miracle to build ourselves a society of true sustainable prosperity while still avoiding catastropic climate change. Theoretically this can quite easily be done by simply burning fossil fuels at a slower rate and capturing more and more of the CO2 emissions.

          As always, extremes on one end (all of those advocating 100% renewables by 2030/2050) and extremes on the other end (all of those advocating business as usual) will have to reach a compromise. As long as both sides refuse to budge, there will be gridlock and we will continue hurtling towards ecological, economic and societal disaster.


          30 November 2012 at 16:37

        • I can install a Solar PV system on the roof of my house immediately, whereas CCS is unlikely to remove my carbon dioxide emissions from the biosphere for decades. Therefore, nothing you say can ever lessen the moral imperative for each individual to stop contributing to the problem in any and every way that they can. One thing we can all do is minimise or eliminate our consumption of centrally-generated, fossil fuel-derived energy. However, as you know, I accept that, if we are to avert ecological catastrophe, nothing any of us does will change the fact we will have to make CCS work.

          Martin Lack

          30 November 2012 at 18:12

        • True, solar panels can get real results already today, but if we retrofit just one modern coal-fired powerplant with CCS it will have the same effect on CO2 emissions as putting solar panels on a few million UK homes. These are the kind of impacts we need to effectively combat climate change. Let’s hope the politicians wake up soon…

          But I just have to check: have you read the third page which comes after the two pages on the challenges facing renewable energy which triggered this interesting investigation? If not, I would highly recommend taking 5 minutes to do so: It will put my intentions with writing those first two pages into perspective.


          30 November 2012 at 19:53

      • Ah, thank you for clarifying. I agree that the switch to renewables isn’t happening fast enough to mitigate the worst of climate change. Few people would disagree with that.

        No danger of Australia rolling out CSP on a large scale – there’s no political will here.

        Gillian King

        1 December 2012 at 05:09

        • Shalk, as there is no time to lose, and the 450ppm mark will be missed whatever we do. I want to see maximum effort put into operationalising the technologies that are ready to roll now. These are primarily wind, solar (PV and CST), hydro and biofuel.

          We need to differentiate between rolling out existing technology as quickly as possible, versus investing in new technologies like CCS. Like you, I say we need to do both. But I put more emphasis on rolling out the technologies that are spade-ready.

          Yes, I know organisations like IEA say it will be more expensive without CCS, but that is balanced by questions about whether CCS will ever be proven, cost-effective and widely applicable. I suspect CCS will be non-existent or niche for decades after we’ve gone way over 450ppm. The momentum on current CCS ventures is close to static. They might be orders of magnitude more effective, IF THEY EXISTED, but they don’t exist, and they don’t look like existing for decades.

          Have no doubt that I’m going to *love* CCS when it is proved, cost-effective and widely applicable. Till then, I’m backing the bird in the hand over the two in the bush.

          Gillian King

          1 December 2012 at 05:25

        • Hi Gillian,

          The balance between mechanisms for reducing CO2 emissions really is a very interesting question. Let’s take a quick review of the most popular options and the challenges associated with these options:

          – Efficiency enhancement is mostly touted as the primary mechanism, but it faces some strong challenges: It is capital intensive, relies on technology not yet in existence (especially in transport) and it is subject to the law of consumption stating that, as efficiency increases, people will simply consume more (just because they can). Despite every study stating this as the primary driver to combat climate change, the correlation between GDP and energy use remains almost perfect (with energy actually edging slightly ahead).

          – CCS is normally the second-largest factor. We will talk more about this in the next comment.

          – Fuel switching comes in third and has some good potential. CO2 emissions from a gas-fired plant are half that of coal (and other harmful emissions are even less). This is a good option, but obviously has hard limits to how much it can achieve.

          – Renewables come in fourth. More discussion will follow in the next comment.

          – Finally we have nuclear. In my opinion nuclear is also a very good and proven option for generating reliable clean power, but you should not build it on a known fault-line like the Japanese.

          My personal forecast is that the largest factor will be demand reduction, not though efficiency, but rather through reduced consumption in developed nations. I would really like this to be a pro-active win-win scenario where people actively build happy, healthy, wealthy and sustainable lives (what my blog is all about), but I have to admit that the most likely outcome is that this reduced consumption is forced by the market (median American wages are already back to the levels they were in the early nineties).

          After such demand reduction, I see CCS as the second most important factor. This is why I am working as a research scientist in this field. If I thought that renewables were the key to mitigating climate change, I would be modelling the flow over the blades of an enormous 5 MW wind turbine or virtually prototyping a novel fluidized bed-based heat exchange mechanism for CSP right now.

          In the next comment, I’ll briefly outline the case for CCS, using renewables to provide some perspective.


          1 December 2012 at 11:22

        • OK, so let’s take a closer look at CCS. Firstly, I’ll just copy in the cost estimate I wrote in an earlier comment:

          You can build a 500 MWe coal fired power plant with CCS for $700 million. This is equivalent to about 1200 MWe of concentrated solar power (due to the large difference in capacity factor) which will cost you about $9 billion. The difference in cost is therefore more than one order of magnitude. In addition, you can retrofit an existing 500 MWe coal plant with CCS for a little over $100 million which really is small change compared to $9 billion. Add to that the fact that CCS does not require any energy storage or fundamental changes to our energy networks and you quickly see that this approach will be orders of magnitude easier to deploy than renewables, thereby granting us some more time to make this great transition.

          So the first and most important point is that deploying CCS will really be orders of magnitude easier than deploying renewables. Also, CCS has been demonstrated numerous times on pilot and small industrial scales. It is a proven technology. A second generation of gas-solid processes is also currently being developed that will reduce costs significantly. The technology is not complicated. We have just built a lab-scale chemical looping combustion reactor operating at 900C for €40k (with no prior experience).

          But why are CCS projects not sprouting up everywhere then? Well, this is simply because CCS is not being funded. The IEA projects that CCS will see about $150 billion in investment between 2010 and 2020. Renewables see almost twice this amount in a single year. Why is this?

          In my opinion, the primary reason for this massive funding difference is simply because renewables are a lot easier to market than CCS. Three reasons: 1) renewables can be deployed through small incremental investments, 2) initial gains with renewables are quite easy as they can be installed in the most ideal sites, incorporated in the existing grid and built using fossil fuel energy and 3) renewables are ideologically extremely attractive. The first two reasons are important, but the third one is the real biggie…

          The promise of renewables; clean and abundant energy for everyone forever, is about as ideologically perfect as humanly possible. This is why so many people are openly advocating 100% renewable solutions without having the necessary understanding about things like EROEI, capital markets, the practical effects of intermittency, capacity factor considerations, the global economic trajectory or the workings of the political process. They simply see pretty graphs of the current LCOE of renewables steadily going down and conclude from that that a 100% renewable energy utopia is just around the corner. I don’t think the old proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” has ever found a more perfect application.

          On the other hand, CCS is viewed by the public as nothing other than more expensive fossil fuel energy that requires large centralized investments to realize. It offers no promise of perpetual abundance and, aside from its potential impact on climate change, it has nothing for marketers to work with. Without carbon taxation, industry therefore has absolutely zero incentive to invest in CCS and, until we see the required legislation, this is the way it will remain.

          Note that I am not saying the CCS is a magic bullet that will solve all of our problems, but I am fairly sure that, if a strong enough carbon tax were written into law today (making it more profitable for industry to capture emissions than to emit them), CCS could be rolled out at a sufficient rate to keep atmospheric CO2 levels below 450 ppm. Unfortunately, it does not look like such a tax will be put in place before 2020, so this will probably not happen.

          I will keep on working though. Who knows, perhaps a few more Superstorm Sandys hammer some sense into our politicians and the democratic electorate before it is too late…


          1 December 2012 at 12:06

        • 2d: there is a version of ‘CCS’ that is already spade-ready. It’s called ‘planting trees’. And it has a side-effect: job creation.


          6 December 2012 at 21:09

    • Here is the re-posted comment I mentioned above. It was in response to a proposal for a massive centralized initiative in which government rolls out solar power paid for by national debt and inflation (the national credit card).

      First off, I never said that large scale centralized solar power is not technically feasible, I said that it is not technically, economically or politically feasible to roll out these technologies fast enough to mitigate climate change. Let’s illustrate this with some rough ballpark estimates for replacing fossil fuels with concentrating solar power (CSP), considering that the world burns fossil fuels at a rate of roughly 15 TW.

      Technical feasibility: There are many technical factors that influence the speed with which renewable energy can be rolled out; primarily the available technical expertise, energy and materials. Technical expertise is probably the most important limiting factor, but energy is easier to estimate. The EROEI (energy return on energy invested) of CSP is roughly 3:1 over a 30 year plant lifetime, implying that these plants only start making an “energy profit” after 10 years of operation. Building 15 TW of CSP will therefore require the entire world’s energy supply for an entire decade. If the world could even manage the miraculous feat of dedicating 10% of its total energy supply to building CSP plants, it would take an entire century to get the job done.

      Economic feasibility: Capital costs for CSP are roughly 7500 $/kW. Building 15 TW of CSP will therefore cost about $112.5 trillion (which is an under-estimate because the capacity factor of solar power is significantly lower than that of fossil fuel power). Power infrastructure revamps and long distance power transport will probably incur costs in the same order, bringing the total up to $225 trillion – three times current global GDP. For some perspective, consider that renewable energy investment is about 0.4% of global GDP at the moment.

      Political feasibility: The credit cards of the big western economies are maxed out. That is why we have a full-blown debt crisis in Europe and why the USA is so concerned about the fiscal cliff. We simply cannot borrow any more (let alone $225 trillion). Centralized solar power will therefore have to be built out of tax money. Just imagine the public outcry over a huge renewable energy tax hike in this time of economic turmoil.
      For these simple reasons, Desertec has the goal of supplying 15% of mainland Europe’s electricity by the year 2050. Do you think that this will have any meaningful impact on climate change? Not likely.


      30 November 2012 at 15:07

      • I would just like to say that as a jury member of this debate I remain open to the arguments from both Martin and Schalk. i would only add that if we measure wealth [in Europe the US] beyond the money market and say in the context of a major war, then Europe has the wealth to do the job. We have the technology, brains, skills, and industrial base to achieve this- the financial payment can be offset for 40-60 years as was done after the 2nd WW.


        30 November 2012 at 20:27

  9. Well, my answer to the question in the title of this a fairly confident “yes”. I am at least reasonably sure that the long-term technical potential of renewable energy is sufficient to sustain a modern industrialized society. Once again, the one and only point I am trying to convey with all of these discussions is that it will be impossible to roll out renewable energy technologies at a sufficient rate to mitigate climate change while simultaneously ensuring the energy security required for socio-economic stability.

    The review paper I sent you by email earlier summarizes the technical potential of renewable energy calculated in 10 scientific studies as follows:
    Solar: 118-2592 EJ
    Wind: 48-600 EJ
    Ocean: 1.8-33 EJ
    Hydro: 50-95 EJ
    Biomass: 27-1500 EJ

    As you can see, the ranges are very wide (just emphasizing the great uncertainty involved in this topic). Currently, the world needs about 600 EJ per year and (in my opinion totally unrealistic) predictions of future energy consumption say that we will need about 1000 EJ in 2050. Thus, if a rough average of the total technical potential of renewables in this review paper is taken, it can be concluded that a 100% renewable energy industrialized society is indeed possible (in the distant future).


    30 November 2012 at 14:49

    • I must confess I have not (yet) read the review paper but if we learn anything from Alexander it is that we must reduce our energy consumption.

      Martin Lack

      30 November 2012 at 15:04

      • Schalk, you say “it will be impossible to roll out renewable energy technologies at a sufficient rate to mitigate climate change while simultaneously ensuring the energy security required for socio-economic stability. ”

        I would go further and say that it will be impossible to decarbonise world energy systems at a sufficient rate to mitigate climate change while simultaneously ensuring the energy security required for socio-economic stability. It’s a huge transition, and transitions are bumpy – inherently not stable or even wonderfully secure all the time.

        Are you suggesting a path that WOULD ensure energy security and socio-economic stability? If you are, I suggest it would have to include a lot more than CCS – a technology that doesn’t exist yet.

        In my view, risks to long term energy security and socio-economic stability will be minimised by putting massive effort into deploying the technolgies that are already known to work. As I’m not a fan of nuclear, that means reduced consumption and renewables.

        I agree with you that I don’t see the political will to do what’s needed at a systemic level.

        Gillian King

        1 December 2012 at 05:35

    • I will admit that I am not technically proficient when it comes to energy. However, I have a few questions/arguments to make. And please feel free to “put me in my place” if need be:)

      First of all, when looking at “World needs” for energy, could it not be argued that we can live productive lives with less energy than we currently consume? I know that in my own country (Canada), energy efficiency is relatively terrible and much could be done by also improving energy conservation. Second of all, if we actually make a credible attempt to begin a complete transition to renewables, is there not the very real possibility that technological improvements (and inventions that we cannot foresee) will make meeting our energy needs easier and quicker?

      I may be naive, but I believe that if we truly aim to move to renewable sources of energy, we will be able to do it. My bigger concern is whether we will actually try. Current global policy (and the current COP 18) do little to assuage my concerns…


      2 December 2012 at 01:37

      • if we truly aim to move to renewable sources of energy, we will be able to do it.

        I would like to believe that too: however, there’s The Energy Trap to consider.


        2 December 2012 at 08:05

      • Sure, I wholeheartedly agree that it is possible to run an industrialized society on half the amount of energy we use now. I currently use 10 times less energy than the average American and this large reduction in energy consumption has only increased my health, wealth and general life satisfaction. The problem is just that our economic and political systems demand increasing energy use year after year. It will be very difficult to overturn these macro-trends.

        Regarding the transition to renewables, I made three comments above these final two which discuss the challenges facing us in more detail. There is always a possibility that some miraculous new technology will change everything, but I think the chances of this happening are very slim. Renewables are fundamentally limited by the diffuse nature in which sunlight hits the earth: In order to concentrate this solar energy to forms which are usable by man, we will always have to cover vast areas with tons of equipment at a large cost in terms of capital, energy, materials and skilled human labor.


        2 December 2012 at 09:40

        • The problem is just that our economic and political systems demand increasing energy use year after year.

          You seem to accept that as a given. It’s only a given under the current (broken) economic growth-mad paradigm. Even given the other elephant in the room, that of population growth (which, for humans, is currently in excess of 1% pa, ie heading for in excess of 14 billion in just 70 years; for other species perhaps not so much, since we’re trading their biomass for ours), we have no need to continue to increase energy use if, like you, we all stop being so damn wasteful of the energy that remains to us.


          2 December 2012 at 14:04

        • Very well said, pendantry. Global Warming’s terryfying new math may be scary; but the old math of the doubling time for exponential growth (in economies or populations) is even more scary. In the meantime, I do wish Schalk could decide whether or not he agrees with Dr Alexander’s (and William Ophuls’) assertion that, whether we choose to do it or have it imposed on us, the ecological carrying capacity of the planet will soon ensure that we stop being so wasteful of energy.

          Martin Lack

          2 December 2012 at 18:54

        • Well, I think it is completely accurate to accept as a given that our economic system, flawed though it may be, demands growth in energy use year after year. Our challenge is to reverse this massive mega-trend.

          Even though cutting personal energy use is fairly easy, the hard part comes in convincing the billion or so other hyper-consumers on this planet to actually do it. In addition, such widespread reductions in consumer spending will cause many people in developed nations their jobs (most developed nations have a consumer service sector >70% of the entire economy). This could easily set off a deflationary or hyperinflationary spiral.

          It will therefore be very difficult to pro-actively curb our wasteful energy consumption on any meaningful scale, but it has to be done…


          3 December 2012 at 08:27

        • Exactly. It will happen either by our own choice or by nature reminding us that we’re not as smart as we like to think we are.


          3 December 2012 at 08:32

        • True that. Whenever I see one of the many exponential functions that define our society, I think of the bacterial growth curve and wonder if we really are any smarter than unicellular bacteria. I guess only time will tell…


          3 December 2012 at 17:34

  10. […] contemplating this post it was the bands name which sums up my thoughts. Fellow bloggers here and here have been hosting a debate concerning our energy future, triggered in part in the UK with […]

  11. […] 2012/11/28: LoE: Solar power – can we get enough of it? […]

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