Climate change

April 15, 2009

Climbing mount improbable

Filed under: Renewable Energy — Barry Brook @ 4:21 pm

A picture tells a thousand words.

So reflect on the image above. It shows fuel shares of total world energy supply, including the contribution of fossil sources (oil, coal and gas), nuclear power (providing for about 16% of global electricity demand and 6.5% of all energy use) and renewables (13% of total energy). So, renewables already provides almost double that of nuclear power. Of course, that’s where the breakdown of renewables is rather revealing. Almost all of it comes from burning biomass (wood, crop residue, dung etc.) and hydropower. Of the remaining 0.5%, over 4/5 of that comes from geothermal — almost all based on tapping surface volcanic/hydrothermal heat (essentially nothing to date from hot dry rocks). ‘Technosolar’, (wind, solar thermal, solar PV, wave) constitutes just over 0.1%.

The data above come from a useful factsheet produced by the International Energy Agency in 2007, entitled Renewables in Global Energy Supply. The data above are actually for 2004, so technosolar’s contribution has increased a little since them — a few 10ths of a percent — mostly from a ramp up of wind. Indeed, page 5 has a particularly telling statistic. Over the 33 years between 1971 and 2004, the two main technosolar energy sources grew much faster than any other form of renewable energy. Solar grew by an annual rate of 28.1% and wind by a whopping 48.1% per year. Think on that. At a growth rate of 48.1% p.a. over a 33 year period, wind power has staggered up to 0.064% of total energy supply. So don’t be fooled by people throwing around huge growth rates for technosolar as though this means they’ll soon overtake coal, oil and gas (or indeed nuclear) and thus save us from dangerous climate change — when growing from a rock bottom base, high growth rates are prettying meaningless.

The title of the post comes from a book by Richard Dawkins — about how seemingly improbable and highly complex forms of life can arise by evolution, given vast amounts of time. The same may possibly be true of technosolar — it may supplant all other energy sources, given enough time. I doubt it, but anyway, that’s time we simply haven’t got.

Tom Blees, author of Prescription for the Planet, said this to me about the above diagram:


Next time someone tell you how renewables are enough, show them this picture from the IEA.

Look at Germany for a case study in the potential of renewables. For over 25 years, Germany has had massive public subsidization of wind power to the point where 38% of the world’s wind power is produced there, as well as about half of all the world’s solar power. The upshot? Subsidies for this ”green” electricity of up to 7 times USA average rates, and Germany now produces about 6% of their energy from wind and a trivial 0.5% from solar (this from a pro-solar website, no less). Meanwhile people are willing to claim that ten years would be enough to get to 10-15% wind power in places like Australia and the US, despite the fact that 25 years has brought Germany to about 6-7% with massive subsidies.

If Germany can provide such a tiny fraction of their electricity needs now, what happens as they switch to an all-electric future? The idea that Germany and the USA and other developed countries can provide all their energy needs from renewables strains credulity to the breaking point if you look at what Germany’s done, and the fact that they’ve got over two dozen coal-fired power plants on the drawing board now is a damning testimony to the failure of their all-renewable fantasy. But even if, against all odds and at staggering cost, Germany and other developed countries could conceivably pull off an all-renewable energy future, would the entire world follow suit? It wouldn’t matter a bit if Chinese and Indian coal-fired power plants continued to belch forth CO2. We’d all still be cooked (metaphorically if not literally).

Check out the graph again. The 6.5% nuclear portion we’ll want to replace with IFRs (integral fast reactors), some sooner, some later as the current LWR (light water reactor nuclear) plants age and go offline. We also want to replace much — I would say most — of the 10.6% now filled by combustible renewables, since much of that is wood and dung that contributes a lot to air pollution and ill health among the poorest of the poor. And we want to replace all the fossil fuels. I believe, if you ask this directly of anyone in the “all-renewables” crowd, you’d be able to make your point and get them to agree that ultimately these are the goals. So that means we want to build capacity to equal about 97% of the current energy used in the world today.

But wait, that’s not enough. For virtually every projection anticipates a demand at least twice that much by mid-century, even without taking into account the energy we’ll need for massive desalination and pumping projects, which are inevitable. So we’re talking about a minimum of 200% of todays entire energy production by mid-century. Hydro will likely not increase much, so of that demand of 2050 we can probably safely assume that hydro won’t provide more than 2% (that would assume almost double today’s hydroelectric production).

Now let’s look at that last bar graph on the right. Nearly all of it is from geothermal, primarily because of Iceland and a few other easy hot spots in California and elsewhere. Will we make technological leaps in geothermal technology to allow us to use geothermal everywhere and solve our energy problems with one fell swoop? It would be nice to think so, but experts on the subject seems to be shaking their heads and crossing their fingers, recognizing the serious difficulties they face in making that vision a reality. We can’t bank our futures on it.

Lacking such a transformative development, that leaves energy systems that currently provide about 0.1% of the world’s energy with the herculean task of providing at least 200% of current energy production, and all this by 2050. Look again at what Germany’s accomplished after a couple decades of focusing on wind and solar power. Look again at their plans to build dozens of coal-fired power plants.

I’d say “Wake up and smell the roses” but for the fact that the only thing we’ll smell is coal smoke.


Ahh ha!”, cry the anti-nukes, in a retort that hints of schadenfreude. “ If renewables can’t supplant fossil energy in time, as you claim, then why do you expect nuclear power to fare any better?” (The even more disingenuous [or seriously misguided] actually claim that we should pursue ONLY renewables because nuclear is “too slow”, with the absurd implication that technosolar will somehow be faster). The answer is fairly obvious, even putting aside for a moment the fact that nuclear currently supplies 50 times more energy to modern society than technosolar.

Coal, oil and gas rule because they’re a highly concentrated form of stored energy. Indeed, hydro and biomass win the renewable stakes hands down because of the fact that they are the only natural forms of stored energy (along wit geothermal — powered by natural nuclear decay). Nuclear fission power draws on the most concentrated form of stored energy that we are currently able to harness. It requires no backup. It needs no new transmission infrastructure. It can be installed in the same places that the coal and gas plants used to occupy (for these must all be ripped out – we cannot afford to let them ‘retire in old age’). It is the only plausible replacement for the huge number of new coal-fired power stations being installed at a frantic pace in the China and India. Anyone who says we don’t need nuclear is gambling recklessly with the future of our civilisation, and much else that we value on this planet.


Postscript (in response to comments):

I don’t think the discussion on renewables is over. To close them out as a useful option would be as reckless as the oft-cited position that ‘the debate’ on nuclear power is over (i.e. the case that many in the environmental movement posit, that nuclear should be excluded). No. What we need is a decent (and rising) price on carbon emissions (a tax) to give ALL non-carbon sources a level playing field, plus some other government incentives to fast-track ALL zero-carbon energy sources (including S-PRISM [a Gen IV nuclear blueprint] certification) with investments in RD&D (research, development & demonstration/deployment) commensurate with what they are delivering — plus some ‘hot bets’.

Some otherwise well-meaning environmentalists certainly need to change their attitude and stop giving nuclear power such grief, and the Australian governments need to get over their nonsensical ‘no nuclear power’ party policy — as soon as possible. We cannot give up on nuclear or renewable energy. We must also recognise that we currently DON’T have the technology commercialised to solve our energy/climate crisis fully. The pursuit of what is now available, and the ramp up of RD&D, including Gen IV nuclear and new forms of storage for renewables, are all critical priorities.


1 Comment »

  1. I seem to recall reading (in Helen Caldicott…) that the world’s supplies of uranium are a long way short of what would be required to make nuclear a viable option for mass replacement of other fossil fuel power stations. Any comment on that?

    Also, your “25 years in Germany” argument ignores the development in solar thermal technology, particularly over the last decade. 25 years ago, there were only small PV plants. Now there are 300MW solar thermal plants, and dozens of different designs being considered and implemented. Don’t you think this will have an impact on the feasibility of renewable power generation? You reach the conclusion that since it didn’t happen in Germany, it can’t happen anywhere else – but you don’t really explain what the limiting factor is. Do you think there is insufficient capital to invest in the huge number of solar plants required? A lack of space? A lack of political will? Unfavourable market conditions?

    Comment by Steve Bennett — April 16, 2009 @ 11:49 pm

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