Transition to renewables won’t match fossil fuel energy level

Vision of solar arraysThe post-carbon world is on its way. Most of us know it, but don’t like it. We’d prefer to keep things going as usual – “things,” of course, being a way of life that requires abundant energy. We got used to having extravagant amounts of energy with fossil fuels, which are unique in that way, but also finite and messy.

Inevitably, nature is taking fossil fuels out of the picture – whether with our cooperation, due to concern about climate change, or without it, due to the forces of depletion.

If the problem is that our current energy source is going away, then the solution – the conventional “powershift” scenario – is to replace it with other sources. The threat to business as usual is thereby averted, and the problem solved.

That’s a big if, arguably, when it comes to identifying “the” problem. It may well be that “business as usual” is itself the problem, with solutions that could give us much pleasanter outcomes than clinging to it at all costs.

However, for all its eagerness to cling to business as usual, the conventional wisdom does not stop to consider the other possibility – a “downshift” to a more modest and human-scale way of life – and assumes that the transition we face is a transition between sources of energy, rather than paradigms for living.

It might be interesting, just for the sake of discussion, to take the conventional wisdom at face value, and see where it leads if we follow it far enough. The well-prepared journeyer should know, however, that soon after we pass the 10,000 square mile chunk of Nevada paved over with solar panels, the destination is likely to challenge most notions of plausibility – enough to cause some serious reconsideration of what “needs” we actually do need.

Most who talk about energy transition propose a scenario of straight-out substitution, one that puts wind farms and solar arrays in place of the coal- and gas-fired power plants now plugged into the electric grid – plus quite a few more to account for powering our electric cars and trains.

It’s more plausible, certainly, than a scenario featuring nuclear power as the world’s energy mainstay – all other objections aside, nuclear just doesn’t scale up well enough to make the grade.

Even so, there are also problems of scale in the wind-and-solar substitution scenario, though less clear-cut. These come to light when you start identifying the details of an implementation program and actually try to put a pencil to it.

The first requirement in the scenario is to maintain business as usual, which  means coming up with an alternate power infrastructure that produces enough energy to run the show that we know. So we need some figures.

Here’s the total – the current worldwide energy consumption per year, including all fuels and electrical sources

  • 521 quadrillion BTU (quads); or
  • 550 exajoules (EJ)

Out of the total 521 quads (550 EJ), only 73 quads are electric power, primarily from coal and natural gas. The remaining 448 quads consists of fuel being burned – to run our cars, to smelt our steel, to bake our cement, to heat our houses.

Electricity is only 14% of our energy use —

Compared to the rest, wind and solar power are a blip – barely out of rounding-error range.

Non-electric energy use —

  • Coal: 111 quads
  • Oil: 175 quads
  • Gas: 102 quads

Fully 86% of the energy we use is to melt stuff, push pistons, and keep us cozy. Not a bit of this moves a single electron.

Altogether, this is the amount of energy it takes to run our present-day way of life. So now that we have some quantities to work with, it’s clear that the path toward replacing the entire amount of it with wind and solar power is many, many steps beyond where we are now.

In fact, to go with the metaphor, that path would be about 290 steps long, with every single step the equivalent of adding all the solar installations and wind farms that currently exist. The first milestone along the way – the point where wind and solar are generating all of our electricity – would be 40 steps away.

It’s worth keeping in mind that if we aim to do everything with electricity, we’ll need to go far beyond replacing our current electric power generation. Seven times farther, in fact.

How long does it take to go one step? Renewables have been growing an average of 4.5% per year, so the next step would take 15 years. It would accelerate, similar to compound interest, but even if we got a big push and ramped it up to 10% per year, we wouldn’t reach our 40-step milestone until mid-century. It would take an additional 20 years to reach the “all energy” goal.

Recently, two engineers at Stanford University worked out a detailed scenario for achieving the goal of all-renewable power by 2050. Their mix included geothermal, hydroelectric and tidal sources, but 90% of the power would be wind and solar.

The numbers are, well, large. They ignored construction costs, but those are included here:

  • 3,800,000  Wind turbines (5 MW) @ $10 million each
  • 49,000 Solar thermal plants (300 MW) @ $1.2 billion each
  • 40,000 Solar photovoltaic plants (300 MW) @ $570 million each
  • 1.7 billion Rooftop solar installations (3 kW) @ $20,000 each

The tab comes to $153.6 trillion, or $3.8 trillion per year. Even if somehow the political leaders of the world were to agree on making this a modern Manhattan Project, their first difficulty would be the conversation they would have to have with their bankers.

It could be awkward, since the entire amount of capital in the whole world that can be mustered in any given year (Gross Fixed Capital Formation) is currently about $14 trillion. They’d be asking for more than a quarter of it, every year for forty years, redirecting finances that would otherwise be putting up buildings, equipping factories and acquiring lots of cars.

If this project somehow got the green light, then it would become a matter of putting up a couple of thousand windmills and several dozen utility-scale solar plants every week for forty years.

We casually refer to a “Manhattan Project” or an “Apollo Project,” but these are pikers by comparison. This one is about 5000 times bigger than the Manhattan Project, and for that matter, bigger than all of World War II – by about 100 times.

Any government or alliance that took this on would show a level of  commitment and real governance the likes of which we haven’t seen since, oh, before the Carter administration – which is about when we should have started something like this to begin with.

Given the numbers, we can judge how likely it is we’ll ever see a day when current energy “needs” are supplied exclusively from renewable, non-polluting sources. From every angle, it appears to be unlikely in the extreme – you definitely wouldn’t want to bet the farm on odds this long.

It makes a lot more sense to look at the other side of the equation, and reassess what our needs really are.

We certainly need to keep building wind and solar power sources. We just need to start rearranging the way we live so that we can get by comfortably on a lot less energy – walkable cities, few private cars, real public transport, local resources and farming, home-scale and neighborhood-scale solar power, doing it yourself, and getting together with the neighbors.

There will be fewer conveniences, no doubt, but also ample opportunity to reflect on how we ever thought those conveniences were worth the aggravation and sacrifice it took to maintain them.

One Response to Transition to renewables won’t match fossil fuel energy level

  • A. D. Tocqueville says:

    Truths well told. Thank you, Midnight Oilman.

    Not to distract, merely to note these compelling energy statistics are part of larger supply/demand equations. We can cover every square inch of California with solar panels (an idea with merit) but to what avail if we don’t address overpopulation as well? The Law of Gravidity has no exemption or appeal.

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