Powering Civilization to 2050

Global marketed primary energy production 1970-2050. Expressed in thermal equivalent of millions of barrels/oil day (ie electricity streams such as hydro or photovoltaic are treated as if they had been converted from fuel at 38% efficiency). Source: BP for fossil fuel, hydro, and nuclear data, EIA and IEA for renewable data, and author's calculations as described in the text for projections. This is a scenario not a forecast.

This post is the start of an attempt to sketch out what an integrated solution to the world's food, energy, land, climate, and economy problems might look like. My basic goal is to get to a somewhat defensible story of how civilization could get to 2050 in reasonable shape, despite the problems of climate change, peak oil, global population growth, etc.

Since it's not possible for me to entirely solve this problem in a week of part-time work, I put this out as a hasty straw-man. Feel free to point out the parts of this that don't work, or where my ignorance of some of the relevant issues shows particularly badly. Of course, I don't make the claim that I can predict what will happen forty years ahead. Nor do I expect the global population to pay much attention to what I think they should do. Instead, the value of a scenario is to try to think through the general issues that society faces, and the value of an integrated scenario is that we can think about how all the parts fit together holistically, whereas usually they get projected separately by specialists, and even the obvious interconnections get missed by decision-makers (if we try to solve our fuel problems by converting food to fuel, perhaps the price of food might go up).

With that said, for the remainder of the piece I'm arrogating to myself sole authorship of all relevant international treaties and implementing legislation at the national level. Here's how I'd go about it. In this first piece, I've analyzed the overall requirements for the problem, but only fleshed out any detail on the population, economy, and energy sectors; I did not have time to write up my analysis of transportation and agriculture/land issues. I will do so in a future piece.


In engineering, there is a saying "requirements before design", which indicates that you should think through as comprehensively as possible what you want the system to do before you start trying to figure out how to build it to do that. Otherwise, there's a tendency to think of a subset of the requirements and then rush into a design, only later realizing that some were forgotten, which then must be added at much greater expense. So here are my list of requirements:
  • Population: The global population is able to grow and go through its demographic transition with death rates continuing to go down. No die-offs.
  • Economy: The world economy is able to grow on average over the period - modestly in developed countries, faster in developing countries.
  • Carbon emissions: The global energy infrastructure will be mainly replaced with non-carbon-emitting energy sources by the end of the period, and residual emissions will be rapidly diminishing.
  • Fossil fuels: I assume that peak oil is here about now but that declines will be governed by the Hubbert model (and thus will be gradual). I assume natural gas and coal are globally plentiful enough that climate policy is required to prevent their full use.
  • Technology: I do not assume any massive breakthroughs - no technological miracles that solve problems in ways completely unknown or untested today. However, where technological sectors have long established rates of progress in key metrics, I extrapolate the metric to continue improving at the historic rate (eg the economics of solar power, or the yields/acre of agriculture are assumed to keep improving on the historical trajectory).
  • Impact on wild ecosystems. Developed countries are assumed to maintain the protections they currently have in place (for national parks, wildernesses etc). Developing countries are assumed to exploit their unused land up to the point of best current practices for developed countries. Whatever impact on ecosystems arises from climate change due to past carbon emissions and the tail of emissions to 2050 is viewed as unavoidable.
  • Conservatism Other than the above, I use the overarching principle of trying to assume as little change in the way the world works as possible - I assume it remains a more-or-less free market world, in which national governments regulate their own countries to temper the worst excesses of the free market and periodically enter into treaties on the more pressing global problems. I assume it remains full of highly imperfect humans mostly struggling to improve their own circumstances. I assume people are willing to come together and take collective action for the common good, but only when the need for that action has become so overwhelming and immediate as to be irrefutable.

A few comments on these requirements. The first two on population and economy I view as minimally necessary to ensure the world's political and social stability. If the population or economy were to contract substantially, I believe a number of countries would become unstable and there would be revolutions, mass population migrations, etc. All predictability in the world would likely be lost at that point. The first, on population, also seems to me a non-negotiable moral imperative. Of course, these conditions alone will not be enough to prevent a normal amount of human mistake and misery, but I believe they are required to prevent mistakes and misery from becoming globally endemic.

The carbon emission requirement seems essential to have some hope of stabilizing the climate. There is a considerable possibility that the climate is already destabilized to an important degree. Nonetheless, it's likely possible to make it much worse by continuing to emit exponentially increasing amounts of carbon. The best we can hope for is to start now, as energetically as possible, substituting our energy sources and sinks as best we can, until we don't emit carbon.

On fossil fuels, I have explicated my best guesses on peak oil timing (here and here) and on decline rates, and will let those stand for now.

On technology - of course, it's not likely that 40+ years of human ingenuity will pass without some big breakthroughs (think of what has happened since 1968 - personal computers, the Internet, statin-class drugs, mobile phones, etc, etc). But there is no hope at all of predicting specifically what those breakthroughs will be, or whether we will make one important to our climate/energy problems. So I assume nothing here - any breakthroughs will hopefully serve to offset whatever negative surprises the world may pose to us. However, I think it would be unduly pessimistic to assume that well established trends of technical progress will not continue, unless there is a clear game-changing theoretical barrier in the way of further progress.

As everyone knows, the rest of nature has taken a real beating from humans, and it's going to get worse. Climate change means that species must move, and habitat fragmentation means they can't in many cases. I recognize the tragedy in this, but I do not see what can be done about it given the other requirements above. I don't think it's realistic to assume that developing countries will do any better than the examples that developed countries have set in terms of set-asides - I certainly support efforts to conserve as much as can be conserved.

And then, finally, I am still a liberal on the contemporary American political scale, but a rather centrist and very independent one. In particular, at this point in my life I have a very strong sympathy for the strain of thinking in the Anglo-American conservative tradition which says that humans are complex and highly imperfect, that it has taken a long time to get society to work as well as it does, unsatisfactory as that may be, and that radical experiments to improve the way it works are dangerous. One should attempt change by making improvements step-by-step on the most pressing issues of the day, and one should be prepared to accept that society will never be utopia. In this case, we have no choice but to make some radical changes in where we get energy from, but let's at least not try to change any more things than we have to. I'm more than happy to settle for a world that will be a minimally acceptable place for my children and grandchildren to grow up and live out their destinies. I take the requirements above to be a description of that minimal level. The world will not become a utopia (whether you prefer your utopia agrarian, socialist, libertarian, spiritual, or transhumanist).

Outline of Solution

My basic approach is as follows. Over the next fifty years, we're going to phase out most burning of fossil fuels, but they will still be used for petrochemicals and fertilizer (manufacture of which will be mainly in the Middle East). We will cope with short term energy problems by efficiency improvements, but in the long term we will power society predominantly by massive amounts of solar PV, with smaller amounts of wind, and legacy hydro. We will use a global transmission grid to balance supply and demand between the nighttime and cloudy areas and the areas in the sun that generate power. Nuclear is avoided in the long term out of proliferation and waste concerns but is used in the short and medium term. Owners of fossil fuel infrastructure will be compensated at fair market value.

Ground transportation will be by a mix of electric cars and electrified public transport (in areas of high enough density). The car fleet will be moved through hybrids to plug-ins to full electrics as storage technology slowly improves. Developing countries will be encouraged to urbanize and develop as rapidly as feasible to reduce pressure on remaining wild ecosystems and to build public transport systems in their very dense cities.

Building heating and cooling will be transitioned predominantly to ground source heat pumps powered by electricity instead of burning fossil fuels.

Agriculture will remain predominantly industrialized, and ongoing yield improvements, particularly in the lower-yielding poor countries, are assumed to be able to feed the world. The residual oil production and modest and regulated amounts of biofuels will be used for certain applications where the advantages of liquid fuels are indispensible (predominantly heavy construction and agricultural machinery, shipping, and aviation). There is considerable scientific uncertainty on the extent of soil depletion, but the assumption here is that at-risk areas will be placed in conservation reserves, and that, later in the century when energy becomes cheap again, restoration and remediation will be attempted.

The overall economic approach for implementation will be a hybrid "markets-within-a-plan" approach. A pure free market approach is likely to be disastrous (eg starving the poor to make biofuels for the rich, which will result in riots and revolutions). However, markets are very powerful drivers of innovation and efficiency when well designed. We will set general goals with binding targets by treaty, and then use a combination of subsidy auctions, rights auctions, and reverse auction retirements of fossil fuel infrastructure to meet the binding targets. Market competition will improve the technology and drive down the required subsidies over time.

In general, this will require a massive global infrastructure project. It will be expensive, but it's not impossible. It seems very cheap compared to further uncontrolled experiments with the climate, or to allowing the world to descend into starvation and chaos by adopting dysfunctional approaches to our energy challenges. It will place civilization on a tolerably sustainable footing for the longer term.

With that, let's turn to looking at the major sectors of the global economy in a little more detail. Again, I'm going to go through population, economy, and energy sectors this time. The rest will have to await future pieces.


Here, from an old piece of mine on population, is a graph of the various UN population scenarios:

UN population projections through 2050. Click to enlarge. The medium scenario (dark green) is the UN's best guess as to what will happen. High and Low represent their best estimates of the range of reasonably likely outcomes. The Constant Fertility line is their estimate of what would happen if world average fertility did not decline any further. Source: World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision.

In this piece, we will take the medium population scenario as our goal to be supported by the planetary economy. It's worth looking for a moment at the assumptions the demographers are making in the less developed countries (where most of the population growth will be occurring):

Birth and Death rates for UN less developed countries (excluding least developed). The lines through 2000 are data, and after that the lines are the UN's medium projection. Source: World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision.

As you can see, death rates have been falling, and they are assumed to fall further as countries continue to develop and get wealthier. Birth rates follow death rates down, but with a lag (this is the demographic transition). Least developed countries are following a similar trajectory but are not as far along. The assumption I make here is that if the economy and food supply are allowed to grow at reasonable rates, then population will follow the UN's assumptions.


The way the economy develops in my scenario is as follows (I'm going to summarize it here, but some of the justification comes later). This graph shows global GDP on a $2007 purchasing power parity basis. The data through 2007 are from the IMF. My scenario basically has global growth dropping sharply for the next few years due to an assumed US recession caused by the credit collapse. Then growth starts increasing again, but slowly due to high energy prices. Finally, as our energy problems get thoroughly solved around 2025, growth returns to about the current long term trend in developed countries. Developing countries are assumed to gradually slow down until by 2050 they are not growing much faster than developed countries (since they will be fairly developed by then).

Actual and projected global GDP 1980-2050. Expressed in $2007 dollars on a PPP basis. Source: IMF for historical data, and author's calculations as described in the text for projections.

The global economy, about $72 trillion in 2007, will be several hundred trillion dollars by 2050 under my assumptions.

In addition to GDP data, the IMF has also kept track of the level of investment in the global economy. I show this data, and also how much investment there would be in the future, assuming that the fraction of GDP invested averages the same in the future as in the past. I place this graph here to give some idea of the world's investment budget for when we start spending some of it on a new global energy infrastructure.

Actual and projected global GDP 1980-2050, broken out into investment component versus immediate consumption. Expressed in $2007 dollars on a PPP basis. Source: IMF for historical data, and author's calculations as described in the text for projections.

Total investment is about $17 trillion in 2007, and rises to somewhere around $75 trillion/year by 2050. This includes spending on houses, factories, offices and infrastructure of all forms, but excludes current consumption.

Again, left alone with a sufficiency of resources, a capitalist economy will tend to grow. Inventors will invent more efficient ways of doing things and more desirable end-consumer goods; entrepreneurs will bring them to market; people will get more productive; bigger and better houses, factories, cars, etc will be built, and the whole thing will be bigger next year than it was last year. Thus the basic analysis to justify my scenario consists in showing that none of the apparent resource bottlenecks are necessarily fatal to growth. By far the most important of these is energy.

Energy Sector

There are basically three choices for non-carbon-emitting, non-biofuel, energy production technologies that are already in practical commercial use and have potential for major expansion: nuclear, wind power, and solar. Let me briefly discuss the trade-offs.

Nuclear is the furthest along in that it already provides a material fraction of global primary energy (about 5.6% of marketed energy on a thermal basis). See Is Nuclear Power a Viable Option for Our Energy Needs? for a good summary of the case for nuclear. Nuclear has a high energy return on energy invested and there is sufficient uranium for a long time (though there are short term price issues associated with the ending of the burning of the stockpile of uranium from old nuclear warheads). New nuclear energy will probably be reasonably cheap as long as interest rates aren't too high (since most of the cost is the upfront capital to build the plant, the cost of finance is critical to nuclear economics).

Nonetheless, I do not favor nuclear power as the long-term major solution to powering the global economy. Pervasive presence of a nuclear power industry throughout all or almost all countries of the world has three major issues: developing countries are frequently corrupt with a tendency for their building subcontractors to do things like leaving the rebar out of concrete to save money. Nuclear power is an industry were mistakes and short-cuts cannot be tolerated. Furthermore, the nuclear fuel chain always has the potential to be diverted into weapons use by its owners (the basis for western concerns about Iran). Nuclear weapons remain the only way humanity has come up with to not just end our civilization but end our species and most life on the planet and they ought not to be proliferated further. And finally, after fifty years of operation of the industry there is still no commercially demonstrated permanently satisfactory solution for what to do with the waste. I share these concerns with many members of the public, and, even if I didn't, the presence of broad political objections to nuclear power would make its future problematic.

That said, the issues with nuclear power seem to me somewhat less pressing than climate change, and in scenario building it turns out to be very valuable to allow the nuclear industry to grow for a while, and then buy them out at fair market value in due course. In my scenario, I allow global nuclear to grow until 2025 (at the historical 5.4% annual growth rate that obtained globally from 1980-2006 according to BP data) and then start buying out older and less-profitable plants to reduce the nuclear contribution by 3% per year.

See The Most Frequently Asked Questions About Wind Energy for the case for wind. Wind power is already cost-competitive with fossil fuel power, emits no carbon in operation, and has a very satisfactory EROEI of around 18 on average. Wind power delivered has grown on average 23.7% annually from 1990 to 2005 according to the IEA, and the new capacity delivered has been growing 30% - 40% annually in the last couple of years, suggesting that the growth rate is accelerating. I feel wind is an excellent option.

However, many people differ as soon as someone tries to put a wind turbine near them - objecting to the noise, visual impact, and harm to bird-life. Local political opposition to wind plants has frequently been very strong, and because wind is extremely diffuse, one needs to put an awful lot of turbines in place to garner it's full potential. For this reason, I assume wind continues to grow, but eventually saturates the politically acceptable sites. The two countries that have the most wind are Denmark with about 1.1 TWhr/year per million people of wind production in 2005, and Germany with about 0.33 TWhr/year per million people. New wind installation in Denmark has largely stopped, and it appears to be slowing in Germany. I treat the global politically acceptable maximum as around 0.5 TWhr/year/million people, and grow wind up to that point at the historical 23.7% growth rate. (This threshold is highly uncertain and my calculation should only be treated as qualitatively indicative. If I'm wrong, we'll end up with more wind and less solar, but the issues are basically the same either way). Wind power still produced only 0.2% of global marketed primary energy in 2005 (treated on a thermal oil equivalent basis with an assumed power plant fuel efficiency of 38% - what BP does for hydro and nuclear electricity statistics). Thus it will take a long time still for it to grow to providing an appreciable fraction of our power.

My feeling is that photovoltaics are the right answer for the long term future. They don't harm wildlife, don't pollute, people around them don't seem to object to them much, they don't critically depend on anything in ultimately short supply, and they have outstanding energy payback. For example, Nanosolar claims payback of manufacturing energy in less than one month for their state-of-the-art product, but more conventional options still have energy payback in the single digit years, implying an EROEI in the tens to hundreds as we go from current to future PV products.

There are two major issues to overcome: economics, and intermittency. PVs are not yet economically competitive with fossil fuel energy, but there is a long cost history that lends itself to a fairly stable extrapolation that is quite encouraging:

Left panel shows cost of PV panels versus versus cumulative installed capacity. Right panel shows a sensitivity analysis for the learning rate (the percentage drop in the cost due to a doubling of the installed capacity). Source: Fig 3 of McDonald and Schrattenholzer, Learning Rates for Energy Technologies.

The learning rate is the percentage by which some technology drops in cost per doubling of installed capacity. Solar has been dropping at about 22% for each doubling, and this is fairly stable, give or take a few percent. If anything, the learning rate is improving slightly over time. According to the IEA, the installed base of PVs grew at a combined average growth rate (CAGR) of 34.9% from 1990 to 2005. Thus we would expect costs to drop by about 9% per year, which would correspond to halving every eight years. At current costs of about $4/peak watt, unsubsidized PV power costs about 10c/kWhr in sunny places like Los Angeles and about 16c/kWhr in a cloudy place like Seattle (from Solar Revolution, p 110). Thus it is probably already competitive with retail electricity in many sunny places, and will become competitive with wholesale prices of about 5c/kWhr in less than a decade in sunny places and in about 15 years in cloudy places.

With serious policy help, PV installed capacity can grow much faster than the 35% global average. Eg in Germany, PV has grown at a CAGR of 61% over the same 1990-2005 period. However, the global installed base of PV is miniscule - in 2005 it only comprised 0.0033% of marketed primary energy (on a thermal equivalent basis).

The effect of all these trends - tiny current installed base, rapid growth, very fast learning curve, high EROEI tends to mean that PV can be of almost no meaningful benefit to the global situation in the short term, but in a couple of decades from now reaches critical mass, and then will potentially be in a position to provide almost all of society's power within a couple more decades from that. Since PV can be readily fit into all kinds of otherwise unused surfaces on buildings, and also spread out over otherwise low-value desert, and can be applied in installations from a single panel up to thousands of acres or more, it can be ramped up very quickly - there are few barriers to deployment. This is the basis for my selecting it as the backbone of long-term sustainable power for society in my scenario.

The remaining problem that needs to be solved is the intermittency (PV provides no power when it's dark and not much when it's very cloudy). There are basically two possible approaches to this. The first is that we would install enough storage everywhere that the energy stored during the day would be enough to power usage at night. I have not been able to construct a believable story about how current electric storage technology can scale to the required magnitude in a timely way, and thus this approach, as far as I can see at present, faces a critical bottleneck. It's one thing to have a battery that will power a plug-in hybrid for an hour commute. It's another to have enough batteries to get a region through a week of clouds and rain.

The second approach is to construct a global electricity grid. As far as I'm aware, this approach was first proposed by Sanyo under the rubric Project Genesis. Their idea was to install PVs throughout the world's deserts, and connect them up via superconducting cables to the world's cities - they estimated 4% of the world's desert area would be required. To get some feel for the issues, you might want to stare for a while at this screenshot of the planet:

View of the earth as of about 11pm Pacific time on Friday 1/25/08. Source: Screenshot of OS X Planet.

Obviously, half the planet is dark at any given time, and about half the rest is under cloud. We would have to be generating enough power in Africa, the Middle East, and the non-cloudy portions of Asia to power the globe, and then shipping it from those sources to wherever it was required all over the world. 12 hours later, those areas would be returning the favor. Nighttime electricity use is only about 30-40% of the daily peak, but it's still a lot of energy to move. The worst case seems to be early evening here in California in the northern hemisphere winter:

View of the earth as of about 6:30pm Pacific time on Saturday 1/26/08. Source: Screenshot of OS X Planet.

In that case, Asia and Australia have to power their own daytime use, as well as evening use in the Americas, and residual night time use in Europe and Africa. I imagine that the Australians would clean up financially with big PV arrays in the interior.

I have two changes I think are required to Project Genesis. One is that most PV already is being installed on buildings in the urban environment, and I expect this to continue (albeit supplemented by utility scale plants in waste areas). The second is that I don't want to rely on superconducting cables, since they are still on the drawing board, which violates my "no breakthrough" requirement.

However, existing technology for high energy transmission lines appear to be able to do the job, albeit with significant losses. High voltage direct current lines lose about 3% per 1000km. The earth has 6378km radius, so it's 20,000km to go to the exact opposite point on the other side. However, if we figure the average electron only needs to go about 2/3 of the way around the planet to get to its customer, then average losses will be 1- 0.97^13 = 33%. In short, by shipping PV around the world, we lose about a third of the part that's shipped. However, if we figure on average two thirds of PV goes locally to the awake/bright side of the earth with little loss, and one third goes to the asleep/dark side at 1/3 lost, overall losses are a fairly manageable 1/9 of total power generated. This is in the same ballpark as the losses of natural gas in LNG shipping (about 15% of the natural gas). In short, existing technology appears able to get the job done - it's an enormous global infrastructure project, but doesn't require breakthroughs. Any breakthroughs in electric transmission can only make it better.

Before I analyze the costs required to build a global renewable electricity grid, let me summarize my total energy generation scenario as it stands at present (I reserve the right to improve it over time). I assume PV capacity grows at the historic rate of 35% until 2012, when the replacement for the Kyoto treaty comes into force. Since I will be writing the treaty, in my scenario, it will call for a much accelerated rate of growth in renewables, and so PV then grows at the German rate of 61% until 2025. At that point, it is reaching critical mass and will then slow down and just grow overall top line societal energy usage by 3%/year. But after about 2025, energy will get cheap again and it's not clear how fast usage will grow - it will be constrained by demand, not supply.

Fossil fuel usage is assumed to be impacted in the near term by a significant US recession and global slowdown, and in the medium term by strenuous conservation efforts inspired both by high energy prices and the ongoing legislation/regulation process responding to climate concerns. From 1979 to 1983, overall primary energy consumption dropped as a result of the second set of 70s oil shocks. I assume that, this time around, developing country demand growth is too robust to cause an actual drop in overall energy consumption, but I assume it essentially stays flat until the renewable energy explosion starts to really hit with wind making increasing contributions after 2015, and solar PV starting to completely swamp the situation from the early 2020s on. After 2025, we can easily grow PVs and we can begin to aggressively retire the remaining fossil fuel and nuclear infrastructure.

This graph summarizes the scenario at present:

Global marketed primary energy production 1970-2050. Expressed in thermal equivalent of millions of barrels/oil day (ie electricity streams such as hydro or photovoltaic are treated as if they had been converted from fuel at 38% efficiency). Source: BP for fossil fuel, hydro, and nuclear data, EIA and IEA for renewable data, and author's calculations as described in the text for projections. This is a scenario not forecast.

Of course, I wouldn't claim for a moment that my back of the envelope calculations will actually be the way things play out quantitatively. However, it does seem to me that the qualitative features of this graph are likely if we do the required international public policy groundwork to install a global renewables grid. The qualitative features I mean are a period over the next 15-20 years of high energy prices and slower global growth, followed by a period after that when renewables take off and become the main power source for society and energy becomes cheap again.

The remaining questions are around costs - can we afford to to do this? Well, if you look at my scenario, we need about 550mbd of primary energy capacity, which under my assumptions corresponds to about 125 PWhr/year, or about 14 TW of electricity. Of that, we probably need worst case capacity to move about half of it around the globe. So we need 7TW capacity cables circling the globe in a roughly east-west arrangement, but let's add 50% for path deviations due to the complexity of land topography. Therefore, we need 7TW x 60,000km of cable capacity by 2050.

Now, the cost of HVDC lines is ballpark $1m/km/GW. So given that we need 7000 GW x 60,000km, we will have to spend about 400 trillion dollars ($2007) between now and 2050 to achieve that. That's a lot (learning curve may reduce it somewhat - I'm not assuming any). However, if by this means we keep economic growth going, then the system will certainly be affordable. Recall that above I gave the IMF investment data and a projection of it. In my scenario, GDP from 2008 to 2050 totals about $7700 trillion, and investment at the historical ratio is $1700 trillion. So the cost of the renewable grid is about 25% of investment, or 5% of GDP. However, we save on all the fuel. For example, in 2006, the global fuel bill for oil, coal, and natural gas (at commodity prices) was about $3.6 trillion, which was 5.4% of 2006 global GDP according to the IMF. Presumably fuel prices going forward are not likely to be much better than 2006. Thus, although a global renewables grid would require a major investment over the course of the next forty - fifty years, it's only comparable to what we would be spending on fuel if we stick with our current course of action. And our current course leaves us with no idea what kind of climate we'll be living in, and whether it permits civilization or not.

Well, with that, I'm about out of time for this piece. Next week, I'll try to flesh out what some of the other sectors of the economy might look like. In the meantime, feel free to poke holes in this in comments.

I will leave more technical criticism to the more qualified posters here. My overarching objection to this plan is simple - human nature.

If we were all born with the intellect of Einstein and the personality of Ghandi then you could probably make this work. But with a world full of Joe Sixpacks (or their national equivalents) and national leaders of the calibre and character of GWB (and there are many) we are NOT going to see the kind of global cooperation and long term investment needed to face up to the limits to growth which the human race currently faces. Also, I do not see any realistic opportunity to avoid global population overshoot. Yes developed nations do reduce childbirth rates to below replacement when income levels, female emancipation and childhood death rates improve to a certain level, but we can never improve the lot of the poorest people fast enough to keep ahead of population growth. We are not smarter than yeast.

I have been thinking about possible solutions as well and they generally match this article. Ideally we need a zero growth model for economy and population as well.

But human nature is such that we cannot get a "blueprint" (to quote the Shell memo) to be accepted until there is a consensus one is needed, and there will not be a consensus until things get really really bad first.

All we can do is put out potential plans and hope that at some point in the near future leaders will finally wake up and use one -- hopefully while it is still possible to implement.

Maybe we should genetically engineer differant humans. ;-)

Genetically engineer engineers instead of humans,

Smaller humans. That's how electronics has gotten so efficient. If humans were only a half inch tall the planet could easily feed six billion of 'em...

The thread is not entirely facetious. Nutrition issues used to keep humans much smaller. Which aided survivability in famine time. Which was often every late winter/early spring. Large specimens tended to be leaders, but also had to somehow justify their much larger appropriation of foodstuffs.

Social cohesion and teamwork also aided survival on a smaller resource footprint. As a trivial example the 1920's 3-flat I'm sitting in was built in a season. Replicating all the detail in this structure today would be most likely a 3 year project - even though it would be power tools, not hand tools, deliveries by phone call, not by teams of horses, etc. We have lost even the idea of teamwork.
And I'm quite sure this bldg was produced with an order of magnitude less waste than construction sites generate now.

Isn't human nature to want have and use energy? Or is it human nature to want to shiver in the dark?

I don't understand the argument here. I think the problems we face are that people will have to learn to adapt; they will have less energy; they will need to be creative or they will perish. There isn't going to be a 'Joe Sixpack' when the beer is too expensive and that money is better spent on potatoes. And if electricity is precious, sitting around watching TV may not be the best way to spend one's time?

The original Staniford article was much too long. Excuse me if I read it wrong by only skimming it.

My impression is that he is presenting a supply side scenario for energy production based on assumptions of economic gowth requiring growth in the use of energy.

I too am cynical about the intelligence of the majority of humans and the inability to reach them and their "elected" (I quote elected because the candidates are bought and therefore beholden to the interests of the economic elite) representatives.

The trouble with focusing on supply side economics and energy is that they both ignore demand. In relation to economics, the lack of effective demand for the plethora of consumer products will prove to be the downfall of this past generation's experiment with supply side economics. With respect to energy, we must recognize that demand side management is critical to any possibility of a sustainable future. I don't think that liberal economics (laissez faire, the so-called free market)can deal with the problem(s). We need a planned economy to effectively retrofit the infrastructure with regards to increasingly scarce energy supplies and to rebuild our communities to be walkable, therfore eliminating the terrible daily waste of oil/energy resources for transportation purposes.

I have to differ with Staniford's rosy scenario regarding the contributions tha photovoltaics will make. I'm not an electrical engineer or an electrician, but it is my understanding that PVs don't have the oomph (be it voltage, amperage and/or wattage) to contribute very significantly to the current and recommended increased usage of electricity. Sure PVs and wind might be able to contribute to lighting applications, but I doubt they can power our transportation, our industrial and home heating, hot water, agricultural inputs,refrigeration, drying, and cooking needs.

We could go full throttle to the building of nuclear power plants, but I am highly leary of their toxicity and safety issues. Even if we pursued the path of electrification with the maximization of nuclear power, it will require a tremendous overhaul of our transportation infrastructure and all the other applications currently met by oil products and natural gas.

First of all, nuclear is not a "free market" technology. Most of the resources for development of this technology were paid for by government programs. Then, there is the waste issue. Is it not the Federal Government who is going to or proposing to pay for the waste depository at Yucca Mountain (Nevada)? Then there is the issue of bringing back the so-called Price-Anderson legislation. This is legislation to insure the power plants and related operations. No private insurer will touch them, thus the government had to step in to provide such insurance.

I am cynical and believe that in the next generation or two we are heading toward a massive die-off. As a matter of understatement it will be ugly and messy. Those few who survive will need to be self-sufficient. Thus, under such a scenario, what Staniford calls historical reversalism, a relocalization of sorts will be realized.

A much better scenario could be realized (go ahead, call me Pollyanna)if we started very soon with a planned economy that focused first on demand side management and also the retrofitted infrastructures with respect to very scarce and relatively clean (I view carbon resources, if appropriately used to be cleaner than nuclear) energy applications.

Relocalization is part of the plan (and not just for food). Instead of reversalism, let me offer the following re words for your consideration, response, and suggested action.


Little to no beneficial changes will occur without an almost religious change from the paradigm of economic growth and standard of living to one that emphasizes community redevelopment and quality of life. This is an educational component of an alternative ecological economic plan.


If we can be successful and realize the educational/reform component, we need concurrently to reorganize our economic systems to one of cooperative (i.e. economic democracy, or at least partially so - we will probably need to compromise with relation to the divide between the one dollar/one vote and one person/one vote structure of economic organization) communitarian local and regional economic entities.


We need coordinated regional planning agencies that agree on the fundamental mission of a global ecological economy that has the two basic pillars of sustainability and equity. These "planning" agencies would work together to determine and facilitate how resources are allocated to and within communities based on the relocalization paradigm and other governing principles.


Communities will need to be physically rebuilt to make them walkable (i.e. new urbanism, building community centers making necessities and reasonable wants available to all within walking distance of all homes).Included in such a plan would be neighborhood work stations where office workers could telecommute in their occupations that are involved with the transition from an entropic Capitalist system to an ecological Socialist one.


Reduce, reuse, recycle.

You can get more info. about my plan by going to: www.culturechange.org/Morin.html .

Workin' for peace and cooperation,

Mike Morin

Sure PVs and wind might be able to contribute to lighting applications, but I doubt they can power our transportation, our industrial and home heating, hot water, agricultural inputs,refrigeration, drying, and cooking needs.

Transportation: Solar powered bike and many similar

Home Heating: Solar heating via annual energy storage

Hot Water: Plenty of solar hot water systems on the market

Refrigeration: Solar powered refrigerators

Drying: Clothesline

Cooking: Solar cookers

A lot of what he is describing in his article is possible but not probable.
All we ( as a country ) have to do is build all this alternative power supplies , but we are not doing it, nor will we. I tell people and explain too them that we must make our houses solar and alternative energy heated, and they just say it cost too much.

We do have solar powered things that we can use, but I have been trying to get the peak oil message to others, and the few that agree that there will be a problem, have no interest in
doing any preparing. This means they do not take the problem seriously.
I started telling people in 2004.
In the last few years since 2004, absolutely nothing in the scale needed has been done.
It appears that nothing will be done, until it is too late.

I can assure you that when people realize that they must do something, all these alternatives will be too expensive, and only the richer people can afford to do anything.
We are headed for a depression in unprecedented scale.
The resources needed to build all the alternative infrastructure will be not be available in quantities needed, when energy shortages start.

All we can do is keep spreading the message and making our own preparations.



My overarching objection to this plan is simple - human nature.

The trouble with this objection is that for some time now anthropologists have decisively rejected the idea that human nature is simple. It ain't!!

And they are the ones whose field is the science of people including 'human nature'.

Here's what an anthropologist will tell you these days:

When someone begins a peroration with the phrase 'but of course, it's human nature to....', start looking for the exit! Because what you are about to hear will most likely reflect the speaker's most deeply held prejudices rather than the product of a genuine cross-cultural understanding. Every time anthropologists have attempted to generate universal rules governing human behaviour, the rules have either been proven empirically wrong or so trivial as to be uninteresting. (my emphasis)

From page 145 Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction 2000, John Monaghan & Peter Just

Why is it that so many who pride themselves in their scientific thinking are profoundly unscientific when it comes to human nature??

Here's someone writing about Human Nature from a Marxist viewpoint

"Q. What About "Human Nature"?

A. The question of so-called "human nature" is one of the most commonly raised arguments against socialism - but it is also one of the easiest to debunk. Many people believe that the way people think has always been the same, and that we will always think the way we do now. But a few examples will show that nothing could be further from the truth. The fact of the matter is, like all things in nature, human consciousness and society are always in a state of change. Marx explained that "conditions determine consciousness". In other words, our environment determines to a large degree how we think. We know what rap music, Hollywood movies, and a Boeing 747 are because they exist in our world. For example, if we were born 5,000 years ago as peasants in China, our world-view would be very different! If we were born as royalty in China 5,000 years ago, we would also have a very different view of things than if we were peasants."

And he goes on at some more length here : http://www.newyouth.com/content/view/117/60/#humannature

And, yet, when tried Comunism failed due to the same factors that those "human nature" critcs were pointing.

Agreed. the writer of the article confuses human nature with perceptions and attitudes. The latter change the former does not. For example the reason we don't burn witches anymore isn't because we are better than we were but because we no longer believe in them. If we believed certain people had the power to cause us great harm by magic you imagine what our response would be. We might percieve things differently to the ancient chinese but basically we are the same.

Human psychological nature may be complex, but there is a human psychological nature (just as there is a "human physiological nature"). The authors of the textbook to which you are referring are "social constructionists." The bane of cultural anthropology is has been the search for the culturally exotic while ignoring the underlying commonalities ("human nature") between cultures. The blank slate, human-natureless "Standard Social Science Model" is being gradually replaced by the nature-nurture interactionism (the "Integrated Model"). So human nature is relevant.

Moreover, "life nature" is relevant. All life is a competition to replicate genes (genes that didn't replicate just are not here anymore). Thus, the competition for resources. Evolution does not occur for the "good of the species" -- unfortunately, there is no brake to stop replication and resource consumption just before reaching overshoot levels.

As I have mentioned elsewhere here, inclusive fitness is not absolute, it is always relative to the inclusive fitness of competitors. That is both the "life nature" and "human nature" we are up against.

It may not be nice to fool Mother Nature, but that is what we need to do to avoid overshoot. I wrote about this in a previous post: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3375#comment-277043

Cheers, Mike


A really thought provoking post! Thanks!
Now to try to pick holes! ;-)
Since not consistent pressure has been applied via advertising etc, why did not populations in the developed world continue to expand at a great rate, since there is such a reward for competition?
I've probably pinched the thought from somewhere else, but I would suggest that the evolutionary pressures are in fact rather different on men and women, and that in patriarchal societies the pressures are great for more children, but in an environment with more control to women and without very harsh stimulation from the environment, they feel secure in passing on their genes through fewer offspring.
The case is different for men, as there is also the risk of infidelity which may leave them childless.
On the whole though, it seems to me that modern conditions simply fool the reproductive drives of people, and that since we have not evolved with conditions of plenty the system of carrying on until overshoot is just not triggered.
Warfare with other tribes to obtain maximum reproductive rights is more the male style - but I suppose we may just be having a lull until that reasserts itself.
The point that I am trying to make is that if reproductive drives can be diverted under the right conditions, perhaps other forms of overshoot are not inevitable.

Yes -- I agree with you.

Overshoot in humans is not inevitable -- IF we can exploit the mis-match between ancestral conditions and modern ones to our sustainable advantage. Humans are not "reproductive maximizers," we are "adaptation executors." We need to understand what those psychological adaptations are, and how they work, in order to "fool" them.

That is, we need to find out how to trigger psychological adaptations such that there is more psychological pleasure derived from engaging in sustainable activities compared to non-sustainable ones. Politically, I'm fairly libertarian, but, to avoid ecological overshoot, we really need some serious social engineering, social marketing and advertising, etc. There are no libertarians on a sustainable Easter Island.

memills said:
'Politically, I'm fairly libertarian, but, to avoid ecological overshoot, we really need some serious social engineering, social marketing and advertising, etc. There are no libertarians on a sustainable Easter Island.'
I think I will take my chances with a stone axe and a bit of radioactivity, thanks! :-)
All an elite, such as the ones who control things like the social engineering, ever choose is what is best for them, not anyone else.
For instance, in the Edo period in Japan which someone referenced as a period of social stability, that stability was predicated on peasants producing rice which they were not allowed to eat, and having their children tortured if they fell behind in rice-taxes, even in times of famine.
A lot of the talk of 'no growth stability' here sends something of the chill of those times down my back.

What about the Meiji period, after which Japan had completely adapted to industrial times.
Actually come to think of it, looking at that period of Japan's history has some important lessons for today. Unfortunately in order for it to happen, Japan needed the Meiji Restoration and civil war to over-throw the old ways...
Maybe.... we can expect resource wars and for government to obtain more control over a country with the excuse of war necessity and use it to force a change to alternative energies using the energy from the resources their wars have obtained...
This would sort of echo the way Japan did it, ruthless dedication to modernisation, become an industrial power or be a servant of the west and kill anyone who wants to do otherwise.
I would say this possibility is consistent with human nature. ;)

No. The authors are definitely willing to discuss human nature in general and do. The difference is the complexity and provisional quality of the generalizations.

You give the impression that a kind of darwinian neo-mathusianism is taking over anthropology. LOL!!

All life is a competition to replicate genes (genes that didn't replicate just are not here anymore). Thus, the competition for resources. Evolution does not occur for the "good of the species" -- unfortunately, there is no brake to stop replication and resource consumption just before reaching overshoot levels.

It's like a mantra or liturgy. It's repeated on TOD every day, day after day like some kind of doom-dirge. But it's only partially true -- more of a caricature actually. Definitely an imperfect characterization.

Are you really saying that there are no species (even us!!) that adjust their reproductive processes based on perceived scarcity of resources??

Shame on you! :-)

I'm absolutely convinced that the overshoot meme has taken on theological qualities in the peak oil community.

For instance:

I wonder how often in the history of our planet, a species has been introduced into a new environment wherein it proceeded to multiply rapidly until it reached a relatively stable population that persisted for a very long time. I would wager it's happened more than once!!!

One, show me just one. That is all I ask...
(Other than those with populations stabilized by predation and/or cyclical starvation).

Basic Population Biology 101. Over time, reproduction increases exponentially, but the carrying capacity does not.

Human population growth rates are already slowing, with many studies predicting population will flatline at just over 9 billion around 2050.

Can you prove this won't happen, and that 9 billion is greater than carrying capacity ?

I think not.

Anyway - great post Stuart.

The global grid idea was also something Bucky Fuller pushed for - with the GENI organisation still in existence trying to popularise the idea (I didn't see a reference to this above - apologies if I missed it).

I think its worthwhile looking at a scenario with a larger mix of renewables than primarily solar (a post I've been working on for a long time, so don't feel the need to go down this path). If you have a global grid, then you can plug in large scale wind, tidal and geothermal power as well, cherry picking the best spots around the planet for each.

That reduces the solar intermittency problem (although us Australians would be happy to get peak energy prices during the northern winter with our huge solar energy farms in the desert under your scenario).

Big Gav, I checked back on the population growth estimates from past versions of the CIA World Fact Book since 2000. Here is what I found:

2000 1.3%
2001 1.25%
2002 1.23%
2003 1.14%
2004 1.14%
2005 1.14%
2006 1.14%
2007 1.167%

Now that doesn't suggest to me that the human population growth rate is slowing. I wonder if this is one of those "facts" that gets ingrained in people's consciousness because it was true at some time in the past? It certainly doesn't seem to be true for the last 4 years.

From 1.3% to 1.167% over 7 years is actually a very significant drop.

Saying it has increased once in that period does not a trend make...

If you look over a 50 year period, the drop is even more pronounced.

All this is true but you said that the growth rate is already slowing. Well it was slowing but, for the past 4 years it has been stagnant or growing. Of course, a few years doesn't make a trend but the figures appear to show that the decline has, at least, stalled. I don't think it's reasonable, at the moment for people to keep on using the figures up to 2004 to state, categorically, that population growth is slowing and will reduce to zero. At least not of its own volition.

I'm absolutely convinced that the overshoot meme has taken on theological qualities in the peak oil community. For instance:

I wonder how often in the history of our planet, a species has been introduced into a new environment wherein it proceeded to multiply rapidly until it reached a relatively stable population that persisted for a very long time. I would wager it's happened more than once!!!

That happens all the time; google "invasive species". However, in that case it generally out-competes the existing species for the niche. Kudzu, zebra mussels, etc. No magic, just the tunneling past barriers in fitness landscapes.

There's a reason the "yeast in a wine bottle" metaphor is often used: humans have, as an approximate description, learned to eat oil and natural gas, and thereby increase the total population in a yeasty way. Not only is that "food" going away, but the wherewithal for metabolizing it into food (soils, fresh water, stable climate, intact ecosystems, etc) is being degraded.

Belief that arbitrarily high human population levels may be maintained with no clear mechanism is what I would call a 'memememe' (pronounced mee-mee-meem! as by Curly of the three stooges), a nonsense meme, with heavy theological overtones. Loaves & fishes, be fruitful & multiply, etc. We'll see how that works out.


I wasn't going to 'stick my oar in' as my granny used to say, but after reading Stuart's interesting speculations and attempts to weld positive solutions together; and then to see his work dissed so quickly, almost like a reflex, and the hoary 'argument' about 'human nature' dregged up, I couldn't contain myself.

Why do people casually assume they know anything about 'human nature'? What is 'simple' about the concept of 'human nature'? What's so simple about 'nature'? What's simple about being 'human'? Is it because they consider themselves unequely qualified in some way to comment? Is it because they are human? Is it because they are natural? Or a bit of both? Or perhaps neither of the two?

I confess I'm sick and tired of hearing about human nature. Every time I hear the phrase, I feel lik reaching for my pistol, to paraphrase another self-confessed expert on human nature - Hermann Goring.

'Human nature' is a cultural construct. It changes constantly, both in time and place. Therefore it isn't constant, not 'natural', and put simply it's a myth. Much like God, we created our 'nature', and we can change it if we so desire.

Coincidentally I was chatting to friend of mine who is a professor of anthropology just the other day, and the subject of 'human nature' popped up, we'd both heard some asshole politician using the phrase relating to the current the meltdown of Capitalism. My friend also rolls his eyes every time he hears somone pontificating about 'human nature'.

Let's say human civilization is around six or seven thousand years old, that is people we recognize as human like us culturally. They had streets, houses, temples, writing, maths, fields, kings, poets, soldiers, armies, wars, schools, religion... On the other hand humans like us have been wandering around for about 150,000 years. Six thousand years, contrasted with 150,000 years. One figure is considerable shorter than the other. What does anthropolgy tell us about the way these humans lived for the overwhelming period of human existance? Well they were hunters and gatherers for well over 100,000 years, long before agriculture came along and settlements of any duration. What does anthropolgy and archeology tell us about the main characteristic of hunter-gatherer groups/societies? That they had an extraordinary level of solidarity and co-operation, they were forced to work together for the common good and survival of the group, or they would simply disappear. Life was hard and tenuous. Work together or die was the rule that kept our species alive for over a hundred thousand years. This was our culture. This was our 'nature'. Our culture defines our 'nature'.

Of course once we moved into perminent settlements, civilization and culture really took off and our 'nature' adapted accordingly, but that is another, larger, and more complex story.

The idea that human nature is a cultural construct is what communists believed, and constructed a society on that precept, and look what happened. All the Worlds great tyrannies have been based on the idea you can alter human nature. Tell your friend to stick to his ivory towers.

This chart shows the year over year change in net oil exports (Total Liquids, from most recent peak to zero net exports) for the ELM and two real life examples, the UK and Indonesia. Note that the vertical scale is 10 percentage points. I would think that virtually every net oil exporter in the world would fall somewhere between Indonesia and the UK in terms of per capita income, rate of change in energy consumption and energy subsidies/taxes. A fourth critical factor would be the monetary values of oil exports as a percentage of GDP. Of course many oil exporters in 2006 and 2007 showed increases in cash flow from export sales versus declining export volumes.

I have slightly modified our terminology--talking about approaching zero net exports, rather than hitting zero net exports, but I think that whether a net exporter actually hits zero or continues to export minimal volumes at some point in the future in not terribly relevant at this point.

In any case, I expect to continue to see an accelerating net export decline rate, especially by the top five. In fact, if we use 2005 (so far, the net export peak year) as the beginning point, it is 45 years from 2005 to 2050. Our middle case for the top five is that they will collectively approach zero net exports only about halfway to 2050, around 2031. This is the biggest problem that I see with the total energy graph.

Quick question westexas, do your expectations on net exports take account of countries like Saudi building chemical and highly energy intensive industries onshore and then preferentially servicing them with hydrocarbons before exporting the rest?

It looks like what they are doing and would speed up the net export decline rate of those big exporters.

Some have argued that a portion of net oil exports will show up as petrochemical, plastics, fertilizer exports, etc. And I think that they are correct, but I think that it will not be a major factor in reducing the demand for oil imports. However, as you suggested it would probably cause the rate of increase in consumption in oil exporting countries to accelerate.

I am aware of a report that Saudi total liquids consumption by the end of 2008 will probably be at or above 2.6 mbpd, because of a shortfall in NG production, and Rembrandt put early 2007 Saudi consumption up at 10% over early 2006.

I think that the idea of moving solar energy around the world is not really doable. Electrical energy will have a hard time passing through any territory, reliably, that a guy on a motorcycle cannot. By that, I mean that if the area is not safe enough for a guy on a motorcycle to ride, alone, over time the infrastructure will be damaged, destroyed, or held hostage by the same powers and people that disrupt the movement of people.

My favored solution is conservation, relocation of energy intensive industries to energy generating countries, nuclear for base load, and solar and other renewables for daytime peaking. Some things will have to change; for example, the power spike in Britain at 6pm every day when people make their tea. We may have to assign tea times, just like they do at Saint Andrews.

I think that the idea of moving solar energy around the world is not really doable. Electrical energy will have a hard time passing through any territory, reliably, that a guy on a motorcycle cannot.

You need to justify the part where you jumped from solar energy to electrical energy.

How shall the car gain solar cachet?

Stuart's asserted that "in the long term we will power society predominantly by massive amounts of solar PV".

Also, olepossum is talking about moving solar energy. Is there a feasible alternative to the electric grid for doing this?

Producing hydrogen is the usual alternative proffered, but it is not nearly so efficient as moving electricity, in fact it is staggeringly inefficient - those little hydrogen atoms are tricky little devils, and escape form pipelines easily, as well as the losses in producing them and generating electricity from them at the end, if that is the required use.
You could also maybe produce fuels like butanol, although I don't think much serious work has been done on it - no point whilst there was cheap oil.

As I understand it its pretty simple to produce diesel fuel if you have hydrogen and CO2 over cobalt catalysts.

That would be a darn sight better than fooling around transporting and using hydrogen - I wonder what the energy loss is though, by the time you have made the hydrogen than converted again to diesel - in my limited understanding I believe that any attempt to go to one of the higher carbon chain fuels carries quite large penalties.
You also still have the fact that electric engines are very efficient, combustion engines horrid.
So if you were planning on using it for transport you would be loosing shed loads at both ends.
I suppose if the more wild dreams of the solar buffs come about though, without Stuart's grid you would have to vastly overr-produce most of the year anyway, so you might as well make diesel.

I think the required investment of $10 trillion/year for the next 40 years for a global electrical grid is a deal breaker.

Even 1 trillion/year would be tough to drum up.

I agree that a world wide grid will be difficult. Imagine all the trouble we have now even as energy supplies are growing (Iraq, Darfur, Chechnya, etc.)? It's only going to get worse when energy supplies begin to decline and tensions are aggravated by global warming.

Perhaps the high voltage DC lines can be run mostly in the ocean, instead of through countries? It makes maintenance more difficult, but the lines would be more difficult to sabotage. There are precedents with transocean data cables.

I've heard that pressurized air in underground caverns and in old gas and oil mines could provide night time electricity. What's the limitation with these and how much energy can they store? Could they store a week of electricity? I'm guessing not...

You have to heat the air when you release it,usually using natural gas.
A recent proposal in Scientific American for providing a large grid for solar PV postulated this technology to store the energy - when we broke the figures down in discussion the amount of NG they were planning on using was massive!
Here is the discussion:
And here the article:

DaveMart -

There is a tendency among some to view renewables such as solar and wind power as being capable of being directly substituted for conventional fossil fuel-fired power generation. It is somewhat glibly assumed that the inherent intermittency and variability of solar and wind power can somehow be relatively easily smoothed out. That is not a very good assumption.

The issue of what is the most cost-effective means of energy storage for wind and solar power has not even begun to be resolved. The various energy storage alternatives all have serious drawbacks that generally translate into high costs.

Coming up with a cost-effective means of large-scale electrical energy storage will increasingly become the holy grail of renewable energy, for without it the inherent drawbacks of wind and solar power will be self-limiting with regard to the possibility of their widespread application.

Then there is also the issue of energy centralization versus decentralization, or concentrated versus distributed systems. Both wind and solar fit very well into a decentralized scheme, and both technologies lend themselves very well to modularizaton .... again, provided that the storage problem can be solved in a cost-effective manner.

On the other hand, a worldwide 'super grid' would be the antithesis of decentralization and would raise some very serious political and societal concerns, i.e., he who controls the grid controls the world. My own personal view is that a world-wide grid would be a step in the wrong direction and would only increase the leverage of those playing the game of energy power politics.

I think we will have economic collapse if we go along with some of the 'ecological' suggestions on offer - the costs are staggering.
I had a recent discussion here with MDsolar , who kindly corrected a decimal I had misplaced, but using his (correct figures still came to the result that for solar energy at the latitude of Germany you are talking about around a sixth of the energy in the middle of winter from a given PV system compared to the middle of summer - when you actually need around 4 times the energy in the winter compared to the summer!
That factor of 24, although it can be mitigated by different strategies, including the one Germany has actually adopted, burning coal in the winter and having the PV as eco-bling, means that any serious consideration of PV for power in the northern regions is essentially ludicrous with anything like current levels of technology, and super grids and so on, together still with massive over-production at some times, are the only way it works even as a fantasy.
As for wind, the UK government reckons it will cost them £76billion for an 11GW energy flow (nameplate 33GW) which would still need substantial backup.
Maybe something can be done for day-time peak for Los Angeles with solar, but for most places at the moment non-carbon dioxide emitting energy which can be made to last for long periods of time is spelt n-u-c-l-e-a-r.

Actually, for Germany, I think that they are currently establishing market share to be able to expand into the broad region in Stuart's graph. The are unlikely to do 100% of winter generation with solar, but they may go to 100% of summer eventually since the cast off batteries from EVs can cover night time. Pesumably they'll use their excess wind at that point to help out France which has trouble with summertime generation. They may also run some cooling using excess heat from Fischer-Tropsch jet fuel production using wind power. At a pinch, they could keep renewably produced hydrocarbon fuel for wintertime use rather than using it only for aviation. Presumably fuel cells will have advanced by then yielding 80% overall efficiency. But, buying Spanish solar power in the wintertime would also be an option.


Solar power is better in Spain, but not that much better. During the winter Spain will be using all the solar it can get, not exporting it, if it ever reaches any substantial proportion of output.
France is also rapidly building up it's wind power, so likely would not need anymore from Germany.
It's the cost issues though, Chris - all these measures would be great if we were all billionaires.
I do like some of the things Germany is doing, the Greenroof initiative, cut and cover for urban roads, passivhaus, and in those respects Germany is really leading the way.
It may also be argued that some of it's vast expenditure on solar power will help some others at more favourable locations - Los Angelinos, for instance, for their peak cooling needs.
On the actual energy generation front though they are having to go to more, very dirty, brown coal plants, to the tune of around 6GW.
In my view they are simply in denial, and have been convinced that nuclear is the big bad, when that is the source which can economically and with little risk provide low-carbon power for them
Here is a comparison of actual carbon emissions for Germany and France:
'“Germany has spent billions of euros subsidising wind and solar, marching to the greens’ drum. They have not succeeded in reducing their CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, which remain among the highest per capita in Europe [10.4 tonnes/capita/ year, up from 9.5 in 2,000. That is because wind and solar are intermittent and unreliable. Every solar panel and every wind machine must be backed up by reliable power for when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing,” he said.

Moore said Sweden had the lowest per capita CO2 emissions in Europe (6.3 tonnes/capita/year) and France had the second lowest (6.8 tonnes/ person/year). Sweden is 50% hydroelectric and 50% nuclear. France is 80% nuclear, 10% hydroelectric and uses only 10% fossil fuel. Denmark has the highest CO2 per capita at 11.0 tonnes/capita/year “because their mix is 18% wind and 82% fossil fuel. It is clear to see that the more hydroelectric and nuclear in the mix the lower the carbon emissions will be. Wind has a minor role to play and solar is not even worth the investment,” said Moore.'
And here are cost comparisons for different energy sources:
Nuclear is by far the cheapest low-carbon energy source.
I won't go into other issues such as fuel availability, proliferation and waste, since they have been covered over and over again, including in this thread, but suffice it to say that in northern Europe is you do not have cheap power, people die of hypothermia, and this real and demonstrable death rate has to be weighed against the very small demonstrable risks of nuclear, and the lethal effects of coal emissions.

Germany you are talking about around a sixth of the energy in the middle of winter from a given PV system compared to the middle of summer - when you actually need around 4 times the energy in the winter compared to the summer!

You're going to need to provide a reference for that, since it's very, very different from the available data for other western countries. The USA, for example, uses 8.5 +/- 10% quads per month, so it seems dubious that Germany would be so vastly different.

I don't understand your quads reference - I was trying to refer to the power generated by a given system in winter vs midsummer.
The figures I am using for Germany were taken from a discussion I had with MDsolar in this thread and I am using his figures - he is a solar advocate (naturally with a handle like that!) and has a set-up in Germany, the figures correlated closely with those I had sourced elsewhere.
Forgive me if I leave you to look through tht thread yourself - it is pretty cumbersome when you are in the middle of a post here to locate the quote elsewhere in the thread!
Someone in North Virginia made the same point of you, that he was only 10 degrees further south and did far better than that, but apparently according to MD the difference is due to the greater cloud cover in winter in northern Europe - areas by the great lakes in America also apparently suffer form the same effect.
I was surprised to learn that even in the Mohave you only get around 25% as much sun in the depths of winter as in mid-summer - this from someone who is involved in the solar thermal energy industry - it was a discussion in the 'Energy Blog' but I did not keep the reference, but that figure should be easy to check as it is mainly a matter of latitude rather than cloud.
The multiplication factor for winter peak use is based on the UK, where minimal use in the summer is around 20GW, and peak in the winter is about 75GW, so my factor of 24 is over, but it was just intended to give the right ball-park and indicate some of the engineering difficulties and the scale of the problem, in practise many mitigation strategies would be followed, but just the same the fact that you are generating in Northern Europe most of your energy when you least need it and would have to grossly over-supply that to make a significant dent in winter needs is a tough one to crack.
It's a whole different ball-game in areas like LA, where cooling needs are important, so at any given cost for a solar panel it is many times as cost-effective.

Just to note, I was using this tool:


I don't have a system in Germany. I took the default system loss, which is high, but did optimize the panel orientation. For the US I use static maps from this page:



Sorry for the misunderstanding, Chris!

Given the potential danger of a world wide grid, some thought should be given to a gird that is world wide but largely powered on a distribute, localized basis. This would involve installing grid tied systems with some backup. This would increase the cost of the system, thus reducing the advantages of a grid tied, net metered system, but might be done anyway as an insurance measure.

But, yeh, the world is not becoming any less dangerous. Think of an oil embargo on steroids with a world wide super grid.

Each block of people gets a different tea time, enforceable by the local gestapo. Yes, that's the ticket!!! If the British have to change their tea times, we are clearly doomed.

And how many nuclear plants is that?


Ridiculous, we already have a world wide network of cables that connect the whole world.
It's called the internet, you are currently using it.
These are mostly fibre optic links that span the globe, with the US as the hub. I live in sydney australia, and I am sending this message to you guys through the long fibre optical links that span the whole pacific ocean to the US east coast, if any of you are in europe, this going further through the entire US and over the Atlantic ocean as well! In near instant speed. It's all cables, satellite has latency issues that make it unusable for a pleasant to use internet. Yep, the communication industry laid cables across the world's largest oceans, because people were not willing to wait an extra second for a satellite. It is also constantly upgraded as need for bandwidth keeps increase.
Some maps of the internet:
Ocean links http://www.telegeography.com/products/map_cable/images/cable_map_wallpap...
Capacity map http://www.telegeography.com/products/map_internet/images/internet-map-2...
Router links http://www.chrisharrison.net/projects/InternetMap/
It's a real nice piece of work. If we can do it for data, can we not for electricity?

PS here is a rather interesting article. Sometimes cables get cut, but they can route around it 'degraded performance' will result though.

HV DC ocean lines require insulation effective for a half million volts. Fiber optic lines need protection from mechanical forces found on the ocean floor.

HV DC lines require aluminum cables 6 or 10 cm in diameter, fiber optics require a bundle of hair thin glass fibers.

A MAJOR delta in costs, and resources !


Well done Alan! I was considering chiming in, but you have done the job.
An additional point is that you need to have converters for the power for AC-DC and back again for the long distance lines, and they aren't cheap.
BTW, I have found authoritative figures form the Department of Trade and Industry ( a branch of government here) on on-shore and off-shore wind costs for the UK:
I put them at the relevant place in the thread, but repeat them here for your convenience, as they contain all the detail you wanted.
I would like your input on whether I am reading this right,and the costs are for name-plate installed capacity, not actual output, because if they are then although lower than the original figures I gave are very high indeed, even for on-shore, and some of the discrepancy may be due to the report being 2006, and I believe that there has been inflation since then
It is also not entirely clear, to me at least, whether connections to the shore are fully costed.
Back-up capacity, though you would not need that for all the output, is not included in the price, nor of course is any supergrid to reduce intermittency.
It seems to me that many of the low costs quoted elsewhere as a price per kilowatt already include subsidy.
I await your comments with interest.

Submarine Fibre optic cables have copper power cable in them to power the repeaters, as well as thick steel cables to withstand stress and forces. So what you actually have is fibre optic lines inside a copper tube, far from being just a bundle of hair thin glass fibres.


Some random navel gazing thoughts:

  • Part of the expectation from here on out should be less travel, less transport, more localisation, more distributed, more 'virtual'. Not only is that required for dealing with peak oil, its more resilient as well. That means countries get smaller, partnership is the rule and high centralisation/urbanisation in any form is a no go.
  • I don't agree with the statements on nuclear. To me significant nuclear is a requirement of a future world - renewables won't cut it, no matter what games are played, its an energy density strategic question. Roll on workable fusion.
  • Any solution that doesn't explicitly recognise our future being in space has problems. We've just got to face it, the world's too small for us and we need to get out. If we aren't serious about this before 2100, we're dead from the good ol' limits to growth.
  • Although the precise shape of future tech is unknowable, expectation of nanotech, nuclear, biotech and downloading should be built in - maybe even AI finally.
  • Politics and Commerce are important (unfortunately). To get there from here you need a set of steps that are walkable. At the same time, there should be no expectation that either subject is long lasting and fixed.

Whichever way you cut it, we need to expect a discontinuity in our future - hopefully more like the reformation or enlightenment than like the decline and fall.

"Any solution that doesn't explicitly recognise our future being in space has problems. We've just got to face it, the world's too small for us and we need to get out. If we aren't serious about this before 2100, we're dead from the good ol' limits to growth."

I agree with this. It is a vital necessary part of the long term picture if our decendants are to have any quality of life and our species is to survive in the long term.

Jon Kutz Minnesota USA
"Tinkerer and Dreamer"

Politician - A marionette running for public office

On the space thing. Growth in beyond earth orbit space flights 1970-2007 = -100%. Proven business models for beyond earth orbit - none. Size of the space exploration sector funded by commercial venture capital, $0. I think we await breakthroughs and it would be unwise to bet on it soon.

We need an economy some 10-100 times larger really. Sure, if you have lots of spaceflights the price per launch goes down and you can research more low cost high volume launch infrastructure. We'll get there someday.

We'll only get there if we recognise the limits that the earth currently imposes on us. If we keep pushing those limits and expect them to disappear, it will be a very long time before humans again have the technology and energy to try some space enterprise.

You underestimate the limits of the earth and the avaliability of energy. 10^17 watts from solar insolation and 160 trillion tons of fissionables go a long long way.

Not at all, there are all sorts of limits, not just energy. Just where are the full life-cycle analyses of harnessing this abundant solar resource? We usually think that there cannot be any side-effects of any "solution" that might get proposed and that there are plenty of resources in which to build and operate these solutions.

But the human species doesn't seem to be very good and contemplating limits.

Or being bound by them.

We have no evidence of that. Daily and annual limits have been extended by the use of cheap abundant energy. As that fades, natures limits will start to become critical factors and humans will undoubtedly bump into them.

The notion that cheap abundant energy will fade just strikes me as a bit silly. Wind and nuclear are nearly competitive with coal today, and the exhastion of hydrocarbon resources wont significantly change this.

The most expensive thing we'll run into is inflationary lull in the economy as we switch from liquid fuel based infrastructure to electric (wind and nuclear immediatly and solar eventually)

Even if we can make available enough resources to harness enough renewable energy to replace fossil fuels as they decline, how can you be so certain that this will enable us to continue harvesting finite resources at increasing rates, avoid catastrophic environmental damage, conserve fresh water supplies enough and continue to feed a growing population indefinitely? If you don't think we can do all that indefinitely, then my case rests; we need to figure out other arrangements before that unsustainability catches up with us.


World economic growth: 3% annually (U.N.)

Rule of 72:
72 / 3 = 24 years

Can the planet survive a doubling of our impact in just twenty-four years?

I think not. Our ecosystem services are already starting to fail.

Here is just one of many, many examples.

The number of chinook salmon returning from the Pacific Ocean to California's Sacramento River is near record lows and points to an "unprecedented collapse," according to fisheries managers. In 2007, only about 90,000 adult chinook returned to the Sacramento River, down from about 277,000 in 2006 and a high of over 800,000 in 2002. Even more troubling, juvenile chinook salmon numbers last year hit a new low with only about 2,000 of them returning. Counts of young salmon typically foreshadow adult numbers in later years, so for now the outlook is particularly bleak. The executive director of the Pacific Fishery Management Council summarized the situation as a possible "unprecedented collapse" and hinted to fellow councilors that they'll be considering harsh restrictions on salmon fishing this year because of it -- possibly an outright ban. The council meets to discuss the issue in March; a final decision will be made in April.


Most of these resources are functions of energy. Fresh water is a clear example.

Let's take the remainder after "most" is taken out. Then we are unsustainable. Let's take the most. The amount of energy goes up exponentially, as the quality of the raw resource declines. There may be some cases where this is not true but it is generally true. If the ore grade declines, for example, it take more energy to extract the growing amounts needed to fuel growth. If we're not unsustainable now, then we will become so at some point, if we continue to worship economic growth.

As I said, if you don't think we can sustain growth indefinitely (and just by the word "most", you imply that's true) then economic growth will have to stop.

Let's take the remainder after "most" is taken out. Then we are unsustainable.
That logic chain isn't complete. It only works if the the resources that aren't functions of energy are at least as limited by energy. They're not necissarily. Other limits are labor and technological advancement.

This 'you're ignoring limits' strawman has got to stop. Everyone knows in a finite universe you run out of steam eventually. We disagree on when.

I say its well after the stars have been strip mined.

It should also be noted that unmanned robotic spacecraft have preceded every step humans have made into space. In fact, the gap is increasing, maybe exponentially. While we are still stuck in the earth-moon system (and haven't even been back to the moon in a quarter-century now), unmanned robots have gone to fly by or orbit every planet (with the demotion of Pluto) and have explored the surface of Mars. They have even traveled beyond the outer reaches of the solar system.

There is probably some law that should be formulated to the effect that for each linear step of manned space exploration, unmanned robotic spacecraft extend their space exploration exponentially.

It really makes a lot more sense to send unmanned robotic spacecraft. Eliminating life support makes the engineering considerably easier. The longer the distance from earth, the longer and more difficult the trip becomes for humans. All sci-fi speculation about humans tooling about space even at anything close to the speed of light are pure fantasy, it just won't happen. The best we can ever hope to do is to launch slow robotic probes to nearby star systems that might take decades or even centuries to reach their destinations. Presumably we'll eventually advance to the point where we can build self-controlling (too distant for real-time communications) and self-repairing robotics, for that is what it will take to explore other star systems.

The good news is that if we forget most of the nonsense about trying to put humans where they don't belong, the energy requirements for sending robots into space to do what we want them to do are not nearly so high. It is definitely worth trying to maintain a modest capability to build robots and send them into space occasionally.

(BTW, this is also why I discount any and all accounts of sightings or encounters with "aliens". If another species on another world ever contacted us, it would be with their robots first.)

That is the most sensible thing I have read on space exploration in a long time! Thanks.

renewables won't cut it, no matter what games are played

There is also an issue of relying too heavily on one option. What happens if a shortage of a critical material occurs? What about cost? A pure PV solution must build an infrastructure on a scale similar to generation for storage/world wide distribution. Will it all scale? He is betting on technology that currently does not have almost any market share for generation and storage or global grid technology that is not even at the drawing board stage. PV certainly seems benign right now but would it still if it were built up to the extent Stuart recommends?

Stuart also dismissed nuclear without giving convincing arguments. That is surprising coming from him. As Dezakin has demonstrated repeatedly here, the storage issue is not urgent and vitrification is certainly a good short term option. Reprocessing shows much potential to nearly completely resolve the issue over the mid term (not to the satisfaction of the anti-nuclear activists, of course). Maybe there are risks to building nuclear plants in unstable third world countries, but in the developed world, the industry has the best safety record of any significant energy source. His idea that most of the world’s future growth will be in the undeveloped parts of the world seems utopian. Those are the parts of the world where the population problem is most acute and certainly there will have to be some serious coming to terms with that in those areas, which calls into question his growth projections.

Man, you don't want Stuart. You need Hari Seldon.

The technology to populate space (stations, the moon, other planets, etc.) with any meaningful number of people at any reasonable cost is hundreds of years away. Given that we're facing energy and resource shortages that we must focus on and overcome, that timeframe is pushed out further. We need to focus on managing this planet's energy, resource, climate, and population first. Without doing that, technology will reverse and you'll never get there.

No matter how lousy this planet gets, it will ALWAYS be a trillion times better than living on a space station, the moon or another planet. When the lake gets polluted, maybe the fish should just try living in the trees.

Really, you think it would be any worse than living in a dense modern city such a new york, where there's so many man made sites that you don't even need to see nature to be happy.

If we don't do it within the next hundred years then we never will as high quality energy sources are used up sustaining populations that live in worse and worse situations.

Its one of those steps you have to take at the right time, miss it and you die off as a species.

Has there been a successful experiment in which people enclosed in a completely self-contained system managed to survive for an extended period of time?


Yep, its called the planet earth - a few billion years and counting.

(laughing) Ok, that was good.

Please insert 'artificial' in the appropriate spot.


Yes, there was. It was called biosphere 2. Seven scientists lived for two years on about two and a half acres sealed off from the outside world.


Theres the more pedestrian example of nuclear submarines...

As I recall, the Biosphere 2 had some really serious problems with maintaining energy and gas balances, the latter believed to be closely linked to microbial activity in the soil. While the earth does this quite well, it's had billions of years of practice to achieve a state of near equilibrium. Plus, something the size of the earth has a huge amount of thermal, chemical, and biological inertia to help absorb short-term excursions, something the Biosphere 2 did not have.

If we've learned anything from Biosphere 2 (and many people think it was one big self-indulgent boondoggle), it's that a small, completely closed ecosystem can be very unstable and difficult to maintain.

As I recall, the Biosphere 2 had some really serious problems with maintaining energy and gas balances, the latter believed to be closely linked to microbial activity in the soil.

It was linked to somehow forgetting that concrete absorbs CO2 as its sets...

It was a lot more than that. The soils were acting funny: absorbing gases when they shouldn't have and desorbing gases when then should have. Some sort of poorly understood biochemical reaction was the most likely culprit.

I know from personal experience that soils can do some rather odd and unexpected things when kept in a confined space.

There is much we don't understand.


If we figure out how to harness fusion, we'll be able to start. That might happen in 30 years or 300 years. Remember that the Renaissance started pre-fossil fuels and there were many inventions and scientific theories during that time. Granted that we were able to exponentially increase our knowledge with fossil fuels, but scientific knowledge and learning will continue without them more slowly.

We know how to harness fusion now, we're just not nearly desperate enough. You mass produce teller-ulam bombs, drop one a minute into excavated caverns where heat is reclaimed from molten salt waterfalls on the chamber walls. Now theres the whole proliferation issue of mass production of H-bombs along with dumping enough heat in one spot of the ocean to make it boil, but the engineering of it works if we really were desperate enough to need it.

We sure aren't now.

Are you serious? I've never heard of that before. Do you have a link for further reading?

The technology sounds feasible. I wouldn't like to see it implemented though.

How about a Project Orion engine connected to a generator? Could probably power the entire world-wide HVDC grid with one of these things

Maybe Not In My Back Yard though!

External pulsed propulsion such as this would work (not any better for power than good nuclear power plants). But you can just seed it by making mining facilities on the moon (lift enough robotics and factories to the moon with chemical rockets). The moon has thorium and uranium. Can make the bombs and metals for the super-orions. Million of tons anywhere in the solar system. 30-50% cargo for nuclear rocket. Can start plucking near earth and other asteroids for materials.

Any solution that doesn't explicitly recognise our future being in space has problems. We've just got to face it, the world's too small for us and we need to get out. If we aren't serious about this before 2100, we're dead from the good ol' limits to growth.

I'm surprised to hear this from a presumably numerate TOD poster. If by "our future being in space" you mean mining for raw materials, this is one thing, with it's own set of problems. But if you mean actually offloading population (...the world is too small for us...), this is sheer nonsense.

Right now earth's population is growing at ~250,000 per day. One doesn't have to be very numerate to see the no-brainer flaw in trying to move even a tiny fraction of these to ....where? Even in the 'demographically transformed' post 2050 world, moving 'excess' people to a non-existent space colony doesn't remotely make sense in any of my frames of reference.

In terms of solvable problems, this one is IMO obviously a non-starter.

....besides which, there are more than a couple of TOD posters who insist that there's "no problem" with the earth supporting 50 billion or more human beings. Who needs space??
/irony off

I mean the future of the human race depends on getting out of the trap of a finite and limited planet. Population is just numbers - its never been the point.

And as far as numeracy is concerned, the same point was made by Prof Stephen Hawking - so I think I'm safe enough.

It's an infinite universe. There are an infinite number of planetary systems and an infinite amount of resources in the universe.....
If we could just get there....

High centralisation is a requirement of the technologically advanced kind of civilisation that we want to keep building. Complex technology requires many people working together and therefore good transportation infrastructure.
Nuclear powered rail is probably the best solution for this, electric goods trains.

I think you have made things unnecessarily tough for yourself in your provisions, chiefly in looking at a worldwide solution rather than a more regional one, but also in the selection of technologies.
Intermittency is a major problem, but it varies enormously from resource to resource,and importantly from area to area - in the winter months in Germany a 1kw PV panel will generate around 30watts! - and that is for months at a time. Intemittency of the same source in the tropics is of an altogether different order, of often being only a matter of days or even hours, although of course the details will vary according to the climate, with very cloudy areas doing worse, and also according to the precise technology, as some are a lot better under cloud cover.
I will try to conform to the criteria for selection of technologies that you have set up, to keep some sort of shape in the debate.
The first comment I would make is that most of your reservations against nuclear are much reduced exactly where you most need it - areas like Northern Europe,and the Northern parts of the US , with comparatively high levels of technology and security.
I do not really see the waste issue as being in any way critical, as after reprocessing all the waste form several decades of French production only fills up an area of around 3 baseball courts.
Areas where security etc may be more problematic, by and large have much higher solar incidence, and more importantly less extreme swings from winter to summer, and so PV power is much more suitable and economic.
The first additional technology I would call to your attention is solar thermal, where rapid progress is being made and storage for a period of hours due to diurnal variation much easier.
Some systems are talking about using compressed air storage, which is used in other contexts but may fall under your stricture of unproven technology.
Recent proposals in Scientific American envisage using PV power from the Southwest for the whole of the US, again without a world grid.
You could certainly use pumped water storage to compensate for diurnal variation though.
Another which has much lower variability is hot rock geothermal, of the potential of which MIT recently spoke highly:
I'm not sure if that is 'present day' enough for your requirements though!
Calculations of the intermittency of wind also indicate that very high levels of penetration would also be possible with the provision of grids of around 1500km or so, far less than a world grid.
For the States at any rate, with proven technology you could also burn shale, taking up the carbon equivalent with agrichar - these methods would not strain existing technology too much, I believe.
For diurnal variation it seems to me that use could also be made of lead acid batteries incorporating ultracapacitors, which again we can do now.
So to sum up, for most areas in the tropics and subtropics solar energy is likely to be the most important source, although it might well take the form of solar thermal, enabling easy compensation for diurnal variation.
For northerly latitudes with wide variations between winter and summer needs and abilities to generate power then more constant sources either nuclear or geothermal are more attractive, and you could also possibly use resources like wind with a regional grid, or import power form more southerly locations, but still without a world grid.
Here are the European proposals for such a system:
You still don't need a world grid, as diurnal variation is relatively easy to store power for - it is annual variation that is the difficult one.

Dave, you wrote:

"in the winter months in Germany a 1kw PV panel will generate around 3watts! - and that is for months at a time."

This doesn't make sense. Somewhere you got bad information or made a calculation error. 1) There is no such thing as a 1kw PV panel. Did you mean 'array'? 2) Solar insolation is not that bad on a cloudy day! But the loss of the day-to-day variation is critical since the design and performance of a system with, for example, 5 kWh/day nearly every day is quite different than one with 8 kW/hr/day on some days followed by several cloudy days with 2 kWh/day.

Absolutely correct! I lost a decimal place! I have since corrected it, using the edit function, but didn't know whether to bother noting that up
I used 1kw of power not because I believe that most panels are that size, but to try to show how much of the rated power you would get in winter on average per hour over the 24 hours - and that should be around 30watts, not 3 as I said.
A more usual installation is around 2.6 or 5kw, so for the bigger you should get around 150watts average energy flow during Nov, Dec and Jan - not a lot for a fairly pricey installation however you slice it.
I got the figures which I subsequently cocked up from an Irish installation, which gives around 3% of rated power during those months, but of course it may be a bit cloudier or whatever than Germany, but I should finally be in the right ball-park for Northern locations! :-)

This misses the point of the scenario which states that the solar arrays would be placed in desert locations with plenty of sun. You are describing some other scenario.

I was suggesting instead of a world grid that different solutions should be implemented in different areas according to the resources available, so considered how suitable solar PV would be for Northern areas, using the example of Germany.
On that basis a number of other resources would seem to me more suitable than PV in those sort of areas, although residential solar thermal has got a good contribution to make even at those latitudes.

Most measurements total in kilowatt-hour (kWh) over the particular time period they are interested in. From what I surmise is that you are saying that a 5kw array would produce an average of 24*150=3.6 kWh per day. Ok, I have a 2.8kw installation in Northern Virginia, and I am averaging 12 kWh per day in January, even with our cloudiness. Sure it is 10 degrees to the south, but that is a lot of difference. On New Years day I produced 15 kWh.

I based my figures on a fpost in another thread where MDSolar kindly corrected my original error:
'Also, I think that you have a factor of ten error in your estimate of what PV produced in the wintertime. For a rather lossy system (24%) 1 kWp system located in Hannover, Germany I get 24 W average daily output in December, not 3 W. Ignoring losses gives a value a little above 30 W. You need to go to the middle of Finland to have latitude affect solar output so strongly.'
Once my decimal place was corrected (!) this was in broad agreement with the figures I had.
I rounded up to 30w for 1kw.
Unless someone with more expert knowledge can help, I can only assume that the 10degree difference in latitude is indeed that critical, or perhaps your set-up is better optimised for winter sun-angles.

You should always adjust the panels for the seasonal angles, that makes sense. Tracking on the other hand is expensive.

You are getting just about what you should for January:
Northern Europe gets more clouds owing to the evaporation from the Gulf Stream. You can see Lake Effect in NY in the map which is similar. I sould say that to read the map you need to know that at peak we expect about 1 kW/m^2 so the numbers can also be read as peak equivilent hours of Sun per day.


I second the nomination of solar thermal, because it can store heat for overnight use, using molten salt.

The seasonal variation problem still would call for a north-south grid.

Maybe not, or not a huge one, if you use wind power, geothermal or nuclear as the basic power system up North.
As I pointed out, you could also use shale oil as long as you did not affect the carbon balance - more easily achieved in my view by agrichar than industrial sequestration.
Solar thermal panels and heat pumps do a darn good job anyway of minimising overall energy requirements.
Your point is a good one though - but is we use other resources you don't need to engineer the absolutely vast systems that would otherwise be needed - my original critique of Stuart's world grid.
There is a lot of difference between sending a supplementary 50GW of power north in the winter and trying to run the whole of Northern Europe by cable from the Sahara.
It all helps to keep the engineering on a reasonable scale.


I second most of your thoughts, although I line with Stuart on nuclear issues. For me the possibility for proliferation from a fuel chain is too big. It is too much fire to be played with. Maybe it can work safely enough in a few chosen countries, but as a global solution nuclear is not safe enough. In principle it would be possible to keep the dangerous parts of the fuel chain in few countries, but in practice it might be impossible. Also we can't continue very long with once-through uranium cycle. I also like to think that we should keep the planet free of long term waste as a principle: this includes non-degradable plastics, many chemicals and nuclear waste. I hope that there will be many many future generations of humans and as many other species as possible. I understand that people can have high enough confidence in storage solutions to say it's a non-problem, but I remain to be convinced.

At high latitudes it's also possible to use heating as a source of flexibility for variable power production from wind. When wind is blowing one can push part of the electricity into heat pumps or electric boilers. They can be connected to heat storages. This is a cheaper energy storage solution than compressed air or dedicated pumped hydro. Naturally, there will still be times when wind power production is low, although this can be partially mitigated with larger power grids as you suggest. I guess in principle it would be possible to use stored heat as a source of electricity with Sterling engines, but I don't know how economics would play out. It's more likely that the power capacity needed for low wind periods is cheaper to cover with gas turbines and maybe to some extent with (used) EV batteries.

While I like Stuart's technological scenario, I think it's more likely that wind will take a considerably bigger share, since it is easier to deal with wind's variability than with solar's. Global grid is a nice concept, but I wouldn't want to rely on it for my electricity. Concentrating solar thermal is also a great option, but it requires clear skies and is therefore a geographically limited option without super grids. Stuart's reasons for limiting wind are not very convincing. He sets a limit based on Denmark, which is quite densely populated country. Wind didn't stop expanding there because they ran out of space, although there certainly was also issues with that. It had much more to do with change in government and a reworked subsidy program, which meant that it wasn't any longer profitable to build wind power plants in Denmark compared to some other countries in Europe. Still, Danish government has plans to increase the share of wind up to 50% of electricity from current 20%, although bulk of the increase would be offshore. Germany is also planning on about tripling their wind production. While there is often news that wind power developments have had NIMBY resistance and some projects have got cancelled, a lot of projects have gone through and are continuing to do so. There is plenty of space available, even to power the whole globe if necessary. That said, it's impossible to guess how cheap solar is going to be in 20-30 years and of course the solar resource is much more abundant than the wind resource.

The nuclear genii is well and truly out of the bottle. making nuclear weapons is not the cutting edge proposition it was in the 1940's, and the plain fact is that you won't be able to stop any nation that wants to from acquiring nuclear weapons.
the West's ability to control countries in that way is a thing of the past.
The trouble with wind is the insane costs. If you look at actual figures, and take out politically motivated subsidies which are only to any extent viable when renewables are a small part of overall production, and even then result in Germany and Denmark having some of the most expensive electricity in Europe, then you confront massive costs.
Here are the actual, Government projections of costs for their planned expansion of wind in Britain:
'The most prominent proposal is that which will require Britain to build up to 20,000 more wind turbines, including the 7,000 offshore giants announced by the Government before Christmas. To build two turbines a day, nearly as high as the Eiffel Tower, is inconceivable. What is also never explained is their astronomic cost.

At £2 million per megawatt of "capacity" (according to the Carbon Trust), the bill for the Government's 33 gigawatts (Gw) would be £66 billion (and even that, as was admitted in a recent parliamentary answer, doesn't include an extra £10 billion needed to connect the turbines to the grid). But the actual output of these turbines, because of the wind's unreliability, would be barely a third of their capacity. The resulting 11Gw could be produced by just seven new "carbon-free" nuclear power stations, at a quarter of the cost.'
I have just e-mailed Stuart with links to how much energy in a system could theoretically be generated with wind, and it is very high.
My guess is that if you talk to the guys who would actually pay, so is the cost.
Solar is much, mush worse.

I have to disagree on the cost approximations from Carbon Trust. They don't look at actual realized costs of past projects. Their estimate is based on offshore wind and current market prices (not costs). First off, there's more than enough capacity in UK onshore, even to power whole Europe. I understand that UK is land of NIMBYism, but the resource is just so huge, that with reasonable siting those turbines could be built onshore. Currently building onshore costs around 1.5€ million per MW, which is about half of Carbon Trust figure. Once steel prices get back down to reasonable numbers and wind power manufacturer's are once again able to meet the growing demand, wind turbines will again cost less than €1 million per MW. Steel prices will come down, the massive building operation in China is finally slowing down. It might take some years before manufacturing capacity reaches demand, but with the time-scales we are talking about, I don't see that as a problem. Meanwhile, there will be technological progress on the turbines and more economies of scale, so I suspect that onshore wind will be in the range of 0.7-0.9 M€/MW, once the conditions are favorable once again. Before current price spikes, cheapest wind farms in Spain had a turn-key delivery price of about 0.8 €M/MW. So, a cost for the 33 GW will be around 27 000 M€, which is equal to 20 000 M£. I don't want to predict which year this will be, but wind power manufacturer's have been able to pull out quite impressive growth numbers for more than a decade now.

Nuclear costs are not so rosy either as current experience in Finland is showing. There is also lot of past bad experience, especially in UK, where nuclear program has cost some serious money. Granted, there have been costly mistakes, but who's to be sure they will be avoided next time around. With a CF of 0.9, one needs 12.2 GW of nuclear capacity. My estimate for average nuclear cost (also assuming that there's no more steel and labor shortage) is 2.5 €M/MW. This yields 30 500 M€. Of course another person might assume that nuclear industry will finally be able to deliver consistently cheap power plants, maybe with help of modularization. Wind integration costs at modest penetration levels (10-20% of electricity) are quite low, maybe 2-5% of production costs. At higher levels costs will certainly increase, but there's no good research on how much. My personal view is that there are plenty of ways to accommodate wind variation up to quite high penetration levels with minimal cost increase.

In any case, the cost of building a nuclear or wind system is very comparable. Solar PV is currently around 5 times more expensive than conventional power, but that picture might change (and might already be changing if some of the solar company announcements are true). Solar PV is different, because it relies so heavily on manufacturing and materials. These have lot more room for improvement than more conventional mechanical engineering. There's a good chance that solar can bridge the cost gap - however it remains to be seen.

If you don't fancy the British Governments renewables guys, who for the life of my I can't think why they should seek to inflate the costs, how does the Royal Academy of Engineering grab you?
With respect, I find both rather more persuasive than your statement:
'Meanwhile, there will be technological progress on the turbines and more economies of scale, so I suspect that onshore wind will be in the range of 0.7-0.9 M€/MW'
You also predicate this on demand for steel and so on dropping, but I fail to see why it should since the pressure is on to build m ore wind farms, however expensive.
A drop in the price of inputs would also benefit wind's competitors, coal and more particularly nuclear, since costs for that are up-front too.
You might feel that 33GW could be built on-shore, but the British Government does not feel so sanguine and is not even going to attempt is, so we are certainly dealing with the much higher cost of off-shore wind.
Much of the costs of nuclear was also due to having one off designs and seeking planning permission at every stage.
This is not going to happen, as all permissions will occur before the first in the series.
Many of the learning costs are already dealt with by the construction of the Finnish plant.
I find your estimates for wind costs to be consistently optimistic.
Wind turbines don't get built without subsidy, and they eat up huge amounts of that.

Royal Academy of Engineers paper is unfortunately very misleading piece of paper. Most glaring mistake is here (page 12 of the original 2004 report):

We are cognisant of some published studies, however, which
suggest that, for small levels of wind (turbine capacity) penetration, the
‘equivalent firm’ capacity added to the system is equivalent to about 35
per cent of the installed capacity. We have used this figure in the

Without the benefit of very detailed statistical analysis, it is difficult to
draw conclusions relating to the correlation between ‘equivalent firm’
generation from wind turbines and system demand. For the purposes of
this study, therefore, the additional cost of providing standby generation
to support the other 65 per cent of intermittent wind turbine capacity, i.e.
the amount which is considered ‘non-firm’, has been analysed.

They are referring to an article by Milborrow, where this 35% presents capacity credit of wind power. That is a measure of how much conventional capacity can be replaced by each MW of wind power capacity. There is no need to have 65% back-up for the 'non-firm' part of the capacity. Wind power plant produces at average around 30% of it's capacity, so in this case 1 MW of wind power will actually give more capacity to the system than energy on average. This will certainly decrease with increasing penetration, but the point is that the totally wrong methodology used by the RAE shows just how ignorant they are about how wind integration studies are really made. Their false assumption leads them to build lot of additional conventional capacity to backup wind and putting the cost fully to wind power investment costs. Please, use better sources. How about IEA (not notorious for supporting renewables), World Energy Outlook 2006, page 145: Nuclear 47-58 $/MWh, CCGT 50-66 $/MWh, Coal steam 41-54 $/MWh, IGCC 44-57 $/MWh, Wind 51-77 $/MWh. In World Energy Outlook 2004 p. 195 numbers were better, but I guess they got some comments about it from certain special interests (CCGT 32-40 $/MWh, Coal 34-43 $/MWh, Nuclear 46 $/MWh, Wind 42-44 $/MWh; Indicative Mid-Term Generating Costs of New Power Plants). These are approximate numbers, since I had to estimate them from graphs. They do not include any subsidies or CO2 costs.

The numbers from my previous post were numbers that I remember seeing in articles or wind power journals. To be more precise I'll quote some numbers from an article by David Milborrow ("Annual Power Costs Comparison", Wind Power Monthly, Jan 2007, p. 47-50). They are actual costs from realised projects and do not have any subsidies included. Average cost for turn-key wind power was 1.0 M€/MW in 2004, 1.2 M€/MW in 2005 and 1.175 M€/MW in 2006. Since then costs have escalated due to material price hikes and increased manufacturer margins in seller's market. At 1 M€/MW, 8 m/s winds and 5% discount rate, wind power plants produces power at €42/MWh At 7 m/s it's €52.5/MWh and at 6 m/s it's €71/MWh. Somehow I trust a lot more numbers from real projects than from RAE exercise with obvious flaws and outrageously different estimates than what one can see elsewhere in the literature (and back-of-the envelope calculations).

When it comes to steel, rest assured that only a small fraction of world steel is going to power plant production and would remain so even if all new power would come from wind. It will not dictate steel prices.

Hmm - you seem to be feeling I have some sort of agenda.
I don't. I just want reliable energy at some sort of cost which is not ruinous.
Neither am I an expert on energy costs, either for wind or nuclear, but if I am told by the British government which is the one who is in charge of it that we have to pay £76bn for 11GW of not-entirely reliable energy, then I get alarmed.
Maybe the cost will be less, but in my experience estimates are rarely undershot, but often exceed their target figure.
I agree that there is no need for one for one back-up, but the RAE report is given in a form where you can quite easily see how much of the cost is for back-up, and adjust accordingly, and they still look high.
In addition, the 30% utilisation figure you give is also higher than anything I have seen, and applies only to the very best wind resources, not the average site, in Europe at any rate.
The figures given in this article, although from someone who is not fond of wind power, accord more with those i have heard for average wind power in Europe - about 24%:
Some feel that the figures have been heavily adjusted so that even that figure is very optimistic:
The fact is that without subsidy, often at outrageous levels, no wind plants have been built anywhere.
Odd if it is so cheap.
You would do rather better for the hours the wind blows off-shore, as the wind resource is better, although it should be noted that the UK plans to build close-in to minimise transmission costs and so on.
However, you are in a totally different ball-park for costs, with high and difficult maintenance problems, robust structures needed to cope with the weather and so on.
Lest it be felt that I am a 'nuclear - right or wrong' kind of guy here is a link to the actual costs and delays in building the Finnish nuclear reactor:
the costs of this are obviously high, but one would at least hope that getting into a run of building the things would lead to cost reductions.
We have to get our act together, whatever we build, and certainly there is also great potential to make a mess of building an ambitious fleet of wind turbines.
Considerable problems with reliability have also impacted the program in Germany, with some wind turbines needing maintenance after only 4 years, when 20 was budgeted for.
In the stressful sea environment maintenance, especially for the huge wind turbines they plan to build, is largely unknown.
Because of the way industry calculates returns, then production after 20 years does not greatly affect costings.
That is the estimated lifespan of wind turbines anyway, but design life of the Areva nuclear plants is 60 years, so you get 40 additional years of very cheap energy.
I do not have access to Milbarrow's study, so I cannot comment on his costings.
I accept your point about steel prices not being determined by use in power generation, but see no signs that they are about to turn down soon.
It boils down to who you believe - and if the people who are going to give me the bill tell me it is going to cost so much, in this case £76bn, I tend to believe that I will be handed a bill for at least this much.
That price is crazy, and I will take my chances on series production reducing nuclear costs, which from the Finnish example look as though they should still come out cheaper than the off-shore proposals, although we have not got final figures.

The way you pick your sources makes it seem like you might have an agenda. But I guess that's what you get in UK, lot of anti-wind articles in newspapers or government sponsored research with questionable assumptions. It's up to you to pick what you believe in, but I'd suggest that before you run into conclusions take a look elsewhere. You don't seem to pay any attention to the numbers I presented. They should at least make you think whether your sources are correct, in case you don't have an agenda. You might also consider whether the group in Royal Academy of Engineers, which has made the paper, has an agenda. I don't claim they do, but their numbers and mistakes make me wonder.

Anyway, 30% capacity factor for onshore wind in UK is very reasonable. Future turbines will be bigger than what has been built in the past and they'll reach better winds, which means that CF will get higher. I think your number of 24.1% is for UK, not for Europe, although your newspaper quote is not clear on that. It's only for one year and there are yearly fluctuations, so we can't really know how representative it is. Furthermore, there's lot of wind power being built, which means that during any given year the additional capacity will not be functional for the whole year. However, CF is usually calculated as [annual production]/[capacity at the end of the year] and therefore gives you lower number.

Many of the issued that I'm trying to get across here have been discussed in the OilDrum before, so here's just two posts that you should look into:
This details what is different about offshore compared to onshore and answers many of your concerns about offshore difficulties.
In the latter one Jerome makes good sense why there's a need to subsidize wind. The last 4-5 paragraphs of hist post.

Just a quick addition: a paper by Sinden (which one of your sources was pointing to) says that long-term average CF for UK wind has been 27%, varying between 24-31% in different years. This is calculated from yearly Digests of UK Energy Statistics, Department of Trade and Industry. 30% for future onshore turbines is probably on the low side.

The answer to why I do not comment extensively on some of the links you provide is simple John.
Not being an engineer I am in no way qualified to properly assess the different claims, or evaluate the sources much beyond noting if they appear to be 'respectable', so I am pretty well restricted to popularisations rather than the nitty-gritty of data shoots and so on.
I will however make sure that I have a read of the different links you kindly provided.
I do know though that in the UK the costs of even present land based wind power require, or at least get, vast levels of subsidy, and in spite of the higher wind resource off-shore the costs for that AFAIK look like being a lot higher.
Part of the problem may not be with wind per se, but with the way it is subsidised in the UK.
Here are a couple of links to that:
And in another post the critical link is to the Auditor General:
Again, I would not be able to professionally assess the basis on which the auditor general makes his claims, but I do take it he knows what he is talking about!
Nothing I say should be taken as commenting on the exploitation of the excellent on-shore resource in the States, for instance, but I don't think we should just build regardless of cost.
As you say, you need to build something at some time to generate power, but my own priority at the moment would be conservation and insulation, moving on to nuclear power which could start to contribute in around 10 years.
Not that that is without it's costs:
but we are more or less stuck with that anyway, mostly from the arms program.
In short, with an incompetent administration we are stuffed with any option, but I am chary of blank checks.
I will read the links to the posts you gave with interest, but as I said properly critiquing technical data would be outside both my competence and the time I have available, particularly since the whole energy field is a mess of subsidies.
I would be interested in your comment on the link I gave that seemed to indicate that power generated from wind is typically overstated by a factor of 2 - as I said, my knowledge of the industry and technical knowledge make it difficult or impossible for me to assess.


Newspaper sources are not very good sources. Often newspapers have a mission or are affiliated with a political party. Furthermore reporters can have their personal agendas. Reporters are not usually experts on the area they write about and this results in additional mistakes and misinterpretations. Naturally there are problems with research reports as well. Peer reviewed articles are better, but even there one has to be careful, since peer review is not perfect and the quality of journals varies.

Anyway, let's open up the subsidies in UK. Your first link tells that subsidies for UK onshore wind have been large and the developers are making huge profits. Well, if we just take that to be true, it only means that the subsidy system has not been good. Make the system better and you'll have less money going from tax payers to developers. Or better, less money from electricity consumers to developers. In my opinion any subsidy system should be financed by consumers in relation to their electricity consumption. However, consumers are not only losing money, they are also getting electricity, which means that big part of the sum is a payment for commodity and not a subsidy, although it is often portrayed as a subsidy. One has to be careful when reading these articles. For consumer wind power has the additional benefit that it lowers the price in electricity markets, because it pushes out production with highest variable costs. Wind power has approximately zero variable cost. When market prices are lower electricity producers will get less money for their production and consumers will get cheaper electricity. It won't show right away in their bill, but their retailers are able to buy cheaper electricity and retail competition should bring the money to the consumer.

I had a look at the UK subsidy system and at the prices they'll yield. After some googling, a presentation by Iberdrola and Scottish Power seemed to give a good and trustworthy picture. It seems like there's a whole lot of onshore wind power projects in the pipeline in UK. If there is no major disturbance, there should be enough renewables to fulfill the obligation, which would mean that the price for the obligations will hit the floor (somewhere around £33/MWh). When one adds wholesale price and climate change levy, a producer gets about 105 €/MWh. As the presentation repeatedly says, it's an attractive price. However, this is different from cost. The difference between price and cost is paid by the consumer. There needs to be a profit for the developer and the producer, otherwise nothing will happen. Assumed profits has to include risks associated with building the project, including risks related to the subsidy system. UK system has more risk involved than feed-in tariff systems used in many other countries in Europe and therefore there needs to be more profit. There's also more development risk, since the process of getting permits in UK is onerous and has higher risk of failure. On the other hand the profit is high and therefore you see a lot of activity setting up new projects. One could ask at whether there would be enough activity with considerably lower subsidy level. I think so, if the system was reliable and low risk. In my opinion the current wholesale price in UK is almost high enough to get projects started without any subsidies. However, there are risks related to the wholesale price, it's not very stable and people with money don't want that risk especially if they have higher returns available elsewhere. For example building wind power in Spain.

In my previous posts I've been quoting costs, also for other production forms. One needs those profits with other forms of production as well. Current whole sale price is probably not high enough to make coal or gas power plants viable, especially since they currently have a considerable fuel price and CO2 cost risk. Nuclear might be on the verge, if they can keep the risks really low with help of government backing (maybe loan guarantees, etc). I think merchant nuclear without subsidies in any form is not viable at that price level. A publication here might shed some light on that. Take a look at the editorial board before reading.

So, my two takeaways are that costs and prices are different thing and that your government could get onshore wind cheaper than what they are willing to pay. Consumers need electricity, why make producing it more risky business than necessary and pay for the risk premium. Also profits are not away from the economy, usually they are reinvested or paid to the shareholders, which then go on spending or reinvesting the money. Some of it will certainly leak out of the country. The expertise gained from building wind power can also be a source of future gain for the home economy, but this certainly depends on many things. Danes have done a really good job out of it. Economics is a funny thing and it's probably impossible to get everything included in such a way that real long-term costs and benefits would come out of the mess. There are too many uncertain assumptions.

Funny that your figure of £76 billion for developing 33 GW of wind (might be the price in current scheme, but not the cost) is the same as the bill for the nuclear clean-up in the above Independent article. But, once again, it's a newspaper article; I don't have the time to check on it.

I don't know which one of your articles is proposing that power generated from wind is typically overstated by a factor of 2. Anyway, who might do that? Not developers for sure, their money depends on accurate estimation. It's also very easy to get caught with those kind of claims. Doesn't make any sense to me, it much more sounds like the newspaper article has an agenda.

Here is the link where I really could not follow the calculation, John - it uses cubic calculations, so I certainly would not trust myself to figure it out, as I notoriously mislaid a decimal point in a simple mathematical calculation the other day!
Still, at least it is checkable by those with the mathematical wherewithal, and does not rely on authority:
I can't spot the flaw in this , if there is one, but don't know what the P50 part of the critique is about - I did Google but did not come up with anything which really helped.
I know what you mean about newspapers, and even I catch out some of their errors - for instance, neither the BBC or any of the 'heavies' when discussing the plan for off-shore wind distinguished the 33GW was name-plate.
For that reason, I usually discount newspaper sources which are not referenced, but the original blurb in the telegraph did reference to a source, which is into renewables so presumably has nothing against them, as giving the £2m MW for off-shore wind, which it does, but to my surprise after Alan questioned it they do not seem to show how they arrived at that figure.
When I look properly at the links you gave, I intend to give them a good read and some thought, and the last couple of days have not been conducive to such an undertaking.
To be clear I would be against on-shore wind in much of the UK, for similar reasons to David Bellamy, as I think they are destructive to our few remaining more-or-less wilderness areas, but would not be against it in other , less crowded parts of the world, as long as it is reasonable economic.
Nor would I be against off-shore wind, if it came in at the right price- ie, perhaps more expensive than conventional power, but not outrageously so.

That particular article is probably the worst out of all the ones you have pointed to. Let's see, he quotes: "...the capacity factor in the UK is 27 per cent which is another way of saying that wind turbines in the UK produce no power at all for 73 per cent of the year." That's a pretty stupid interpretation. Wind power plants are not producing at full power for 27% of the time and at zero power for 73 %. Wind power from an area like UK will never produce at nominal capacity, since it will never blow hard enough in all parts of the country at the same time. That's the way weather patterns are. It's also unlikely that you'd ever get a moment where there's no wind power production in a country size of UK. All this means that wind is actually more stable source than people think. It's not intermittent, it's variable within limits and this variability can be dealt with in a power system quite easily. It's designed for it, because consumption is also variable. Naturally one needs to increase ways to deal with the variation, when the variation in wind power production starts to dominate over the variation in consumption, but current systems can take at least 10-20% of electricity as wind with no major issues. It seems likely that there will be low cost ways to go much beyond 20%, but can't give you research results for that yet.

Your Shetland news guy is somehow interpreting capacity factor to mean the time when power plants produce at full power. This is not the way capacity factor is calculated for any power plant. It would be a quite close approximation for nuclear power plants, which usually are either at full power or off, but it would not work for hydro power plants. Either he does not have a clue what he's talking about or then he's deliberately misinterpreting the quite nice peer-reviewed article by Sinden.

When it comes to your £2m/MW quote, I tried to find that number from BWEA website to no avail. I would have been surprised, if it was there. I don't think BWEA would say a number that's not in the ballpark where actual project costs have been or where future costs are estimated to be. UK subsidy system might result in those kind of numbers for offshore wind when prices are converted to investment costs, but that's climbing up the tree backwards. CapEx numbers should not include the price of the subsidy regime.

Why you have to build the onshore wind to your remaining wilderness areas? I have to confess, I don't know much about UK geography, but I know that the wind resource is many times over your energy consumption, it's probably close enough to cover the whole energy (not electricity) consumption of EU-25. You don't need to cover the whole country to get a very large contribution to your electricity from wind. Do big enough projects, so that you won't end up having one or two turbines always in sight. I wouldn't mind that, but I understand some people might. I don't think wind power plants destroy wilderness areas, British Isles is already destroyed in that sense. It used to be forest. Wind power plants with access roads (not necessary everywhere) take up 1-2% of the land cover and it's relatively easy to convert things back to more natural state, if wind power is not required any longer in the future. Nuclear sites are little bit trickier. Furthermore, if you do a big project in certain area, it's much more viable to pay the community enough compensation than from a small project.

I didn't think that it was a particularly good article - I was just trying to figure out where the mistake was in the figures, and I still can't place quite where the mistake is, although I am confident that there is one.
On the issue of costs in the wind industry, I am in close agreement with you on the costs now, as far as they can be ascertained, and as I explain a couple of posts down the error in the site I was quoting seems to have arisen due to their getting confused between name-plate and actual output, so they simply overstated the figures by around three times.
Anyway, you will see that I have now sourced figures which support yours which are about as authoritative as you can get, short of records of historical build costs which I can't seem to locate.
So thanks to you and Alan for helping me to clarify, and I am relieved that it appears that it is much cheaper than I thought, as the first figures shocked me.
My dislike for on-shore wind is based on the geography of these islands.
The subsidy system means that they are sticking turbines in all sorts of daft places, but the real wind resource on land in these isles, not country note, is in the North and West, in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
None of these areas would be happy to cover too much of their country with turbines for the benefit of the English, and in my view, nor should they.
All of them are not only windy but very wet, with large areas of peat bogs, which would be disrupted not only by the turbines themselves but by access roads, transmission lines and so on - many of these areas are irreplaceable.
You would not think David Bellamy impartial, and he is not, but he is a biologist and purely hates wind turbines for these reasons.
So I am not a NIMBY, more of a 'Not In Their Backyard!'
So either off-shore or nuclear would be fine by me, although I have my doubts about costs still on wind, not to do so much with build costs as we have got at least the likely figures down a bit, but to do with the cost of the transmission lines needed to make wind a very reliable resource - so you need a big grid.
It also seems that if you build wind turbines you have to take their power when you can get it, so you have a kind of intermittent base-load power, as if you have not financed a truly huge grid then you have to turn something else off or it is wasted and you are paying twice.
That is fairly OK if you still are using a substantial proportion of coal or gas, although efficiencies drop, but it is pretty naf if you are using nuclear, where your costs are up-front and so you want to keep it fired up to get your money back.
So I would wonder whether inn practise a lot of wind power might not lock-in heavy use of coal and gas.
I am not sure how much of a problem that is in practise, as it tends to be a lot windier here outside the summer, and minimal use happens then in this country- I will have a closer look at grid costs, as a bigger grid would help a lot, but wind itself is not cheap, and loading it with more grid costs might again make the numbers silly.
Still, it is all a lot more viable than it was according to the first figures I had, so many thanks to you and Alan.

Yikes! I have found the actual Department of Trade and Industry costings for off-shore wind, and they are awful:
They run from about £1.6m MW now, rising to £1.75 in 2011 when we would be in the middle of our build program before falling to around £1.28 in 2020 after a learning curve, but as far as I can make out they refer to name-plate installed capacity rather than output, so we are back to not that far off my original figures.
Alan, all the breakdown of figures you could desire there, I believe!

Hold your horses. That's offshore with a better capacity factor. Still, the cost is higher than what I'd have expected. They also have a projected onshore cost which seems quite reliable at £0.9 M/MW. Both costs includes current high material prices and high manufacturer margin due to supply not keeping up with demand. You don't need a learning curve to bring the costs down to £1.3 M/MW for offshore. But onshore will still be cheaper, unless the hopefully steeper learning curve of offshore can compensate.

You were hoping for historical Capex costs for actually built projects. The Milborrow article that I was referencing earlier is based on those. Unfortunately the article is not in the web and you just have to take my word for it or go to a library that carries the journal.

As far as I can see the costs quoted are for installed capacity, not output, so the costs are still vast- over £40 billion for 33GW- do you read it the same way?
As for the England and Scotland thing - there is simply no way that the Scots will build over huge areas just for the benefit of the English.
It is rather unfair of you to call David Bellamy a hypocrite, or at least botanists who oppose wind farms hypocrites, as you are entirely mistaken on the grounds that he does so.
I have provided the link, so his actual grounds are there for you to read if you choose to.
In this country at least, we value some of our wonderful countryside, and many of us will not allow it to be pillaged when there are perfectly acceptable alternatives.
Doubtless in America they despised the NIMBY attitudes of the American Indians towards their plains, when they so plainly stood in the way of progress in the view of the settlers.

Bellamy's arguments are not very convincing. Some of them are not biological, but have to do with the issues that we have covered here and are not true. Eats on his credibility. At least some of the biological arguments are plain wrong as well. If you put a large solid block in the ground, you will not affect the water table of the area, but only for a short while. Archimedes law: it will push out water and the outflow will increase to make water level same again. Anyway, while the blocks are quite big, they are nothing compared to the volumes of normal water sheds. He's trying to present problems which are not problems. I don't have enough background in chemistry to comment on his vague claim that water chemistry will be seriously altered. It's just a claim with no backings. Humans have built enormous amounts of concrete blocks all over the place and I haven't heard that it has been a problem for groundwater chemistry. We have talked about birds already, but his claim about the mechanism of bird deaths shows his ignorance. Birds don't usually fly into wind turbines on broad daylight, when they can see something moving there. Bird deaths for the most part happen in bad weather conditions: when it's dark and foggy. These events are rare and therefore are bird deaths as well. Once again, bird deaths caused by wind turbines are very minor compared to buildings or traffic and would remain so even if all power was produced with wind. Their movement makes birds avoid them.

While best wind resources in UK are not in England, it still has an excellent wind resource onshore. It's also possible to compensate to some extent by having higher turbines. So, whether it makes sense to build the wind farms in Scotland and Ireland and transmit the electricity to England or to produce the electricity in England (onshore or offshore) depends on relative economics. I don't have an answer to that question, but I'd guess bit of both, since it also smoothes out the resource.

When it comes to grid, most of the required power grid is already there. While it's true that wind will need more grid building than other power sources, it's still usually relatively small part of the overall bill. There is not going to be more electricity going to customers, it's just going to wave little bit more in the transmission side of the things. For the most part it'll happen in the existing lines. One will need to make connection lines to wind farms (preferrably in a planned manner) and strengthen some bottlenecks that would not otherwise be bottlenecks. It'll help the power grid in other ways as well, which means that not all the cost should be dedicated to wind. Normally a new power plant does not have to pay for the grid reinforcements that are done to accommodate it. That's in the transmission/distribution part of your bill. Wind should get the same amount of benefit and pay only for the additional part.

Your electricity bill should be about half and half electricity and transmission/distribution. Only the transmission part will be affected by wind power and it is smaller of the two (at least that's my impression, it was hard to find a source for that and can't ask my colleagues right now). So multiply a small cost share (most of the electricity will use old grid) with a moderate cost share (transmission is smaller of the two components that make up half of your bill) and you get a quite small additional cost. However, when you put more wind into the grid, you'll need to do more and more reinforcements. Sometimes they are cheap sometimes not so. You can also try to balance things by having more local controllable load like those heat pumps with heat storages. Then you can push extra power into those instead of having transmission lines for the whole nameplate capacity.

Wind power in a large area will be mostly producing in the 15-60% range of the nominal capacity. It's rare that it goes above that. This means that it's not impossible for nuclear and wind to coexist in large amounts, although there can be moments when one of them has to lower production. How much natural gas you'll need to use in a system with very large share of wind will depend a lot on other options you have. A small share of reservoir hydro power can help you long way, especially if it's possible to include a pump beside the generator. Above mentioned heat measures can also help a lot and maybe electric vehicles in the future. Gas turbines will still probably provide cheapest capacity, but they will be used only rarely, which means that CO2 emissions are going to be low.

I always think it's hypocritical for a biologist to hate wind turbines. It's a very good truly long term solution to make energy in a way that will a have minimal effect on wildlife. Furthermore, it won't threaten species like climate change does (some individual birds might get killed bit too soon, but it's minuscule compared to other sources of bird deaths that humans cause). In any case, I'm much more concerned about species than individuals. Lastly, wind park transmission lines are almost always put under access roads.

John, perhaps it would be helpful if I indicated the sort of things I would rather spend the money on at the moment rather than off-shore wind.
There are around 25million households in the UK, may of whom live in very poorly insulated houses, usually heated by a gas combination boiler.
£76 billion, if that figure is in the right ballpark, would therefore give you around £3,000 per household to spend.
You could increase the leverage of this because many, around half, are fairly comfortably circumstanced, and if incentivised could certainly pay to have their house upgraded.
There are several possibilities:
One is good old-fashioned insulation!
The second would be heat recovery systems on waste water - this is a pretty economic measure.
Then you can install air-source heat pumps - especially appropriate for the 5 million or so households off the gas grid - you don't really need the more expensive ground-source in most of this country, as it rarely drops below freezing.
Lastly you could install solar thermal heating panels, which are far more cost-effective than PV.
I feel that a combination of these measures would do more to reduce consumption and prevent CO2 emissions than spending the money on off-shore wind - I'm betting the cost per kilo of CO2 saved would be way lower! - not that I am intelligent enough to work out the figures properly! :-)
You could then spend the remaining billion or so 'chump change' on a small program aimed at cost reduction for off-shore wind - perhaps some of the tethered ideas, with the aim of reducing costs, hopefully to the area of about £0.5MW, where they would not require subsidy.
I am not a great fan of feed-in tariffs and so on, which argue that if only you can go to mass-production you can reduce costs vastly - in my view you are more likely to lock in an immature technology.
True R & D spend on energy has historically been very low - I think it is that that needs increasing, not more hugely expensive money for subsidy.

Well, to my knowledge your figure is not in the right ballpark, but go ahead. I certainly agree that there are more economic options to reduce CO2 emissions before building any power production. Better insulation is a very good and economic thing especially for new buildings. It gets bit more complicated with existing buildings, since people live in them and the structure is not often very good for adding insulation. However, after you've done all possible reductions in heating energy, you still need electricity. Some of your options actually will increase electricity use while decreasing natural gas for heating (heat pumps). It will not be enough to reduce emissions only from heating if we are to keep climate change reasonable.

Offshore wind can provide you with reasonably priced electricity, but I still hold the opinion that UK would be better off building onshore, since it is cheaper per kWh and I think it'll remain so even though offshore costs will likely come down more than onshore. It might be that nuclear would be marginally cheaper, but to me that's not enough since nuclear has lot of issues that are not in the cost (proliferation, waste and accident possibility). It might also be that nuclear won't be cheaper, but that's very difficult to know beforehand. We don't know the future technical costs of either, but I believe they'll be quite close. There certainly are places where winds blow so strong and steady that it beats nuclear costs, South Argentina, some parts of Sahara coast, New Zealand for example. However, those places are unfortunately far away from current consumption.

I think what has happened is a confusion between installed capacity and output - I think the source which I quoted took their figures from here:
In the parliamentary answer £650,000MW installed is quoted - multiply that by a factor of 3 to get around the cost for an actual output of 1MW and Viola! You have about £2million.
Interestingly the source I quoted did not differentiate between on-shore and off-shore, and neither does this answer.
The fallacy is of course that you have already accounted for that loss in the 33MW nameplate capacity figure, so you come out to a much more reasonable £22billion plus connection,although some of that is accounted for in the Parliamentary answer, but this does not allow for inflation in costs since 2004 nor for the extra costs from the off-shore location.
It doesn't seem that you get a lot of benefit in practise in terms of higher wind speeds by locating off-shore:
I guess this is because many extrapolations of resources are looking at deeper water locations, and UK ones hug the shore to keep costs down, and that is not going to change.
These figures are certainly a lot more hopeful - my only objection to off-shore wind is that I don't see that it is sensible to pay daft prices - I am going to check more thoroughly into back-up costs, but hopefully they would not be too excessive.
Taking the latest cost projections for the Finnish reactor, of around $5billion for a 1.6GW installation, then for the same actual output you would be looking at around $36billion, in sterling slightly cheaper than the wind alternative, but of course costs might rise still more, although series construction might also decrease costs.
So the wind project sounds a lot more hopeful than I had thought.

One of the sources that has taken a longer look at wind is George Monbiot in his book Heat. He puts a number of the studies you've been looking at up side-by-side. One thing I've been noticing is that turbines are expected to last about 50% longer off shore because the air is less turbulent. A thirty year life without a lot of maintenance could be a plus. You should be careful if you hear of one turbine that breaks early. The question is: are the breakdowns normally distributed around the expected lifetime? If the RMS is 5 years, then out of 100 turbines you'd expect one to have trouble in the 15th year. Out of ten thousand, having one break in the seventh year should be expected.


The stuff I was looking at was indicating that some manufacturers seemed to have dropped QC standards in the rush to build a lot of wind power, and that some designs of gearbox were problematic.
I did not keep the link and a quick google now does not turn up anything too horrid, so presumably these are just pretty normal engineering hassles.
The problem is, really, that it seems that a lot of responsible bodies have drastically different estimates for costs, and subsidy structures and differences between installed capacity and average generation often mean that it is difficult to get a clear picture.
Although reduced turbulence may be a plus, although as I said UK plans are for turbines fairly close inshore, everything I have read indicates that salt water does pretty horrid things to most engineering equipment, and maintenance is certainly more difficult.
I suppose I am just naturally suspicious, as I have found that any new technology tends to cost more than even the high estimates, and off-shore wind is fairly new.

You're right that there has been problems with gearboxes. Manufacturer's have mostly paid for replacing bad gearboxes and drive trains. It's been a problem for some wind turbine models, which were probably designed with too thin margins. The fact that manufacturer's have to bear the brunt of the costs due to warranty means that they don't want to repeat the mistake. Of course it remains to be seen, but if you want to be sure, you can buy turbines which have very reliable track record. Many of them don't actually have gearboxes.

Salt water is an issue that's quite easy to predict beforehand and offshore turbines use materials accordingly. Of course they might make mistakes in the heat of the things, but there is a incentive to built them to last. However, it might be come up as a problem if they try to extent the lifetime to 30 years for turbines that have a design lifetime of 20. On the other hand it seems to be a very common practice in power production to extent lifetimes, since it's cheaper than to replace, but only time will tell how wind turbines will fare on this account.

I would like to make a more detailed reply, but I have two deadlines ATM and Mardi Gras is warming up (Krewes of Babylon, Chaos and Muses tonight, 2.5 blocks from my home) with out-of-town guests, etc.

Hopefully before Mardi Gras, but afterwards if not.

Best Hopes for Mardi Gras,


Get out and shake it! :-)

Your TOD link is a clearly anti-wind opinion piece.

Where is the link to the Carbon Start data itself, with related assumptions ? Quoting a screed and their interpretation of data from a 3rd source is not convincing.

It is clear now that you support a "Rush to Coal" with some nuke later "bye and bye" and a long term balance of nuke and coal, with increased use of electricity. You also seem to place no value upon Kyoto and carbon reductions. Economic costs are, in apparently your opinion, the primary factor in public policy.

You should have been clearer in your postings,

Best Hopes for More Truth and Clarity in Postings,


Your post is both absurd and offensive.
Since as you posted in another thread contrary to normal courtesies you at times can't be bothered to look anything up to justify your arguments, but still reserve the right to disagree, I fail to see why I should act as your researcher.
However, here is further links to data indicating costs of around £2m MW for wind offshore:
the obvious fact that offshore wind is a lot more expensive seems to have escaped your attention.
You then try to specify what I value, as you seem to be unable to distinguish between a prediction of what events are likely to take place, and a desire that it be so.
You had sought to argue previously that shortages would ensue leading to real hardship if the wind option was not pursued; should the shortages that you presume occur, then Kyoto would be abrogated, and coal plants would be built.
To say so does not make me an advocate of disguarding Kyoto.
Your inability to reason clearly as well as your very ill-informed state (see posts on peat bogs previously) mean that it is not really worthwhile bothering to reply to you.
As for the economic costs being primary, in this country many people die each year due to hypothermnia, and were I uncharitable I could infer that you disregard those in favour of whatever bee you happen to have in your bonnet.
Cost are always important, and money wasted on windfarms could be far better spent on insulating some of the many millions of homes with inadequate standards, IMO.
You should be clearer your thinking and less impertinent in your postings.
When you bother to find out the basics of the subjects on whihc you wish to pontificate, and learn a civil manner of address, then perhaps a dialogue would be worthwhile.

You then try to specify what I value, as you seem to be unable to distinguish between a prediction of what events are likely to take place, and a desire that it be so...To say so does not make me an advocate of disguarding Kyoto.

What lead me to the conclusion that you supported a coal-nuke grid is your statement that newly built coal plants should not be scrapped after the initial emergency (or put into inactive reserve/mothballed) but be used as first base load and then load following plants for their economic life. No consideration given to further improvements in WTs or even a nuke-pumped storage-hydro-EU exchange grid.

If you mis-wrote this statement, or have rethought your position, I am willing to retract my conclusion and apologize. Pending that, I stand by my conclusion.

I found your initial position here to be a bit misleading and not revealing the entirety of your position.

After extensive back and forth discussions (but not at first), you talk of throwing the Kyoto Treaty into the fire to be burnt at the first shortage and making good the shortage with the new coal plants. You advocate building a lots of coal plants to fill the immediate need and then keeping them in service (with lower load factors, as commonly happens with older plants) till their end of life (in 30 to 40 years) for a coal-nuke British grid for several decades.

[Incidentally, the environmental damage from operating new coal fired plants till they are worn out dwarfs any damage to peat bogs.]

I fail to see why I should act as your researcher

The posted rules of TOD state that positions should be supported by links or other references. In practice, this often means that not every statement made has to have a link attached, but when challenged, it is the duty of the one challenged (i.e. you) to provide credible links to support your position.

So yes, it is your duty to "be my researcher" on this particular forum. From a practical POV, this reduces the number of wild claims made.

Your position depends on a statistic that comes from a screed, purportedly taken from a quasi-governmental body (a body with some credibility I will admit).

I went to Carbon Trust, the purported source, searched their web site and read a bit and downloaded 3 pdf files. To date, I have not yet found the source of that claim.

As is common on TOD I wanted to find the details. The date (since WT costs vary over time), the assumptions (is financing included in the costs or is this a cash price ?), the offsetting expected power factor (Jerome (per my memory) has previously indicated about 40% for offshore wind turbines not far from British shores and this is a crucial statistic upon which his job depends, so I find him credible, supported by his reputation on this board)

Your second link quotes the BWEA (another credible primary source) but also indicates that they consider the BWEA numbers too high and substitutes a lower #.
Simply applying a 40% capacity factor would significantly reduce the cost of offshore wind.

Cost are always important, and money wasted on windfarms could be far better spent on insulating some of the many millions of homes with inadequate standards, IMO

A false choice ! Both better insulation in old and new structures (homes & commercial) and more non-GHG energy are clearly desirable. This is very clearly the policy of the German Gov't, which strongly supports both goals, so Her Majesties Gov't should be able to do so as well.

As for the economic costs being primary, in this country many people die each year due to hypothermnia, and were I uncharitable I could infer that you disregard those in favour of whatever bee you happen to have in your bonnet.

For the small minority of the citizenry exposed to this risk, there are many other, and better alternatives than killing wind to keep the bills down by 10% or 25% (with rising NG prices, they will likely rise anyway). The best policy IMVHO would be subsidies to insulate and weatherproof their homes followed by a modest fuel cost subsidy for minimal use (a "Life Line" rate for those in constrained circumstances).

you at times can't be bothered to look anything up to justify your arguments

I clearly stated that I was time constrained, which is a simple fact of life. That is quite different from "can't be bothered", which is a mis-characterization of my statement.

As for the rest of the ad hominem comments, I will consider them written in the heat of the moment and let them lie. I too write sometimes in the heat of the moment and occasionally (in my specific case) later regret my choice of words.

I will also mention that TOD is a meatgrinder, that I have criticized people for whom I have the highest personal regard and friendship if I thought their position was in error.

Best Hopes,


My reply to you seems to have got lost somehow.
Briefly, no harm done - I always reply in the same tone as I feel I am spoken to, but always leave water under the bridge where Jesus flang it.
Most of the response is contained in my reply to JohnK above - I am just a guy without technical training trying to fight my way through a mass of often contradictory data.
I have got some cost and works accounting training though, and some errors are obvious, but have to take a lot of the serious technical analysis basically by it's source, and often haven't got access to the basic data sheets.
I gave my sources, but you didn't like them! - that is your privilege.
You still seem to be confounding my statements of what seems inevitable to an advocacy of them - I feel once coal plants are built, they are unlikely to be scrapped but that does not necessarily mean it is my preference.
As for wanting both wind power and insulation, bear in mind that there are tiny programs for improving insulation in house at the moment, and in my view if the £2m MW is anything like correct then no monies will be put to anything much else.
I think we have to get the most bang for the buck, and my own preferred solution would be simple- instead of targets and feed-in tariffs and so on which provide endless scope for scams and make it so complicated to compare costs, I would simply have a carbon tax, and also a tax so that the emissions of the coal industry were not uncosted, or it's waste, then we could start making rational choices between different energy sources, and between them and conservation.
Where there has not been subsidy, windturbines have not been built.
That is not a unique criticism of the wind industry, as the whole of the energy industry is a maze of subsidy.
It does mean though that I see on-shore wind at the moment as pretty expensive, and the costs on off-shore could be horrendous.
I am not a NIMBY, as there is no prospect of wind turbines in Bristol, but may be a NOMTB - Not On My Tax bill! :-)

A national grid of windfarms spread across the country and connected by high voltage DC could provide a minimal "baseload" at all times, since the wind is almost always blowing somewhere. This is also complimentary to solar since the wind blows more when it's colder so would seem to do better during winter and in northern climes where solar is at a disadvantage.

I like the idea of heat storage, then using that to fire turbines at night. Night usage is usually off-peak, so less electricity would be needed. Underground heat storage can last for months, so perhaps this is a partial solution for the "rainy week" scenario.

Check out the costs, given by me in the post directly above.
And that is just for wind, without fancy storage.
Unless you are a billionaire then wind in many places if just lunacy.
Solar residential panels are a whole different ball-game, and work fine - so of course they are not being emphasised in Britain.
Underground heat storage is used a lot in Sweden, but is pretty expensive. Maybe OK for cold climates - I don't know if the subsidies are so vast in Sweden that they are basically just encouraging a daft idea, I haven't looked into it.
Bear in mind that most Swedes live in flats,which makes it more economic to heat the block - it's a different ball-game in suburbia.

Stuart, this is potentially very interesting, at least as a model against which one could test other variables, or consider the consequences of failure in one system.

But I do think that some of your presumptions may be troublesome - perhaps as you go along, you may find this not to be so. But, for example, the Stern report's estimates of the cost of climate change, which are the best we have, but based on the notion that we won't see rapid climate change or the early feedback loops we're seeing a la the Big Melt Report, suggest that the costs are already increasing. If anything, the data on climate change suggests to me that we have underestimated the costs.

I'd also be interested to see how your agricultural assumptions take climate change and water issues into account. For example, the GISS estimates suggest that the Southwest and potentially S.CA may have to come completely out of food production. Estimates are that food production in Northern Africa may halve, while the population doubles. Presumably, we aren't using biofuels , but also, you imagine some methods of price stabilization and equitable distribution, since death rates are going down, not up. I think you run into some trouble in agricultural production if you don't posit either a change in practice (that is, a shift to emphasis on output per acre rather than per human laborer ;-)) or a biotech breakthrough.

I assume you are also positing the energy for massive desalinization and deep water pumping - given the UN estimates that even at the present rate of climate alteration almost half the world's populace will experience water shortages. And a strategy for compensating for the loss of irrigated agricultural land (which is 17% of all arable land but produces 30% of all food).

I admit, I'm something of a skeptic about the global electrical grid, but it does interest me, in part because if while you are in charge of everything, you could cut back on corporate abuses, it represents the possibility of moving wealth southward in some fascinating ways - a truly intriguing theory for balancing the inequities between the global south and north. Not holding my breath, but I like it.

On the economics, I think you certainly haven't made your case for continued growth, but you know that. So far, this adds up to "we really want growth to continue, therefor we postulate it will." Again, you know that, but I think it is worth noting that this I think tracks several assumptions you haven't made explicit. They seem to be (you will, I hope, correct me if I'm incorrect) this:

1. That we cannot permit the Global north to have any reduction in standard of living other than a light recession. Your preference for conservative solutions might suggest otherwise -given that we are entering a recession and period of economic contraction, it might be possible to continue this tightening of belts and reallocate wealth elsewhere a la a world wide New Deal, but you seem to presume otherwise.

2. That the standard trickle-down theory of neo-liberal developmental economics actually works and will continue to work - that is, if we make a lot more money, even though it concentrates in the hands of really rich people, some of it will finally make its way into the hands of poorer people and the net effect will be everyone getting richer.

Again, I'm not claiming these are wrong (I do not agree in some places, but that's not all the truth that ever was), just that they merit a more explicit articulation.

As you perfectly well know, this all hinges on the big question of us getting richer, which hinges on the big question of us having the energy to power growth, which hinges on us having the money to build the energy to power growth, which hinges on us being able to create renewable energy fast enough within the limits of carbon constraints, which depends on funding and exactly how much carbon we're willing to put into the atmosphere in the short term for long term reductions, which, of course, raises the cost of mitigating existing climate change, which, of course, gives us less money for building renewables...

You know all this, but I point it out because I still think that the passage I quoted from _The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update_ several Mondays back may be the issue here (and yes, I know you don't think they are necessarily modelling correctly) - that the system doesn't fail because of any one or two factors, it simply runs out of ability to cope.

I do not share your faith in comparatively unfettered markets, but I have to say, if I had to give someone the power to determine the course of the world, despite our disagreements, you'd be on the list.


That the standard trickle-down theory of neo-liberal developmental economics actually works and will continue to work -

But, if I understand Stuart correctly (and I think he was clear), he is liberal according to the American definition. And they aren't trickle-downers....

Hi, Stuart. Thank you for getting this started. I'm sure the conversation that follows will be a good one.

I'm not going to address the details of your plan (specific EROEIs, future price of PV, transmission costs, etc.) because I think the whole model is flawed. One requirement of your model is that "The world economy is able to grow on average over the period."

Since it assumes that ever-expanding growth is possible on a finite planet, it mathematically can't occur. If that doesn't make immediate sense, try reversing it. Keep the economy the same size then keep shrinking the planet. See? Both are equally impossible.

But you don't claim to allow it to grow beyond 2050 so that's not entirely fair. Is it possible for growth to continue for the next 40 years?

Some people seem to think so but the math, in my view, doesn't support it. Lester Brown at the Earth Policy Institute doesn't think the math supports it, which is why he keeps issuing updates to Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, which his publisher has recently allowed to be made freely available on the web. He points out that our denuding of the environment is about to affect the economy and is already starting to do so. See a good video of Lester being interviewed here.

The folks who do earth models for a living (Erlich, Meadows, et al) see the resource curves all converging in the next twenty to thirty years. The curves all point to exhaustion of key resources like water, soil, metals, fisheries, etc. It's possible to download their latest version of World3 and run it on a PC when you purchase the updated Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. There are many other world models so if you don't like that one, google for others. Most of them come to the same conclusion.

Another group doing excellent work is the Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy (www.steadystate.org). For an excellent short overview of why we need to move to a steady state economy (soon!), watch the 14-minute video on this page:

Their best powerpoint presentation, I think is "The Steady State Economy: What It Is, Entails, and Connotes. A primer on the steady state economy from paper of the same name" under their Resources section (but you won't go wrong with the others).

A FAQ is available too, in which they answer all the big questions:

  • What is economic growth?
  • Why is economic growth a threat to the environment?
  • Why is economic growth a threat to economic sustainability, national security, and international stability?
  • Can't technology alleviate the threat of economic growth?
  • Can't the economy continue growing for quite a while without bumping up against ecological limits?
  • Can't "green growth" allow the economy to continue growing without causing harm?
  • Can't we continue growing the economy indefinitely as we transition to an information economy?
  • Why should we emphasize the phrase "economic growth" in discussions on the environment and national security?
  • What would a steady state economy look like?
  • Would we have to give up individual freedoms in a steady state economy?

That group is formed of ecological economists and their primary working theory is the trophic theory, which is a form of EROEI analysis for biological systems. Their Board of Advisors includes Herman Daly, who (I believe) first promulgated the notion of a steady-state economy.

Also, see the good work of the Footprint Network, which calculates that we are in gross overshoot. Last year, Ecological Debt day was October 6. That's the day when we've used up the resources the earth can generate in one year. But is that even possible? How can we use up more that what's available?

Yes, it is possible because we are using up the Earth's biological capital. We do that by fishing faster than the stocks can replenish, cutting forests faster than they can regenerate, denuding the soil faster than it can be built up, etc. Needless to say, energy is not mankind's only problem. It just appears to be one of the first pieces of an entire system that is being primed for collapse.

Last, on The Oil Drum I should at least mention that a rapid drop in oil availability has a high likelihood of collapsing civilization, as well. For more on that, see any of the literature on collapse (Tainter, Catton, Diamond, many many others).

So, to sum up, your working assumptions I'm afraid are impossible on our little planet. Once you dig into this topic a little, I think you'll find that there isn't any way to get us back within our ecological budget without dramatically shrinking our presence on the planet and moving to a steady-state economy.

How we get there, however, is another matter entirely. It seems to me that collapse is the most likely way.


Since it assumes that ever-expanding growth is possible on a finite planet, it mathematically can't occur. If that doesn't make immediate sense, try reversing it. Keep the economy the same size then keep shrinking the planet. See? Both are equally impossible.

It's worth addressing this. I agree of course that exponential growth in energy usage cannot occur forever. However, an asymptotic approach to the solar harvesting capacity of the planet is not infeasible in principle, and we are a long way from that limit. Even at constant energy usage, some economic growth is possible in principle as we could continue to change what we used the energy for in ways that we liked better and therefore were willing to pay more for.

So it's not enough to state that exponential growth cannot occur forever. You will have to address the detail of showing that it cannot occur in the next fifty years.

Another way to look at it (the way I happen to!) is that our ecological footprint is already far too large. The ecological footprint measures are highly conservative--meaning our actual footprint is much larger. So, we have to reduce our footprint substantially, let's say by half.

Ecological Footprint (EF) is roughly proportional to economic activity, which is about 75 trillion $ right now.

If EF was halved, it would be a good thing as far as the planet was concerned and our long-term prospects as inhabitants, and it could be done without much trouble if the rich nations would permit it, but as you point out that doesn't seem likely, so you model increased growth from the rich nations because it is what they want. And growth is required for the poor nations so they can go through the demographic transition.

Instead of halving our footprint, however, the model proposes boosting economic activity to 4-5 times what it is today. Granted, you are proposing doing so using mostly renewable energy, which would tend to lower the footprint/$ factor--but by how much?

If your model increases economic activity by a factor of 5, does it decrease the footprint/$ by a factor of 10? Efficiency gains of factor four and factor 10 are often cited as the way to have growth and still be eco-friendly, but I have never seen an analysis where growth doesn't end up just eating away at the gains over the course of a few-several decades. Total environmental load needs to be watched more than anything else.

I don't see any hint of flattening out in the scenario. At what point do you suggest economic growth stop, and what is the final ratio of footprint/$. Can growth stop when the demographic transition is complete? If you take the UN medium scenario that doesn't happen until late this century, which implies another several decades of growth. So I would look for at what point does the model show a halving of today's EF and a steady-state economy that supports 9 billion people?

Jason: "Ecological footprint" is much too vague a measure for my taste. Which specific resources do you think are the most critical concerns, and then we can debate those.


I'm afraid you're looking at it backwards. That question might have worked back in 1970 but not now. We are operating in a world of diminishing resources now.

A more fruitful way to approach what you seek is to ask, "Which resources will still be available in sufficient quantities between now and 2050 so that I can work out whether I can use those for my plan?"

I think you'll find the list to be exceedingly small. Perhaps sand? Ocean water? Atmospheric nitrogen?

The fact is that virtually all key resources will reach their peak by 2050. Just read the U.N. Millennium Assessment or Lester Brown's work if you doubt that.


I have read both.

Excellent. Now, if you really want to unleash the creativity of this community, I recommend that you put in some real-world constraints and then see what they come up with.

My suggestions would be:

  • insert a worldwide economic contraction sometime in your model; I would put it at 2012 but I think anytime before 2018 will be sufficient for the model; this is unavoidable for two reasons: a) less oil means less economic activity b) petrodollars are a large part of the world's economy and their removal will be catastrophic
  • recognize that biodiversity is fundamentally threatened by our continued expansion (see The Fundamental Conflict Between Economic Growth and Wildlife Conservation, Including Considerations of Technological Progress)
  • add a requirement that gross material consumption has to go down by 25% within ten years post-peak. Commenters should get a 10% reduction from the economic contraction alone
  • set peaks for various key materials, like coal, certain metals, water, etc. pushed back in time because of the depression
  • make family planning available to every couple on earth
  • prioritize food distribution
  • divert energy to renewable energy generation
  • I don't know how to handle the economy. Perhaps allow regions to set up their own currency, like Argentina did
  • stop building nuclear power plants — we're at the point where we probably don't have enough energy to decommission the existing plants and responsibly store the waste unless we set some energy aside. We can't keep building new infrastructure right up to the last minute without diverting some energy to cleaning up the previous messes we've made (n.b. the largest dam in the world, which happens to be a syncrude tailings pond in Alberta)

And so on. Then put all those assumptions into World3 or your favorite world modeling program and see what happens.


I have read both.

EF measures a variety of both resource inputs and sink capacities, then puts those into one number for ease of communication. The most important resources by far are the limits of the air, oceans and ecosystems to absorb carbon dioxide.

So a quick proxy for EF would be show how your plan keeps the ocean from turning deadly acidic, the air from increasing in greenhouse gas concentrations, and the soils from becoming carbon sources. Those measures would encompass 90% of the EF...I suspect.

The global economy pumps something like 7-8 billion metric tons of carbon into the air each year or so. Can your plan eliminate all of those, and begin to restore ecosystems to make them powerful carbon sinks again so co2 starts to drop back towards 300 ppm? Say, 350 ppm by 2100?

Those are the numbers I'd play with.

Agrichar con do that on it's own, so far as as the tests to date show.
And you don't need any Dr Strangelove technology to do it.

Jason: I just checked the methodology. As you say, over half is due to carbon emissions. And in particular, that's where almost all the growth in ecological footprint has been coming from over the last forty years:

Carbon emissions are the main thing I'm trying to figure out how we could get rid of without causing a broadly unacceptable level of economic decline. So it would appear my scenario as laid out so far is helpful. Obviously, the impact on the biosphere otherwise is something that would have to be managed - but the upward trend in it over the last forty years is quite slight. Most of the other uses are fairly direct (eg cutting wood for timber). It's not at all clear that the effects of economic growth on other biotypes are always bad. For example, the US is much more forested than it was 100 years ago, because the advent of industrial agriculture and urbanization combined caused less productive farmland to become uneconomic and revert to forest. In general, wealthy urbanites visiting the national park in their plugin-hybrid are likely to do it a lot less harm than hungry peasants scavenging it for fuel.

This seems like good place to jump in. This strikes me as a solution for the developed world. The less developed places on earth are not going to be able to afford this type of infrastructure or the energy generated by it. Since you don´t like the vagueness of an ecological footprint let me put forth that the first place the scenario falls apart is with population. If we speculate population continuing along the lines suggested then you run out of water then food. Water, at least the potable variety, is probably getting scarcer than oil. Irrigation water throughout the world is in decline. I wonder how few people agriculture can support with only dryland farming?

Tell you what Jason - I'm all over this ecological footprint thing now. At some point in the next few weeks, I'll produce a projection for the footprint over time under my scenario. But here's my challenge to you - I want to see a guest post with your graphs for global population, GDP, and energy use under your favored relocalization scenario.

Stuart, I do think your plan goes a long way towards addressing my concerns, but since it doesn't make the connections explicitly I am not sure if it does so sufficiently.

No guarantees I can get your request done, but I'll think about it and see what I can do.

You have likely figured this out by now, but there are two groups doing footprint analyses.




One problem I have with the way you are measuring things is by using GDP. I reject GDP as a valid measure of what is important. In fact, in the scenarios I would prefer, GDP would decline but well-being would go up. A better measure might be the Genuine Progress Indicator:


With all due respect, I don't let my employers or clients pay me with fuzzy "personal progress indices" but instead insist on cash. So I would like to know the cash implications of what you propose - how big a paycut do we all have to take? If you don't like what GDP is spent on, maybe just personal income? - to first order, the two correlate pretty well however.

What is the purpose of having cash? What is it that makes life worthwhile? Why do humans have an economy?

Economics must first decide to what ends it is working. On a personal level you need money to take care of basic needs--food, water, shelter, health care, energy--and society makes investments for the commons--transportation systems, defense, education, environmental protection.

GDP is no more fuzzy than GPI. Both are taking a measurement of the scale of monetary transactions over a given period, but one only calculates the transactions, the other asks are these transactions positive or negative. The marginal costs of GDP are now greater than the marginal benefits. This is what GPI reveals.

We need to now ask: are my (our) transactions serving the purpose (I) we want them to? Or, am I designing a marketing campaign to encourage an obese, diabetic 11 year old to eat another cheeseburger and down it with Coke? Since GDP is flawed, a correlation between personal income and GDP is also flawed because it doesn't represent appropriate goals.

GDP in wealthy nations represents the liquidation of natural and the production of waste without documentation of further benefit. It is uneconomic to increase GDP--rather like keeping an oil well pumping after the net energy goes negative.

The monetary system would need to be redesigned to re-establish the relationship between economic activity, personal income, and personal and social benefits. That is a good question. What would such a system look like?

Ok - then do average personal income. I can assure you that I, like most people, view my personal income as unambiguously good, and would not need to start chipping off bits of it and changing the sign on them.

My larger point is that I think you guys advocating relocalization need to explain in reasonably clear terms what the implications are for people's incomes.

I can assure you that I, like most people, view my personal income as unambiguously good, and would not need to start chipping off bits of it and changing the sign on them.

Not so sure about most people. Certainly the vast majority consider increased income "unambiguously good", but pretty much everybody makes decisions that do not maximize personal income, because so many other variables are also simultaneously maximized in life decisions. Certainly my own income dropped when I quit the corporate wage slave life to become an independent software developer, but my quality of life improved. Most everybody I know has made many decisions that maximized something other than income.

I agree that the income effects of localization should be defined, but in Deep Economy, Bill Mckibben makes a persuasive arguemnent that increased income has not increased happiness, once over the knee of the curve.

My experience has been that the average "trust-funder" is not a happy person (Boulder seems to be a trust-funder magnet).
Meanwhile ski-bums tend to have smiles on their faces, even the ones sleeping in snowcaves or in their vehicles in the parking lot.

Stuart, why do you keep going on about personal incomes? Have you really not understood anything about what those advocating relocalisation have been saying? Not everything can be measured by a ruler or totted up with a calculator. And the earth cares not a jot about what people are prepared to tolerate or not.

Because I think you guys (advocates of relocalization) have zero chance whatsoever of selling your ideas to the general public once it becomes clear how much of a paycut is involved, and deep down you all know that, which is why you refuse to confront the question head on but instead retreat into a fog of vague platitudes (even Jason it seems).

"You guys"?

Of course it's an impossible sell. Heck, if it can't be sold to intelligent people like yourself, and many others here, then it has no chance of being sold to Joe Bloggs. You know, I thought that a massive public education campaign could help pave the way for such policies but it would be thwarted by too many people.

I must admit that your recent posts have left me far more depressed. It seems that most people, no matter what their intellectual abilities may be, just cannot accept that the earth has limits and our use of the earth (of which we're a part) has limits. This is why the question of personal income is not a valid question for relocalisation. When those advocates propose relocalisation, it is part of a bigger package about reorganising how we live together on a finite planet. So chastising them for not answering the question seems to me to be just a way to avoid having to think about a complete change for society (I agree that it's often not a pleasant thought).

I'd never have thought that you'd take the line you're taking now. Can you really not imagine a world without economic growth or with seasonal food? Your previous post contained a host of errors (not in the data but in the interpretation of the relocalisation argument and the lack of data for the future). This post contains a host of assumptions (some of which I listed in another post) that would need to be validated (which is difficult as most are for the future). It seems that you are desperately trying to prove to yourself that there is some solution that can enable you to live your life much as you do today, or to reach whatever aspirations you previously had about the future.

Growth is not sustainable.


I don't think it is so much a matter of selling ideas as it is a matter of forecasting inevitabilities. We begin with the assumption that the growth paradigm of the past couple of centuries (both populations and economies only grew at a snail's pace prior to that) is a temporary and exceptional episode driven and made possible by the one-time-only bonanza of FF, and that with the peaking and decline of FF the paradigm IS changing, and that we MUST therefore transition to a society and economy that is sustainable within the renewable resource base. Whether people are "sold" on that doesn't matter, that is the reality that they will be facing, whether they like it or not - IF this base assumption is valid.

When it comes to my analysis, at least, my approach is to start at the end and work backwards to the present, rather than trying to project the present forward. Assuming that FF will all eventually become far too scarce and thus far too valuable to merely burn, and that this is likely to become the case in far less than a century, this implies in turn that we have less than a century to transition to a sustainable economy based upon renewable resources. (There may still be some residual reliance upon non-renewable resources such as uranium-fueld NPP, just as there might still be a residual amount of FF still being burned, but these will have to be well into their phase-out period by then. This also assumes that fusion will still be "the energy of the future" as it always has been over the past half century.)

We can debate what level of economic development can be supported on a sustainable basis given the world's renewable resource base. It must be kept in mind that a half century or century from now, some of that resource base (particularly land) will likely have suffered significant degradation. Some people that have posted articles on this board suggest that on a long term basis, the world can only support a human population of somewhere between 0.5 - 2 billion, and even that at only slightly above paleolithic levels of development. While we may come to that, this strikes me as being excessively pessimistic. However, even stretching hope as far as the bounds of reason might possibly allow, I have yet to see a convincing case that would suggest that the global economy and anything between 2-7 billion people can be sustained at the present level on a renewable resource base alone - although if your scenario were re-worked to assume a leveling off of the economy and total energy consumption at something close to current levels, it might come close.

I think that the most realistic scenarios will have to assume a transition downward to a lower level of economic development overall. It is just a lot easier for me to imagine a future world that is workably sustainable with an average global per capita GDP in the $1K-5K range (and with very little variation outside of that range, especially beyond the upper limit) than it is to try to imagine some way to have a sustainable world at a much higher level. IF we were a relatively homogenous species with high levels of cooperation and a functional and effective global government, then I just might be able to imagine something more optimistic. Unfortunately, we're anything but, and that realistic assessment has to be part of the picture.

Thus, starting at the end, I've got to assume that AT BEST were going to have to follow an "S" curve trajectory downward, with what is hopefully a slow and steady downward slope for the world as a whole, and unfortunately a more scary plunge for the USA and some other highly developed countries; there is no guarantee of a soft landing, but I think it is helpful to at least try and imagine scenarios that might get us there.

When one starts with the assumption that we must end up with a sustainable economy, built upon a renewable resource base, with an average per capita GDP even for advanced countries like the USA and Canada at not much more than around $5-10K (in 2008 USD), then the implications of what that economy must look like start to become clear. Looking at countries that are presently at or close to that level provides one clue. Francois Cellier posted an article on ecological footprints several months ago, and he indicated that Costa Rica, Uruguay, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Thailand, Phillipines, and Cuba were among the countries clustering in or close to this range, and that were close to having potentially sustainable ecological footprints. Another way to look at it is to consider when the USA was last at the level of $10K per capita GDP (in 2008 USD); that turns out to be 1941, just coming out of the Great Depression but just before the WWII boom. Thus, if we can imagine what life is like in the countries listed above, or what life in the USA was like in 1941, then we can begin to get some sort of idea as to what we might hope to aspire to for our soft landing IN THE BEST CASE.

Looking at the listed countries, and at 1941 America, I think that one could generally say that they are all less transport-intensive. People do not tend to travel or move about as much. People walk a lot, bicycles are common modes of transport, and many people rely on mass transit; the automobile is a luxury good, driven far less (and often with more passengers) than at present in the US. There are large cities, but also plenty of people living in vilages and small towns, and considerable population in rural areas. There are large farms and plantations, but lots of small subsistence farmers, too; and also lots of people growing at least some of their own food in gardens. Meals tend to be mostly home cooked, tend to mostly be made of home-grown or locally-grown whole foods, and tend to be smaller than the 3600 kCal/d that has become the present US average.

Isn't this beginning to sound very much like the "relocalization" vision?

Agreed, it is a "hard sell" when it comes to suggesting to the typical suburban dweller today. My assumption, though, is that it is not a matter of "selling" it to anybody, that this is the pathway that we are most likely to follow, if only we can avoid becoming totally unhinged and entirely collapsing as a society. The relatively limited steps that would need to be taken to avoid that disaster are thus the only things that really need to be "sold" to anyone. What are those limited actions? (I'm going to confine myself mainly to policy initiatives that might be taken in the US, as there really isn't much that can effectively done at a global level.)

1) It would be very helpful if we didn't blow outselves up in a nuclear war. Thus, continuations of arms control measures and other diplomatic initiatives that try to keep some lid on international conflict are worth doing. Trying to be global policeman has only resulted in the US becoming the global bully, and has become counterproductive for our genuine national security. We would be much better off to downscale our military and pull back from our interventions.

2) It would also be helpful if we burned up the remaining FF slower rather than faster. If we are going to have to decline in our energy use, then declining from a lower level will be less difficult on us than will be a decline from a higher level. It would also enable us to stretch out the transition period, so we are less under the gun to develop renewables to replace non-renewables. Finally, the slower we burn FF, the less damaging GCC will be to the environment. Thus, any measures that can be taken to promote energy conservation and efficiency should be encouraged, and any measures that promote the rapid exploitation of FF (such as drilling in ANWR, for example, or a quick and massive ramp up in tar sands, oil shale, or CTL) should be discouraged.

3) I am pessimistic that we'll see much in the way of a serious move toward urban mass transit and interurban passenger rail until most automobiles are undrivable due to overly expensive or unavailable auto fuel; by then, what we'll be able to do will mostly be much too little, much too late. But it is worth doing whatever we can now. Any project that can be gotten on the table and funded should be. On the other hand, moves to put the automobile industry on artificial life support through bailouts, subsidies, or regulatory relief should be opposed. Any new or expanded highways represent a huge waste of money and should be opposed; only the most minimal repairs are needed. Air travel is also going to decline as fuel costs drive ticket prices higher; the airlines should be allowed to die a natural death.

4) The automobile-centric built environment will eventually be transformed into a walkable, transit-oriented built environment, but it may take many decades or even centuries after the death of the automobile for this transformation to be completed. In the meantime, this built environment is going to represent a giant millstone around our necks, making life much worse for the survivors of the automobile-age than it would otherwise have to be. Thus, at this late date there is NO good reason for ANY more suburban subdivisions, malls, or big box stores to be built; they will only be making a bad situation worse. It is therefore "OK" to now be anti-growth. To the extent that "transit-oriented development" and "smart growth" can be encouraged, do so. Preservation or revitalization of small towns and urban neighborhoods should be encouraged.

5) Water is a vital resource and needs to be conserved. Development should be discouraged in areas that are already stretched thin for water. Water should be charged at a rate that encourages conservation rather than waste. Farmers should be encouraged to grow crops that are appropriate for the natural average level of precipitation in their area; the growing of highly-irrigated crops in arid areas using fossil aquifer water must be discontinued, and if that means we have to pay more for food, so be it. We're not going to have water for lawns, either; urban land use codes and HOA covenants need to be changed to encourage xeriscaping or conversion of lawns to productive food gardens.

6) While it may still make sense for large-scale farms to produce some crops such as grains (as Stuart's previous article argues), it is important that the full costs of production and transport be considered, any externalities be internalized, and the full unsubsidized market price be allowed to find its own level. Subsidizes should also be removed from all other agricultural commodities, especially meat and dairy. As Stuart's previous article on biofuels indicates, the diversion of grains from food supply to biofuel production is a disasterous development and should be prevented rather than subsidized. If we can remove the pernicious effects of subsidies from the marketplace, than I am confident that long term economic trends will drive drive food production to localize to a large extent, and to encourage most people to produce as much food as they can. The only other thing needed is to encourage the removal of zoning and HOA covenant restrictions against the growing of fruits and vegetables or raising of small stock.

7) As with food, so with energy. Any subsidies (including ones) should be eliminated, externalities should be internalized (and this is especially where a carbon tax would be useful), and energy sources allowed to find there own places in the market. I am confident that the long term economics would favor the eventual displacement of FF with renewables. Again, as with food production, regulatory restrictions (such as rules prohibiting PV panels on roofs, or the remodeling of houses to incorporate passive solar heating, or the failure of electric utilities to implement net metering) that get in the way of a rapid build up of renewable energy capacity must be modified.

8) We're going to have a rough ride as the economy transitions downward. We need to learn to live within our means, which suggests that we have to ditch the habbit of running large government budget deficits on a regular basis; I'm talking real budget deficits, not the fake ones hidden behind obfuscated accounting. We need to demand that our government be honest with us and with itself, take an honest look at our real fiscal situation, and start getting our house in order. A declining economy will only be able to support a smaller public sector. This is probably going to have to mean that the federal government is going to have to downsize considerably and focus on only the most important national priorities. Much load is going to have to be shed to the states, which in turn are going to have to go through the same downsizing process and shedding loads to the localities. Localities are going to have to become the one level of government that need to expand considerably, though they are going to have to be extremely selective and are not going to be able to absorb all of the load shed from the federal and state governments. Localities are going to need to have the freedom to raise their own revenues from a variety of sources, and their citizens are going to have to be willing to see their local taxes increase, even if federal and state tax burdens do not decline proportionate to their downsizing. Local community organizations are going to increasingly have to take up the slack; the long-term well-being and even survival of communities is going to depend upon how much these are supported and built up now.

The above is not an exhaustive list, undoubtedly some other things could be added to it. However, I would argue that it is broadly consistent with the "relocalization" agenda. Some of these things might individually be a hard sell, although there is a constituency supportive of each. Each will undoubtedly encounter considerable opposition all the way by those in denial and committed to sustaining the unsustainable. Success or failure by one side or another will not change the fact that we WILL be declining to a lower economic level, however; it will only determine how low that level will ultimately be.

Stuart, we just started with a scenario that began "Stuart Staniford is made emperor of the world." Might it not be fair to say that you are being just a little selective on what is politically salable ;-)?


I have a friend who has been preparing to relocalize, step by step, for at least two decades. He keeps hos job (as a numerical control machine tool programmer) in order to provide resources (income). His is an early retirement (if TS does not HTF) or survival if TSHTF.

Early retirement attracts many, despite the loss of income. Relocalization can, and will attract many as well as stresses build.

You are in a smaller group than you imagine if you think that more personal income is a good thing.

"Sufficient" income is all many people want. And in a Great Depression II, the definition of sufficient may be revised.

Best Hopes for Mardi Gras,


I can assure you that I, like most people, view my personal income as unambiguously good, and would not need to start chipping off bits of it and changing the sign on them.

This attitude arises from the atomized nature of our economic system. Your primary job as an economic actor is to make sure that you and your immediate family are secure. After all if a personal financial disaster were to befall you, you would be hung out to dry by society. However, if your pursuit of such security creates negative externalities (pollution, global warming, etc) then the amount of income that you need for security is larger than it would be if such externalities were reduced or eliminated. In fact, if such externalities become so bad that they lead to systemic collapse, you are going to lose a lot more than bits of your income.

It is a curious question why, nearly two and a half centuries after the start of the industrial revolution, even in the richest societies on earth only a tiny elite of super rich people feel reasonably secure in a material sense. The answer, I think, lies in two facts.

The first is our addiction to ever increasing levels of complexity. We do not leverage technological progress to simplify our lives; We leverage it to increase our total economic output as rapidly as possible. Of course, among these outputs are various conviences which allow us to accomplish many tasks more quickly and easily than we did in the past, but because we need to keep increasing our productivity exponentially in order to keep the economy ‘healthy’, these conveniences do not create relaxed lives or allow us to pursue intellectual or aesthetic interests which are independent of immediate economic need.

The second fact is the above mentioned atomization of the economic system. Not only do we need constantly rising levels of income to meet our day to day needs, we also need to save up large quanties of money in order to feel reasonably secure about our old age.

This combination of addiction to increasing complexity and having our material security being primarily dependent on the competitive accumulation of wealth is the perfect formula for the destruction of the commons. The physical reality is that our material security is dependent upon a healthy economic community. If Bill Gates along with his entire fortune in the form of gold bars was teleported to an uninhabited planet he would not be rich any more. An economic system in which people regularly do damage to the true source of their wealth in the name of amassing private fortunes is functionally insane. Voluntary simplicity and mutual support is the only path to a humane democratic future. If human nature truly makes it impossible for such things to be, then no path exists whatsoever.

Roger, that last paragraph is wonderful. Amazing the gems one finds in these comment trails, if one perseveres.

Of course it is yet more reason for pessimism, but still - nice to see a truth revealed so well.

Stuart, all of the ecological footprint analyses I have seen have relied on energy as the single largest component, by far - usually 50% or more is energy.

I would guess that expansion of land use (farm or residential) is the most important non-energy factor for footprint, as it directly destroys habitat. It makes footprint quite literal. The 2nd might be ocean food consumption.

Hi, Stuart.

Yes, I think additional growth is possible — absolutely. The question is: how close do you want to bring us to the point of collapse before we begin to reverse the trend?

Let's assume that collapse doesn't occur before 2050, an increasingly unlikely scenario given the number of issues we now face (soil depletion, fisheries depletion, metals depletion, fossil fuel depletion, etc.), once 2050 arrives we can't just snap our fingers and automatically move to a steady state economy. Our monetary system would collapse because it is predicated on an expanding economy.

That means that we should already be moving to shrink our ecological footprint, not increase it. I would argue that it is already too late to move to a steady state economy before hitting collapse given how quickly we are devouring the planet's resources.

“God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West…If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts."
— Gandhi, 1928

And we don't just have India industrializing, we have all of Asia, including China. Between just those two countries, we have 2.4 billion people straining for the consumption levels of the West. To think that Gandhi was concerned with just 300 million people.

Someone else posted a link to the U.N. Millennium Assessment. I think it's worth repeating what they write:

“Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”

But some people hold out hope that we can turn this big ship around, like Lester Brown.

I readily admit that economic growth was good to raise our standard of living but now that we have crossed the threshold into overshoot continued growth is 100%, absolutely, completely our enemy. We are collectively living on borrowed time.

Thus, any model that doesn't get us back within our ecological budget as its first priority means that we are accelerating our car toward the cliff instead of braking*.

And any grand scheme that has even a faint hope of avoiding collapse must include three elements:
a) a significant power down of industrialized societies to stretch out the remaining fossil fuels and divert their energy to building renewable energy generation
b) a massive reduction in the numbers of humans on the planet
c) a massive curtailment of resource use (including energy usage) per capita for people in the developed countries, plus freezing the developing countries where they are until our numbers come down

Efficiency or renewable energy generation initiatives without doing all of the above is no different than me lowering my cable bill while overspending by $5000/month and expecting that situation to be sustainable. I simply must remove expenses to get back within my budget.

Here are the warnings of unbridled human population growth by over 1500 scientists in 1993, including most Nobel Laureates alive at the time and by 58 National Academies of Science in 1994. Unfortunately, for some odd reason it is considered impolite to suggest that having only one child per couple might help us avoid collapse due to unfettered population growth.

Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.
The greatest peril is to become trapped in spirals of environmental decline, poverty, and unrest, leading to social, economic and environmental collapse.

Why listen to the climate scientists and not the ecologists? They are trying to warn us, too.

And, just as importantly, is there any good reason to spend time on a model that doesn't steer us to what we now know we need to do?


* If you prefer a different analogy, see the work of the ecological economist Dr. Brian Czech "Shoveling Fuel For a Runaway Train: Errant Economists, Shameful Spenders, and a Plan to Stop them All".

And we don't just have India industrializing, we have all of Asia, including China. Between just those two countries, we have 2.4 billion people straining for the consumption levels of the West. To think that Gandhi was concerned with just 300 million people.

why do people assume they are trying to get to our standard of living or even know what our standard of living is? will Asia every use 60+ barrels of oil a year like we do? probably not. if they do we will be the one's using 5+ barrels a year.

what ghandi doesn't understand is price. as Asia grows the price of commodities rise and that makes someone us more efficiently or use less. many doomers understand they can't have our standard of living but they don't understand WHY.

why do people assume they are trying to get to our standard of living or even know what our standard of living is?

And why have you said this *WHY*?

What rhetorical purpose does it serve? Are you trying to persuade with that statement?

will Asia every use 60+ barrels of oil a year like we do? probably not.

80 million barrels of crude a day. 300 million Americans. 6 billion people on the planet.

If the Americans use ALL the oil, 97 and 1/3 a barrel for the year. If the world get all the same oil allocation, 5 and 1/12 a barrel.

Asia contains 60% of the worlds population. That is over 3.6 billion. If Asia got all the oil, that is 8 and 1/11th a barrel of oil.

And somehow your "analysis" is "probably not"

if they do we will be the one's using 5+ barrels a year.

Lets use NUMBERS again, shall we?
World barrel production 2.92E10. Asia using 60 barrels would have to have production at 2.16E11

A factor of 10 larger in production.

And your "analysis" is
if they do we will be the one's using 5+ barrels a year.

many doomers understand they can't have our standard of living but they don't understand WHY.

VS your hand waving presentations without actual numbers?

Amazing how one can have opinions and believe them so long as you are not constrained by physics, science or reality.

You are welcome for this education I have given you.


I haven't even figured out what you were saying!

I'm sorry that English is not your native language.

I guess you didn't realize I wasn't even trying to come up with exact numbers. I was pointing out that saying Asia is trying to get our standard of living is not true as it pertains to what we care about, the 60+ barrels per capita a year we use. the world's use of oil would have to go up 6X for the world to get to the level of per capita oil usage as ours. ghandi's quote doesn't really make sense.

Hi, john15.

I must admit, I'm thoroughly confused by your comment. What precisely doesn't make sense about this quote?

“God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West…If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts."
— Gandhi, 1928

It seems rather straightforward to me. I think he means that should 300 million Indians begin consuming at Western levels the earth will quickly be denuded of resources.


But to assume that economic growth continues to 2050 assumes that the current rate of use of inputs to the economy continues to accelerate. This is especially so since one of your main reasons for assuming continued economic growth is that most people in the world need to have their material circumstances improved if turbulent collapse is to be avoided.

Continued acceleration of consumption means that the total use of inputs in the period between now and 2050 will amount to a sizable fraction of a doubling of all economic inputs used by humans from time immemorial to the present, or more. Some inputs may be used less, some more, but it seems likely that the total mass of inputs consumed historically by humans including dozens of critical ones, would be approximately doubled in the time remaining to 2050.

By inputs, I don't mean just materials, including fresh water and the direct and indirect products of photosynthesis, but also services from the environment -- e.g. absorption of pollution and garbage.

How can you make the probability of reaching the goal of your program plausible to those who perceive there are limits to growth?

The answer to this question is likely to become important as the evidence accumulates that we are approaching the limits. Without shared confidence that your program would be successful before the limits to growth make its success impossible, it would degenerate immediately into a single-iteration multi-person prisoner's dilemma in which the penalties were large reductions of shares of the remaining inputs.

Pretty much what we have now.

How can you make the probability of reaching the goal of your program plausible to those who perceive there are limits to growth?

This strawman gets a lot of play in doomerland. No one denies there are limits to growth, we just argue what the limits are, and if they're even the least bit important on the timescale we're discussing. We're using 1/10000th the solar energy budget, and have barely even scratched the surface of nuclear fuel avaliability.

have barely even scratched the surface of nuclear fuel avaliability.

And the many different ways man can fail when it comes to fission power has just begun to be explored!


And the many different ways man can fail when it comes to fission power has just begun to be explored!


As long as cheap coal exists this is a strong implicit endorsement of more coal power, which kills on the order of hundreds of times more people than fission power. Surely replacing a certainty of disaster with a small risk of disaster is a trade up, not a trade down?

So it's not enough to state that exponential growth cannot occur forever. You will have to address the detail of showing that it cannot occur in the next fifty years.

and to do that we have to have knowledge of events and inventions that haven't even happened yet. good luck.

Don't assume they are all going to be good. Don't assume any particular distribution of goodness vs badness. What you can assume, however, is that in a more interconnected and interdependent world - a more brittle and less resilient world - that the impacts of each and every one of these events will be magnified. Survival becomes a game that requires winning at every toss of the dice.

Time to back down.

cfm in Gray, ME

I agree of course that exponential growth in energy usage cannot occur forever. However, an asymptotic approach to the solar harvesting capacity of the planet is not infeasible in principle, and we are a long way from that limit.

How do you know, Stuart? It seems obvious, doesn't it? But what will be the effects of harvesting increasing amounts of sunlight? How do you even begin to work that out? But, of course, it's laughable that we could have any effect on our environment by, for example, getting most of the energy we use now, and in future, from the sun. Isn't it?

By the way, your focus on energy, in the first sentence I quoted, perhaps hides a belief that that is the only resource problem we face with continued economic growth. Is that what you think?

Its entirely reasonable that energy be the only lon term resource bottlneck besides labor, as just about everything besides labor can be represented as a function of energy.

Just because E=Mc² doesn't mean that we have the capability to make anything if we have enough energy (which is a big if). If you are referring to the theoretical possibility that there are enough vital resources to last even a growing population and economy for aeons, with enough energy to extract and refine them, then that doesn't really help us (as it's theoretical, not practical).

No, only centuries. We'll hit the limit of thermal dissipation in less than a thousand years at current growth rates.

Before that, all options are open. Any service you want you can do provided you have labor and energy.

Any service you want you can do provided you have labor and energy.

I'm at a loss here. You can't possibly mean what I think you mean, can you? Are you saying that the limitations we are bumping into can be eliminated just by having sufficient labor and energy?

Of course I mean that. You're postulating limitations that either dont exist or havent been demonstrated.

an asymptotic approach to the solar harvesting capacity of the planet is not infeasible in principle, and we are a long way from that limit.

A long way? On which side of the limit? All of the solar insolation falling on the planet is used. The benefits might not accrue directly to humans but perhaps to fish, to weather or to weathering a rock. Perhaps one might suggest that not all the insolation produces something positive, but I'm not so sure of that when looking at Gaia as a whole system. Once humans create any measurable change on the system they are no longer sustainable, though the system may well tolerate greater impacts.

It's not clear what you consider the "solar harvesting capacity" of the planet. One can't discuss whether the approach is asymptotic or sociopathic without knowing that. 100% of the insolation on planet, 10%, 1%, .1%?

I gotta admire your attempt to put this out. It's way easier to point out the fallacies in this straw man than it is to suggest how the chaos will play out. I'm doing an hour TV show on "post apocalyptic economics" Wed night - thanks for helping. :-)

cfm in Gray, ME

I agree that we do not know our limits. I do not believe that we understand the natural systems that we are perturbing sufficiently to understand the long run consequences. And we sure don't know enough to design a self sustaining, self replicating system as efficient as those natural systems that currently exist. The assumption of continued economic growth can only work if that growth does not imply increased demand on the natural support systems.

I think of Gambler's Ruin when people talk about using more and more (and more) natural resources to support the human population. We may win every bet but the last one.

Random thought of the day: We keep increasing our leverage to support our lifestyles by turning ever more natural systems to our use. Sooner or later mother nature will make a margin call.

What station will your show be on?

The curves all point to exhaustion of key resources like water, soil, metals, fisheries, etc.

assuming we use resources in the same 10 years from now like we do now.

You're right...all indications are that we are using more resources in absolute terms every year. Take the U.S., for example. Given that the U.S. population is growing at roughly 30 million people per decade, and assuming that we are pre-collapse, is there any reason to think resource use will go down in absolute terms between this year and the next?


Some points in no particular order:

1. What you see as a learning curve in PV is more shifting manufacture to cheaper locations. This would not be extendable into the future. It's more likely that production costs will go up (like with everything else).

2. Nobody's likely to ever use batteries for grid leveling. You use mechanical energy storage. Much cheaper.

3. Since you're emperor of the world you just order them to accept wind turbines. They are the lowest tech solution by far and the easiest to ramp up.

Utility scale batteries are being tested now http://peswiki.com/index.php/Directory:Utility_Scale_Batteries.

Solar cells are mainly produced in Japan and Germany. Nanosolar just built their factory in San Jose. Whatever cost savings come from moving it all to China are mostly still ahead of us.

Just as an FYI, a single, rapidly expanding Chinese manufacturer, Suntech Power, is on track to manufacture 1GW of PV in 2008 and expects to manufacture 2GW of PV in 2010.

I have no issue with your 2nd and 3rd points, though there are other factors for the first;

1. What you see as a learning curve in PV is more shifting manufacture to cheaper locations. This would not be extendable into the future. It's more likely that production costs will go up (like with everything else).

Design processes have changed over the years, with the advances of thin-film, less-refined silicon feedstocks, and the coming to market of NanoSolar, which are shipping now. Each of these has significantly dropped PV prices.

Actually, it is very debatable what exactly Nanosolar is shipping now.
Their press releases are carefully calculated to leave open the possibility that what they have actually made is three panels by sticking together bits from a number of different runs to make their panels, and that they are nowhere near economic production.
SW is evidently highly knowledgeable in solar cell technology:
He seems to think it was an announcement to reach funding milestones.
I did not mention this before, as it is not something which I wanted to pick Stuart up on, as no-one can be expert in every wrinkle of energy production, and he makes some heroic efforts to inform the rest of us.
I also do not have a problem with the idea that solar PV costs are continuing to drop rapidly.
However it is pretty clear that in the case of Nanosolar his selection criteria are possibly not being met.

1. What you see as a learning curve in PV is more shifting manufacture to cheaper locations. This would not be extendable into the future. It's more likely that production costs will go up (like with everything else).

just beacause their costs go up doesn't necessarily mean the price for the unit goes up. economies of scale. the price for flat screen tvs has gone down even though many costs are going up.

I recall the political article posted on Drumbeat yeasterday from NYT which proposed competing spheres of influence EU, China, and North America. It would seem what happens in the desperately poor 3rd world would be outside of "our" immediated control(see Zimbabwe, Sudan, Angola, Iraq, afghanistan even) but that in the developed regions that initially over 10-20 years, continentally but not globally, an energy network with renewables could be built up till say 2020s-2030s under much hardship and massive investment. What the poor in Africa, etc. experience meanwhile due to heavy competition, proxy wars and pure economic exploitation as up till now ( therefore realistic business as usual and not catastrophe scenario) among these rich blocs for their resources( African mines and oil, etc.) is any number of famine, civil war and epidemic scenarios from country to country and from time to time. The first world countries would draw tighter in blocs, EU as one nation with energy from north Sea Wind and solar in south possibly with North Africa as well; Japan, China, SE Asia and possibly india and central Asia working together with total resources(food, water, manpower, oil, gas,etc. trade). North America with its Amero and iron fist govt. ruling from Arctic to caribbean.

After the enrgy and food and population stability is reached ca. 2040 under presumed global peace (no WWIII, just a long cold war resource competition) scenario then the global enrgy network could be built up as you presume, Stuart. Your solution is definitely first best solution but go down one leg between that and utter chaos and you get a regional solution as a first step to a solution. The amorality is higher rearding death and political/military/economic brutality but the realism is higher and therefore,as in the basic criticism to your last week's agriculture post, the survivability of the complete system, somewhere or other is much higher due to redundancy and distribution of the system. The technology can be exported from the country/region that has the highest rate of success after the major crisis is over and the new paradigm has been installed.

I must challenge the now prevailing assumption that renewables we become the major power source of the 21st century. Breeder reactor technology is very parsimonious with materials and energy. The steel input into Light Water Reactors (LWRs) runs from 1/3 to 1/10 per MWh of that for wind farms and solar arrays. Wind farm construction uses up to 6 times the concrete per MWh as LWRs. During the last 5 years the costs of steel and concrete have increased dramatically. In addition the cost of other materials required for the construction of renewable power systems, materials like copper, have also increased dramatically.

The cost of materials has contributed to a dramatic increase in construction costs. These construction cost increases impact both renewables, but because renewables require more materials per MWh, the impact on the cost of materials is greater on renewables. The economic dynamics of China and India make it unlikely that the inflation in the cost of construction materials and in other construction costs will decline for several decades.

The intermittency of sun and wind, require enormous redundancies in order to provide 24 hour a day base power. Current renewable schemes also call for an enormously expensive new, high technology grid.

Renewables are highly disadvantaged in the competition for construction materials because of its highly unfavorable American balance of trade. Thus post-carbon technologies, which minimize material input and control construction costs will be at considerable competitive advantage.

It is clearly the case that by adopting alternative reactor and very safe and efficient reactor designs, nuclear reactors can be built with far less materials. Two reactor designs, the Pebble Bed Reactor (PBR) and the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) have exceptional potential for dramatically changing the outlook for reactors.

Both are gas cooled, and use Brayton cycle generators, rather than generating electricity with steam turbines. Both reactors can generate electricity at thermal efficiencies of over 50%. Both reactor designs are extremely safe compared to LWRs. Neither reactor is subject to problems associated with coolant leak or core melt down. Both reactors have strong passive safety features. Neither requires emergency coolant systems. Neither reactor requires a massive pressure vessel, and neither reactor requires a massive concrete and rebar containment building. Yet both reactor designs will not release radioisotopes into the environment. Both reactors can operate efficiently at far smaller sizes than the current generation of LWR's, and yet remain highly efficient. Both can be mass produced in factories and transported to local set up sites, thus eliminating most on site construction costs. Mass production will bring down both component and labor costs.

Of the two efficient designs reactor deigns the MSR holds many advantages over the PBE. The MSR is up to 20 times more efficient in its use of nuclear fuel. In fact the MSR is so efficient that world uranium and thorium reserves will last for thousands of years with molten salt technology. The MSR will eliminate the problem of reactor waste. MSR’s can be fueled continuously; ands thus never need to be shut down. In uranium-plutonium fuel cycles, plutonium can simply be uses until it is burned up. In thorium-uranium fuel cycles, no plutonium will be produced, and fissionable U233 will be burned. With the MSR most of the byproducts of chain reaction will be free of radioactivity in periods ranging from a few days, to a few hundred years. Once they are free the many valuable metals and minerals can be sold for industrial use, adding another revenue stream to the reactor operations.

Molten Salt reactors do not require water for cooling. They can be built in small enough sizes that they can be shipped by rail. Since MSR’s do not require coolant water they can be set up anywhere. Building an enormously expensive new high technology grid is not needed with MSRs. Is Molten Salt Technology a pipe dream? ORNL operated the world’s first MSR over 60 years ago, and tested a second advanced prototype 50 years ago. Today Fuji is developing a 100 MW MSR for power production.

The advantages of MSR technology are so great that they answer all rational objections to the use of nuclear power. MSR possess many attractive features including cost advantages compared to renewable energy schemes.

Since no actual full size production models exist for either MSR or pebble-bed Stuart is correct to exclude them. There's no way to judge cost or feasibility until that happens. (IMO, he should exclude Nanosolar for the same reason).

Going with molten salt technology is low risk. ORNL demonstrated 50 years ago that the MSR is a viable technology. MSRs could be in mass production within 10 years give given the sort of commitment which the United States gave to war time nuclear technology during World War II and the cold war. Pebble Bed Technology was successfully demonstrated in Germany, but was suppressed for political reasons. Both South Africa and China are developing Pebble Bed Reactor designs for commercial purposes.

There are powerful economic incentive for developing the Molten Salt Reactor. They require less materials far less steel and concrete than LWRs. Unlike large LWRs they can be mass produced. Much of the MSR's inner structure is built with low cost and low demand graphite. ORNL constructed their Molten Salt experiment reactor for 4 million 1960's dollars. There is no uranium supply problem. MSRs can be fueled with so called nuclear waste, thus solving the "nuclear waste problem." MSR can also be fueled through a proven thorium fuel cycle. Thorium which can be extracted from mine tailings, and the removal of thorium would actually solve a heavy metal environmental poliution problem.

All of Stuart's objections to nuclear power cold be meet through factory mass production of transportable MSRs. There is no problem with with corrupt contractors cutting corners in underdeveloped countyries, because the complete reactor generator unit could be built in a factory and simply sert up in the hoat country. No essential system would be built locally.There would be no problem with diversion of nuclear materials to atomic bombs. Thorium fuel cycle MSRs could be exported to non nuclear powers. For technical reasons, the thorium breeding cycle does not produce bomb grade fissionable materials. Finally the MSR solves the problem of nuclear waste. Uranium and plutonium found in nuclear waste can serve as the basis of molten salt reactor fuel, without the use of fuel enrichment.

I believe that renewables are simply being over hyped at the moment. No one acknowledges the materials inflation cost issue, the cost of night time and windless day back up, or the cost of proposed modifications to the electrical grid required by renewable electrical generating systems.


While Molten Salt Reactors certainly have potential down the road, the fact is that high temperature, highly radioactive flouride salts are extremely dangerous. Here is a link to the accident at ORNL:


I think nuclear fission should be a sizeable percentage of our energy generation in the next few decades, but safe MSR's are a long way off.

Its a fun link, filled with paranoid anti-semitism and not a little misinformation:

This was the ORNL Jewish Mafia that knew this reactor had serious problems and just let them go on and on.

Not the most credible source.

I think it is a relatively useless to have scenarios where no new technology is developed. Here it is somewhat less bad in that some historical improvement trends are carried forward. But only solar is allowed a continuation of improvement. Nuclear historical rate of 5.6% is arbitrarilly cutoff.

I think it is better to look at the technology and developments that are occuring and to list out ones that are or should be gaining traction and would have impact.

I have more info under the energy category of articles for everything I mention below

Nuclear fission: Molten Salt as noted, uranium hydride reactor, annular fuel for current {PWR reactors)

Nuclear fusion: Bussard IEC reactor (prototypes in 2008 could be significant in showing that this will work and could be commercial by 2012), Tri-alpha energy colliding beam fusion ($50 million in funding)

Wind : Kitegen (could scale to GW, uses less material), superconducting turbines 10+MW

Solar : GE scalable nanowire solution, nanoantennas could capture infrared solar day and night

Policy shifts: Climate change bill, carbon tax would shift energy to nuclear and renewables (EIA has projections based on those happening) Why take only historical EIA data but look at none of their projection analysis.

Recent developments:

Microwave oil recovery could make it cheaper to extract a lot more oil from oil shale (up to 800 billion barrels in the USA extractable) and from the oil sands. (Up to 2 trillion barrels in Canada's oilsands.

Toe to Heel Air Injection (THAI) technology for extracting oil from tar sands deposits. (covered in oildrum article)

New cheap computer modeling could allow access to about 218 billion barrels of oil that is still in the ground in the USA in old wells and less economical fields.

Huge domestic oil possible from Bakken (this gulf of mexico (and other deep sea oil) and ANWR) could change US into export land.

Just-in-Time Technology Fairy !

USA as "Export Land".

All the listed technologies (except perhaps THAI) are extremely unlikely to see mass commercial application.

IMHO, hopeless dreams,


He neglected cold fusion, antimatter reactors, magnetic monopole generators, and warp cores.

Maybe - for all of them to happen.
But all it would take is for a couple to work out, and we have a new ball game.
you also do not differentiate between those possibilities which are more speculative, and those which are pretty straight-forward developments of existing technologies.
A lot of the assumptions of future costs and materials availability for the construction of vast wind fleets are a lot more heroic, IMHO.

Excluding THAI, I do not think that there is a 33% chance of ANY of them achieving widespread commercial application by 2050.

The prudent approach is to assume modest increases in existing technology (I have no problem assuming practical and economic 7 MW wind turbines by 2020, or faster computers) and adjust plans as surprises emerge.

Moderate cost insulation with twice the insulating value would be nice, as would much cheaper ways to drill wells for ground loop (geothermal in EU) heat pumps.

Getting the Tokamak fusion reactors to work and work economically in 2032 would be VERY nice, even if the minimum size was 40 GW. (The minimum size is 40 GW, and the most economic size fusion reactor is 120 GW, just 250 billion euros a piece would be "interesting" and would adjust plans :-) Especially if they went down without warning once a year or so.

IMHO, significant technological advances cannot be predicted and CERTAINLY cannot be scheduled !

Best Hopes for Reality Based Planning,


How about some reality on the actual cost of wind power.
These are actual government figures from the guys who would have to pay for it:
'The most prominent proposal is that which will require Britain to build up to 20,000 more wind turbines, including the 7,000 offshore giants announced by the Government before Christmas. To build two turbines a day, nearly as high as the Eiffel Tower, is inconceivable. What is also never explained is their astronomic cost.

At £2 million per megawatt of "capacity" (according to the Carbon Trust), the bill for the Government's 33 gigawatts (Gw) would be £66 billion (and even that, as was admitted in a recent parliamentary answer, doesn't include an extra £10 billion needed to connect the turbines to the grid). But the actual output of these turbines, because of the wind's unreliability, would be barely a third of their capacity. The resulting 11Gw could be produced by just seven new "carbon-free" nuclear power stations, at a quarter of the cost.'

And some more costings from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

It is a pdf from 2004.


But the actual output of these turbines, because of the wind's unreliability

assuming we don't have ways of making them work differently and at lower speeds.

This is why it is a good thing that most of the work has private funding or secured public funding already and does not depend upon a vote from TOD.

Tri-alpha colliding beam energy ($50 million from venture capital and rich angels and goldman sachs)

Bussard IEC fusion ($2 million from the Navy)

Bekkan formation development - a lot of oil companies

Supercomputers / affordable oil well modeling for bypassed oil development (constant progress of computer industry and more affordable software)

molten fusion reactors (1965-1969 they had working systems) Now research funded in Japan, Russia, Czech, France and other countries.

The better and actual plan is for tens of trillions of dollars that are available every year for individuals, companies and governments to get spread around on a project by project basis with each group deciding if an idea is worth pursuing. allowing many to fail but more ideas to get tried.

We will see how well my predictions and your predictions perform over time. You are predicting none but THAI on my list by 2050. I am predicting a mix of the technologies and policies in my list that in total will solve the energy issues (no overall reduction in total energy available.)

We had our heat pump installed in August, heres a summary of costs and specs. The 13.89kW heat output rated system uses a bore hole pump to transfer water from the water table at 42litres/min and 11 to 13C through the heat pumps evaporator -water/refrigerant (R134a)heat exchanger, then back to ground remotely at depth.
Drill wells for heat pumps aren't always applicable, access to RUNNING water in the water table is required (the alternative is digging up twice the surface area of the house and burying refrigerant or water pipes in the garden 1 m down), otherwise the water reservoirs temperature/level will gradually fall, reducing the heat pumps coefficient of performance, and useful heat produced, icing of the evaporator heat exchanger would eventually result, stopping operation.
In our case the prior survey consisted of a silver ball on a chain, as I looked on incredulously. I was assured that such divining never fails(ca marche chaque fois), and sure enough at 40 metres depth the drill bit reached water. The return bore hole was drilled remotely to a depth of 34m.
The bill for the initial survey, and 2 men, with impressive kit for a days drilling, and capping of bore holes was 4827 Euros. The bill for the fully installed system including bore holes was 27715 Euros, including around 10000 Euros for around 15 high surface area* radiators, (*which compensate for the circulating water raised to only around 42C). The Erset system is rated at 13.89kW heat output, sufficient for 200m2 living space, with a 5.7 COP, ie. 2.5kW input to the heat pump (assuming 13C ground water, not including the circulating and bore hole pumps power consumption) We did make aB movie of the caterpillar tracked drill rig, and associated diesel engine driven air compressor, in action, it woulld make a good episode of Thunderbirds, but the caterpillar chewed up the garden .


40k for a residential HVAC system, what is the estimated annual energy cost?

We bought the house from an Electricity De France engineer, EDF fixes employees electricity bills at 70 Euros for each 2 months. He had therefore installed the cheapest least economic option of electric resistance radiators in each room, and underfloor heating resistance loop, plus two electric water heaters . My wife spent a cold few months in the house with outside temperatures of 5C and inside temperatures barely above 15C and the bill for 2 months came to 600 Euros, three years ago. We only occupy the house during holidays at present.
The 20 year old electric heaters were reaching the end of their life, so a new system was required anyway. We have installed additional underfloor and loft insulation for a total of around 1500 Euros,to make the most of the investment.
So I'd have to estimate the years bill at around 2500 Euros at 2005 rates about 11 cents per KWhour, to be uncomfortable. The new system heating part of the bill should be around 500Euros per year. We still have electric water heaters, though solar thermal has been quoted at 7000Euros installed for 2 3o tube panels and 300 litre reservoir.


Thank you for this information and for doing much to reduce your personal carbon footprint. I was pleased to hear you also added insulation as part of your energy renovation, this is important and should be the first move when upgrading systems.

The THAI is not upgrading to the degree hoped for. The November Petrobank presentation showed well pairs producing close to 11-12 API instead of the full ten degrees of upgrading seen in lab tests. The CAPRI production test for three well pairs was estimated to be 225 million dollars. The last I heard they have not received regulatory approval to start CAPRI and there were some problems with emissions from their project. A THAI well pair in October was producing at a rate close to 600 barrels of bitumen per day according to Petrobank. It is not known whether the CAPRI will work according to plan as the initial results for partial upgrading of the THAI wells was less upgrading than expected although they indicated they were getting a greater flow of oil/fluids from the wells than they expected. The THAI was supposed to have significantly lower surface plant and operating expenses compared to SAGD. URR was estimated 70% + of oil in place. Again some of their initial estimates were off. They had advertised being able to recover up to 16 API oil without CAPRI, yet have in no way shown they could sustain any recovery of 16 API oil.

A lot of the assumptions of future costs and materials availability for the construction of vast wind fleets are a lot more heroic, IMHO.

How so ?

I see no major problem in diverting up to 15% of current steel, copper, etc. (use hyperboloid towers if steel becomes a problem, I saw one being marketed) for an application where 99+% will be recycled.

Build fewer and smaller cars.

WT technology also allows for significant material substitution if shortages develop in any specific area.

An unwarranted concern (except for very short term spot shortages).


Oh come on. Brian is optimistic that some energy technology will be developed that will influence global civilization in the next fifty years (even if it is just refinements on our existing infrastructure) where the status quo here seems to assume we'll never develop technology more advanced than we currently have. Betting against fusion is reasonable, but betting against advancement in general is silly.

If nothing else, we'll see advances in supply chains for nuclear and wind.

If you are going to ignore technological advance then do not project out to 2050.

Why ignore the policy shift of a climate change bill ?
The EIA projection on that was a large shift to nuclear if the McCain/Lieberman bill passed. They current bill under consideration is very similar. Is that too fairy tale.

Superconducting wire for wind turbines is for 10MW turbines. superconducting wire is here now in commercial use.

How does cheap supercomputer (teraflop machines) used by small firms to find bypassed oil, how is that a fairy tale. Do not believe in the Nvidia GPGPU or other cheap supercomputers. do not believe in the software for finding bypassed oil ?

What is there about the Raytheon/Schlumberger microwave oil recovery process that is fairy tale ?

what is your estimate of how much oil will be recoverable from the Bekkan formation ?

I think plans should be made on current technology and modest advances on that technology. Make mid-course corrections as new (and unpredictable) technologies go commercial.

In 1977, wind should not have been a significant part of Pres. Carter's energy plans as an example. Neither should solar PV.

Carter advisers keyed on solar PV, wind turned out to be the faster developing technology, but both could have failed.

Superconducters (ALL of the known ones) have significant limits on amperage. Fine for low & medium amp uses.

I saw a microwave recovery presentation, BS, unworkable is my impression.

There is good software today, with adequate computing power (my MacMini has more power than an early Cray). I see no reason that using teraflops will make more than a modest increase in ultimate recovery.

My estimate for recovery rates from Bekkan is MUCH less than half US oil imports, it is also less than Ghawar's all time peak production. OTOH, we may well get a trickle for over a century.


Superconducters (ALL of the known ones) have significant limits on amperage. Fine for low & medium amp uses.

This is entirely orthoganol to the conversation at hand. Superconductor technology here is being applied to motors and generators for higher efficiencies as a marginal improvement that has cost advantages in size as well. Its been demonstrated and AFAIK being utilized where these advantages are worth the price premium. I think you'll agree that larger towers for wind turbines are inevitable as supply chains for cranes and the like slowly are built up weather they use superconductive generators or not.

Technology will advance, and chances are some of the advances that are very important no one here will predict.

My estimate for recovery rates from Bekkan is MUCH less than half US oil imports, it is also less than Ghawar's all time peak production. OTOH, we may well get a trickle for over a century.

So some conservation and higher mileage cars. 10% less oil target (2 million bpd and stopping future oil usage growth)
Change heating of homes and factories using oil to electrical. (5%, 1 million bpd)

Bekkan for what one third of US oil imports. (what 4 million bpd)
Gulf of Mexico deep sea oil (1 million bpd)
THAI process for more recovery of oilsands (2 million bpd more than current projections.)
Other enhanced oil recovery (microwave or more small providers working older bypassed oil) 1 million bpd
Colorado Oil shale development 2 million bpd by 2020.
ANWR (if needed) 1 million bpd
Biofuels - conservative +2 million bpd equivalent

Natural gas from Marcellus Black Shale. (160-516 trillion cubic feet). More natural gas powered cars and trucks or for heating.

Even before getting into anything really fancy. No more oil imports. Plus Canada could be a safe import source with its share of Bekkan, oilsands etc...

Freedomcar project uping the efficiency of diesel and possible thermoelectrics

Nuclear - power uprates and build 100+ new reactors by 2030. Helped along by climate change bill to increase cost of coal.

Some more wind, solar, geothermal

At the very least an easy and long term transition to electrification.

Bekkan for what one third of US oil imports. (what 4 million bpd)

Vastly overestimated

Gulf of Mexico deep sea oil (1 million bpd)

1% to 5% probability

THAI process for more recovery of oilsands (2 million bpd more than current projections.)

Maybe, maybe not. I would bet not, but possible

Other enhanced oil recovery (microwave or more small providers working older bypassed oil) 1 million bpd

Small operators 100K to 250K (ask WesTexas, that is his game)

Colorado Oil shale development 2 million bpd by 2020.

Zero from oil shale

ANWR (if needed) 1 million bpd

From memory, that is the upper, 5% probability estimate

Biofuels - conservative +2 million bpd equivalent

And burn 1.5 million b/day in oil & gas to produce, collect, process

-100,000 b/day /year US depletion AFTER small operators normal additions. In a decade -1 million b/day.


DOE info on enhanced oil recovery


With the proper incentives and CO2 availability to underpin an accelerated program, current technology applied to existing fields has the potential to double CO2-enhanced oil production by 2015 and quadruple it by 2025, according to in-house modeling by DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).

CO2 EOR’s potential to boost U.S. oil production was further supported by a series of basinoriented CO2 EOR assessments that Advanced Resources International Inc. (ARI), Washington, DC, conducted for DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy. Taken together, the assessments concluded that a broadly applied CO2 flood campaign utilizing “state-of-the-art” CO2 EOR technology in large, favorable reservoirs in these regions could add 88.7 billion barrels of technically recoverable crude to the Nation’s potential oil supply portfolio. That’s not the same as economically recoverable volumes, which hinge on oil prices, the ready availability of low-cost CO2 supply, and other economic and technical risk factors. According to ARI’s study, relying on “traditionally practiced” CO2 EOR technology would enable just 4 billion barrels of this potential to be economic.However, introducing “state-of-the-art” technology with oil prices at $30-40 per barrel and large volumes of low-cost CO2 readily available renders 24-40 billion barrels economically.

Beginning efforts to develop the 89-billion-barrel addition to resources would depend on the availability of commercial CO2 in large volumes. If this oil could be added to the category of proven reserves, the U.S. would have the fifth largest oil reserves in the world behind Iraq, which has 115 billion barrels, based on present estimates; and an additional 430 billion barrels would make it first, ahead of Saudi Arabia with 261 billion barrels. The capture of CO2 from combustion in power generation and other industrial uses is the subject of other research and development programs sponsored by the Office of Fossil Energy.

Next-generation enhanced recovery with carbon dioxide was judged to be a "game-changer" in oil production, one capable of doubling recovery efficiency. And geologic sequestration of industrial carbon dioxide in declining oil fields was endorsed last year as a potential method of reducing greenhouse base emissions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

this has several chapters on EOR. CO2, thermal and chemical EOR are done now and the future potential is discussed. At $60 per barrel or more there will be a lot more enhanced oil recovery. How CO2 are we sequestering to enhance oil recovery?

CO2 enhanced recovery is already at 200000bpd and at $60/barrel is projected to go to 500,000 to 800,000 bpd depending upon CO2 availability.

thermal EOR is used a lot in California

chemical EOR is also used.


Plenty of oil shale production methods are being tried and there is an oil shale commercial industry mainly in Estonia. (20-40 million tons per year)

3.2 Modern in-situ processes
3.2.1 Shell's in-situ conversion process (ICP)
3.2.2 EGL Oil Shale Process
3.2.3 Chevron CRUSH process
3.2.4 Petro Probe
3.2.5 ExxonMobil Electrofrac
3.2.6 Volumetric heating by radiowave, microwave, and direct current technologies


They [Shell] are then expected to prove the commercial and environmental viability of their process, and if they do, they will be granted a second RD&D lease for an additional 5,100 acres. (Five thousand acres may not sound huge, but Shell believes that the most promising parts of the Green River Formation could yield more than one million barrels per acre using ICP.) Shell applied for and received three RD&D leases; EGL, Chevron (Charts, Fortune 500), and Alabama-based Oil Shale Exploration Co. got one each.

opposition to oil shale is nowhere near as loud and organized as the fight to stop drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Northwestern Colorado is certainly scenic - high desert plateaus interspersed with lush river valleys - but it's no ANWR.

Around Rifle (pop. 6,800), people seem at peace with Shell's oil shale plans, says Ling. There's already a thriving natural-gas industry in the region, so the idea of digging for oil doesn't give locals the shivers the way it would in more touristed, populated parts of the state. All that being said, once Shell gets closer to commercial production - Vinegar says it will be no sooner than 2015 - the politics will surely get prickly.

Of course if there is a lot of easier and cheaper oil from Bekkan than oil shale development will go slower

Past tense for all except Shell. All other US R & D efforts have been abandoned and Shell has apparently gone to "go slow" mode (a story some months ago of passing on additional acreage, cautious statements about further development or expansion).

I was not previously aware of the Estonia shale but found a good technical paper.


At the time of the paper, 2/3rds of Estonia shale was burned for electricity and a bit for cement production. Oil Shale mining was subsidized. I found no mention on the internet of increasing oil shale production, or diverting oil shale from electrical generation to liquid fuels production at current prices.

So I remain quite skeptical (but not quite as much as before) about how likely we are to get liquid fuels from oil shale.

A good plan for the future of the USA should assume oil shale production produces zero liquid fuels. If a surprise develops, adjust plans accordingly.


Schlumberger just bought the Raytheon microwave process and are moving forward to try to commercialize it.

Plus foreign oil shale projects (even electrical ones) count as the original Stuart posting was about global energy forecasted to 2050.

Shell go slow mode is still talking about 1-2 million bpd by 2030 or 2035. Well before the 2050.

A good plan does not ignore all technology until they are commercialized. One should be looking at what technology would have high positive impact and push like hell to make them happen.

There should be a portfolio of low, mid and high risk projects.

Just like a financial plan with only t-bills (or stuffed under a mattress) would have less performance and higher risk to asset erosion from inflation than a mixed portfolio. The perceived risk might be less but actual risks are higher and performance is worse.

There can be three or four scenarios. One with less technological development and then others with different technology. But the current state of technology should not be underestimated. You, alan, thought that nothing was happening with oil shale because you ignored Estonia and because you do not like it. A lot of what has happened in energy are things that people here do not like, yet it happened and is happening. Pretending that they do not leaves crappy analysis and inferior plans.

I am not against R&D (I would like to see the fusion budget at least tripled), but except for modest progressive changes (7 MW WTs for example) results from R&D should NOT be planned for until they are at the stage of commercialization.

Pumped storage is real and works. HV DC is real and works. Electrified rail is here and works, e-Bikes are real and work etc.

Take these pieces, plan and start implementing a solution based on real, working pieces. When a breakthrough comes along, modify plans to incorporate these changes.

Suppose that none of your selected techs work out commercially, but a surprise one or three do. Any plans based upon technologies that did not deliver (on time) are wasted time, effort and energy.

For example, suppose algae diesel "kind of" works ($6/gallon in 2008 $ once scaled up), and sunflowers are genetically modified for much higher oil content. And there is a breakthrough in stationary battery life and cost (suitable for local and substation storage but not cars).

This reduces, but does not eliminate the value of HV DC lines and pumped storage. Further construction could be slowed down and scaled back. Electrification of remote branch rail lines may not be worth electrifying (run locos on algae or sunflower oil), etc.

Planning for specific new technologies to arrive at certain times is quite foolish and should be avoided,

Best Hopes for Skepticism,


This is not a centrally planned economy.
Many different companies are putting effort into these "new technologies". Some government grants and sponsoring of some R&D.

A lot of companies and governments do not have to plan for them over the next 4-6 years, but they should be watching and keeping tabs on the actual efforts to prove this stuff out.

The ultrabattery (ultracapacitor/lead battery) test by Australia/Japan/UK had a vehicle driven for over 100,000 miles. It is a lower cost and higher endurance product. Each of dozens of car company can decide if they want to adopt it or not and when.

On Bakken, various companies are buying the land and drilling for the oil.


Petrobank: Drilling and completion costs are approximately $1.7 million per well. most wells are profitable after 6 months. Petrobank’s Canadian Business Unit production now exceeds 17,000 boepd including more than 12,200 boepd of high netback, Bakken production. Petrobank now has an inventory of 540 net Bakken locations based on a drilling density of only four wells per section, and we plan to drill 154 of these locations in 2008, which we expect will make Petrobank the most active operator in the play.

At an average of 250 bopd for each of the locations, that would be 52,000 bopd by the end of 2008 and 147000 bopd by about 2010 for the current holdings from this one company. Some of wells have been coming in strong at 1000-2000 bopd.

Petrobank is also a leader in developing the THAI (Toe to heel air injection) oil sand recovery process. They are developing a 100,000 bpd site using THAI.

That is just one company.

In 2007, EOG Resources out of Houston, Texas reported that a single well it had drilled into an oil-rich layer of shale below Parshall, North Dakota is anticipated to produce 700,000 barrels of oil. [Actually I think it is their single field near Parshall. Each well is delivering around 2000 bopd.]


A lack of central planning results in the electrical future that Great Britain is facing. A "Rush to Gas" and now domestic natural gas is falling and imported NG is hard to come by. The capital cycle is longer than the rate of depletion.

We have a mixed economy, and central planning is an essential part of it.

Roads are centrally planned, as is most infrastructure. Even without zoning, roads control sprawling development.

Preserving Suburbia on the promise of new batteries and 4 million b/day from Bakken will likely lead to disaster as neither comes to pass.

You consistently make a false assumption. If something CAN happen, it WILL happen, (and so one can count on it and plan for it).

I doubt that many of your new techs CAN happen (at least in a reasonable time scale, and if any CAN happen, I doubt that they WILL happen.

I take a much more prudent, conservative and realistic view. One can follow developing technologies, but they should be ignored when planning for the future. (Unless one wants to make a contingency "what if" Plan B or Plan C).

Once a technology goes commercial in a widespread fashion, even if immature, then plans can be adjusted mid-course.

Best Hopes for Realistic Planning,


I don't have to plan to preserve Suburbia. I just expect it until the people start leaving.

Just as China has a shift of 1-2 % per year of population from Rural areas to urban areas (small and large cities) over decades. So any shift from surburbia would take a long time.

The inner cities did not hollow out overnight.

I do not see the costs shifting to cause the destruction of suburbia. suburbia is not preserved on the promise of batteries or tech. The default state is where the people do not leave.

People have to decide in large numbers that they want to leave and that has not happened.

It is you and the others who are expecting a change in trends. The trend is still towards the suburbs. Small sections of unsold developments can happen but overall the numbers are still for growth in the suburbs.

City populations still growing.

For many Americans it is "Drive or Starve".

Lack of planning could well result in that.

It would be prudent to reverse the gov't policies that emptied established towns and cities, that would be a good start.

Tolls on all limited access roads would be a very good start (say $0.50/mile).

Add a risk premium of 0.5% to all federally insured (Fannie Mae, VA, and Ginnie Mae) mortgages that are more than 2 miles from an electrified transit stop would be another. Said risk premium would be removed 30 days after a new transit stop opens.

After WW II, the Gov't built large #s of free roads and gave low cost (almost free) VA mortgages for new construction, but refused to lend in established neighborhoods. Both were central planning choices. The two steps above would start to level the playing field.

No new technology required to save large amounts of energy :-) Toll roads and mortgage financing are well established technologies (recent innovations in mortgage financing appear to have some bugs that need to be worked out though).

Best Hopes for Reducing the # of "Drive or Starve" Americans,


Just-in-Time Technology Fairy !

straw man alert!

Hardly, postulating fabulous new technologies that will save BAU is the hallmark of the technocornucopian.

Among the claims was some new oil field would turn the USA into "Export Land".

I have abstracted this world view into a belief in the JIT Technology Fairy, as real as any other fairy.


who said that we'd save BAU or even try for BAU? change is constant. why do you assume we would do things in the future how we do them now? you create straw mans like JIT tech. guess what, the tech won't be there in time and that's GOOD. that means prices for energy will rise and all manor of inventions and inventors will come out of the woodwork to make the next fortune saving us money on energy.

we don't even need JIT tech. hybrids and electric vehicles are over 100 years old! in the last 30 years or so MPG has only gone up 70%-100%. we need to improve old tech and conserve.

in the last 30 years or so MPG has only gone up 70%-100%. we need to improve old tech and conserve.

You Sir are a bald faced liar.

Show us how to "improve" the internal combustion engine!

Oh, and show how MPG has went up this 70-100% based on car class.

Cuz I'll point out a late 1970's Datson had a station wagon that got 50mpg. VW Beetles of the 1970's City mileage is close to 25 mpg while a steady cruise at 50 mph on a long run gave us above 40 mpg.

Todays VW Beetle
Gas Mileage: 22 mpg city / 30 mpg highway

For you to be correct, there would have to be 100 MPG station wagons running on internal combustion engines and VW Beetles would have to have gotten better.

But go ahead, show YOUR data that supports YOUR position.

Why bother when he can just claim that the Sacred Free Market with the help of the Just In Time Technology Fairy will sort it all out for us?

I would have loved for our resident techno-cornocopians to accompany me to the lecture on the future of fusion I went to at UCLA - the guest speaker's real plan to save us with energy was mining helium 3 from the moon and putting it in a (non-existent) helium 3 fusion reactor - all in an era of declining resources
and then they could have listened to a top fusion researcher quietly tell me after the lecture that he expected a "Mad Max" future to happen long before all the bugs were worked out of fusion...

but NO, what am I saying?! the Free Market will provide!!!

what happened the last energy crisis? people bought cars with better MPG. serious research into solar and etc. started. we started to get oil out of our grid. there is so much more than technology too. there is also good old conservation. the just in time tech is a straw man. the JIT tech that is going to save us is the electric car and hybrid car which is over 100 years old. there are also PHEVs. I am not even mentioning the low tech options of conservation, walking, riding bikes and car pooling.

the free market will provide, count on it.

no, you count on it, I seriously doubt it

your stating endlessly that the free market will provide, as if the free market were some generous god handing out free lunches to all us kiddies down here, does not make it so

we've been over this again and again - where will the additional electricity come from? the electrical grid is breaking down NOW - the situation will only get worse - and how are we supposed to afford to replace the entire EARTH'S fleet of vehicles quickly?

the free market is not a religion, and it's not even a very good system of distributing the resources of the earth

where will the additional electricity come from?

The same place the extra electricity for the cell phones, computers, blackberries and big screen tvs came from. we could also conserve. we can plug in at night.

the electrical grid is breaking down NOW

My power is on, is yours?

and how are we supposed to afford to replace the entire EARTH'S fleet of vehicles quickly?

who said we have to do it quickly? MPG increased markedly during the late 1970's just on conservation and buying smaller vehicles. they weren't even as close to PHEVs and EVs as we are.

what happened the last energy crisis?

Let me guess.

the free market will provide, count on it.

people bought cars with better MPG.

Due to government policies.

serious research into solar and etc. started.

Due to government and tax laws.

we started to get oil out of our grid.

Due to government policy.

Say, how *DOES* a "free market" exist if choices are constrained by government policies?

I forgot, if something isn't totally a free market that becomes a huge topic of discussion here. yes there is some government intereference in markets so they aren't exactly free. are we passed that now?

the simple fact is that with or without government people know to buy more fuel efficient cars when gas prices go higher. the market will take care.

I forgot, if something isn't totally a free market that becomes a huge topic of discussion here.

You chose to use the term.

yes there is some government intereference in markets so they aren't exactly free. are we passed that now?

If you have to apologize for your line of thinking, perhaps your thinking is wrong.

"If you have to apologize for your line of thinking, perhaps your thinking is wrong."

nope, just didn't realize the crowd I was dealing with.

"Oh, and show how MPG has went up this 70-100% based on car class."

why would I have to do that? nonsense. the only thing that matters is we use oil more efficiently in more efficient engines. we need to switch first to buying smaller cars and ditching the H2s. we need to conserve. we need to make more progress on hybrids, PHEVs and EVs.

Higher prices change behavior.

Like Western Europe, Detroit was significantly impacted by the 1973 oil embargo. Before the embargo, American cars got bigger and thirstier each year. V8 engines got bigger, the cars got longer wheelbases, and more and more power and convince features added more weight and sapped more power. By 1971, the standard engine in a Chevrolet Caprice was a 400-cubic inch V8, and most came with power windows, seats, and air conditioning. The wheelbase of this car was a long 121.5 inches (3,090 mm), and Motor Trend's 1972 test of the similiar Chevrolet Impala could not yield more than 15 miles per gallon, even on the highway. However, after the oil embargo, these big behemoths sat on dealers' lots week after week, month after month, without being sold, while the newly-introduced four-cylinder subcompacts, and six-cylinder compacts, were in greater demand than the supply. In addition, Japanese and European automakers began to export more and more compact cars into the US than before to meet the demand, Toyota becoming the top seller in a short time due to the superior quality of their models. Nissan, Peugeot, Volkswagen, Mazda and Honda also racked up record sales in the US during this period.

This forced the Big Three (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) to introduce more smaller and fuel-efficient models for domestic sales, and the Chrysler Omni/Horizon, Ford Fiesta and Fairmont, and the Chevrolet Chevette all had four-cylinder engines, with room for at least four passengers, by the last Seventies, but Toyota, Honda, and Nissan had by that time captured the market to a great degree with their improved, front-wheel drive models that offered more for the money and better fuel mileage than their American competitors.

By 1979, virtually all the big "full size" American cars were "downsized," featuring smaller engines and smaller dimensions outside, but retaining the roominess demanded by Americans. These new models also got better fuel economy.


that took place in only 6 years. with hybrids, PHEVs and EVs we could do even better.

CAFE went up because of higher prices.


why would I have to do that?

You don't HAVE to do anything. You can let the claim that you are a liar stand.


That is why I called you a bald faced liar - because you were spouting nonsense.

nonsense about what? MPG soared last time we had an energy crisis.

MPG soared last time we had an energy crisis.

Not defending your own statement eh Bald Faced Lair?

in the last 30 years or so MPG has only gone up 70%-100%.

Unless, of course, you have a differnet definition of 'last energy crisis'.

look at the link above. MPG soared the last energy crisis. and by crisis I mean the 70s in general. I just want to make that clear before someone says we're in an energy crisis now or whatever else someone dreams up.

By 1979, virtually all the big "full size" American cars were "downsized," featuring smaller engines and smaller dimensions outside, but retaining the roominess demanded by Americans. These new models also got better fuel economy.



Excellent start to one possible scenario, especially one that considers a 'SuperGrid'. You've made many assumptions, which is invariably required in order to produce at least one outcome. Various parameters could be adjusted to provide sensitivity analysis.


You've made several broads claims without providing a basis for those claims. Let's examine a few of them;

The steel input into Light Water Reactors (LWRs) runs from 1/3 to 1/10 per MWh of that for wind farms and solar arrays.

No reference for this claim. My Solarex solar panels contain no steel and bolt directly to my roof with no additional mountings. While extensive use in desert areas would likely be purpose-built arrays, there is nothing that prevents the use of roofs there and other areas for solar panel installation.

Wind farm construction uses up to 6 times the concrete per MWh as LWRs.

No references for this claim.

The intermittency of sun and wind, require enormous redundancies in order to provide 24 hour a day base power. Current renewable schemes also call for an enormously expensive new, high technology grid.

You don't seem to have read the article, which already addresses this.

the Pebble Bed Reactor (PBR) and the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) have exceptional potential for dramatically changing the outlook for reactors.

These are not ready for deployment, so you missed one of Stuart's ground rules about future technology.

Will, Stuart's ground rules simp0ly will not yield enough ele4ctricity by 2050. His scheme is utpoian in the extreme and amounts to the reductio ad absurdum of the renewable case. His transmission systen along costs 400 trillion dollars, and this does not take into account the cost of world wind electrical generating capasity. He has no estimate of materials input for his scheme, which is a good thing because they would instantly reveal its problem. I would prefer to go with the safe bets, but material costs and dollar inflation mare throw all of the safe bets out the window.

The pickings are mighty slim when it comes to information on material inputs for renewables. Data on steel input for solar and wind generated power is very hard to come by. My estimate for steel inputs 3 to 10 times that of nuclear comes from an EU report that I have seen, but cannot reference. Perhaps you could reference me if I am wrong. Or you just in the dark about materials input? I know however that the price of installed wind turbines increased dramatically between 2004 and 2007, and the major factor was the increase in the price of steel and cement.

"Material Input for Advanced Brayton Cycle Power Conversion Systems" by Per F. Peterson and Haihua Zhao, University of California, Berkeley provides a the basis for my materials utalizarion.


They show

Nuclear: 1970’s vintage PWR, 90% capacity factor, 60 year life[1]
–40 MT steel / MW(average)
–190 m3concrete / MW(average)
• Wind: 1990’s vintage, 6.4 m/s average wind speed, 25% capacity
factor, 15 year life [2]
–460 MT steel / MW (average)
–870 m3concrete / MW(average)

The also give these figures for recent reactor designs.
for GT-MHR Power Conversion System

concrete input of 90
m3/MW(ave) based on building
arrangement drawings, the total
GT-MHR steel inputs are about 30
MT/MW(ave), 75% of the 1970’s
PWR value.
• the Gen III+ ALWR estimated to
have the lowest inputs, the 1380
MW(peak) General Electric
ESBWR, are 80 m3/MW(ave)
concrete and 32 MT/MW(ave)

They report:
Molten Salt Coolant Gas Cycle (MCGC) for VHTR and
• MCGC-VT (or MCGC-IT) PCU design has almost a factor of two
reduction in specific steel inputs (3.7 MT/MWe(ave)), compared to the
GT-MHR PCU design.
• This is in part because
–it can be optimized at higher
operating pressures,
–and because the additional reheat
stages give a 5 to 10 % increase in the
cycle thermodynamic efficiency for the same turbine inlet temperature

No one has put together figures for materials input for molten salt reactors. But this is hardly a flaw, materials input figrtes for solar and wind generated electricity are also hard to come by. This design

Specifies 3000 tons of materials for a Max. output of 630 kW. How much of that is structural steel is open to question.

This study
Reports on the materials input for a 100 MW Australian ST array. "main materials are steel tubes (948x10 t), concrete (948x10 m3), other steel products (948x4 t), fibreglass (948x1.6 t), glass (948x0.8 t), and polystyrene foam (948x0.4 t)."
The steel input is about 13 tons per rated MW. However the facilities has a power plant capacity factors of around 20%. Hence per output MW, the facility uses 66.4 tons of steel pre MW. This information only includes only the steel dedicated to solar collectors.

You use as a reference point the lack of structural steel in your home PV systems. Large scale PV and ST generators will not be bolted directly to desert floors.

Or you just in the dark about materials input?

Your data is off by a factor of 5.

Barbara Batumbya Nalukowe, Jianguo Liu, Wiedmer Damien,Tomasz Lukawski,
Life Cycle Assessment of a Wind Turbine, 22 May 2006
- steel: 92 MT/MW
- concrete: 166 m3/MW (400 tons/MW)
- lifespan: 20 years

Note that all of the steel in a wind turbine is recyclable; how much 'hot' steel can be recycled from a decomissioned reactor?

Stuart's ground rules simp0ly will not yield enough ele4ctricity by 2050. His scheme is utpoian in the extreme and amounts to the reductio ad absurdum of the renewable case.

You provide no support to back up these pronouncements, hence we have no reason to consider them at this time.

You are only using the steel in the tower. If you add up all the steel in the tower, hub, foundation etc you come up with 523 tons. Or 175 ton/MW for the 3MW turbine they analyzed.

Next you have to adjust for capacity factor. A capacity factor of 30% means 525 tons per MW. Which is very close to the number Charles cited.

Working from the relative density of standard and reinforce concrete I used 10% steel in the foundation so 460 metric tons (153 ton/MW). I think we have tracked down the high value as owing to use of a capacity factor. In any case, I doubt we'll be using steel in this kind of application much longer since there are much lower embodied energy alternatives.


523 tons of steel? Let's add it up the steel in a 3MW turbine installation;

Tower: 275 tons steel
Blades: zero steel
Hub: 8.5 tons iron
Nose Cone: zero steel
Generator: 8.5*0.65 = 5.5 tons steel
Gearbox: 23 tons steel
Frame,Shell: 37*0.85= 31.5
Foundation: Unspecified ("some")

This adds up to 343.5 tons, not 523 tons.

And over 90% of that is recycleable; how much 'hot' steel can be recycled from a nuclear reactor?

Very good, you learned math.

I got 180 tons of steel for the foundation from this site.
Granted, its for a larger turbine, but its in the ballpark.

MDsolar got a similiar number in his calculations.

Either way, with a capacity factor it seems the number quotes by Charles is correct.

Will, the critique of the figures you gave was that they were not adjusted for actual output but relied on nameplate capacity.
This is fundamental, and arithmetical quibbles do not cover up your mistake.
Since you were fairly forceful in your original criticism of wind materials cost, and it is now evident that they were broadly correct, a retraction would be more gracious than your ignoring your mistake - I lost a decimal place in a discussion in this thread a couple of days ago! - but I simply retracted and apologised.

The numbers shown speak for themselves. Note that the number for concrete has not changed, so make sure you don't assume that number I presented to be contested. Are you going to press Charles to 'fess up' as well?

The same situation for concrete. Adjust name plate numbers with capacity load. Charles' numbers are correct for steel and concrete.

No, the number I provided references for is half the number Charles stated.

The advantages of MSR technology are so great that they answer all rational objections to the use of nuclear power.

What is it that makes nuclear proponents so scarily absolutist?
How does a non-existent technology "answer all rational objections"?

Questions about the issues that Stuart mentioned above seem very common-sense to me (nuclear economics as opposed to alternatives, security/terrorism issues for the nuclear fuel cycle, environmental impacts of the nuclear fuel cycle[I live in Colorado with plenty of nuclear mine/mill/tailings Superfund sites around and cancer-ridden Navajo miners too], costs and safety of waste disposal and decommisioning,etc.).
But apparently even raising these issues is not "rational".
With friends like this, nuclear energy does not need any enemies.

RE: "scarily absolutist", are you referring to yourself or to the next-gen nuclear proponents above?

Please explain how Charles Barton's & advancednano's above descriptions of Pebble Bed and Molten Salt Reactors (replete with examples and links to already-built and proven reactors no less), somehow qualifies as "non-existent technology"? Would you be convinced if Mr. Barton or advancednano were to actually build a molten salt reactor in your backyard and use it to power your neighborhood?

No one here is arguing that old LWR technology is *not* dangerous, environmentally destructive, inefficient, and produces a toxic legacy of very long-term radioactive waste. However, don't we also reserve the right to grow smarter over time?

You don't have to be a pro-exponential growth Cornucopian to see that better technology can solve *some* of our problems, while it clearly *cannot* solve others (population overshoot, debt & consumption-growth based economy, tragedy of the commons, etc.). There is a pretty broad range of viewpoints between machine-smashing Luddite and crack-smoking Cornucopian. Some TODers here seem to forget that.

Since I have taken no position, but merely listed some common-sense questions, I think it is unlikely that I can be fairly characterized as "absolutist".
But "answering all rational objections", clearly implies that anyone with an objection is irrational. Not exactly Dale Carnegie's way to "win friends and influence your enemies". Simply listing the potential objections makes it clear that they have been in no way addressed. How does imagining some future MSR address the issues of terrorism/security for the nuclear fuel cycle?
Until I see evidence that a full-scale production MSR or pebble-bed reactor exists, this technology is "non-existent" as far as current electricity production.
Enough with the "Luddite" stuff, I work as a software engineer and have degrees in mechanical and civil engineering. Making choices among energy production technologies on the basis of the economic, environmental, and social cost/benefits does not make one either a Luddite or a Cornucopian, but just a reasonable person.
Clearly energy issues will be addressed with some combination of technology and social change. Personally, I am skeptical that nuclear power will make a significant contribution.
The economics are much better for insulating attics to reduce electric heat consumption than they are for building new nuclear reactors. Unsuprizingly, more dollars flow into insulating attics than into building nuclear reactors, absent subsidy for either activity.
Implying that those with objections are irrational will not change economic reality.

They've built a pebble bed reactor in China, however it is not yet operational.
They did however run a large test plant for several years in Germany.
I agree that better insulation and so on are a much more cost-effective route, however in Europe at least we are being coralled into renewables technologies which at least to make power at any reasonable cost are far more speculative than some modest projection of nuclear technologies.
here is the British governments' cost estimate for wind-power expansion:
'At £2 million per megawatt of "capacity" (according to the Carbon Trust), the bill for the Government's 33 gigawatts (Gw) would be £66 billion (and even that, as was admitted in a recent parliamentary answer, doesn't include an extra £10 billion needed to connect the turbines to the grid). But the actual output of these turbines, because of the wind's unreliability, would be barely a third of their capacity. The resulting 11Gw could be produced by just seven new "carbon-free" nuclear power stations, at a quarter of the cost.'

No one here is arguing that old LWR technology is *not* dangerous, environmentally destructive, inefficient, and produces a toxic legacy of very long-term radioactive waste.

I do not agree with any of that. How can you call an industry that has never had a documented death "unsafe" (the Western nuclear industry)? The waste will only be radioactive long term if we do not reprocess it. All the long term waste can be eliminated. How is it environmentally destructive compared to alternative sources such as coal?

Obviously, there is even better technology becoming available but the existing nuclear technology is already better than anything else now in use. Just because there are a lot of vociferous critics does not necessarily mean those critics are right.

Yeah, its a nice resounding lump of bull. Especially the assumed energy cost of decomissioning.

Try Caldicott also, seeing as you're predisposed to look for literature that cherry picks the data to paint the outcome from the start (when not outright lying.)

Er... I don't know how to tell you this... houston, we have a problem, huston, we have a Collapsing Ecosystem problem!

More than two thirds of our ecosystems are collapsing (as we speak)... they don’t have enough oomph left in them to pull us through... 2050 may be a bridge too far!

Full report (large file, 6.47MB): http://are.berkeley.edu/courses/EEP131/fall2006/MA+General+Synthesis+-+F...

Bill Mollison (founder of Permaculture) made this interesting quote (italics mine). We've passed a threshold, and we don't have the intelligence to engineer the environment:

The extinction rate is so huge now, we're to the stage where we've got to set up recombinant ecologies. There are no longer enough species left, anywhere, to hold the system together. We have to let nature put what's left together, and see what it can come up with to save our ass.

No flies on Bill Mollison and I agree with him 100%. A colleague of mine recently wrote:

We have reached an ecological threshold whereby any economic activity within the malignant culture of exponential growth triggers a host of destructive forces that are detrimental to the environment and human welfare.


This is what all the 'discourse' is forgetting. Forget about comfort levels, sustainable energy, continuing civilization, car culture. Without an environment, a ecosystem, it is all meaningless.

And that is my current rant. If they can spend millions and billions to put men in space, why is there not the same effort to recover the desert? Why is there not a 'science of horticulture' to recover denuded areas of the planet? Put those millions of soldiers and militia to work planting ... ~anything~. Put those disenfranchised people to task giving them plants and some square footage of earth to restore it while giving them some food ... ah well ... the most obvious solutions ...


More food? More humanity? "'science of horticulture' to recover denuded areas of the planet?" Restoration? Soon we'll be talking about real changes: a "NEW" World Order: "No Order!"

Food, more than vaccines and weapons, is the ultimate means of control. Plant more food for everyone and you'll lose control.

How else could you "persuade" people to build pyramids, tens of thousands of bridges and tunnels, millions of miles of railways and roads... fight lions, work 10-12 hours a day, or go to war?

How many of us out there know how to grow a potato?

My comments to the article are about assuming that fertizer from petroleum/natural gas is good. It is horrible for the soil and plants! The fact that 95% of the nitrogen fertilizer used in commercial agriculture in the US comes from this source does not change this...
An excellant book outlining an alternative we all produce is Joe Jenkins book, Humanure. In this book he tells how to copesthetically compost human byproducts and get good growing medium...Pee has 16% nitrogen, poop 6%...Jean Valjean, via Victor Hugo, commented in "Les Miserables" quite eloquently,on such waste in the 1830s! The Seine was being wrecked,filled with what China had used to feed its people sustainably for 4000 years made himi sad. Check out the chapter on the sewers of Paris...Chinese also gave it a bad name by putting "nightsoil" out on fields without composting it. Properly handled parasites, harmful microbes can be eliminated.

The first, on population, also seems to me a non-negotiable moral imperative.

For someone who (presumably) understands the exponential function, I find the idea of sustaining population and economic growth as somewhat delusional.

No less important than the choice of technologies is how to get to this future. Government and UN targets will not do: what is needed is a political-economic mechanism that would be flexible and robust at the same time, one that could use market forces but strong enough to bend them.

The most persuasive model I believe is "contraction and convergence" - a framework that would oblige developed countries to contract their use of carbon fuels, permit some developing countries to expand their use of fossil fuels, until everybody converges at a low level.

Fairness is key issue here: the challenges are global, therefore a concensus solution is necessary. This is where nuclear fails: you can't tell Iranians they have to reduce emmissions but can't use nuclear power while you keep building your power plants. They will simply not listen to you.

Contraction and convergence should also take place within national economies. If the rich will be able to afford oil and food and the poor will not, political stability will be gone, not only in Africa but also in Europe.

The most intelligent development of this mechanism that I came across is the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales blueprint Zero Carbon Britain. Again, the key issue for me is not the mix of technologies they suggest, but rather the idea of Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQ).

Having lived without electricity for about a year (in London)I know from experience we can get by with far less energy. I am not suggesting to give up electricity, but I think the technological questions will come second. As Stuart Staniford demonstrated in the article above, there is perhaps no technological panacea, but there are solutions. When awareness to the gravity of the situation will be reached, people will willing to make changes, compromises and sacrifices - for the next generations. Without such awareness, even the most painfree suggestions will not find support. The challenge is first and foremost economic, social and political, and only then technological.

Hi Stuart,

I wish that you had posted this in sections, with the first focusing on your energy replacements so that we could have hashed that over for a few weeks.

First, we have been studying oil production, and coal, and NG and biofuels and they all follow a sigmoid function. Meaning they start exponential, but outside forces damp the growth rate. We should be trying to identify those negative feedback loops relating to alternative energy sources. I will suggest a few below.

Second, why do you feel that alternative energy sources will scale up faster than fossil sources did? Oil has been hugely profitable, high EROI, and is the lowest cost and densest transportation solution we have devised, and yet it grew at a consistant 7% rate. It has been my experience to look for "rules of thumb" to let me know when I am way off. Perhaps faster growth is possible if we feel oil's limitations will not be present.

Third, from a Tainter "Collapse of Complex Society" viewpoint, things like the global grid are very dangerous. A branch hits a power line in an African desert and the US grid goes dark. I think any solution will need to factor in the EROI cost of redundancy. We just need to think about how best to measure it.

Ideas on the growth throttle of solar PV (I encourage everyone to start web searching this topic to get Stuart the data he needs. The sources should be as solid and analytical as possible. Chats with grad students about 20 years from now are not so helpful).

1. Material issues. Pure silicon is expensive. How much will it cost above current prices to make more? How big is that supply? Nano solar uses rare elements. What is that supply curve going to look like?

Right now wind and solar are a tiny fraction of the current economic investment. This means they get a free ride from fossil fuels. When they are a larger fraction of the power supply two things will happen:

2. End of government subsidy. Once the alternative energy supply gets to be a substantial fraction of the total supply, diverting funds from fossil to non-fossil will become much more expensive. This will slow the growth rate as PV will need to pay for itself, and it's own R&D and still provide power to the grid at a competitive cost.

3. Larger impact on overall supply demand. For instance, if wind needed 10% of the yearly steel production, that would push up prices 50%. That price increase would throttle back growth. The lower the EROI the more of the standard economy must be disrupted and the higher the price impacts.

Ok, those are my first morning thoughts. The difference between an oil cornucopian and a peak oiler is the belief in negative feedback. We should look for the negative feedbacks.

I do not have the exact long term figures to hand but would consider that a % scale up for solar could be similiar to that of say flat panel TV -which was about 15% recently: Double your oil example but only a quarter of Stuarts needed PV rate.

Having said that if buying a panel kept the lights on -as opposed to simply diplaying CSI repeats ad nauseum- % take up might be a lot higher...


Hi Nick,

Well, here is my reasoning, and you can let me know if it makes sense. Oil had about 7% growth before the US peaked. EROI was high. Price of oil was about $5.00 per barrel. Then oil peaked. Prices jumped up to $20.00 per barrel and growth slowed to 2.5% or so. It is even lower now. Population kept on increasing. There are lots of people who want oil. So why has the rate gone down, not up? Clearly, demand is not the factor. Oil EROI is declining. The cost of production keeps creeping up pushing up costs. My argument is that as EROI dropped, the growth in extraction drops.

Now, for me, this translates into the concept that solar, with a lower EROI than initial oil, is going to have a higher production cost and lower rate of growth. So low at the moment, that there would be zero growth without government subsidy.

OK, my thinking is more along the lines of:

Consider if you where able to buy a barrel of oil that was NEVER empty but you could only take out a ertain amount each day -how much would you pay for that barrel? Probably a lot

We know the take-off rate for one-offs can be extremely high. Especially if the one-off becomes essential. Think of penetration rates of TV, Mobile Phone, etc. These can go from zero to 100% penetration in some markets in a matter of decades and they are not really essential items.

Companies like Nanosolar are creating panels at cents-per-watt prices that people will purchase like the 'endless barrel' upto their outtake needs and install on their houses...

The Penetration 'S' curve could match a household commodity and the rate would be very high. In a real crisis the government could back loans for PV purchase as well as funding a mass buildout of PV panel plants. NanoSolar claim ~400MWatts from 1 simple roll-printing-process plant so if each of the top 50 countries built 100 such plants in 10 years we could have: 50 x 100 x 10 x 400 MWatts = 20 TerraWatts. Each plant is costing (I think) about $100 million -or it probably would do with mass rollout/fabrication so per country thats $100 million x 100 = $10Billion or $1 Billion per year -chump change- and they would a) safegaurd their populations future and b) in doing so gaurantee an income from loans and -probably more importantly!- continuation of taxation...

The real issue with the above dramatic rollout is the strain it would put on the resources that go into the process. I have not calculated that but then neither has Stuart, it is only shown as a scenario as to how we might rollout an energy solution very very quickly...


I would agree that if the price of solar PV dropped to match coal, then solar PV could grow as fast as coal is growing now, in total Kwh supplied. Which would be huge amounts compared to the current resource base. And would be restricted by the rate you could build new factories and train new people (which seems to be 60% or so from current experience. Very quickly).

But, just for a moment, let us assume that prices do not come down. But that the government implements a policy that all electricity will cost as much as current solar PV and all new electricity will be solar. Prices go up by a factor of 4. Does demand for electricity go up? Or does it go down? It goes down of course. A 400% increase in price would drive demand down by many percent (I don't have the elasticity of demand for electric power). The price would ripple through the economy causing price inflation. The economy would contract as more energy is diverted into the power generation sector (to build PV factories and installations). And then the economy stabilize and start to grow. But would that growth rate be faster than the previously cheap coal? Or slower? Less energy surplus (indicated by higher prices) = less growth.

That is my take anyway. I don't have a formal proof. We need an ecological economist. LoL! Nate!!!


I think your point about using "rules of thumb" is an especially good one. Dr. Nate Lewis discusses how cheap solar PV would have to be become a viable option on a mass scale. His answer is "About as cheap as it costs to paint something."

The full, excellent, video is here:
Powering the Planet: Where in the World Will Our Energy Come From?, CalTech Theater

He is leading the Powering the Planet initiative at CalTech. He uses data from the World Energy Assessment and World Energy Council, so we know that he is overly optimistic for the availability of fossil energy. But his presentation is a video form of Stuart's article above and is necessary background for any discussion of our energy future.

Best Of The Oil Drum Index

Dr. Lewis's presentation was very good. And the transcript is very helpful.

He essentially says that PV must get 25 times more cost effective to compete with fossil fuels directly, and 4-5 times more to compete as electricity. He seems to have mapped out all the major families of PV. I wonder if he has updated his graphs. He was very clear that he did not feel that any of the current families of PV would ever reach the low cost level.

What this means is that the efficiency gain would have to come on the usage side. For instance, instead of heating with natural gas, we would need a method of using electricity that was 5 times as efficient (ground source heat pump). And those changes would also need to scale at the industrial level. Without the efficiency gain, costs will rise, the economy will still contract.

I need to finish reading all of Stuart's solar links.

"Oil has been hugely profitable, high EROI, and is the lowest cost and densest transportation solution we have devised, and yet it grew at a consistant 7% rate. It has been my experience to look for "rules of thumb" to let me know when I am way off. Perhaps faster growth is possible if we feel oil's limitations will not be present. "

Oil only grew at 7% because demand didn't grow any faster than that. Oil, gas, and coal growth has been demand constrained until very recently.

Fossil fuels, such as oil and gas are analogous to a hunter/gatherer economy. Energy sources which are manufactured, such as wind turbines and solar panels, are very similar to any other manufactured good. They are analogous to a farm economy.

Manufactured energy sources are much easier to ramp up, and don't have the same limits. Potential growth rates are proportional to the installed base (the definition of exponential growth), so high exponential growth rates are sustainable.

The mission of OPEC and the Texas Railroad Commission was to limit production to maintain pricing in the face of supply that was greater than demand.

Wind and solar are supply-constrained, but at levels of 50%+ per year, or doubling every 2 years. Wind especially has no special, rare materials, and has a natural resource much, much greater than current human energy production, so the limit to growth is overall industrial manufacturing capacity. Overall industrial manufacturing capacity is much greater than that needed for maximum wind installation rates. For instance, new demand growth in the US is about 8GW (average) per year. At 30% capacity factor that's about 25GW of new wind capacity, or about $40B per year. That's less than 10% of US light vehicle sales, which in turn is only a fraction of US manufacturing (either consumption or production).


I enjoy reading your Posts as they are well laid out but I must be feeling overly 'Doomerish' today as I feel that your Economy Requirement cannot be met. In fact it seems a little like the IEA statement that since energy demand growth is predicted it will be met.

My worry picks up on the ELM model conclusions and the comments of Aangel above.

Your 'Energy Plateau' phase -roughly the 20 years from 2005-2025- corresponds with a period when almost all the OECD countries are NET importers and NET exports are decreasing very rapidly. If the ELM model is correct then the US (UK, etc, etc.) will not be on a Plateau but revert back to whatever can be produced internally + whatever can be afforded of the increasingly scarce and increasingly very expensive Net Exports of Oil and shippable LNG. The burdon on these economies could simply prove too much as proved by the 70s. In short the rules of the game that have allowed Economic Growth may change long before we get to the PV ramp up stage.

My feeling is that if we can survive to and can execute the PV ramp up phase then we have effectively survived forever (I had the same feeling about getting to Fusion). Therefore I think there is an urgent need to assess the validity of the ELM and the resulting NET decline rates and believe the next 20 years and specifically the next 5-10 years to be absolutely critical.

Regards, Nick.


This is a fun post. I would give one pointer on priority: Bucky Fuller first proposed a worldwide renewable grid. There is an organization that has been around for a while that promotes his idea. One thing about losses is that to carry typically 30GW of transmission in a transmission line, you need a conductor that has a diameter that is larger than for a 3GW capacity setup such as the Pacific Intertie. Because you have a larger radius of curvature, you can go to higher voltage because the limit set by corona discharge has to do with the field gradiant which is reduced with less curvature. This means that losses can be much less than your estimate.

The second comment I would make it that converting to electric vehicles implies the existance of a large quantity of batteries that are past their prime as transportation grade batteries but are still useful in stationary applications. I estimate that conversion to electric vehicles give 0.5 days of storage of total generation through this mode.

A caution I would make is that the energy payback time for the Nanosolar product needs to be compared with its durability and so it would be better to take a technology where durability has been more fully characterized. The largest data set is for silicon and it looks as though cutting purity requirements to 6 nines will bring the payback time down to about 9 months so that we can expect EROEI of about 33 if we require replacement when performance degrades to 80% of the initial performance. CdTe technology is already demonstrating about this level of performance because there has been extensive accelerated aging testing conducted by First Solar together with NREL. In terms of delivering electricity this is considerably higher performance that either current of future nuclear power.

Installed solar at the end of 2007 is 12.4 GW nameplate. Average net generation is about 2 TW so at a 20% capacity factor, that is a little over 0.1 % of net generation. I'm not sure how well this fits with your 2005 estimate of 0.003% of total.


I think his figure for 2005 is not that far off. First electricity is like 1/3rd from world energy consumed so this brings solar PV down to 0.033%. Then in the end of 2004 we probably had less than a third of current installations, so this goes down to 0.011%.

If he (mistakenly) included PV on output value as opposed to thermal equivalent, this gets us to 0.004% - which is in the ballpark of his figure.

IMO the correct figures would be:
0.011% for 2005
0.033% for 2008

The global economy, about $72 trillion in 2007, will be several hundred trillion dollars by 2050 under my assumptions.


I apologize for, in a previous thread, saying/implying you were hoping to get speaking gigs for big corporations. After reading the above quote, I honestly think you may be having some type of nervous breakdown, albeit one that may not have yet directly affected your ability to function in your day-to-day life.

I realize this is the most extreme form of "ad hominem" attack but I don't know what else to say as the idea that the global economy could possibly be several hundred trillion dollars is about as realistic as Alex Jones using Ray Kurzweil's work to tell us that the global elite are about to turn themselves into space-faring hybrid cyborgs with infinite lifespans.

I also realize you said this is not a "forecast" but a "scenario." But it is a scenario so hyper-ridiculous it's hard for me to understand why you'd give it serious treatment and invest considerable time in sketching it out.

Maybe some part of your consciousness has realized where this is really heading, which is nuclear war and a massive die-off, and this latest series of articles is the product of some other part of the brain trying to prevent that realization from reaching conscious awareness. I don't know. If that is the case, I certainly can't say I blame you. I still want to vomit from time to time when I really think about where the arc of current events is taking us.

Your work 2005-2007 was some of the best in the PO 'sphere, and you deserve tons of credit for that. Particularly since you produced them entirely on a volunteer basis. (I incorporated several excerpts and graphs into LATOC's main two pages, for whatever that's worth)

Best of luck,


I would agree with you this far: you and I cannot both be sane and emotionally healthy at the same time :-)

Psychologists have debated whether sanity should be defined based on fitting in with social norms or based on a good grasp on reality.

Freud really wanted people to fit in, so he tried to help people curb their individualism. Along came the 60s and Jung became the rage because he wanted people to explore their true selves. Fitting in is really very important in an energy constrained society because cooperation is imperative for survival. With U.S. power at its apex in the 60s, it makes perfect sense for the individualism of Jung to thrive, as fitting in isn't necessary when easy motoring can take you somewhere else, and the cost of experimental failure is low in a rapidly growing economy.

If you think about it, the social norm definition makes it a certainty that only those viewed as insane will see and potentially speak about untenable fundamental social assumptions that don't correspond to norms.

Stuart, you are totally sane. You are telling us we can still grow...phew!

Matt, you are totally sane. You are telling us growth is impossible on a finite planet...oh no!

Now, which one of those messages is society going to believe?


You're dead on accurate. Within the context of a culture where turning the oceans into giant hunks of plastic floating on pools of toxic acid is seen as not anything to be concerned about, Stuart's line of thinking is completely normal and sane.

FWIW - I completely agree that the state of the oceans is deplorable. I completely agree that they should be fished sustainably, and if we stop burning coal, then we'll get rid of a lot of the mercury problem. I just don't think human die-off is a very good solution to our environmental problems.

Strong global economic growth and human die-off on an unprecedented scale are not mutually exclusive.

Could you then please present that argument?


This is something I've worried about, too. The historical case in point is the Black Death in Europe in the 14th century. A plausible case could be made that the Black Death led ultimately to the Renaissance and the rise of Modern Europe. The massive deaths (certainly 30%, perhaps as high as 50%, no one knows for sure) gave an economic jump-start to the survivors. I think that there are respectable historians that have made this case, but it's been a long time since I've studied this. Avian flu would be a candidate disease to have a similar impact today.

Having said that, though, I tend to agree that it's not a scenario worth "counting on" to rescue us from our problems, or worrying about over much, since it's so unpredictable. I would count on no die-off at all, develop our scenarios accordingly as Stuart has done, but maybe keep some alternative scenarios in our back drawer in case this sort of thing unfolds. An unanticipated possible problem which the doomers are not counting on is that it would NOT result in the collapse of industrial civilization, and that in fact it might enable efforts to perpetuate mistaken policies.


It's a sterling proposal you develop, Stuart, and if humans functioned well as a collective species in its long term interest it has a sporting chance.

As things stand, however, I must side with Matt: partial human collapse and die-off is a logical minimal pre-requisite for probable survival of humans as a developed species (continuity of knowledge etc, hopefully), and this planet as a viable home.

Human die off is a totally appropriate solution to this planet's environmental problems, just rather unfortunate for humans, can't see how you could argue with that objectively.

The ultimate crux is: can we reach a long term sustainable human population and resource infrastructure? If so, what population might that support?

My guess is the answer to that is already well below current global population even if we equalised wealth and resource usage.

One thing is very certain: we, as a species, must change fairly radically from the behavior that has served us well till recently. I personally think significant die off is inevitable unless we make major strides in this direction. It appears illogical, to me, that current economic, business, social, behavioral models will remain appropriate.

I think you are right to keep fighting to find ways out of the current mess. Please keep fighting and trying, I hope there is some hope yet. I've heard despair creep subtly in to Richard Heinberg's interviews and articles lately, you are one of the very few I respect who seems to see possible ways out without extreme pain. I don't believe you (I don't believe anyone) but I hope you are more right than me.

Just heard most of GW's speech, it should have been a Carter sweater speech, it wasn't, but nor did Carter's wisdom get him re-elected, lol. Perspective:

Once I jested that the 'evaporation' of USA was a short term solution. Utter nonsense but as sane as anything we are doing so far - we must deal with this (energy, food, population) problem rationally and immediately or it will deal with us.

In the US and other places like England individualism is a reult of the protestant reformation. That is why communism was never strong in protestant countries, but was in catholic countries. Blame that rather than psychologists.

You have misinterpreted my views. I don't think psychologists have much to do with what society does, only that the popularity of a particular brand of psychology will be reflected in what society wants/is capable of doing at any moment in history.

Same for religion--religious tastes reflect cultural tastes. For example, during the Ronald Reagan years in the U.S., when it was morning in America again and the economy started rebounding eventually due to Alaskan and North Sea oil, it became fashionable for mega-churches to preach that if you gave them a lot of money god would return it to you with interest. These megachurches usually had preachers who dazzled with their own jewels, and they often got in trouble for being corrupt.

No shortage of ideas out there in culture-land, but the dominant ideas come and go according to economic fortunes, technical abilities, and the resulting political climate.

In the U.S. I see individualism as a result of the rich resource base, permitting many economic opportunities and thus less need to cling together in families and communities. If you get into an argument, just move on and start over. The religion that tells people this is a good thing will be selected by the people. People do what they want then rationalize it.

It did occur to me that perhaps Stuart is presenting a scenario which he personally considers to be unlikely, as a starting point for a discussion.

In any case, I thought that the ongoing NG problems in the Iran/Turkey area were instructive.

Faced with a NG supply/demand imbalance, Iran didn't offer to join hands with Turkey and sing the local version of "Kumbaya," while offering to share their NG. Iran delivered a middle finger salute to their neighbors in Turkey and cut off all NG exports. And of course, Turkey cut off all NG exports to Greece. A post today on Drumbeat indicated that NG exports to Turkey have resumed, but at a low rate.

"It did occur to me that perhaps Stuart is presenting a scenario which he personally considers to be unlikely, as a starting point for a discussion."

The economy growing to "several hundred trillion" is far beyond "unlikely". It's into bat shit crazy territory.

In some ways as crazy as when the USGS released those memos post-U.S. peak (around 1973) saying they didn't expect the U.S. to peak until after the year 2100. (I'll dig those up if somebody really wants, I think they were in that article mobjectivist transcribed several years ago)

Matt, I would like to take you up on the offer to unearth those memos. Or, tell me where to search and I'm happy to do some legwork.



1972: 420-2250 billion barrels Theobald, Schweinfurth & Duncan, U.S. Geological Survey Circular 650 11

A bit later the chief of the USGS said there was "no limit" in a speech he gave

Source: http://mobjectivist.blogspot.com/2005/05/our-petroleum-predicament.html

(The entire article is worth reading if you have the time. Probably not anything new but very fascinating in its treatment of the issue and the personalities/institutions involved, particularly Hubbert and how he was treated)

Thank you. I will make time to read it. Repeating the mistakes of the past, and all that.



Exactly. It is Bat-shit-crazy.

I get what Stuart is doing... and I am baffled why he is taking so much crap from people here.

He is going, "If x,n, and p , then y,z,and q."

If you think y,z, and q are bat-shit-crazy you need to examine x,n, and p.

Since a WGP (world gross product) of a few hundred trillions is silly, where is the flaw? I think the obvious flaw is continued growth. Obviously there will be (is?) a worlwide ressesion.... ie. Negative growth. So, how does that effect things?

I dunno. Nate needs to weigh in on, will we continue to add solar and wind in the face of declining WDP, or will we spend the last little bit of energy on 2 more M1A1 so we can invade another country filled with black gold.

I think this article is VERY useful because it shows how much solar we need to install and the huge infrastructure installments needed to make it work. Since I find that sort of investment unlikely with the current crop of politicians, (note I didn't call them leaders) I can then say, "Well we would need to do x,n, and p, but we aren't..... so... what does that leave us?"

While I think Stuart would like to propose a plan that DOESN'T involve a Machete Mosh-pit (thanks Bob), I personally find that an unlikely outcome. Sadly Genocide seems to be imprinted upon the genes.


Look at that graph of energy sources... Skip for a moment the exponential rocket of solar power. Look at the area under the curves for 2005-2020. Oil, Coal, NatGas. Now, integrate over the CO2 factor for those fuel sources. That right there tells me that there won't be a constant or growing population because we are going to heat the earth until Kansa-braka turns itself into a desert. Oh, BTW, Colorado will NOT be releasing the amount of water you folks expect, we need it to continue our economic growth. The massive die offs from a drop in wheat productivity of the short grass plains will drop the population to a frightening degree. Because I live in America, I am pretty sure it won't hit me nearly as hard as the people living in countries that import food. (ELM for the win) However, I will be biking to work as fuel WILL go to tractors. I also expect to eat a lot less meat, and what I will eat will be grass fed not grain fed. (which is a net win for humans and the eco-system)


If Stuart said "here is a scenario where 2 billion people will be living on Mars by 2050", I think it would be safe to say he was having a breakdown. The scenario he painted in this article, one where the global GDP grows to several hundred trillions of dollars and solar energy grows to provide 250 billion BOE, is equally nutty.

Matt the Chimp,


If Stuart says, "To put 2 billion people on Mars it takes X,Y,Z" that is not crazy. That is simply a statement. If Stuart says, "I beleive that X,Y,Z can happen and are likely", I might question his sanity.

I'm not convinced that Stuart believes that we can and WILL install that much solar. As I said upstream, even if his installed solar graph was realistic (IE, everything else motored on) I say that the climate change caused by the area under the Coal/Oil/NatGas part of the graph will cause such massive upheaval that the rest of the model starts to break down.

You are approaching the problem from a holistic viewpoint. This is a good way to do things. It also means that mathematical comparisons are neigh impossible. You get a lot of wrangling about words and statements because nothing can be proved in a holistic model.... because the problem is TOO COMPLEX. The only way to figure it out is to try it and then try to explain your results.

Scientists and engineers try to break down a problem till it can be modeled with a solvable mathematical equation. This gets us things like, "OK, lets treat a Cesium atom like it is a nucleus and 1 electron. All those non-valence electrons don't count". Its not right, but it gives us remarkably good results.

I suspect that Lawyers, like a lot of liberal arts types are trained in a holistic problem solving approach. I'm not degenerating it, I'm just trying to point out, you are both right. You are arguing against something Stuart is not (at least to me) saying.

Stuart is simply taking 1 simple thing and addressing it with a model. Obviously the model is flawed, but it is a datapoint you can take and apply to the holistic model. When someone goes, "Oh we can power society with solar" you can grab Stuarts work here and go, "Right, this is how much solar you have to install and how fast to continue the current economic and social model, where exactly are you going to find enough silicon?"

If anything, this scenario proves how bat shit crazy "business as usual" is. Its batshit crazy WITHOUT ANY OTHER DISRUPTIONS TO SOCIETY. No unusually large wars, No Credit crunch, No housing meltdown, No NYC/London/LA/San Fran/Miami/Tokyo flooding from the rising sea, No Gulf of Mexico disappearing in a Class 9 hurricane (I know they only go to 5, I used to live on the coast)

So now, when doing a holistic look at the problem, you can go, "well I know that we will likely install solar, but not enough..... hmmm what does that do?"

okay, I see your point. Sorry for misintepreting.

What you say about looking at something holistically is dead-on. What I've noticed is the complete opposite from a lot of people who, strangely enough, always seem to work in the software industry where you can make a very good living by manipulating code. This seems to provide a fertile ground for the thinking that it's just a matter of plugging in numbers from fuel source X to replace whatever we lose from fuel source A. The reality is it's, as you say, a gazillion more times more complex than that. Here in Santa Rosa for instance, I could show you all sorts of ways to reduce fuel usage by encouraging bike riding. But it would take 15 years of constant work to get the city council to say "yeah, we approve of more bike lanes" and then to get people to use them? LMAO, it will never happen on any significant scale. That's just for something simple like bigger bike lanes here in Santa Rosa, CA.

How much more complex is it to rework an entire global economy that, to one degree or another, looks like this:


What I absolutely love about Sonoma County (where Matt lives) is that they have agreed that the environment is very important. And climate change--gotta do something about that. The only county in the nation where every city and the county government has agreed, about unanimously (I think there was 1 no vote among 9 cities and 1 county council) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically over the coming decades. It is a fantastic example of a place with aggressive policies to encourage solar PV and the local governments are adopting stringent efficiency plans that reduce consumption of energy. I would like the whole U.S. to be as forward thinking as Sonoma County (including my own county just to the north).

However, Sonoma County is giddy about new freeway construction, and is also planning to build many more houses in an area already drawing down fresh water supplies and siphoning water from its neighbors. Why? They gotta have growth. I can't see how Sonoma County meets it greenhouse gas emissions targets without giving up growth, and apparently they either haven't thought about that, or when push comes to shove they are going to go for growth and go ahead and miss their eco-friendly targets.

When you consider what funds local government--property and sales taxes--and what the backlog looks like for infrastructure around here for critical things like water and sewer treatment and distribution, most of which was built 40+ years ago and needs replacement/upgrades, and the fact that city staff are running as hard as they can to stay in place...it all starts to make sense. Gotta have growth now to survive...can't have growth in the long-term to survive...I'll pick the short term.

I openly talk about the insanity of growth and acknowledge the trap governments are in. I don't get booed out of the room, but I am not embraced either. Cognitive dissonance rules.

You are approaching the problem from a holistic viewpoint...

It was discovered in the 1800's that 'holistic' in the way you are using the term more or less usually means 'holy', ie. theological. They used different terms for 'holistic' back then, of course, but that was the essence of it: people take loose concepts and endow them with so much 'reality' and power that they really do start to function like gods for them. And they respond by worshiping those concepts.

From the get-go I've judged The Chimp to be a theological thinker. He used to call himself a prophet of doom. Apt choice of nickname!!!

He once said the only thing he was good at was scaring people. So maybe all the (o)ranginess we see today is angst over a threatened career! :-)

Mmmmm . . . let's see here. LATOC averaged 15,000 visits and 70,000 page views per day last week, got a mention in a WSJ front page article over the weekend, and the solar generators and freeze dried food at my prep store are selling like hotcakes.

In other words, when it comes to at pyschoanalysis, I'd say "keep your day job big guy".

...and the solar generators and freeze dried food at my prep store are selling like hotcakes.

Ah, god bless America. Only there could such words be written in full earnestness!! Hee hee. You can actually hawk the apocalypse. i.e. stand on the street corner and peddle it for real money. And people will take you seriously!!! Step right up!!!

Do you ever, for a fraction of a second have a twinge of conscience? But wait a moment....you are a lawyer.

ADDENDUM: you realize the irony, don't you? That 3/4 of the people here believe the US suffers from capitalism gone wild and you've succeed in monetizing peak oil panic!!


What do you do for a living? I ask because in terms of doing good for the planet, I'm pretty sure that selling micro-solar equipment, books like "Gardening When It Counts", and storable food is way better than whatever the hell it is your sorry ass does for a living. I'm damn proud of what I do and can state with 100% confidence it is actually helping lots of people. My guess is you're just a cog in some corporate machine and probably as expendable as a coffee maker from Wal-Mart.

Much of my employment history has involved looking after people that are helpless in many ways. That's why I get pretty steamed when I find a wily huckster.

But regarding the supposition you deleted. In fact, no, I've never owned a car, never owned real estate. And I'm no spring chicken.

You say you help people... but you've scared the hell out of them first. Sort of like a hell-fire preacher who offers sweet Jesus as a balm for the weary sinner.

But like many a preacher, you could be totally sincere. You could really believe what you offer is going to help people through some kind of imminent catastrophe.

But what if it's all vanity and delusion, Matt? What is it that gives Matt Savinar the credentials and acumen to assess these things and sell the antidote?

I like the cut of your jib George:) but I find Stuart scarier, at least with Matt I know what he is selling and how, as you suggest; snake-oil and hellfire. Stuart has presented something I am sure he knows is so untenable as to lead only to what he decries, that is, the die-off solution. Is that what he is really selling by presenting such a 'bat shit crazy' scenario?


We still don't know what you do. If it was something you could be proud of, I see no reason why you couldn't clue us in a bit more precisely.

It's not me who scares people, it's the facts. When I say "The U.S. is set to spend over a trillion dollar on Iraq" or "Our leaders are telling us these are wars that will not end in our lifetime", or "there are 20,000 nuclear weapons throughout the world", it is not me doing the scaring. It is a sober analysis of the verifiable facts that any reasonable person would be scared to death by.

As far as "capitalism gone wild", I make my living selling micro-solar products and books on organic gardening, eco-farming and the such. If you honestly think that a book likes this:


. . . is an example of "captialism gone wild" or akin to a hellfire preacher offering "sweet Jesus as a balm" I really don't know what to say.

Have a day.

Hi, George. I try to scare the hell of people in my presentations, too. Nothing else seems to get through.

Then I end by describing what kind of people they will have to be in the face of what the future is bringing. I also describe the leadership roles that are available and the tasks that need to be done. Then I invite them to get busy.

There is nothing wrong with getting people into emergency mode. It has downsides for sure but it can also bring out the best. Witness the amazing generosity of people after Hurricane Katrina. People dropped whatever they were doing and went down to help. And if they couldn't help that way, they sent money or food or clothing. Yes, we will see some truly inhuman things as we descend the peak. But I'm counting on the community around me and seeing some truly human things, too.

As for your question, "But what if it's all vanity and delusion, Matt?" I sincerely don't think Matt's given that a moment's notice. And if he does, he should go back, look at the peak oil graphs, then banish the thought forever. He should stay focussed and get as many people prepared as he possibly can in the time available. And if he needs to wake them up first, so be it. Most people are asleep, wouldn't you say?


Hey aangel watch it, those people asleep are dreaming the American Dream , you wake those suckers the way you say you need to and they will tear this world to bits in their frustration, rage and fear.

More seriously there are channels that don't depend on fear to spread a convincing message, TOD for instance and there is automaticearth as well as ClubOrlov to name just three.

Hi, CrystalRadio.

As for the tearing of the world into bits, that hasn't been my experience. Here are some comments from my third-last presentation:

  • "Thanks for saying that. I've been following peak oil for a while and was wondering when it would get some attention."
  • "You scared the crap out of me but I'm definitely selling my SUV now."
  • From the conference organizer: "We didn't want this to be a touchy-feely event so thank you for being realistic."
  • "What do I say to my teenage daughters who think that the situation on the international level is more important?"
  • "How much energy is going to transportation instead of agriculture?"
  • "I knew this was going to happen some day but I didn't realize that it was going to be so soon."
  • From the conference organizer, two weeks after the event: "In gathering feedback from participants, we learned that our employees really loved your presentation."

Admittedly, it's a small number of people I've spoken to (~900) but my people have been thoughtful and concerned and have always asked, "What can I do?" Unfortunately, I am unable to follow up with everyone to discover if they have taken out their fear on a local school with a gun, for instance.

Although some people are fragile, the majority are not. If we relate to them like adults who are just as capable of dealing with reality as you and I are, they will rise to our expectations, see reality clearly and get down to making choices. I was at another event last night speaking and the plans for a community farm and local transportation were flying around the room by the end of the night.


P.S. Thanks for links...didn't know about those two sites.

But just think George.

If Matt was not doing what he does, he might have to go back to being a Lawyer...

Wow. Matt's not just the leader of a nutty doomsday cult. He's the leader of a moderately successful nutty doomsday cult. I'm impressed.

Still got a long way to go though, buddy. You're peanuts compared to big league doom operations like the Jehovah's Witnesses. Personally, if I were going to join a cult, I wouldn't be buying bags of repackaged dog food from your rinky-dink website. I'd join the Raelians. Those Raelian girls are cute!

"where exactly are you going to find enough silicon"?

:-) :-) The crustal abundance of silicon is 25.7%. Whatever else we may run out of, we won't run out of silicon.

Its expensive to reduce it though. Easier to turn it into mirrors. Easier still to build nuclear plants and wind turbines, which has sort of been my point.

Easier still to build nuclear plants

And yet the hard part of building machines that don't fail exists.

Oh and attract attackers.

Oh and attract attackers.

I see this or variations of same all the time ..
We've had a global nuke power system for what, some
40 years now ?? Name a single commercial reactor that's
been a terrorist target ..

Triff ..

According to the 9/11 commission, a nuclear plant in New York was considered as a target.

The French sentenced a person last March for plotting to attack an Australian reactor.


You would think if nuclear reactors were such a good target some terrorist would have hit one by now. Or the 9/11 crew would have hit a reactor instead of the twin towers. Perhaps they arn't that good a target.

Apparently the 9/11 plotters were misinformed about the air defences of the power plants and the targets they chose had a greater symbolic value in their view. Bin Laden has also promised no first use of nukes so attacking a reactor might be seen as breaking that promise. I don't have a lot of faith in that promise since there has been some plotting on a dirty bomb in the UK. Hitting a reactor is basically a very large dirty bomb.


In a perfect world, defeating entropy and curing hunger, making 1kg of Si from SiO2 requires 15.1 MJ. This number is suspect because it does not take into account the energy of the crystal lattice either, at least I don't think it does. Don't have a CRC handbook with me at work.

Now, I'm pretty sure those electrical arc furnaces neither work at 100% efficiency, nor do they break even on thermo equations.

Stuart, do me the favor of NOT treating me like a retarded moron. We'll never run out of Uranium if we mine the oceans, but I haven't seen anyone propose a realistic way to do that either.

Silicon is about the most EXPENSIVE thing in the crust to extract because it REALLY REALLY REALLY likes Oxygen.

As for the Objection to 350 Trillion is a really large number:

Here is world Steel Production:
Steel Production

I wish I knew how to make that appear in my post instead of linking....

So, to grow from 70T to 350T, we will to make the math easier, assume a linear growth in steel. (Sorry, but selling debt back and forth to each other doesn't count as 'growth' to me.... making more cars does.)

Steel Input

so ~110,000/month *1.5 iron/steel * 350T/70T = 825000 tons/month of Pig Iron.

World Iron Reserves are at: 330 GigaTons.

At your rate of usage we only have 3,333 years of usage left!

Of course we need coal too:

Coal Input

222Mt + ~200Mt of Coal bought by steel (in 2006). I'm assuming that is Coke and heating. Dunno. I had to add the Hard Coal Trade and Sea Trade numbers to get ANYTHING that agreed with the numbers on the steel page.
1,244 Mt of Steel made (2006)

So, we will need:
559 Mt coal * 350T/70T = 2795Mt Coal.
( I got 559 by mulitplying 1244 * .450 tons Coal/ton Steel, numbers from the steel institute page)

Perhaps Heading Out would like to speak to the likely hood of 2795Mt of Coal being mined. Let alone the fact that only 13% of the current coal production goes into steel, so 2795Mt for steel really means: 21,500Mt Coal mines that year. Wow. The coal page says 147 years of reserves @ 5370Mt/year which means 789,390Mt (give or take a ton)

Hmmm... we now have 36 years of coal left instead of 147.

Lets not get into issues like diminishing returns on hard to reach coal of the fact that this coal will clearly have to be extracted with electric powered mining tools instead of gasoline powered since we ALL agree we are running out of oil.

How many mountain tops is that? What is the global warming effect of that much coal? All I did was Steel Production...... what increase in electricity generation will be needed to support an economy that is this much larger? I'm not taling about consumer needs, I'm talking things like Aluminum smelters. I mean... heck we need more aluminum to add to all this steel. By the way, Just what the heck are we putting all this steel into? Building a ladder to the LEO?

Stuart, 350 Trillion is not only BAT SHIT CRAZY, it is CRAZY RAPTURE RELIGION CRAZY. I know, I've been to Pat Robertson's Barn. That is a special kind of gay people make hurricanes crazy! (My friends used to care for his horses) It is Iraqi's will love us and welcome us as liberators crazy. It is Jews and Arabs sharing Jerusalem crazy. It is... I dunno.... perpetual motion crazy?

I'm not saying growth is evil, but Jason is dead on. We need to concern ourselves the impact of our growth. I would love to see technology applied not to the problem of growing our economy more, but to reducing the footprint of a steady state economy so we can save the planet and NOT have to kill off something like 36 million extra people a year for 50 years.

I suspect that Chimp is right though, we will kill each other instead of share.

Chimps picture seems to be of a Great physical battle of claw and knife, blood on the teeth, jungle death fighter, Last Powerhouse of a Man Left Standing wins Out school, but I find the picture more in the line of the battle of the bulge-y.

Matt - do you have a more compelling argument than "$350 trillion is a big number"?

In short, you say you don't want a die-off but the amount of industry your scenario would require would - with 100% assurance - turn the entire planet into one giant floating toxic waste dump uninhabitable by just about anything more complex than bacteria. And even they might find it tough.

Heck even a full blown nuclear exchange with hundreds or thousands of ICBMS would probably end up creating less death and destruction than would the unintended consequences of the scenario you posted. (It's that bad.)

Seriously, it is do disassociated from anything resembling reality aI would need about 10 hours to even begin explaining to you exactly how. Quite frankly, I don't think your brain is physically capable of even understanding why. This seems to be the case for most people I've encountered who work with software. I'm not entirely sure why, maybe making decent money for manipulating code conveys upon the brain a bizarrely disconnected from reality confidence in technology. This may be similar to what occurs after years or decades of driving one's own individual car which I suspect conveys upon the primal part of the brain a false sense of personal power and confidence to affect outward events in the physical world.

To me that is what is really interesting here. How can somebody of your intelligence not see why the scenario you posted here is, as Larry put it, at the "RAPTURE READY" level of nuttiness.

Ok, I'm hearing you say that the answer to my question is "no".

When it comes to analysing past data, you're the dude. When it comes to accepting earth's limits, you don't appear to be capable of that. What if we could continue economic growth for 50 years? Well, it would be great for me, as I'd be dead, but I'd worry about my kids, and their kids.

Having a crustal abundance of X% doesn't mean that we have mass of crust multiplied by X amount of some resource available to us. There are practical limits and the amount of energy required to extract those resources starts to rise unreasonably. The waste heat starts to fry the planet. Surely even producing 1000 quads from solar would warm up the planet? No-one does the complete analysis so we are left with hopes and wishes. It amazes me that a lot of smart people on forums such as this just can't accept limits to growth. If a lot of smart people can't accept that, how on earth are our political leaders going to? It really does look like it's each person for themselves, keeping their fingers crossed that enough people start seeing enough sense before we're all toast.

Producing solar energy is essentialy the same as increasing the Earth's albedo slightly. We can assume that the bulk of the solar panels will have efficiency around 60%, (80% is the limit and Dupont is currently commercializing 40% efficient panels). These panels will therefore be quite dark. The Earth's albedo is about 0.39. To generate 7 TW with 60% efficient panels we need 5*12 thousand square meters or 0.01% of the Earth's surface area. So, the Earth's albedo would become about 0.38999. This is a substantially smaller effect than greenhouse forcing from carbon dioxide. Asphalt road surfaces have a much larger effect than solar power.


I don't know what all the potential effects of capturing that amount of solar energy would be (land use, materials to build the panels and transmit the electricity, capturing sunlight that other parts of the biosphere would use, capturing sunlight that might otherwise be reflected, and so on). Some of these effects may be regarded as tiny and not worth worrying about but where is the study? You've touched on one of those aspects (and thanks for that), so are you saying that 1000 quadrillion BTUs (actually, I think Stuart's chart indicated about 1100 quads equivalent) per year ending up as waste heat in the atmosphere would not be significant over any period meaningful to societies?

I should have said decreasing the albedo above but you were replying when I tried to edit. When we make the Earth slightly darker, less sunlight is reflected and more is converted to infrared radiation which can be trapped by the atmosphere. But, the amount of darkening we would do with solar power is very slight. The Earth already absorbs 61% of the light that falls on it. Compared to that amount of energy, what we produce by any means, fossil fuel or nuclear is miniscule. The problem we have is not on the energy side, but in the way we are changing the opacity of the atmosphere. This accumulates and holds in some of the vast energy coming from the Sun. With solar power, we are disturbing the energy balance very little but we are helping to stop increasing the opacity of the atmosphere. That is the main point right now about renewables though there are other advantages: they don't run out, they cost less in the long run and they bring us slightly back towards a sane way of living.


Energy used by civilization currently amounts to 10^13 watts, while energy absorbed and reradiated from solar insolation is some 10^17 watts. Waste heat will someday be an issue, after we grow some 10000 times larger and are generating a substantial amount from non-solar sources.

that may be what you're hearing but it's not what I'm saying. I'll put it another way: I can't possibly be expected to debunk Alex Jones' claim that the "elite" are about to turn themselves into space-faring hybrid cyborgs with infinite lifespans right before they kill 95% of us off. Why? Because it is so utterly beyond ridiculous. But Alex could show me all sorts of white papers from Ray Kurzweil on the wonders of biotech and nanotech that he says support his scenario.

Now you're about 10 times smarter than Alex Jones but what you're doing here is, imho, not all that different. At the rate you're going your next post is going to be "A scenario for massive suburban development on Mars. Sure it might require $1,000 trillion in investment and 30,000 trillion BOE but here's how it could be done." Or something equally ludicrous.

Check out Stoneleigh's questions on page 2 of this thread or Jeff Vail's points down below if you dare. I'm not wasting my time attempting to address this insanity anymore.

Because hellfire and brimstone is at the gates! We're at the end of growth any moment now just like we've allways been! We're the last spectators at the great show of the end of civilization! Huzzah!


Out of curiosity, are you a professional asshat? Or just an amateur one? Just asking . . .

Oh come on, you really couldn't do better than that? No really, those invisible clothes look wonderful.

Matt - this is stepping over the line in personal invective. Please stick to the substance and avoid just flaming people.

'Quite frankly, I don't think your brain is physically capable of even understanding why.'
So why not post a contrary thesis, developed with an equivalent level of thought, literacy and knowledge to that which Stuart propounded?
Clue: You are not capable of it.
This does not of course mean that you are incorrect in thinking that Stuart's thesis may be incorrect, just that you have no tools to properly assess it.
Your assumption of superior insight, of 'knowing what is what' is unsubstantiated.
You may think you have a divine vision of truth, a lot of people do - but unfortunately they are at variance with each other in 'God's commands', and so the more intelligent of them seek to persuade by rational argument.

In short, you say you don't want a die-off but the amount of industry your scenario would require would - with 100% assurance - turn the entire planet into one giant floating toxic waste dump uninhabitable by just about anything more complex than bacteria. And even they might find it tough.

Heck even a full blown nuclear exchange with hundreds or thousands of ICBMS would probably end up creating less death and destruction than would the unintended consequences of the scenario you posted. (It's that bad.)

The usual doomer fare... Long on melodrama and hyperbole, short on evidence.
It's very clear that you have a strong motivation to pooh-pooh any and all solutions. After all, if there's a solution, who needs you and those silly bags of human ALPO you're flogging?
There's a clear solution to peak oil, but it's impossible to make you understand it because your livelihood depends on not understanding it.

In fairness to Matt, I think his die-off compulsion began considerably before he was generating any income from it. I agree about the extremely high melodrama/evidence ratio however.

Hi, JD.

Please do tell what the solution to our predicament is. I've been scratching my head for months and all I've come up with is:

  • we need to curtail energy drastically to buy ourselves some time while we power down our societies and divert energy and money to renewable generation
  • it will likely be painful medicine, but it must be taken now. Whatever the impact on the economy now, it's better than a collapse and/or global depression (which may happen anyway -- we may already be in a no-win situation)
  • have an emergency G8 meeting to begin the curtailment as soon as possible (Lester Brown's idea)
  • reject any plan that includes personal transportation; we don't have the money or energy for it
  • abandon air travel immediately and put all money into rail and bus rapid transit systems
  • support family planning to begin reducing our population on the planet

And if we do all that, maybe, just maybe, we've bought our selves ten more years before the oil starts to decline significantly.

What are your ideas?


Hi Andre,

I appreciate your contributions to the above exchanges.

Just a note I'd like to add to the point,

re: "support family planning to begin reducing our population on the planet"

I offer the suggestion that full legal rights (human rights) of women are a necessary requirement for the implementation of family planning measures of any sort.

Short version: "Yes, but you are too stupid to understand, so I'm not telling"


It might be bat shit crazy but as Monbiot points out in his recent Population Bombs:

In other words, if we accept the UN’s projection, the global population will grow by roughly 50% and then stop. This means it will become 50% harder to stop runaway climate change, 50% harder to feed the world, 50% harder to prevent the overuse of resources. But compare this rate of increase to the rate of economic growth. Many economists predict that, occasional recessions notwithstanding, the global economy will grow by about 3% a year this century. Governments will do all they can to prove them right. A steady growth rate of 3% means a doubling of economic activity every 23 years. By 2100, in other words, global consumption will increase by roughly 1600%. As the equations produced by Professor Roderick Smith of Imperial College have shown, this means that in the 21st Century we will have used 16 times as many economic resources as human beings have consumed since we came down from the trees

If we make the global economic output 75 trillion (pretty lose to SS's number) and make the doubling every 25 years (pretty close to Monbiot's number), then come year 2050 we have output around 300 trillion. Now, I agree with you, I cannot see how this will happen. But the claim is not without foundation in terms of current thinking.

But given that implies a 400% increase in consumption I just wonder where all the stuff needed for the grandiose plans is going to come from. Guess that means iPod production is going to get all shot to hell.

I would not (and did not) put it quite as Matt did (of course, that's part of his charm ;-)), but like Westexas, I think this scenario is primarily useful (if at all) as a model on which to play out various failures. Otherwise, I think the postulates are unlikely. One of the more useful observations of Naomi Klein's _The Shock Doctrine_, also shared, I believe by the others of TLTG is that it is very difficult to build a new economy based upon mitigating problems previously created - that is, the rate of return is simply much, much lower. It strikes me that even in your scenario, the entire world is devoting much of its energies to mitigating existing problems, and this is unlikely to rapidly grow the economy (and perhaps not at all). The only way to do this, that I'm aware of, is to borrow a shitload of money. In the US, that seems unlikely in the near term, since we have no immediate hope of paying off the shitload we've already borrowed. Dealing with the world as a whole conveniently obviates that problem, of course, but since in all the history of human activity there is no such thing as a unified world solution to anything, that seems a much more radical departure than your own call for conservativism would indicate is likely.

I'm not aware of any analysis that evaluates our present wealth as a function of energy vs. a function of drawdown of natural capital (obviously, the two are related, so this would be reasonably complex). If there is such a thing, it would be interesting to examine, if not, to create. Because it seems self-evident, given your awareness of the state of our resources - fisheries, soil, water, etc... that to the extent that our wealth is based on borrowing from future generations (and also from the poor of the global south whose land supports the economic development of the rich world and has for centuries), growth seems an enormous assumption, even given your unwillingness to deal with the polar bear problem, so to speak (an unwillingness I think is probably pretty fair, actually).

I guess the big question then for me is this - what's this for? What purpose is being served by this hypothesis?


This is why I wish the energy source part had been discussed first.

If money = energy, then an infinite source of energy = an infinite source of money = all problems solved.

Personally, I would love for this to be true because I always wanted to travel to Mars. But, the question is "is solar really an infinite energy source?" And The Oil Drum is a great place to have that discussion.

Hi, Sharon.

The people doing exactly this kind of work are the ecological economists, of which you'll find a coven over at www.steadystate.org. See the book I reference above, "Shoveling Fuel For a Runaway Train." The theory you are looking for is 'trophic theory,' a sort of EROEI for biological systems.


I think Matt has got it correct, unfortunately. Without putting in an analysis of ecosystems and, especially, the dramatic economic discontinuity that we're about to face, the model is going to have people spend time on impossibilities.

See the table to see what I mean. It demonstrates that oil disruptions, which cause prices to spike, are followed by recessions.

Oil shocks == economic contraction

Giant oil shock, like peak oil == global economic depression

Oil is stored work and when oil is removed from the system, work is removed from the system. When work is removed from the system, there is less economic activity (by definition).

Given that a global oil shock is inescapable (which now even the IEA and Shell are even telling the world), global economic contraction is inescapable. We must have a powerful relationship to reality if we are going to make the proper choices in the little time we have remaining and planning for anything other than global economic contraction does not, in my view, demonstrate a very powerful relationship to reality.

Feel free to investigate the literature to find an economy that didn't go into economic contraction when energy was rudely removed from the system. I don't think you'll find one. If you'd like, you can start with this paper by the Philadelphia Fed, from which I got the table:

The Macroeconomics of Oil Shocks

So, not including a dramatic loss in energy at some point in the next five to twenty years (thus assuming a BAU economic situation for that period) is such a fundamentally flawed model that you really should hit the reset button and start again.


Tips for serious research on The Oil Drum
All techniques are for Google unless otherwise stated; click to try them.

Feel free to investigate the literature to find an economy that didn't go into economic contraction when energy was rudely removed from the system.

You're simply assuming that "peak oil"="oil shock". There is another possibility which you haven't ruled out: "peak oil"="very gradual attenuation of oil supply".

Of course, oil shocks can have devastating economic effects, but it's not clear that peak oil will ever constitute an oil shock. Long plateaus, or undulations, or gentle declines may have completely different effects than abrupt shocks.

The second case (gradual attenuation) is what is actually happening:

For all practical purposes, oil peaked about 3 years ago, and world economic growth has continued, unabated.

Here's the stats from the UN(pdf):

2005: 3.4% growth
2006: 4.0% growth
2007: 3.4% growth

Most of that growth isn't occurring in the developed countries. Their growth was 2.5-3% for 2005-2007. Growth in subsaharan Africa was in the 6-7% range post peak. Latin America was around 5%. Least developed countries were 6-8%.

So there you go. The economy continues to grow because energy isn't being "rudely removed" from the system. Oil is being gradually titrated out of the system.

...And this kind of scenario puts into play factors that are likely to both encourage conservation of available energy, increases in efficiency, and scaling up of technological innovation related to energy supply. It is still a crisis. It still hurts world economic growth in the middle term. But it doesn't wreck the train.

Hopefully, there will be a long plateau and no sudden drops downward.

Hmm...we may have very different conceptions of what peak oil means.

To me, it means:
* decline rates in total liquids of 4% while consumption growth continues to increase at 2%, providing a potential gap of 6%
* possible decline rate of 8% or higher making the gap 10% in the first year alone
* continued decline, year after year such that at year 5, the gap is something like 20-30%
* possible faster decline rate if producer countries start husbanding their oil
* monetary collapse as petrodollars are removed from the system

Also, energy isn't yet being rudely removed from the system at a rate that the economy can't quickly adjust to. That was pretty convoluted. Let me try that again: as the world economy gets bigger, it can tolerate larger absolute losses in oil because they are in relative terms not sufficient to be called a shock. But peak oil will remove enough oil to be called a shock quite quickly.

Also, why would Mr. Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the IEA, be concerned that the "wheels may fall off" the world's economy due to the upcoming oil shortage? (His words, not mine.) A gradual attenuation of supply hardly seems likely to cause him to say that, does it? He hasn't even uttered the words "peak oil" yet, as far as I know. He's willing only to point out that "demand will exceed supply."


I don't think Fatih meant total economic collapse when he said his, now famous, 'wheels might fall off,' statement. Maybe I'm wrong. But I took it to mean growth might stop. Collapse is something entirely different.

In my opinion there are two possible scenarios:

1. Total liquids hits a gradual peak and seeming plateau or slow falloff for a number of years (10-20). This scenario results in innovation, economic efficiency and build in time for new, non oil, technologies to compete or come into play. It also allows for civilization to shift gears -- either learning fixes to the current globalism, or changing economies to focus on more local development, food production, and trade.

2. Total liquids peaks rapidly and then falls off at an equally rapid pace. This would result in , at the very least, severe economic downturn and possibly a civilization collapse scenario depending on the severity of the crisis and how well or poorly the world responded.

I think total liquids is important because the current transportation system is run on liquids. Even if you have high cost, low efficiency liquids thrown in, it buys time for the system to adjust and switch to other forms of energy. In any case, either is a crisis. The one being a threat to civilization with the other providing more opportunity and incentive for transition.

Hi, Robert.

I think that's a fair assessment of two possible scenarios. I would perhaps add that the room for the world to maneuver post peak will be extremely limited. Day by day we're losing options. Such is how delaying action seems to work.

As for the wheels falling off phrase, unfortunately we can't peer into Fatih's mind to get the real scoop. In my experience that term is generally used when referring to a complete breakdown, YMMV.

As usual, this is excelent work, of the kind that makes me proud to be a reader of TOD. Now, my comments;

I am a very big fan of PV, and believe that it will solve our energy problems in the long run, together with thermal solar power stations, wind and a bit of oil + natural gas for plastics, fertilizer etc. Of cource coal should be banned ASAP, and techniques like terra preta agriculture and efficient carbon capture, sequestration and building stuff like carbon fibre from atmospheric CO2 should be researched and implemented in order to have NEGATIVE emissions before 2050.

So, how fast do we need solar to grow? At current rates, we consume 15TW of primary energy, that can be replaced with about 5-6 TW of electricity, so at 20% capacity factor we need about 20 TW of solar PV. According to http://www.renewableenergyaccess.com/rea/news/story?id=50475 REC will build in Singapore a 1.5 GW/year fully intergrated solar pv manufacturing facility, costing about 3 billion Euros and employing around 3000 people.

We need just 650 of these plants to get 1 TW annual production capacity, costing 2 trillion euros at today's prices and eploying 2 million people - I think that is very doable TODAY, even without accounting for the massive cost savings that would occure on such a buildup. If it takes 15 years to build that kind of capacity, that is about 45 plants per annum, of 65 GW of new solar capacity/year, costing 150 billion euros/year. 20TW of solar PV having a mean cost of 1$/Watt is 20 trillion dollars, if build in 25 years that is 800 billion/year, so the total annual cost (or market) will be in the 1 trillion dollar league and probably even less. We are currently paying for oil about 30Gb/year*80$/barrel = 2.4 Trillion dollars, so i think solar build up is very cheap and definately doable, as no material or other limitations exist. If Solar got to 10GW/year using government subsidies, wait what will happen when it becomes fully cost-competitive to grid power.

About energy storage, i have this to say:

Assuming that electric cars manage to replace the current fleet, every home will have 50-100 KWh of battery capacity available at night. I think that even 25% of that is enough to cover nighttime power requirements of almost every home, and it is very logical to assume that nightime demand will be lower than today, as people will want to consume energy when it is cheaper, ie during the day. I would also like to point out that wind also blows in the night, so wind + electric car batteries + hydro + lower nightime demand will make the need for a global grid less pronounced that Stuart thinks.

The sun never sets on the photovoltaic empire.

Restricting myself to existing batteries, nobody is going to power their house from their car battery on a non-emergency basis. The battery will only last 400 recharging cycles. Batteries in ICE and Hybrid autos last so long because they are never discharged very far. Of course, restricting myself to existing batteries means there won't be electric cars.

Having said that, I forsee a future where demand at night can be met by wind, hydroelectric, natural gas turbine (not all NG is fossil fuel), and yes some nuclear. But the photovoltaic empire provides access to markets for stranded solar power.

This battery exists:
Just a plain old lead-acid battery with ultracapacitors to enable deep repeated discharge.
Should do the trick I would have thought, without future improvements.

Control systems to prevent car batteries from experiencing damaging charge/discharge cycles would be trivial to implement (and are already present on many hybrids). So using replaced car batteries in a stationary application may have other economic and technical problems, but controlling discharge cycles is not a problem.


thanks for helping spread the work of The Oil Drum around teh internets... :)

Oh dear, I'm afraid there are statements in this post that are downright baffling. For example:

"However, if we figure the average electron only needs to go about 2/3 of the way around the planet to get to its customer..."

What? um, electrons don't travel like that. This appears to be a misunderstanding about how electricity works.

Hope this helps:


The typical electron doesn't travel very far. It merely jostles its neighbor who jostles its neighbor. But anyways ohm's law holds and it is still a useful exercize to determine the average distance power is transmitted. The picture of a single electron traveling from PV array to customer is a metaphor.

It is a popular misconception that electrons travel through wires like water through a hose. I don't see any such metaphor as helpful.

You're right of course - it was a colorful figure of speech, but it is physically misleading - the individual electrons move much slower than the signal on a wire.

I have numberous objections. It might be easier to start with a snip from a post I made last June http://www.theoildrum.com/node/25983comment-198259

Status Quo Lite (Chaotic Collapse)
Societal post-peak lifespan - <10 years to collapse
Energy availability - decreasing 4% per year
Sustainability - not sustainable
Division of labor - high degree of specialization
Population density - high to very high (50-200+/acre, except agricultural area)
Population and Opo. Growth - 300M and slowly increasing
Governance - elected representatives/bureaucracy
Economy - consumer/service, >60%
Economic Paradigm - capitalist/market
Money - fiat currency
Energy production - centralized municipal/corporate
Living Arrangements - single family, either stand-alone or apartments
Energy Quality Required - high
Food - purchased
Technology/science - Big science still supported
Law Enforcement/Military - alive and well and consuming resources
Key Meme - the market and capitalism will provide for my needs

Dieoff (and Rebirth)
Societal Post-Peak Lifespan - multiple generations
Energy Availability - currently stable (it was decreasing 10+% a year post-peak prior to the biological war of 2015)
Sustainability - moderate to high
Division of Labor - low, generalist
Population Density - low (<0.2/acre), excpet manufacturing zones
Population and Pop. Growth - 60M (ater a 240 dieoff), stable to slowly decreasing
Governance - regional consensus via the Robust Internet (There are no regional, state or federal governments.)
Economy - mostly home production of goods and foods, <2% outside the home
Economic Paradigm - societal for durable goods and communications
Money - there is no "money" nor is there any need for money
Energy Production - individual but societal in regional manufacturing zones
Living Arrangements - extended family/affinity group (10-15 adults) in one dwelling on sufficient land to provide food and energy
Energy Quality required - low individual, moderate to high manufacturing
Food - home produced with a few minor exceptions
Technolgy/Science - very slow, incremental improvements in existing technology
Law Enforcement/Military - local residents/militias
Key Meme - personal responsibility in all things

The snips don't include my rationales but they do indicate some serious differences. My first objection is that I do not believe that urbanization (which is, in essence, business a usual - BAU) is possible in the long term. Using the US, 70% of GDP is from "services." In other words, most of the the people are non-productive. Second, urban areas require high quality, concentrated resources such as water and power. Third, everything must be "imported" from some place else. This includes not only food but also raw materials if there is manufacturing.

I sum, I do not see anf facet of BAU as sustainable much less in a society that needs growth to survive.

Like other posts above, I also have serious doubts that energy can be transported thousands of miles through a number of countries. The power lines are far too easily held hostage. It is only through the "goodness" of people that this sort of thing doesn't happen today. For example, I have a main northern California buried phone cable that runs through my property and a main above ground fiber optic cable at our gate. Anyone who wanted to could seriously mess up northern CA communications with a machet or a backhoe.

I do appreciate that you tried to establish a background for your scenario ... good try but no prize.


I don't think you realize the impact of this kind of a die-off. It is entirely likely there would be NO SOCIETY LEFT for decades and decades.

World War II resulted in approx 60 million deaths. The kind of die off you're talking about is around 90 times that scale worldwide. You're talking, essentially, about global cannibalism.

People use really abstract and number-based terms in looking at this issue. I don't think they realize what they're really talking about. We will grow food in our windows and on our lawns before we start eating our neighbors. For my part, I'm not pessimistic enough to believe this kind of die off will occur and, if it does, it will horrible beyond reason.

Well, I can speak for myself only but I certainly understand the numbers involved.

The math is the math.


It is foolish and inaccurate to think of a service as non-productive, or even less productive than manufacturing or agriculture. In fact, the line between the two isn't even really clear.

If a factory designs and produces shirts it is good, right? But then if the designer decides to stay at home and subcontract, they are now useless? Do you really believe that modern farming or manufacturing could even begin to exist without services? Presumably very little of the inputs are purchased directly from producers and probably none of the outputs are sold directly to consumers. The farm is wrapped in service providers.

It is great fun to sit around and complain about services, but I bet if you hedge your production and your crop fails, you don't mind collecting the money.

Stuart et al,
The entire set of CalTech videos is here. For those who haven't seen them all.

Those working on the problem are aware that solar is the only energy source, currently proven, that scales. They also know that direct solar-to-fuel is required, and that only elements more abundant than 1 ppm are eligible for consideration as construction materials. This has also been realized by the fuelcell researchers such as UVIC, who have eliminated the membrane and replaced platinum with biological enzymes.

Unfortunately not enough time to fully dissect your efforts ATM.

First reading is that using the metric of wind penetration as a function of population has no basis in logic or my knowledge of the world.

North America has a very large "Wind Export Belt" from Canadian Prairie Provinces to Texas and New Mexico. With improved technology (5+ GW WTs) a very low population area can generate a LOT of power (earlier estimates are based on earlier technology, 1 MW or less WTs AFAIK). Thus my resistance to your wind/population metric !

A sample for supplying Florida. HV DC triangle (with a bisecting chord from Chattanooga to Birmingham) between Western Oklahoma (wind), Chattanooga (pumped storage and small wind) and Florida (Orlando & Miami perhaps). Enough FL nuke to generate surplus for storage after 11 Pm/midnight. Enough FL solar PV to generate surplus (+ nuke) at solar noon most days for storage in Chattanooga. Early morning and afternoon/evening peaks meet by a mix of wind and/or pumped storage + nuke + reduced solar PV (zero @ dusk).

A backbone of HV DC goes North-South through Wind Export Belt to allow power shifting for both local demand and exports (11 GW of hydro in Manitoba as well). Western OK (and Texas) is also wired to Southern California and Pumped storage in either CA or Rocky Mts. Solar thermal in CA, AZ & NV towards west and geothermal redeveloped for peaking rather than base load (drill more wells, install more turbines, reduce capacity factor) also helps the West.

Reasonably flexible, with thermal combustion (FF or bio) mothballed for exceptional circumstances. Most wind in central "Wind Export Belt" but also significant wind on East and West Coasts and "wherever" a few turbines can be installed (Smoky Mts.) My GUESS is 75% to 80% of North America wind power will be generated in the "Wind Export Belt", about 5% in Midwest + US NorthEast, etc.

Couple massive efficiency (excellent new construction & retrofit regs, almost no PHEVs or EVs (they should be discouraged long term i.e. 2050) for they raise energy requirements significantly, and move to a mass transit + bicycle + walking/Segway model instead (Denmark and Netherlands average 900+ km bicycling/capita ~10% of VMT, apply that to USA x3 in a post-Peak Oil world).

For Africa, build Grand Inga (44 GW, about 90% power factor) and a few other hydro + solar PV and current demand plus reasonable expansion is taken care of.

In Europe, what are the wind resources of Poland, Ukraine and Russia ?

Best Hopes,


I agree with you that the wind/population metric sucks. I'm hoping somebody knows of a good study on this (however, not just one that looks at where the wind is strong, but also where people are likely to tolerate it and the economics is likely to work in the foreseeable future).

Stuart, I have sent you a couple of pdf's dealing with the European perspective.
They also discuss supergrids - personally I think that they underestimate costs enormously, but technically you could certainly generate a very high proportion of power from the wind.
Here is another link to one of the best wind resources in the world:
No NIMBY objections there, I believe! :-)
You would need to build substantial grid capacity to use it for Europe, but the resource is vast.

They'll tolerate it in West Texas, that's for sure. I'd imagine that farmers in Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas will be as accomodating as their neighbors in Iowa have been. There might be some isolated griping, but on the whole I'd expect no serious opposition.

Prince Edward Island is nearing the limit (with 120 MW) of wind turbines that can be installed. No inhabited structure can be within the falling radius of a WT and vacation cabins are eliminating many potential sites.

So, for a given resource, the % of wind that can be captured is inversely proportional to population density.

Ft. Worth may well have a decent wind resource, but WTs will not be installed in their suburbs.

In an empty land, 98% or more of the potential resource can be exploited (also little popular opposition). In a more heavily occupied landscape the % of the potential that can be exploited falls towards zero.


Realistically, I think you should not worry about NIMBY in the US. As Alan says, farmers love wind, and we have a lot of farm land that's suitable.

NIMByism is greatly overstated by media coverage - it affects a small % of wind development.

In the rest of the world, the UK is unusual in it's NIMBYism.

Most places where there is a problem will see the light when energy issues become clearer!

A global power grid? Why not just use satellite transmission - lifted up by Lofstrom loops, perhaps? Long as we're blueskying. Or if transmission line loss isn't an issue anymore, why not exploit geothermal? Worldwide Data and Map from the Geothermal Education Office:

MIT calculated the world's total EGS resources to be over 13,000 ZJ. The Future of Geothermal Energy.

Having read about the potential of the Inga dam, and given Saharan Africa's heaps of solar insolation, my big question is why would they export any of their electricity? They actually seemed poised to stand head and shoulders above the rest of us in a purely electric PV powered world.

I believe the actual EGS energy potential you are referring is for the US (see page 1-15;

By almost any criteria, the accessible U.S. EGS resource base is enormous – greater than 13 million
quads or 130,000 times the current annual consumption of primary energy in the United States.

Average growth rate of geothermal power 1990-2005 is 1.8% in the OECD. Hard to get excited about that.

And the growth rate of supergrids is zero, from zero.
It does seem to me that you are being a bit selective in how much leeway you offer the different technologies.
For instance, if we are going to go with present rates of growth, then from it's much higher installed base than renewables nuclear would trundle along at it's historic rate of around 5.5% and show up as a very respectable proportion of total energy in 2050.
As I said in another post, the only actual evidence we have for Nanosolar indicates that they have built 3 solar panels, by means unknown.
Pebble bed reactors are a lot more established than that.
Still, a very worthwhile post - as evidenced by the criticism it has attracted!

I did grow nuclear at the historic rate until 2025.

Yep, and then killed it for no very clear reason! :-) largely based on personal preference, it seems.
2025 is not that far down the pike, and you are assuming quite a change in attitude in just a few years, especially in places like China and India where much of the growth in nuclear is likely to take place.
As you say, nuclear would be a lot cheaper - and we seem to be talking by something like an order of magnitude - see K Levin's post.
What in the world makes you imagine that a still relatively poor India, or china, are going to pay that premium?
Certainly the reasons you gave are wholly inadequate.
If you look at the actual plans, both are looking to ramp up nuclear just as fast as they are able - and this at a time when coal is still a heck of a lot cheaper.
More generally, for me this projection of yours just does not work.
It is unrealistic as it costs too much.
No-one is going to build it.
And that is even with your heroic assumptions for cost reduction in solar power, and projections for grid costs which to my mind violate your rules for how you project technology.
On the subject of your solar cost projections, it is also not clear that this allows for the difference between production costs and other costs - so although production costs may rapidly fall, the same is unlikely to happen so rapidly for costs for cleaning the cells, or for that matter for installing them.
So far the costs of production have dominated, so you can get these very rapid falls in total costs on which you have based your projections.
As installation and maintenance take up a larger proportion of cost, then you will surely see a slowdown in cost decrease.
So on it's own terms I don't think this analysis does the job you were trying to do - total system costs are unrealistic, and would never be paid for, even with your optimistic cost projections, but the falls you have hypothesised are themselves not realistic.

Dave - I'd obviously have to flesh out the scenario further to fully address your objections, but a few quick points. I completely agree that nuclear is likely to be a lot cheaper - it's a much more mature option - and will likely grow in the near term (with the caveat that there's a significant problem right now with U prices having gone through the roof, which I understand being due to the forseeable end of missile warhead U stocks, and mining currently being considerably below the burn rate. There are also likely to be cost ovveruns due to the generally high cost of building anything at the moment. So that could put a crimp in nuclear growth for a time - but I'm happy to posit those things are overcomable. I don't like nuclear in the long term for reasons that while they are certainly "personal preference" are shared by many (most?) other people - I don't have confidence in the ability of the industry to operate safely on a global basis and do something socially acceptable with the waste. My gut feel is that the industry will operate and grow apparently safely for a long time, and then we'll all wake up one day and find that half of Zambia is irradiated (or wherever - obviously there's no telling where and when trouble will strike). When the nuclear industry does really screw up, it tends to be very spectacular. And if that happens at the point when it's obvious that solar has become cheap, I think we'll find ourselves wanting to transition.

And despite the slurs to the contrary, I'm not persuaded this concern is not irrational. Correct me if I'm wrong, but quick searching suggests nuclear power plants are still not able to obtain insurance for large incidents.

In terms of coal - I documented my assumptions - global recession in the near term due to the US credit crisis, and then high coal prices (via arbitrage to oil prices) and continued climate change response causing conservation. I agree Chinese coal use will grow, but there's a lot of scope for conservation elsewhere.

When the nuclear industry does really screw up, it tends to be very spectacular.

You mean, when anti nuclear activists imagine the industry screwing up. There have been no documented deaths in the Western industry. Though Three Mile Island was serious, it was well contained and had negligible impact on the environment. This must be compared to thousands of deaths a year in the coal fired power industry.

and yet countries (china, india, russia, USA etc...) all have national coverage of the potential liability. Just as they cover the actual extra damage from coal and oil pollution.

So in spite of lack of some "free market insurance", all the plants are still get built and operated.

Just as there are plenty of uninsured drivers in the world, there are not completely insured nuclear plants, coal plants and hydro dams and industrial plants.

China alone is planning 40+GW of nuclear by 2020 and 120-160GW by 2030. They did not buy insurance for it or for the Three Gorges Dam or any of dozens of other dams or the coal plants and yet they all get built.

Stuart, first I would like to make clear my gratitude for your hard work in the original argument - whatever it's flaws it has certainly given us all something to chew on!
A couple of quick responses to your points.
As others have said, the lack of full insurance cover in the nuclear industry is something it holds in common with all others - for instance, a major chemical release.
It is also perhaps worth noting that the coal industry effectively has a 'major incident' each and every year, with it's deaths from emissions being entirely unaccounted for.
I take you point on your treatment of coal, and the down-turn in growth you have projected for the near future.
I would have different assumptions, but that is beside the point as I am trying to critique your essay on it's own terms.
My real critique falls under two headings:
Elsewhere in this thread someone suggested a ball-park figure of 1000 trillion for your proposals, as against around 43trillion for the nuclear option, and you replied that you had never claimed that you were giving the cheapest option.
But this is not just more expensive, it is out of sight more expensive, it is 'it is never going to happen' expensive and in my view invalidates the whole hypothesis.
My second point is against the universalism and world-wide scope of your vision. As I said in a very early response, by so doing you are making a rod for your own back, as much of the expense is for things like a world-wide grid.
A much more reasonable scenario in my view would look at what works in different regions, so you end up with a very varied solution just as today.
In the south-west of the US, for instance, solar follows load fairly closely, and is likely to be economic in the near future.
I already gave my reasons for doubting that the fall in solar costs will continue at the rate you hypothesise, briefly because it is not all about manufacturing costs.
In the Great lakes area of the States, wind is an excellent resource, whilst for northern Europe, safety considerations aside, it is perhaps difficult to beat nuclear power.
All this of course makes an assessment such as you have attempted more difficult, perhaps to the point of impossibility, as it is just too complex.
For that reason I would likely make the nuclear option my base case, not because it is necessarily the best, but because it can operate anywhere, and resources appear available for at least the next hundred years or so (much, much more in my view)
So you would then use renewables in the analysis only where they were cheaper than the nuclear option, or you could not build nuclear within the time-frame.
You would then continue to project the growth of nuclear out to the 2050 horizon, which would have an enormous effect on your costs.
The power would be where it was needed, and pretty much when it was needed, so you would enormously reduce transmission costs.
You would also enormously reduce the costs of the solar panels needed, especially if it was practicable to refine the hypothesis to the point where the hot and sunny regions get the solar panels, especially in the early days, whilst the nuclear is concentrated in the colder, darker regions.
Regional grids rather than world grids should answer very nicely in this scenario.
I think you would be able to make your basic case, that power can be provided up to 2050 to enable a very high standard of living with that sort of analysis.
The costs of your present proposals preclude their doing so, IMHO

Coal: I have just thought more carefully, and looked at your graphs for coal production.
This also does not seem to me to be founded on any realistic appraisal.
Growth stops just about dead in around 2005.
Now that might be a very good idea from the carbon emissions POV, but we know for certain that it is not going to happen.
China and India alone are rapidly bringing on-line huge amounts of production, and have firm plans for more up to at least 2020.
Peak coal people have a case, but no-one argues it is going to kick in yet, and we are certainly going to have more burn at least in that time-frame.
It appears to me that you have fallen hopelessly between two stools, trying to look at what could happen, and trying to promote what you feel should happen.
The end result is simply impossible.

"It does seem to me that you are being a bit selective in how much leeway you offer the different technologies." You're right. Clearly, business-as-usual is going nowhere (if one believes climate change is a critical issue that society must address, which I do). So one has to pick something to do different. My main pick is solar for the long term, with wind and nuclear as medium term helpers. That incurs the obligation to build a global grid (not all at once of course - more continental grid in the first instance, and then global grid over time). The alternatives are to put wind everywhere, or build massive amounts of nuclear everywhere. I think both wind and nuclear face much more serious siting issues that will make expansion of them difficult past a certain point. (I wouldn't claim to understand exactly where the point is with any precision yet - I need to do a better job on figuring that out)

Clearly, if one wanted the cheapest fix to climate change, one would opt for all nuclear. It's kind of like if your heating system dies. Two models are on offer - you can either buy a cheap one, with the knowledge that once in a long while that brand leaks and poisons the residents of the house. Or you can pay significantly more money and get one that never does that.

However, as far as I can see, no-one has put a dent in the argument that global civilization could in fact afford to build a global grid - it's not more expensive than what we are already paying for fuel. (We could certainly fail to prioritize it, but that's different than never having had a reasonable option to do it).

The 'dent' in your thesis then, leaving aside the idea that if you can do things way, way cheaper then that is the option which would probably be preferred, is that your projections for the cost of PV seem over-optimistic.
In the case of Nanosolar it is not clear that they are actually able to produce more than 3 panels by the means that they intend using:
there are a number of posts by SW in this thread, who seems like a pretty knowledgeable chappie.
Leaving that aside, as I mentioned previously, your use of the aggregate drop in costs of solar power may be inappropriate.
Whilst production costs may continue to drop fast, maintenance and installation may not, so the overall price would be much more sticky.

It could be that the reason geothermal growth has been low is that it has been competing against dispatchable, non-intermittent alternatives. Were intermittent resources like solar and wind to begin to constitute a major portion of the total (as per your scenario), then undoubtedly a differential pricing scheme would have to be implemented with a hefty premium charged for times when the intermittent resources were off-line. This would thus tend to make non-intermittent, dispatchable resources that were also renewable, like geothermal, much more valuable and profitable. With this changing and much more favorable economic situation, it is likely that the interest in developing geothermal would grow considerably.

Don't forget we can use old oil wells for geothermal.

Don't forget we can use old oil wells for geothermal.

Yea, all them old wells that get filled with concrete to avoid environmental lawsuits will be just fine for geothermal.


maybe I should have said aging old wells


Very unlikely

The second approach is to construct a global electricity grid. As far as I'm aware, this approach was first proposed by Sanyo under the rubric Project Genesis.

This idea was proposed by Buckminter Fuller in his 1984 book Critical Path. I do not know if he was the first person to suggest it, but I think he predates Sanyo.

Your assumption that the economies of the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia, etc. need to keep on growing for the next 50 years (and presumably beyond, since if we succeed in maintaining private finance capitalism in a healthy state until the middle of the century no one will want to abandon it then any more that they do now) is nonsense from a purely physical point of view. If the economic output of the OECD countries were equitably shared among their populations, then perfectly adequate standards of living could be obtained today. Growth would be required only insofar as the population of the OECD countries continues to increase. Sooner or later we have to reach a state where we are not constantly striving to get richer in material terms (Intellectual and aesthetic wealth are another matter). Putting off this process of economic maturation until some distant and unspecified date reminds me of Saint Augustine’s comment: Please make me chaste, O Lord, but not yet.

The ‘need’ for ongoing per capita economic growth in the OECD countries is driven by the structural form of private finance capitalism in which manufacturing infrastructure investments are driven by the desire of money to make money. This desire cannot be satisfied unless our total economic output is constantly increasing. You are quite right that the social changes required to fix this structural defect of our economic system are radical. Unfortunately I do not see a good way to gradually evolve toward an economy that is striving to maintain wealth rather than to constantly increase it. In all probability we go on growing until grim, hard necessity makes further growth impossible, after which financial chaos will set in. Praising the Lord and passing the growth ammunition is probably our best hope for avoiding a large discontinuity in our personal lives, but I am personally skeptical that this strategy will work.

One problem with building a global super grid is that the full economic benefit of this very expensive project cannot be realized until the whole grid is completed. Fossil fuel power plants are a pay as you go proposition. As soon as you build a new coal fired power plant you start getting energy from it at the same rate you will get energy from it throughout its life time. The probability that we will be able to construct such an enormously expensive project with a long payback time during a period of rapidly rising fossil fuel prices without a major financial discontinuity strikes me as being very low.

One problem with building a global super grid is that the full economic benefit of this very expensive project cannot be realized until the whole grid is completed.

Agreed, but power lines from a renewable energy source, such as a high wind region or a solar thermal plant in a cloudless desert (Arizona/Cal/Baja/etc.) will provide immediate return on investment, so they will happen first (and indeed are already happening in the Western US). Additional connections between the various consumers and producers will provide redundancy and more ability to handle intermittent generation, so there would be some immediate payback, but intelligent government policy (happens sometimes) would accelerate filling in the grid.

Roger K said:
'Your assumption that the economies of the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia, etc. need to keep on growing for the next 50 years (and presumably beyond, since if we succeed in maintaining private finance capitalism in a healthy state until the middle of the century no one will want to abandon it then any more that they do now) is nonsense from a purely physical point of view.'
Your post does not go on to demonstrate that this is the case.
Although I have different preferred paths to Stuart, he is entirely correct that solar power on it's own could provide many times the power requirements of 10-15 billion people.
Please note that I am not advocating a high population, but in energy terms we could certainly deal with it, nor is the flux sufficient to affect the climate of the planet by much - present problems are due to greenhouse gases, not the actual energy output.
It is inconceivable to me that 50 years of technological progress will not make this possible.
Nuclear or the use of high altitude wind would also amply provide for the needed power, so IMHO you certainly have not shown this to be 'nonsense from a purely physical point of view.'

Hi Dave,

Here we go again. I did not say that it is nonsense from a purely physical point of view that the economies of the OECD countries can go on growing for the next 50 years. I said that it is nonsense that they need to go on growing for that period of time in order to provide themselves with an adequate standard of living.

Although I have different preferred paths to Stuart, he is entirely correct that solar power on it's own could provide many times the power requirements of 10-15 billion people.

The total size of the solar resource is not the only issue relative to supporting 10 to 15 billion people in OECD lifestyles. Total resource use and total ecological footprint need to be considered. I agreed with Jason Bradford's comment further up the thread that we need to start concerning ourselves with our total ecological foot print today and not fifty years from today. I know you are hoping that 'dematerialization' of the economy will allow our total ecological footrprint to stay constant or even drop as we go on getting richer and richer. I think that you are the one who needs to offer some kind data supporting that such a drop in ecological foot print while pursuing constant growth is really possible.

Well, Roger, I accept your amendment, but you did originally say that it was nonsense from a purely physical POV, which leads me to expect some physical definitions rather than social definitions like that between want and need.
As for your comment on the other inputs needed to maintain loads of people, I was restricting myself to considering energy requirements as that is what the article was about - other issues would lead to a whole new ball game, with a different can of worms! ;-)

Whether he said it or not, the correct phrasing should be:
"[it is] nonsense from a purely physical point of view that the economies of the OECD countries can go on growing for the next 50 years."

See my response to Stuart above and also study the trophic theory the ecological economists bring to the party at www.steadystate.org. There isn't enough net energy to keep growing without causing collapse.


Without looking back thorough the thread, and since you have not actually referenced here what you were saying, I believe that you were seeking to say that non-energy reasons would lead to collapse - exhaustion of something else, essentially.
That is an interesting debate, but not really germane to this thread, which is about energy supplies and resources.
It is most certainly not physically impossible to provide a lot more energy than Stuart has hypothesised by a variety of means, and the actual levels of energy are relatively trivial compared, for instance, to the flux from the sun.

Hi Dave,

re: "I believe that you were seeking to say that non-energy reasons would lead to collapse - exhaustion of something else, essentially.
That is an interesting debate, but not really germane to this thread, which is about energy supplies and resources."

A discussion of what *the goal is* WRT a planned extraction/(or, I could call it "build-out-for-capture" of "energy sources" from Nature) certainly *is* germane to the discussion of the "how to" of the effort.

An analysis that shows the amount of energy required, along with the energy-use infrastructure (machines that eat energy in order to work) in order to mine/cut down/slurp up/(or otherwise consume) other resources *is* relevant - precisely when those other resources are also required in order to maintain the human species and/or "civilization in some form". By "other resources", I mean, for eg., potable water for human hydration needs.

Aniya, I fully agree that water and other resources are very important, the only issue I have is where we discuss them.
I feel that the value of this thread is in discussing a limiting case for energy, as if we can't reasonably provide for our energy needs the rest of the debate is moot - for instance, to provide water you are likely going to have to purify used water, and to pump it about, but that takes energy, and if you haven't got that you certainly won't have the water.
I would therefore welcome another article and thread, predicated on the hypothesis that we could obtain sufficient energy, and debate this fully.
I would also welcome threads on helium and phosphorus, as they are also in very short supply.
It does seem worthwhile to me though to compartmentalise the debate, or we won't get anywhere.
For my part I will readily concede that if we don't have good energy supplies, we won't have the other resources.

Critical Path was first published in 1981, but it described earlier work based in the World Game. Likely the proposal for a worldwide grid was presented in print earlier, late sixites or early seventies. I certainly heard him describe it in 69 when he visited Colby College.


"If the economic output of the OECD countries were equitably shared among their populations, then perfectly adequate standards of living could be obtained today."

Can you cite a worked example of a country where the economic output is "equitably shared" in which the population isn't trying to leave?

Can you cite a worked example of a country where the economic output is "equitably shared" in which the population isn't trying to leave?

Cuban olympic baseball players have been offered multimillion dollar contracts to come the U.S. and have consistently said 'No thanks.'. Not that I am not holding up Cuba as an ideal of social organization. Using history to inductively prove what forms of social organization human beings are capable of is a higly questionable procedure.

In a resource limited world continuing to make competitive accumulation of private wealth the driving force of economic activity is going to get us into big trouble. Your attitude is "let's keep the pedal to the metal until grim necessity forces us take our foot off the gas". In an economic system that structurally requires growth for 'healthy' functioning this is a recipe for disaster. Sooner or later we are going to have to create an economic system that is based on some other principle that the right of money to make money. If in the face of the very serious problems we are facing at the present time, very intelligent people like yourself refuse to even think about what such an economy would look like, then the hope of making a smooth transition to a wealth maintaining economy at some unspecified later date seems remote.

Sooner or later we are going to have to create an economic system that is based on some other principle that the right of money to make money.

Please do write back when you find one. I won't be holding my breathe. I live in Thailand where a military junta threw out an elected governmmet and declared it would abandon growth, pursue self-sufficiency and focus on gross national happiness. Of course it was all just a front for their own bout of theft.

Greed is a product of human nature, capitalism just allows us to channel it in productive ways. Experiments with other systems haven't gone very well and I for one am not to eager to try it another time.

When growth comes to an end it will no longer be possible for money to make money. This is a statement of objective truth. If your evaluation of human nature is correct then the resulting society will be very grim indeed. An abusive elite may extort wealth from an enslaved population. But once the slave's economic consumption has been reduced to subsistence levels the elite will not be able to get any richer.

I like to distinguish between "equitable" and "fair." Equitable implies taking a pie and dividing into equal parts for distribution. I agree that doesn't work. However, no society actually tries to do this, what some societies do is try to make distribution "fair."

Scandinavian countries, for example, set a maximum spread between the wages of the lowest paid worker to the highest paid executive. Something like 1:12. So if a janitor is making $25,000 per year, the CEO can make $300,000, which is plenty to get by with, especially if the country is also "equalizing" educational opportunities and health care.

I like to distinguish between "equitable" and "fair."

How do you decide what is "fair"? Suppose that some person is born with limited abililities but makes the most of them by working hard and conscientiously at some back breaking, dirty, but useful and necessary job. Why is it fair that this person earns 12 times less than the CEO who was born with a better genetic endowment? In any just economic system coal miners would earn more than CEOs, but you are not going to bring about such fairness merely by restricting the maximum salary.

If the prospect of earning the same salary as hard working janitor horrifies you, then what about the state of the poor janitor who is currently earning much less than the pittance of an income by which you are repelled?

The difference between a salary of $25,000 and $300,000 is huge. I worked in silicon valley during the internet boom of the nineties, and the number of people who earned $300,000 per year in straight salary was negligibly small. The salary restriction you suggest would do very little to prevent considerations of private wealth from trumping ecological concerns. If you are earning $80,000 per year the prospect of a 10% raise next year will beat out ecological footprint reduction without even breathing hard. Only if people perceive that their long term security is based on the health the whole economic community of which they are a part, rather than on how much wealth they can personally store up, is their a hope of stopping the destruction of the commons. Very few people really believe in egalite and fraternite, but in the long term I think that such people will prove to be more 'practical' than the greed is good crowd.

I was just pointing out that some places are trying to deal with these issues, not suggesting that my example was the best plan.

Good job on defining a technically and economically feasible non-doom scenario.

Accepting that this is a scenario rather than a prediction, I believe that the design simplicity and inherent storage capability of concentrating solar thermal plants will make them very competitive in the short term. Economies of scale make thermal storage cheaper and more efficient as solar thermal plants get bigger (volume grows a lot faster than surface area).

In particular, re-powering existing fossil fuel plants with solar thermal allows re-use of existing boiler, distribution and control systems and benefits from existing economies of scale. If I could find a publicly traded company focused on solar thermal re-powering of existing plants I would be buying stock, but the only companies currently active in this market are private.

Although the global grid is a noble vision, South-North High Voltage DC lines will be the first grid segments to get built. Colorado state government policy is currently working with loan guarantees and transmission planning to make sure that power can be transmitted from high wind regions to urban consumers.

HVDC power transmission can also remove much of the NIMBY opposition to wind power. Wind power in the Aleutians, North Dakota, Canadian plains, Mongolian steppes, and eastern Colorado is not near anybody's back yard.

Just wanted to add that the attitude among farmers and ranchers in eastern Colorado has been more like PIMBY ("Please In My Backyard") because income from siting wind turbines is often greater than dryland farming/ranching income per acre.

I noticed that hydro stays pretty much static across the board. What's the loss of hydro due to global warming? As warming increases, the snow pack in the Rockies and other mountain ranges becomes reduced, reducing not only the total yearly power a hydro plant can produce, but also it's consistency as it can't produce the same amount year round. I've heard that this is already becoming an issue.

Quite correct. Where I live (Tasmania) was 92% hydro a few years ago. Thanks to drought and an underwater HVDC cable much of the current energy supply now comes from coal burning. It's not like there's any GHG/rainfall feedback or anything or we could try to make do with less energy.

The whole issue of 'supergrids' needs to be a separate thread.

won't GW cause some areas to experience more rainfall also?

That's the theory.

I'm Dreaming of a white Christmas, la de da...

I'm not convinced that population loss is morally unthinkable. In the 20th century, there were about 170 million deaths from war, civil war genocide and government- caused starvation, and 30-50 million deaths from the two major plagues, the Spanish Flu and AIDS. This is only around 5% of all total deaths, but this affected primarily people of reproductive age. About 90% of the war/genocide related deaths occurred in the developed world. The developed world now has a stable population, with increases caused primarily by immigration. If we assume that the current chaos in Africa and Pakistan continues to worsen until excess deaths reach the level of the developed world in the last century, and also assume that the nations of the developed world will defend their borders, the lowest UN projection would look a lot more reasonable. And one drug-resistant pandemic could easily drop us below that projection.

What possible moral system would not include trying to prevent un-neccessary deaths of innocent people?
If allowing innocent people to die preventable deaths is "moral", then morality has ceased to have any meaning.
The only "moral" approach to population reduction limits fertility (hopefully voluntarily, there is a large un-met desire for family planning globally) rather than accepting increased mortality.

It is not immoral to predict likely events over which we have little or no control. It is not immoral, when faced with severe scarcity of resources, to be more concerned with the welfare of our own families, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens than with the rest of the world. The coming decades are not going to be conducive to altruistic liberalism.

This is a very idealized scenario, of course. And I am doubtful that it is a very realistic one as it is presented. I'll share my two major objections, which others have already discussed some, and then I will try to present some cause for hope that I feel you left out of your piece.

The first objection is the question of whether solar and wind really have the potential to ramp up as advertised. I would point out that PV's and wind turbines have existed for decades and still haven't gotten beyond niche roles in our energy usage. Today what keeps wind and solar confined to niche roles is that they still do not compete with fossil fuels except under limited circumstances. If the cost of materials, which themselves are subject to depletion and are mined primarily with fossil fuel energy, rise in parallel with oil prices, then higher oil prices will not cause wind and solar to become any more economically viable.

Your requirement that the model does not rely on any new technology is as sound as planning my finances on the assumption that I won't win the lottery, but making the leap from niche role to primary energy source is an even greater one than the leap from drawing board to niche role. I will admit that I might be underestimating the possibilities of solar, but I still think we should consider it unproven until it moves beyond the realm of a niche role.

The second objection is that energy constraints might make it less attractive, not more, to invest in R&D for alternatives. When a recession hits, as seems to be going on right now, R&D is usually the first thing that gets cut out of the corporate budget. We can see this in the chart of patent applications in the US; wars and recessions are readily identifiable by the noticeable drop in applications. If we look at the issue in energy terms rather than dollar terms, the picture becomes even more discouraging. If world population grows to 2015 and energy availibility declines or even stays flat, both politics and economics dictate that a greater portion of the energy available go to maintenance of current needs--agriculture, fuel, basic infrastructure, etc.--and less for major projects whose benefits will not be manifested for many years to come.

Now for a reason for hope. Right now the world economy does have a lot of waste. Some of that waste comes in its obvious forms: food thrown out, perfectly good electronics that get junked, oversized SUV's, etc. But also much of the developed world population could drastically reduce consumption without experiencing a decline in the standard of living. We could easily live in smaller houses, use simpler furniture and appliances, eat out less often, wear out clothes, etc. In short, we could cut consumption quite a bit and not reduce happiness. We might even increase happiness that way by having simpler lives with more meaningful relationships.

A lot of people around here say that consumerism is part of human nature and will not go away unless forced. I disagree with this. Consumerism is certainly a major part of our culture now, but look at the enormous energy on advertising, controlling government, etc. that the consumerist system needs to invest in order to keep itself going. Consumerism is certainly the exception, rather than the norm, throughout history. A growing number of people are rejecting the notion independently of concerns about energy and environment. Under the optimistic view, the ideology of consumerism will collapse without the economy collapsing.

In the event that the developed world undergoes a more positive way of living, the energy savings will vastly exceed the decline in energy availability for at least a decade. This could buy us the time we need to make the necessary investment in renewables. The might be just as pie-in-the-sky as your massive solar build-out, but I do feel that a change in values is necessary both for keeping a healthy civilization to 2050 and for creating a civilization worth living in.

There is no reason that a reduction in consumerism and a conversion to renewables could not occur in parallel. As you noted, reducing energy consumption makes conversion to renewables easiser.
My family and lots of our friends have lived on around 10-20% of US average energy consumption for the last couple of decades (passive solar houses, bicycle transportation, recycled clothes and any other consumer product possible,vegetarian) and we live very well. Economic forces may induce changes in consumer behavior that belief systems never could. As energy/plastic/meat/etc gets more expensive relative to income, consumption goes down eventually, either because of behavior change or bankruptcy.

Europe uses almost half the energy we use and they seem to get buy pretty well.

They've had decades of high energy prices that have created both a culture of conservation and lots of efficient machines because of the high energy costs.

We don't have the culture of conservation although I think that will re-appear very quickly once prices really start to go up. The machinery issue is a bigger problem, however. For instance, our existing car fleet would have to be turned over from its current low-mileage average to a high mileage average. And much long-haul trucking would need to be replaced with rail freight, but you'd have to ask Alan about the feasibility of that in any meaningful timeframe.


Like usual, another impressive contribution from Stuart.

A few comments, which may or may not echo those of others:

1) While I appreciate the effort to come up with something more hopeful than the Overshoot-Dieoff-Olduvai Gorge scenarios that we've seen so much of, I am afraid that you are being much too optimistic. In particular, as I am sure others will note, the asumption that infinite economic growth can continue on a finite resource base is highly questionable at best. Even if it were to be theoretically possible, as they say in the investment industry, "Past performance is no guarantee of future results." While I am not convinced that an increasingly resource-constrained future (and this embraces more than just energy to include metals and other non-renewable resources as well as land) necessarilly must result in the collapse of the economy (and thus, of civilization), I do believe it reasonable to assume that this does represent a fundamental and profound paradigm shift. The global economy WILL be required to adjust itself to this new paradigm of increasingly severe resource constraints. This in turn suggests to me that a transition to a more-or-less minimal growth, "sustainable" economy is a reasonable outcome to assume as an alternative to the pessimistic "doomer dieoff" scenario. It remains an open question whether the transition will take the form of an "S" curve that flattens off at a level above or below that of the present economy; either case, however, would be both more pessimistic than continued growth models and more optimistic than doomer dieoff models.

Various analyses have been done attempting to estimate humankind's total impact on the environment, popularly defined as our "environmental footprint". There is good reason to belive that humankind in general has now reached or exceeded a "footprint" that is sustainable given the global resource base. Highly developed socities, especially including the US and Canada, have grossly oversized and unsustainable footprints. Therefore, there is good reason to suspect that the sustainable, stable economy to which we must level off is a level which is significantly below the present. My own back of the envelope calculations, based upon a post by Fracois Cellier last year, suggests that for the US we might reasonably aspire long term to an ecomomy that is about 25% of the present per-capita GDP; this may be optimistic, but it is doubtful that we will have the resource base to support something much higher than this. For the world as a whole, a lesser average decline would be implied; nevertheless, it seems likely that we are already above sustainable levels, and that the transition will require a period of negative growth until sustainable levels are reached -- if we are so lucky as to pull off a "smooth landing".

The implications of this are that we are not going to need to install all of that PV capacity nearly so quickly - which is good, because a contracting global economy is going to find it extremely difficult to come up with anything like the levels of investment that your scenario anticipates.

2. WRT population, I share your belief that we have a collective responsibility to try to find some way to avoid a catastrophic mass die-off, either regionally or globally. Unfortunately I am not so sure avoiding such an outcome is something that is totally within the capacity of any policy intervention that might be reasonably contemplated. I would point out that the "Black Death" quickly wiped out one third of Europe's population, and the introduction of smallpox and other infectious diseases to the Americas resulted in an even more catastrophic reduction of native populations. As many have noted, the combination of crowded populations, reduced disease resistance due to malnutrition, etc., and globalized transport links could very conceivably combine to result in a rapidly spreading global pandemic, which in turn could very quickly cut down the global population to a fraction of its present level. Add to this threat the looming certainty of mass starvation due to the impact of global climate change on already environmentally stressed regions, not to mention the impact if biofuels are NOT stopped, plus wars, natural catastrophes, etc., and it appears quite likely to me that even the most pessimistic UN population scenario will prove to be far too optimistic. I wish it were not so, but mere wishing does not make it so. Much of this serious downside risk has already been "baked into the cake", due to the implications and consequences of things that have already happened, including anthropogenic GCC, unconstrained population growth, environmental degradation, etc. Avoiding the likely consequences at this point would require a global social engineering project that is several orders of magnitude beyond anything that has even been contemplated in the past, let alone the meagre efforts that have actually been pulled off over the past few decades (such as the global irradication of smallpox).

I thus think that the best that we can reasonably hope for is to "first do no harm". In other words, to develop a set of policy interventions that will not exacerbate the downward pressures on global population, and will not actively and deliberately cause any deaths that might otherwise be avoidable. Your previous article making the case against biofuels is an excellent example of what I mean. You have demonstrated that the widespread development of biofuels will result in a significant increase in mortality rates; biofuels should thus indeed be ruled out of bounds. While I am not anti-nuke, I am "anti-poorly sited, built, and maintained nuke", mostly because NPPs that are not carefully sited, built and maintained are a serious danger to human life and health. This is why I must part company with those who are advocating a massive increase in nuclear power through a "crash program"; quite apart from the likely problems they will encounter through resource and financial constraints, it is just not credible that the pace of NPP construction can be ramped up considerably without running the risk of cutting corners and not being as careful as we must be. Unfortunately, "first do no harm" also means that we must become far more serious about minimizing any further anthropogenic contributions to GCC, and to environmental degradation in its various forms, and this in turn implies that we are going to have to become far more serious about living with less FF than we are now, let alone without any further growth in FF use.

This in turn suggests that what I gave to you under my first point above I am going to have to now take away again. While a soon-to-be contracting and then leveling off global economy will not be demanding as much energy as your scenario anticipates (thus reducing the need to expand PV capacity quite so rapidly), we will nevertheless have to expand PV capacity fairly quickly to replace a more rapidly declining FF fuel supply. A declining global economy will have trouble finding the investment capital to drill in the arctic or deep offshore, or do any of the other things necessary to find and produce FF from the remaining fields. CCS is likely to be a non-starter for coal; the most efficient possible carbon sequestration method was the one that nature invented when it burried carboniferous biomass underground in the first place. As EROI goes down, and the difficulty and expense of E&P goes up, it is going to be an increasing struggle even under the best of times to come up with the needed investment capital, and these won't be the best of times. Add into the equation increasing levels of risk, and PVs will appear to be a much more safe and sure investment. Thus, while I don't think that FF are going to crash as per the doomer dieoff scenarios, I suspect that we are going to see a somewhat more rapid rate of decline than your scenario anticipates.

3. The idea of a global grid sounds good in theory, and an elegant solution to the problem of intermittency. Unfortunately, it is hugely expensive, and as I have indicated above, coming up with the investment capital for such a massive project in addition to the PVs themselves is highly dubious. Furthermore, unlike the PVs themselves, the project doesn't scale - it has to be pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition. While it is not necessary for every single country on earth to participate (and many probably will be bypassed), you do need participation from locations distributed across the globe. The closest comparable project that I can think of was the laying of transoceanic telegraph/telephone cables. However, that project DID scale - one cable could be (and was) put down at a time. While extending a cable to a more remote, previously unserved location did add value to the overall network, the network could and did operate before that link was established. No such incremental building of your proposed grid is possible - the system won't work as intended until the last piece of "backbone", at least, is put into place. There simply is no precedent for a global engineering project of such a scale, and it is not unreasonable to therefore doubt that it can or will be done. Furthermore, need I point out that as this is all ultimately going to have to be factored into electricity rates and paid for by ratepayers, the entire up front cost of the project is going to have to be covered up front and then recovered over a reasonable period of time. I don't know how you're going to ever float a 400 trillion dollar bond issue.

More likely, I think that humankind is pretty much going to just have to learn to live with and adapt itself to intermittency. We've been spoiled to have energy that is available on demand 24/7/365, but that is going to be an increasingly rare and expensive luxury. Having to live with intermittency is not the end of the world, but it likely will be an additional driver in my anticipated global economic decline. Industry will have to re-engineer itself from continuous process to batch process as much as possible in order to utilize solar power when it is available. (Some processes must be continuous, and these will get priority call on whatever non-intermittent renewables are available, such as hydro, geothermal, ocean current, etc.) Businesses and institutions will operate on daylight hours except for emergency and public health and safety services. Mass transit will likewise be mainly restrained to daylight hours. People will have to adjust their schedules so that laundry, dishwashing and showers are done in the evenings when water from rooftop solar water heaters is available. It will all be quite inconvenient, people won't like it, a few wealthy people will be able to pay the premium costs necessary to get around it, but most of us will just have to learn to live with it.

This, in fact, it more likely to be the future reality in general. We are going to have to face up to the fact that the path of least resistance is in living WITH nature, and in learning to walk lightly on the earth. This need not mean the end of civilization, but it does mean that we must adapt ourselves to the realities of a finite earth rather than continuing the vain and ultimately doomed effort to try to adapt the earth to our unrealities.

A global grid isn't a bad plan. Countries that are trading are typically not shooting at each other.

Yet I'm not inspired, given how oil is being treated as a trade item.

As far as 'economy keeps growing' other limits like toxins in the environment, potable water, Phosporous and even global warming look to be limiting.

400 trillion!

Now you did not even count the PV installations themselves, neither DC to AC substations (you missed those, actually from the link you provided, the substations for 2GW x 40km line will cost about three times the line itself). Add those and there we have a figure in the realm of 1,000 trillion USD :)

Is this serious even to contemplate? Look at "chump change" global projects like the International Space Station ($60bln.) or ITER ($15bln.) - they are all suffering from lack of funding now!

Now let's look: the current value of all nuclear station in the world would be 380GW x 2.5bln/GW = 950bln.USD. These are providing 5.6% of all current primary energy or - 220x0.056 = 12.3 mln.boe/d

If nuclear is to provide all the 560 mln.boe you project by 2050 it will require 560 / 12.3 = 45.5 fold expansion of capacity. Far more reasonable than a 100,000 fold expansion of solar PV, isn't it?

Cost of the enterprise: 45.5 x 950 bln. = 43 trillion

Your infrastructure project alone will cost ten times more!

I agree with you that nuclear plants will be cheaper to build.

Would you care to provide us with an estimate of the NPV of storing the waste until it is all harmless?


But it depends who executes the contract. Is it Haliburton or somebody else? But lets be as pessimistic as possible:

1) Building the Youca Mountain site (not much more than a hole in the ground but whatever): ~20 billion
2) Maintaining the site (let's say a staff of 100 people to guard and watch for it) - let's say 20mln. an year.

NPV (5% discount rate, 50 years) = -$20.4 bln.
NPV of nuclear power (current prices and production, 5% discount rate, 50 years) = $770 bln.

As long as both the initial investment and site maintenance are overwhelmingly cheaper than the value of nuclear electricity (~$40bln.) this makes sense.

Oh yes in 50 years we'll need to expand the storage. Let's be obscene again and say it costs another 20bln. to dig one more hole in the ground. Repeat previous calculation.

I propose another path though. Build a fuel reprocessing plant ($10-20 bln). Burn actinudes in on-site FBRs ($2-3 bln.). Store the remaining waste (2-3% of original volume) in Yucca, which in this case will last essentially forever. In 100-200 years all isotopes will be practically gone.

The bottom line: nuclear "waste" is a political issue. A vote exchange token. Technically such a problem does not exist (see relevant experience in France and Russia)

P.S. Of course I didn't escape the attempted irony in your question, but the situation with the so called "nuclear waste problem" is so much more ironical as to be a perfect display of the maturity status of the society we live in. Now in this context I find the chances of your 400 trillion project even more... well questionable.

Thanks for the food of thought though.

Oh yes in 50 years we'll need to expand the storage.

I have read that Yucca Mtn. repository will actually be full when it is officially opened and all authorized waste is moved there. So start another Yucca Mtn. right away.

Its better to ditch the entire notion of geologic repositories. They're very expensive and they dont solve any problems that simple above ground dry cask storage allready does cheaper except contain the waste if society collapses. And if society collapses, we've got bigger worries.

In several hundred years we'll either strip the waste out for fuel or reseal it or in the event of total societal collapse it will make some patch of desert very slightly more radioactive than new york granite.

That's close to true (IIRC it would be something like 2/3 full when it opens).

But bear in mind that:
1) Half of the storage would be used up by the enormous waste left from the US nuclear weapons program, which no longer exists like in the Cold War (there is enough Pu out there to nuke the whole world).
2) Both the weapons and civilian programs have been around for 60 years now. So when it is built we will be effectively storing a hundred years worth of the waste. If reprocessing is implemented we will be having many thousands years of storage.
3) Expanding the storage (drilling another cavern in the rocks) would be a lot cheaper than building the whole complex from scratch

Like a said, it is not a problem, or at least it never had to be a problem.

One more interesting factoid: currently US taxpayers (through DoE) are paying in the order of $300 to 500million to nuclear utilities, because DoE did not abide to their contract of building Yucca by 1997.

In addition consumers are paying 0.1 cents/kwth surcharge on nuclear electricity, because the government has mandated this royalty to cover the cost of the same Yucca they are not building!

Talk about absurds.

This waste issue is a canard. The BN-800 that will be completed by 2012 is based on a closed fuel cycle. It and its commercial successors the BN-1800 will be used to burn stored "waste". The pyrochemical reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel is way beyond the experimental stage. I'd like to see the hyped and mostly non-existent clean coal technology be anywhere near this stage.

An old set of slides:


The "Other Renewable" section of your graph is mislabled. The area should be "Conservation" and "Demand Destruction".

Projections of past usage rates assume a constant energy cost. Calculate the increase in price of energy and conservation to result in the required demand destruction.

Bold- finally someone gets it!

Well yes, but you are missing certain minor details of how "demand destruction" will look like...

More specifically when oil gets to $200/bbl and gas to $5/gallon, the lucky 1/4th part of the humanity will have to make the tough choice of dishing out their SUVs in favor of Toyota Priuses. The more unlucky 3/4ths will have to decide whether to dish out electricity, food or maybe living altogether.

Since it's not possible for me to entirely solve this problem in a week of part-time work,.... Why not? Either work full-time or take two weeks. :)

More seriously, this is a useful stab at running the numbers on a possible future. Although I cannot counter you numerically at this point, I feel your scenario is wildly optimistic. The biggest thing missing is negative synergy: on the way up, there were all kind of happy synergies that fostered the development of the industrial and in particular the oil age. On the way down the synergies go into reverse: shortage of oil and gas will make all other materials (e.g. metals) harder to get, soil harder to fertilize, and so on. I am unable to entirely parse your first graph, but that last line running up into the sky on the right cannot be right (other, all renenewables?). Nor do I believe the stuff the goes down so gradually. At current rates of consumption, essentially ALL of the economically extractable conventional oil will be gone -- or am I missing something?

Also, your political opinions, which you lay out somewhere, also show up here:

...developing countries are frequently corrupt with a tendency for their building subcontractors to do things like leaving the rebar out of concrete to save money." The is a very one-sided indictment. It is the US that is dumping depleted uranium all over Iraq, trashing the world economy, threatening pre-emptive nuclear war, etc. To think that such a power would or could responsibly administer nuclear salvation is, well, whatever.

Furthermore, the nuclear fuel chain always has the potential to be diverted into weapons use by its owners (the basis for western concerns about Iran). Nuclear weapons remain the only way humanity has come up with to not just end our civilization but end our species and most life on the planet and they ought not to be proliferated further. Same thing here: western concerns about Iran are founded on the desire to control Iran's oil and gas. We've been there already with Iraq -- just change the names. Proliferated further? Either everyone lays down their guns, or no-one is going to, nor should they. In the Middle East, Israel ... oh, forget it. Everyone knows all this stuff. Wrong place to get too deep into all that.

This is still a good piece, because it provokes a very much needed discussion and analysis of the next 40 years outlook.

A parting shot -- I read this someplace in the last week: a reporter (British?) back in the 30s asked Ghandi, what do you think of western civilization? It would be a good idea, he said.

Another afterthought: the graph is way too symmetrical as between incline on the left and decline on the right. There has to be a far sharper decline on the right than the incline on the left. Right there, without anything else, it's just impossible, makes no sense to me at all.

With that said, for the remainder of the piece I'm arrogating to myself sole authorship of all relevant international treaties and implementing legislation at the national level.

Key sentence, that. "First, assume I'm unchallenged emperor of the earth. Then..."

I understand this is meant as an exercise (I'm not sure if I buy 'scenario') and as always your work is engaging and excellent within the rules you set to work with, an entertaining and thoughtful read.

It seems to me, as I mentioned in passing the other day, that there is a rather large class of options which are physically and thermodynamically possible but not evolutionarily possible from where we are now; a 'path dependency' thing. For any of these to be actual scenarios, you probably WOULD need an unchallenged global dictatorship, and throw in that it happens tomorrow, it's scientifically astute with entirely benign intentions and stable for the next 40 years. Meaning no disrespect, one might as well wish for a time machine and super powers.

However, since a cold appraisal of actually-likely scenarios is nothing the world public could embrace without their heads exploding, there is probably public-policy value to delusionally optimistic plans which would not be completed, but would achieve useful intermediate goals prior to widespread system collapses. Since any plans presented to the public must perforce be delusionally optimistic, coming up with a compelling vision which gets useful stuff done isn't a bad thing.

I should perhaps note here that despite my greenish moniker I'm no Luddite; I sit on the board of a space-exploration NGO, enjoy high-tech inventing, and have been a lifelong scifi fan. But the door to what may be done is closing quickly, horizons are receding, and the tragedy of the commons is all too real.

If I can get the time machine working, I'll get back to you on the emperor thing.... cheers.

We've had about a century now of experience with global (or at least inter-continental) treaties and trans-national governance, so we've got something to go by in assessing what we might reasonably expect over the next fifty years. I think that few would argue with the conclusion that achieving any real progress toward genuine, productive cooperation at the global level is extremely difficult, that our gains to date have been quite limited, and that the whole global diplomatic system is fragile and vulnerable to complete breakdown (as WWI & WWII have illustrated). The present frustration in trying to get global consensus on a mitigation action plan for GCC is a current illustration of the difficulties humankind faces.

It might be a bit extreme and overly pessimistic to assume that nothing whatsoever can be done to achieve any global agreement at all wrt the coming multiple crises. However, I think it would be quite realistic to assume that whatever global agreement is reached will very much be a case of much too little, much too late. Scenarios that are built around an assumption of much more than that I am afraid must be judged as being unrealistic and therefore not credible.

Stuart: I have been poking around looking at charts that model all fuels from now through 2050 (and 2100), so I took great interest in your model here. But I'm having a bit of trouble reading it. I can't even find the curves for a few of the components shown in the legend. Reading the chart bottom up, I think I'm seeing:

Are the Biofuel, Renewable electricity and Other renewable segments all within that thick black line between Hydro and Wind?

What is your distinction between "Renewable electricity" and wind & PV?

Finally, I assume you had reasons not to include geothermal, tidal and wave power, and solar thermal (utility scale CSP plants, which dwarf distributed PV today)--what were they?

The renewables are all in the graph but are currently too small to be visible (other than hydro).

Correction to my previous statement: Worldwide, solar PV capacity stood at 12,400 MW at the end of 2006; worldwide solar CSP capacity is projected to reach 5,400 MW by 2012. So solar PV is much bigger. But solar CSP is now the technology of choice for utility scale projects and is growing faster than PV.

Stuart: If you could please address my other questions?

I think Stuart should be commended for putting together a concrete plan--it's easy to poke holes in something that is clearly defined without proposing a specific counter-solution. Criticism without providing a concrete alternative is also valuable if it articulates a broader principle supporting why things should not be done according to plan--at least this helps to create a framework for the creation of concrete alternatives. With that in mind, here is a quick, principle-based critique of Stuart's plan:

1. Photovoltaics are a bad idea because it is not yet clear that they will produce more energy over their lifetime than it took to create them. I know this is an old argument, but almost universally, when someone wants to say it's wrong or outmoded, they point to a study that quite obviously fails to account for all the energy embodied in PV. As I've written before, I think that unsubsidized cost is a good proxy for accounting for the fully range of embodied energy in a product, and by that proxy PV fails. I realize that many people don't like this methodology, but I haven't seen any one coherently refute it yet. The principle behind this critique: we need to be sure that the future energy alternative we choose actually will produce more energy than it took to create it--it must produce enough energy to 1) replace the energy used to create it, 2) build its replacement, and 3) enough surplus beyond that to power the economy. Additionally, we need a valid methodology to account for actual embodied energy in making this assessment.

2. Centralized systems are a bad idea. Centralized power generation and distribution 1) requires cooperation between many nations (we don't have a good track record there), 2) incurs massive inefficiencies in transmission loss that (I think) need to be accurately balanced against the gains reaped via centralization, and 3) creates a system very vulnerable to man-made or natural disruption (far more vulnerable to terrorist attacks, for example, than the current oil & gas system).

3. Treats the symptom (energy supply shortages) but does nothing to treat the cause (growth) IF this system works, it will only succeed in pushing the problem of dealing with growth to the generation down the line where the limits of a global PV grid are reached. This may seem like a long way off, and probably is, but that doesn't make it any more morally acceptable. This should not be seen as a rejection of stopgaps as a concept, but rather suggests that we realize that this is nothing but a stopgap--and $400 Trillion and 40 years is a lot to invest in a stopgap. If we don't address the fact that our economy is predicated on growth yet we live on a finite planet, we're just going to push back the crisis, not solve it. Ideally (and this is a tall order), the solution to our energy problems should also be a solution to the problem of perpetual growth without sacrificing human fulfillment (which, itself, is quite the definitional problem).

Just a few points to ponder when you're either 1) thinking this is a good idea, or 2) trying to resolve a framework to come up with a better alternative. Either way, I think we should thank Stuart for getting exactly this conversation started...

I think that unsubsidized cost is a good proxy for accounting for the fully range of embodied energy in a product, and by that proxy PV fails.

By this metric, did the embodied energy in a Beanie Babie get multiplied by 1000 at the height of the craze and then plummet to zero after the fad ended?
I think not.
Use of this metric completely ignores the impact of supply and demand on prices.
When drug war enforcement penalties increase, the price of cocaine or heroin shoots up, but the energy cost of production/transportation has changed little. Drug entrepeneurs just require more compensation to balance the increased risk of imprisonment.
For many products, energy represents a vanishingly small portion of the price. For other products, energy costs dominate.
The energy payback of wind and solar thermal has been established beyond reasonable doubt, in my opinion. The latest studies on PVs are convincing to me also, although any EROEI analysis suffers from boundary definition problems.
The economic return on investment of PVs is largely a function of the cost of competing fossil fuels. If fossil fuels were free, then even PV with an energy return on investment of 1000 would be non-competitive. Yet in another fossil fuel price environment, those same PVs would be an excellent investment. The EROEI of the PV system has not changed, but the PV economic ROI has changed purely due to fossil fuel costs.

I agree that the metric isn't perfect, but it does work well for non-branded commodities without ready substitutes (e.g. Oil). The issue is what metric works better? I haven't seen one. Show me one study of the EROEI of PV that accounts for both the energy used to mine the raw materials AND the energy used to manufacture the machinery used to mine the raw materials. That's not even raising the energy required to sustain the people that operate them, etc. The issue is twofold: 1) is the EROEI positive when everything is accounted for, and 2) is the EROEI the as high as current energy supplies, because it's surplus energy not total energy that drives an economy. We can just quadruple the population and dramatically increase the total available energy in the form of human labor power, but it's transparent that such a change won't work in a "modern" economy dependent on surplus energy (and the ratio thereof).

Finally, show me a product where energy represents a vanishingly small portion of the price. I think you'll find (or I'll point out), that when the total system required to bring that product to market is accounted for, the price-embodied energy proxy is pretty good... Let's take Beanie Babies as an example: sure, the energy required to produce one is pretty low (even if you account for the energy required to mine the materials, transport the dolls, build and maintain the factory, build the marketing offices, pay the lawyers and fuel their SUVs, ad infinitum). The difference is accounted for by a full accounting of the energy required to 1) enforce the intellectual property protection that lets them become a speculative item such as legal infrastructure, government infrastructure, etc. and 2) the huge amount of energy spent by people all trying to create the next big thing and failing, all of which must be accounted for as part of the system that produces a consumer product phenomenon such as the Beanie Baby.

You'll find that if you perform your accounting all the way back the energy returned is equal to the energy invested. Civilization must be unsustainable!

This is why talking about EROEI is usually just an exercise in nonsense. Talk about a process if it yields energy then talk about if its affordable.

I agree that the metric isn't perfect, but it does work well for non-branded commodities without ready substitutes (e.g. Oil).

Does your calculations include the non-direct subsidies? Like, oh say the military to 'defend' the oil?

Do your 'calculations' for oil include calculations for time and volume of material processed, as any PV cell would have such.

The issue is what metric works better? I haven't seen one.

Howard Odum's eMergy.


The point is that in any calculation, people neglect the small terms. Nothing wrong with that. To criticise the calculation, you need an argument that the terms they chose to neglect are actually not small, but big. Merely listing excluded terms doesn't carry much force.

The principle behind this critique: we need to be sure that the future energy alternative we choose actually will produce more energy than it took to create it...

At this time, this statement almost makes one feel that we are using our investments wisely now.

If I had to chose of spending $1 Trillion Dollars on the war in Iraq, or spend $1 trillion dollars on PV for everybody, I think I would chose the later even though it wasn't positive EROEI.

I guess since we are totally wasting money anyway, I would rather them buy and distribute PV's to everyone instead of spending it on the "Bridge To Nowhere" type boondoggle projects.

No doubt that we aren't using our inherited non-renewable resources or our current economic capabilities very wisely, and I agree that if given a choice between wasting them in Iraq or building PV farms, I unquestionably prefer the later. However, if the question is "will Plan X" get human civilization beyond the growth/Peak Oil problem...

I agree Jeff. You are correct in pursuing that angle of justification for an energy source.

When someone asks me about PV, etc. I say, "Imagine a D9 Catapiller or Earthmover, How many PV panels would it take to forge that?" Quiets them down.

I am a strong advocate for Alternative Energy(recently went thru the diploma series at North Carolina State Univ.) However, that being said (and my love for PERSONAL wind machines, PV, Microhydro) I STILL haven't seen my ELECTRIC Airplane. :-)

PV still ain't too good at producing PolyProp, or Polyethylene or other plastics.


If we don't address the fact that our economy is predicated on growth yet we live on a finite planet, we're just going to push back the crisis, not solve it.


the solution to our energy problems should also be a solution to the problem of perpetual growth

This is an assertion that is made all the time on TOD. I have to say I have serious doubts about it. Agreed growth is definitely desired, but stagnation and shrinkage are far from fatal.

Where is the most rigorous presentation of this idea? (That 'The System' must grow or die) Tainter doesn't count because he is really about complexity, not growth and, in fact, he has gone on record on several occasions stating that american corporations demonstrate the capacity to simplify when necessary, an ability he believes very few ancient societies had.

Jeff - until you actually do an EROEI calculation and demonstrate that the consensus is really wrong with numbers, not words, I'm not sure you have a very strong point. Yeah, PV is not economic unsubsidized today in all that many places, but the trajectory is pretty clear.

I agree with the problem in suggesting, via words, that the EROEI calculations are wrong. My concern, however, is that it is agreed that it is not possible to fully regress a numbers-based calculation for all embodied costs. My example is the energy used to grow the rice to feed the merchant marine captain who ships machine parts necessary to build the PV pannels. How many other such energy costs are there? We don't know. How big an unaccounted chunk do they make up? We don't know--all we do know is that NONE of the current EROEI calculations for PV make a numbers-based accounting of these factors. They are, to paraphrase one a brilliant (smirk) military thinker, "unknown unknowns." For this reason, I've tried to propose a proxy for accounting for them--admittedly, a very flawed proxy, but until either 1) someone comes up with a verifiable and numbers based way to account for these unkowns, or 2) PV becomes transperently cost-efficient compared to, say, coal without subsidies, I'm not convinced that the EROEI is greater than 1, let alone what is often claimed.

Additionally, I'm not convinced that the "trajectory is clear"--as the prices of energy inputs, component raw materials, transport, etc. seem likely to rise over the next few decades, I think there is at least as good a chance that the trajectory will be, with the benefit of hindsight, parabolic...

it would be interesting if as well as extrapolating the energy produced by renewables you had also extrapolated the subsidies on them.
I suspect that by the year 2050 that would far exceed the $350trillion projected for WGDP! :-)

I'm always puzzled and somewhat aggravated that the costs of storing energy are not figured in to PV systems (or wind for that matter. And arm waving about pumped storage does not constitute a solution). To equate a PV system to, say, a coal burning power plant one must include some sort of storage system for the electricity. Maybe, maybe someday, maybe even relatively soon, we will develop a storage system that makes PV actually competitive with coal. The currently available storage systems, IMO, would render PV, if not negative, certainly close enough to 1:1 so as not to be 'competitive' with fossil fuel or nuclear.

Arm-waving does not help, but links to cost estimates might. PV is not cost-competitive with coal, even before storage is considered, unless some substantial dollar value is given to avoided carbon emissions (which will eventually happen).
However, wind is competitive with coal in many (windy) locations already, even with the assumption that destabilizing the world's climate should be free to the destabilizer. Looks like pump storage will add around 9 cent a kwh to the cost of stored and released wind power. This would serve to bring electricity costs in the Western US (~9 cents Kwh retail)) up to the current electricity costs in France and Germany (~18 cents Kwh retail). Civilization has not exactly collapsed in France and Germany due to electricity costs, so maybe this would not be that big a deal, just resulting in more efficient electricity use, as is standard in Europe today.

"Project and capacity charges are 6.29 cents per kWh. Fixed O&M costs are calculated as 3.2 cents per kWh with no accounting for variable O&M costs.
The ACOE is calculated as 8.69 cents per kWh, yielding a cost per ton reduction value of $65.53. "

Unfortunately, given that Peak Oil is merely one of the problems facing our civilization, I think that a massive population decline is inevitable, and as it so happens in many ways desirable, at this point. Almost every major problem we are facing, from global warming to Peak Oil to ecological disasters to regional food and water shortages, would be solved almost overnight if the global population were reduced by 2/3.

Someone above mentioned the Black Death in Europe. While it was horrible, in the end it produced massive good, catapulting Europe out of the Dark Ages, liberating the European peasantry, and ushering in the Renaissance and ultimately the modern age. I have no idea how much of a population decline we'll be talking about in the next 50-100 years from the calamities we face, but I have little doubt there will be one and I suspect that first world nations will be hit the hardest. We have the least margin for error, as we are the most dependent on modern technology and a highly complex and fragile life support system. Most people in the Third World are much closer to agricultural production and significantly less dependent on transportation and technology.

So I guess what I'm saying is I discount much of the above as irrelevant. I don't think humanity is far-sighted enough to prevent an impending disaster of this magnitude and scope. We seem to like to learn our lessons the hard way. Calamities like the Great Depression happen maybe a couple of times a century. Calamities of the type we're heading for happen maybe once every 1000 years. In that sense, in a way we're all kind of lucky to experience it. Most of us probably won't live through it and there's a good chance we'll watch many of our loved ones die in the process, but we can at least take small comfort in the fact that at the end of the day our suffering will be ushering in a new, and likely better world. A world where just maybe the individual matters again and the dehumanizing influence of our mass-market, disposable society is removed. I think I would like to live in such a world, even though the chances are I won't get to see it.

I'm in the same camp as you are. For those that watched 'Crude' last night on the history channel, it's rather obvious where we're headed - into the badlands. But like you say, hopefully it will usher in a new era. My take on humankind is ego and greed always take center stage in times of great wealth (in this case by way of cheap oil) yet our best attributes come out when we are humbled. Maybe in the aftermath of the chaos of tomorrow, we will rise back up a more spiritual, conscious, enlightened specie.

Stuart, this is great analysis, thanks! It echoes the recent Scientific American "Grand Plan", except being even grander...

The storage/transmission business is clearly a central problem. I'd like to see more discussion of pumped hydro as a potential solution. The energy contained behind even one dam is vast; that's somewhat like having a huge storage battery at your disposal. But what would the cost of turbines and pumps be to run something like Grand Coulee at ten or 30 times the normal rate, forwards and backwards? I suspect it would end up cheaper than your global transmission grid, but not sure...

Anyway, it's great to have these reasonably realistic positive scenarios out there to play with, thanks for putting this together!

First remark about your methodoly. I think it is better to think in the following:
100% - renewable
80% - renewable
60% - renewable
40% - renewable
20% - renewable

Although we go first to 20% it is better to start thinking by 100%. Otherwise, you might make mistakes for the 20%. Example, in 100% scenario, biomass will not be used for electricity, but in 20% you might. But this will give problems when you go further.

To my opinion this methodology is better than time tags, because you don't have to change it when things go more slowly or faster. You have only to change when technology changes.

Second remark. There is a clear error about fertilizer. The key element of fertilizers is nitrogen and not carbon! This means, that you can make it from other renewable sources than biomass. The process is partly thermal, so it is most efficiently created in thermal solar power. It is based on ammonia, NH3. Since creating NH3 is very energy intensive (90% of the costs is for energy), you can use it for load balancing. Start creating NH3 when there is a surplus in energy (lots of wind for instance). This might be econmically viable already in a 60% scenario, before you start phasing out fossil energy for heating.

Third remark. Some people mentioned nuclear power. Except when you start using fast breeder reactors, uranium is a limited supply. Reserves are 50 to 70 years. Might be more, but peak will start earlier. Currently 5% of electricity production is nuclear. If we go to 25%, reserves are 10 to 14 years. Might be more, but peak will start earlier.

If you start to use fast breeders (but do they really work other than in theory???), you have 100 times more energy. So, technically that would be a solution (although I do not prefer it).

Fourth remark. Thermal solar is far too little in your proposal. If you have thermal chemical reaction, it is most efficient to use thermal solar power directly (in a 100% scenario).



Couple of points:
1) Ammonia production can not be used as load balancing. Once the reaction is initiated it has to be sustained, otherwise the energy cost of starting it/getting the appropriate reactant temperature would be huge.
2) Nuclear is 16% of electricity - 5.6% is the share from primary energy produced. Uranium peak is so far a theoretical event - nobody has explored the whole world for U, like they pretty much have done for oil. Breeder reactors are not likely to be necessary anywhere in the foreseeable future.

I agree that solar thermal is the most prospective of all renewable technologies. I am personally a fan of the parabolic through design, as it looks like the most scalable one.

Stuart, I think your paper on superconducting cables is out of date. I believe they are commercially available.

Have you taken a look at American Superconductors (AMSC)?

I took a quick glance at their web site, and while they clearly make superconducting wire, I can't see an instance of a long-haul transmission link that they've done. Did I miss it?

Superconducting cables have been installed in several locations, but none so far are long-haul at all - mostly demonstrations of the technology over 1-mile or so distances. They started installing a pretty big one here on Long Island a couple of years ago:


but I'm not sure it's operational; the plan seems to have switched to a new design last summer. In any case, the purpose isn't long-distance transmission, but better control over the linked AC networks (the superconducting link provides useful isolation in a simpler manner than other alternatives, apparently).

"I can't see an instance of a long-haul transmission link that they've done. Did I miss it?"

No. On further review, it looks to me like long-haul superconductors aren't here yet - all of their installations are short, and they seem to be focusing on that to the exclusion of long-distance.

Too bad.

Think about it. You have a rigid material (ceramic like) that you want to mount on a non-rigid surface (the earth).

Vibration, thermal expansion/contraction of the cable mount points are two problems *I* can think of.

I have a question which goes around my mind for quite a while now. As I have no expertise in anything energy or physics related you might excuse if the following is utter bullshit.

It is often stated around here that solar panels could be a (at least partial) solution for our energy and environmental problems, and this might very well be so. But we should not forget that the amount ov PVs already running is small fish compared to what will be needed to satisfy our energy demand. So no one knows (and I guess, not many have ever thought about it, because, after all, solar energy is clean and for free) what kind of bad things might happen, when the required masses of solar panels get installed.

I mean, the above graphic shows a really outstanding development in PV-capacity; don't you think that this could cause severe adverse reactions?
As far as I know, too much of anything is bad, even if it is healthy in small doses. Why should it be different with PVs?
There must be some unintended side effects, if it will ever be installed in these quantities.

The objection my little head came up with is that PV Panels are designed to capture as much solar power as possible, which means that less energy will be reflected out to space. But if we keep an increasing amount of energy here on Earth wouldn't this mean that finally temperatures had to rise, thus creating one of the major problems, we wanted to avert?

"PV Panels are designed to capture as much solar power as possible, which means that less energy will be reflected out to space. But if we keep an increasing amount of energy here on Earth wouldn't this mean that finally temperatures had to rise"

Yes, but only a very tiny amount.

Think of it this way: thermal plants, like coal, throw away 2 btu's for every 1 btu that's turned into power, and then put out CO2, which causes an even bigger heat trapping effect. OTOH, PV's doesn't put out any waste heat, or CO2. Now, it will absorb more light than the reflective roof that the smart commercial building owner would install these days, but not when compared to the average dark residential roof. Finally, even then that heat will be released in a few hours when the electricity is used and turned into heat, and will be gradually emitted from the building in the form of infrared.

"Now, it will absorb more light than the reflective roof that the smart commercial building owner would install these days, but not when compared to the average dark residential roof."

Well, I guess that assumes that they will not plaster the meadows, but roofs with solar panels.
Anyway, my objection was incorrect insofar that the solar influx stays constant and the only parameters that PVs change are time and place of the heat emission. So if there isn't a massive energy relocation from one part of the world to another, this shouldn't be any problem. (At least not in my mind-created wonderworld.)

Nontheless, I still think that everything has its price. And so will a solar-driven civilisation.
And as it is a dangerous game to keep this severly flawed system running I firmly believe, we shouldn't even try to save it. There are points where it is better to build a new barn than to clean the shit out.

Pv panels absorb maybe 90%, converting perhaps 15% into electricity, which soon will be heat as well. So technically he is correct. If we cover say 90% of the earths surface with PV panels, we will burn up. But anyway we try to generate 1000 times current energy usage would be just as fatal. The key is to cap our energy consumption. But I suspect other limits on population and other resources will stop us long before we hit that limit.

I think you're asking a general thermodynamics question. Namely, what do we do with all the waste heat? Yes, people have thought about this question. There are two answers. 1. We're nowhere close to the scenario where waste heat is a problem. And we will only run into that problem if we continue to buy into the delusion of never ending exponential growth. 2. Futurists like Isaac Asimov imagined, in the more advanced stages of human civilization, that we would have giant radiators reaching up into space to disperse the waste heat we generated. (I think he described Trantor in those terms in the Foundation series, but my memory is fuzzy.)

This is exactly the right question to ask.

I'm somewhat persuaded by the wind guys that my grid is overspecced though I want to research it further (and certainly if you are willing to accept much higher growth in nuclear than has been historically the case, you could get to an all nuclear baseload and not need all that much global transmission).

However, if we stick with the idea of a really big global grid, then the main issue that nags at me a little bit is the heat leakage into the deep ocean (most of the transmission cables would have to be underwater). It's not much heat at all by the standard of the overall heat budget of the ocean, but it is putting it into a part of the ocean that is otherwise very cold and receives no direct solar energy. So it would need to be figured out whether that's a concern or not.

Don't worry, ocean bottom receives large amounts of heat energy from the earth's crust. Power lines will be miniscule compared to that and will affect only an extremely small area of the total ocean bottom. While they are long, they are not wide.

Press here (pdf warning), if you want to have a look at wind variation in continental and regional scale.

Stuart, I have little doubt that you can substantially reduce your system costs by the inclusion of more wind resources, with large but not world-wide grids- for northern areas where solar is expensive this would be even more true.
Another alternative (sorry, I would have included this in a previous post, but just did not think) would be to include calculation for heat pumps, both air and ground - this is expensive for ground pumps, but way cheaper than your vast grid, and if energy costs were transparent would certainly be built be most people if prices wee rising fast enough to pay for that.
Simply, the costs of your solution imply that there would be much more vigorous conservation.

Another great post Stuart. Keep them comming please. I think a global energy grid is a bit of a stretch by 2100,Use of PV on a regional basis will be very do-able in the near future. It will take all types off energy sources to meet future needs. 500 years from now we will still be using crude oil to a degree.

Staniford's Panglossian scenarios rely on so many rosy outcomes and unlikely happenstances that they lack any credibility. I really cannot see the point of this kind of optimistic conjecture, especially when we have not even started to cope with any one of the many problems that face mankind.

Well, his minimum requirements are set quite high in my view. If you can credibly show that a 'Panglossian' scenario is not unthinkable, you certainly can't be accused of taking the easy way out!!! Stuart has deliberately forced himself to stretch.

"The two countries that have the most wind are Denmark with about 1.1 TWhr/year per million people of wind production in 2005, and Germany with about 0.33 TWhr/year per million people. New wind installation in Denmark has largely stopped, and it appears to be slowing in Germany. I treat the global politically acceptable maximum as around 0.5 TWhr/year/million people, and grow wind up to that point at the historical 23.7% growth rate."

- Denmark and Germany do not have the vast open land that the US has in the Midwest.
- As oil,gas and coal production go into decline, local resistance will be answered with national insistence. As an example, rich locals and rich vacationers crying about the Cape Wind project - which would be 5 miles off shore - won't have the same chance of winning their case when electricity rates are 3 or 4 times what they are now and heading higher.

Per my comments below, imagine a differential rate regime where electricity is cheap mid-day during maximum insolation, much more expensive in the morning and evening, and hugely expensive at night. Under such a regime, WTs become hugely profitable. Even if they don't produce electricity all the time, and even if some of their production is during the low rate period, over half of their production would be at the very high premium rates. The economics of WTs would become so overwhelmingly favorable that it would be difficult to stop them anywhere except around the most important viewsheds, like national parks.

It is one thing to object to WTs when they will make little, if any, difference to one's electric rates. On the other hand, if they will make the difference between paying, say $0.50/kWh with them and $10.00/kWh without them after dark, then I bet that people would find them to be far less objectionable.

Okay Stuart - a few questions:

1) What makes you think the credit crunch will cause only a few years of mild retrenchment (given that the US banking system is essentially insolvent already)?

2) Do you seriously think anyone would bet on at least 50 years of sufficient socioeconomic stability in order to justify such an expensive international infrastructure project?

3) Do you think it would be possible to scale up production of solar panels enormously given the rare components and the amount of energy required for their manufacture?

Given that PV is DC, do you plan to convert the power to AC in order to step up the voltage and then convert it back to DC again for HVDC transmission? Losses are much lower over long distances with HVDC transmission, but such a double conversion would be complex and extremely costly, above and beyond the cost of solar panels.

4) How are you planning to ensure system stability with few large rotating turbines?

Although the backbone of your system would presumably be HVDC, there would need to be connections to local AC systems for voltage steps. These systems rely for their stability on the inertia of large rotating turbines (eg coal, gas, nuclear, hydro - where the turbine speed defines the system frequency), and the HVDC backbone would rely on the inertia of the AC systems for its own stability. If we are talking about reducing fossil fuel based generation, not everywhere has hydro, and you don't want to build nukes, then where does your frequency management come from? Even if you do build nukes, they're not designed for load following.

5) Have you thought about vulnerability to disruption, intentional or otherwise?

A saboteur (or even a sandstorm) could potentially blackout a substantial portion of the globe at once, as power systems are typically designed to withstand only the loss of one major component. Even if local AC systems were able to isolate themselves from a failure of the HVDC backbone, an enormous percentage of load could have to be shed for a prolonged period of time. This could cause severe hardship, especially in areas more dependent on imports and therefore less able to operate independently for a time. Dependence on imports for essentials represents a vulnerability that can be exploited. You could build in redundancy for resilience of course, but redundancy is very expensive. Power systems have just spent at least a decade getting rid of as much of it as possible.

Stuart's study is a good first step for thinking about where we need to go. That allows us to think about near term strategy. Clearly any rational plan will be reevaluated in the light of new developments, say every five years. That said we need to start somewhere, and having a rough roadmap of where we need to be will provide important quidance.

He picked a few techs to concentrate on for his study, not an unreasonable starting point. Of course any true plan (which would run to thousands of pages) would be built on a more varied portfolio of catagories. He left out some obvious renewable, such as ocean energy, offshore wind, solar thermal, high altitude wind. The more varied the renewables portfolio on offer, the less correlated will be the intermittencies, and the less costly the measures needed to deal with it. Davemart makes some important points about variability, and about nuclear. I think that a robust nuclear component (say 30-50%), as a baseline would substantially reduce the cost of measures to deal with supply variability. He is right to point out, that this is mainly needed at high latitudes, and fortunately the high lattitude countries are not the unstable states for which the proliferation concern is greatest. Still this level of generation requires a more efficient fuel cycle, and one which generates far less waste than the current generation of reactors. Research and engineering development of advanced fuel cycle systems is needed, and should allow for more than one possible design, as some designs will probably be found unacceptable.

There are some possibilities in the renewable sector, for dispatchable power, which could be used as a partial solution to the variablity problem. Most of these would operate by producing some sort of fuel, either from direct solar, or more probably from some sort of biological feedstock. Currently the best candidates are biogas (farm waste to methane), and perhaps some of the schemes whereby concentrated solar light/heat effect chemical reactions to produce fuel. If the fuel is a pipelinable gas, such as methane, than gas turbine plants could be run during periods when the variable renewables come up short.

Another major concern, the methane hydrates on the sea floor, and underneath the tundra, are a resource several times larger than all other fossil fuels combined. If an economic method is found to harvest these, we would be doomed climate-wise, unless carbon capture and storage is widely used. We need to provide signficant research on CCS from methane, otherwise we might not be able to head off a climate disaster if the methane hydrates are tapped. Even if the hydrates are left alone, methane CCS utilizing biogas as a feedstock could provide carbon negative power. IMHO we are going to need some amount of large scale carbon negative enterprises, to undo some of the damage inflicted by earlier (pre 2050) epochs, and as a correction for the hopefully small further emmisions post 2050.

In any case, a lot of investment across a range of energy technologies will be needed.

On the other hand, should those methane hydrates thaw and escape into the atmosphere, we might be even more doomed than if we had burned them, as methane is a 20X more potent GHG. A research program to figure out a way to head that off and just capture the stuff that was at risk of going into the atmosphere should really be a very high priority task.

enemy of state said:
'Still this level of(nuclear) generation requires a more efficient fuel cycle, and one which generates far less waste than the current generation of reactors. Research and engineering development of advanced fuel cycle systems is needed, and should allow for more than one possible design, as some designs will probably be found unacceptable.'
Actually, Generation III+ reactors would probably be adequate - many argue that with, perhaps, some modest (in terms of total generation cost) increase in the price of uranium, there are plenty of supplies even for a once through fuel use system at this sort of level.
That would stretch out further if you allowed some modest level of reprocessing, such as is carried out in France, and which incidentally means that the total amount of waste generated by some decades of producing most of France's electrical energy requirements can be stored in the area of about 3 basketball courts.
This is without breeder reactors, which worked fine but were abandoned as fuel was so cheap.
Even without reprocessing, additions to present nuclear waste stockpiles due to the nuclear weapons industry mainly would be minimal- sorry,can't find the link at the moment, the search function in 'The Times' is down - that's where I think the data was- most waste in Britain is from out existing stockpiles due to weapons and early reactors being very inefficient - I think they mentioned 10% extra by volume for a large increase in nuclear power.
Of course, we could do better yet with new reactor designs:
Molten salt designs have already been built in the sixties, so the tech needed is pretty modest - it means you get 50% fuel burn up, against 1% now, and have little waste which degrades rapidly.
Still, present generation reactors should do fine for up to, say 2050, even if you maintained the rate of growth hypothesised by Stuart out to 2050 instead of 2025, when he shows it tailing off.

Not all of the solar power needs to be PV. Rather than using a PV panel to generate electricity to power a water heater, it would be more efficient to just use a solar water heater in the first place. Solar water heaters are relatively simple technologies not requiring the rare materials that PV panels do. Similarly, passive solar heating schemes would reduce the amount of demand for powering geothermal heat pumps. Similarly, a CSP could provide heat directly for industrial batch processes instead of needing PV power to heat electric elements. And need I also mention that in the daytime, the intelligent use of sunlight can minimize the need for electric lighting? Subtract out all of the possible direct applications of sunlight, and the amount of power that is required to be produced by PVs can become a much smaller subset. The application of energy conservation and efficiency to the greatest possible extent can result in further reductions. Finally, as I have mentioned in a couple of other posts on this thread, people might just have to adjust to intermitency, and differential pricing can be an effective tool to drive the changes needed.

what we need is more solutions like this:

One of the nation's biggest home builders, Lennar Homes, has announced it will be installing solar power systems in all of its new homes in the San Francisco Bay Area. The "standard" solar package makes use of PowerLight "Sun Tiles" by SunPower. These solar tiles integrate into a roof of a home just like regular tiles. In its promotional video and related materials, SunPower boasts that homeowners will experience savings of 40% to 50% on their energy bills as a result of installing its solar tiles. The company also notes that homes such as those in the Milano community employ a variety of energy-saving technologies. These include double-pane windows, high-performance insulation, low-wattage lighting systems and other features.


You keep talking about 'markets and money' - wave that free market wand and show us how this is "economically the same" as the present solutions.


Considering that Lennar Homes lost $1.25 billion dollars last quarter they would do anything to try and move their bubble casualties.


Project Genesis, the wrath of Khan. I can't be the only one to pick up on that.

The thought of shipping our power east west more amicably that Gazprom ships gas is possible. Humankind may change. What I find much harder to credit is the possibility of such a megaproject as the rebuilding of the electrical grid worldwide at the same time spreading enough peace and justice so the grid can stay up.

And what would be "fair market compensation" for the owners of the petrochemical/fossil energy infrastructure anyway? Seems to me the set of preconditions is not credible. Something Obama or Hillary might come up with if pressed.

Where are those wax wings, anyway????

cfm in Gray, ME

While I agree that renewables will be a huge part of the future energy picture, I don't think a global power distribution network is the best way to achieve it. Energy storage will cost far less than 400 trillion and battery technology is already making huge advances in cost, recharge time and power storage by weight. There's also storage as heat to consider for thermal solar power which is also far more economical than building a worldwide grid.