Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/10/26/jacobson_sciam_globo_renewables_bit/

Globo-renewables all electric future touted again

Still requires population freeze + universal poverty

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 26th October 2009 14:05 GMT

Analysis Another American environment professor has asserted that the entire world can easily power itself using only pure-green generation methods - "wind, solar and water". As with other recent plans, the idea would seem to be to keep the developing world in misery - and the developed world in penury.

The new scheme comes to us courtesy of Mark Jacobson, a hard-green environment professor at Stanford. Jacobson and his colleague Mark Delucchi at UC-Davis have drafted an article outlining their thoughts which is to be on the cover of Scientific American next month.

To begin with, Jacobson and Delucchi assert that shifting everything onto electricity - electric cars and trucks, electric trains, electric heating and hot water and industry, electric ships etc etc - would reduce the amount of energy the human race required, by a matter of 32 per cent. This is about the only new thing the two bring to the global energy debate.

It's actually a bit of a no-brainer, though. Any reasonably well-informed person knows that an electric car uses energy supplied to it more efficiently than a fossil-fuelled one; it has to, as it can't hold anything like as much energy. Domestic use of electric power for heating, hot water etc also tends to be more efficient - in terms of energy for results, if not money for results - than burning hydrocarbon in the home. These are not new facts.

In fact the 32 per cent reduction also seems a bit of a fudged no-brainer, as there are quite a few things which can't be or aren't yet done using electricity - aviation, space, various important industrial processes. Jacobson and Delucchi propose that any applications of this sort use hydrogen produced using electricity instead, but this is liable to introduce a lot of inefficiencies.

Hydrogen is difficult to store and transport - hydrogen-fuelled aircraft, for instance, would be mostly fuel tank. Economy-class air travel would probably disappear; long-distance travel would, as it was in the days before airliners, become a luxury for the rich only. Ordinary folk might travel the world on occasion, but only to migrate or to go to war. There would be other consequences - concrete would become enormously more expensive than it now is, for instance, and this plan calls for a hell of a lot of concrete.

But skip that - take the enviro-profs at their word and assume that an electric- and hydrogen-powered civilisation would require only 68 per cent as much energy as today's. They calculate that this means a global energy demand of just 100 petawatt-hours annually, as opposed to say 150. They then go on to happily (and meaninglessly) assert that building wind turbines and solar plants on "just 1.3 per cent of the world's land area" would meet such a demand.

Problem solved, eh? That's cover-story stuff in SciAm, all right.

Not so much. World power demand in the 100-150 PWh range ignores an uncomfortable truth: that most of the world's population currently lives in conditions that Westerners - and often enough the people themselves - consider quite rightly to be abject misery. Luxurious powerhog Americans, for instance, each use 91 megawatt-hours per year. Even relatively restrained Europeans require 46 MWh/year. These figures, if applied to the whole human race, equate to global demands in the 600+ PWh/yr range.

Let's assume that the world's population magically stabilises at 7 billion people (a big ask, but let's assume). Let's further assume that these people - including us - deserve to have some of the finer things in life: lighting, regular showers, clean laundry, habitable homes, enough personal mobility and industry to have a job other than shovelling muck. In other words let's say they deserve as much energy as Europeans, but not Americans.

You and your street need to pay for an acre of solar cells every five years. Forever.

Let's also trust that in the electric future, the global all-electric European will require only 31 MWh/year rather than 46 MWh/year in line with Jacobson's ideas.

That means global energy demand of 217 PWh, more than double what the enviro-profs suggest - and that's without any population increase.

And the costs will be enormous - ironically, given that this is a sustainability plan, one might say unsustainably so. There will need to be an enormous 100m-tall wind turbine in operation - or an equivalent 6-acre array of typical solar cells - for every 150 people alive, no matter how many or how few of them there might be. That means, probably, one such facility for every 30-odd couples of what we now consider to be working age.

Wind turbines last 20 years; solar cells 30, perhaps. Every few dozen families alive will need to pay enough on their electricity bills to buy several acres of new solar cells (think US$10m) or a new cathedral-sized wind tower every two decades. Most of us find it quite hard work paying for a comparatively cheap little house on that sort of timescale.

These globo-Europeans of the renewable/electric tomorrow may be almost wealthy - well, not grindingly poor, anyway - in terms of energy use: but they aren't going to be rich in terms of disposable income, that's for sure. Their energy bills - paid partly on the bill and partly in the form of increased prices for everything that uses energy (eg food) are going to make their mortgages look small.

And this is just the beginning. Jacobson and Delucci are overjoyed to note that the necessary millions upon millions of windmills and sun-farms would - in their view - cover a mere three per cent-odd of the world's land surface, given a fair deal for seven billion people. But this will not be land surface which is currently served by the electrical grid - or even, in many cases, by any existing roads, rails or even dirt tracks.

Even the two profs admit that "expanding the transmission grid would be critical", and if pressed they'd probably admit the need for a lot of new road and rail as well. Remember, too, that we have just driven the price of concrete and steel - of construction in general - up, by an eyewatering amount.

And the new grid will need to be a hell of a lot better and bigger and more expensive than the current one. Large areas of the world suffer from days-long calms, so much as to make their windfarms actually consume energy rather than produce any. This, inconveniently, tends to happen in at least some cases during midwinter evenings, when solar is also doing little across such a region.

"Given the inherent variability of wind speed and sunshine, can these sources consistently produce enough power? The answer is yes," say the profs.

Perhaps: but you'll have to move huge amounts of power across continents almost instantly. The sun-farms of the Sahara will have to stand ready to power northwestern Europe as well as the future, Euro-level developed Africa - both at once. The wind farms of the north will have to be able to return the favour as required.

So increase the number of sun-farms and windmills, actually: redundancy will surely be required. Add the expense of a global hypergrid able to transmit terawatts across continents or oceans at the flicker of a needle. Plus the expense of covering the Sahara and such places with roads and rails the way European and US farmland now has them. No roads means no powerplants.

This isn't going to make your mortgage look small; it's going to make it look tiny.

Cheaper than fossil or nuclear? Only in wishful-thinking fantasy land

"It will ultimately be cheaper than sticking with fossil fuel or going nuclear," say the profs.

Hmm. Assuming that the price of sticking with fossil fuel is the end of the world, the first part of that sounds fair enough.

But cheaper than nuclear? Not by any reasonable use of the word cheap, no.

A modern nuclear powerplant can sustain more than three quarters of a million electro-European future citizens. If a seven-billion-strong human race lived at that standard, there'd be a need for approximately 10,000 such plants, which could be located anywhere. (There are already many more power stations than that in existence. We are talking about less infrastructure than now, not more.) There'd no longer be a need for any world-spanning supergrid or massive redundant backups or new transport routes across the Sahara, etc.

Indeed, there'd be rather less transportation than now - shipping energy about in the form of uranium doesn't require continental pipelines or colossal supertankers. Pleasingly for those who don't like being dependent on far-off lands or volatile markets for energy supplies - as we are now with oil or gas, and would be with equatorial sun-farms - you can stockpile fuel enough to run a nation for years in quite small facilities.

Our 150-person local neighbourhood, in that scenario, only needs to cough up for two ten-thousandths of a new powerplant every 30 years; about US$900 annually for a five-person household. Quadruple this figure to make a generous allowance for distribution and profit margins, waste management, running costs and (tiny compared to the others) fuel. Note that we made no such realistic provision in the case of the windmills and sun-farms.

Now your five-person energy bill is a bit more than a modern British household gas bill - forget about the 'leccy - and don't forget, that future bill includes fuelling your car and all the other energy you use outside the home: a worthwhile proportion of what you spend on bus or rail fares - no air fares because you probably don't fly any more as an electric future-person - manufactured goods, food, water etc. All those things are partly made of energy*.

Worried about the constant parade of nuclear "accidents" reported in the press? Read this. Worried about uranium running out, or the storing of the wastes? Use the waste again and again until it's gone - and then there are lots of plans for getting more fuel, all lying dormant at the moment as existing uranium reserves are more than adequate to meet demand.

But. Re-using waste, the only sensible way to run a big nuclear sector, means producing fuels that could be stolen and used to make weapons: that's why the USA refuses to do so now. A big stockpile of hazardous and horrendously expensive-to-manage wastes is seen as better to have than small stocks of weapons-grade fuel and hardly any waste at all. Fear of nuclear armageddon lies at the root of most objections to nuclear power, in fact. It's no coincidence that Greenpeace is called Greenpeace, or that several activists who are more green than peacenik have broken with the hard-greens over this issue.

Renewables simply aren't cheaper than fossil or nuclear. That, after all, is why we live in a fossil and nuclear powered world - big business would have done renewables on its own if it were cheaper to do so, and fringe academics would be calling for the widespread burning of oil. That's why Professor JC MacKay of Cambridge University, a researcher whose personal beliefs are very green (and indeed he is also more than a bit of a peacenik) but with a much more impressive hard-sciences background and rather more intellectual honesty than Jacobson and Delucci, says this when examining the all-electric future:

E stands for ‘economics’. On a level economic playing field with a strong price signal preventing the emission of CO2, we don’t get a diverse solution, we get an economically optimal solution that delivers the required power at the lowest cost. And when ‘clean coal’ and nuclear go head to head on price, it’s nuclear that wins... My final plan is a rough guess for what would happen in a liberated energy market with a strong carbon price [so putting ordinary fossil fuel out of the running].

This plan has a ten-fold increase in our nuclear power over 2007 levels. 110GW is roughly double France’s nuclear fleet. I included a little tide because I believe a well-designed tidal lagoon facility can compete with nuclear power.

There's no way in the world that Jacobson and Delucci can stand up their assertion that a renewables-powered electric world is cheaper than going nuclear, unless we make the same assumption as we just did with fossil fuel - that nuclear is evil and will destroy the world. It seems pretty plain that the two professors made that assumption about nuclear and fossil long ago, before they ever began their careers.

Their plan isn't science or engineering or even (spit) economics - it's just wishful thinking.

For shame, Scientific American. ®

*This last is also true of the future renewables bills, but they are so huge it hardly matters.