What does Sustainability Mean for Energy?

What makes energy sustainable? I think each of us has our own idea, and the various ideas are not entirely the same.

To be sustainable, clearly the fuel supply must be adequate--not run out shortly. If we are concerned about climate change, a sustainable source of energy production should not add much carbon to the atmosphere, either. We are running short on fresh water, so a sustainable fuel must not put a burden on the water supply. Furthermore, it is becoming more and more clear that the system of international trade that underlies our high-tech system will not hold together indefinitely. Because of this, an energy source that depends heavily on imported raw materials or parts, or is dependent on our whole high-tech way of life, is not likely to continue very long.

Ideally, any energy source we want to emphasize in the future will meet all of these criteria, and additionally, will be inexpensive to produce. The problem is that it is very difficult to find fuels that meet all these criteria.

Future Investment

This last criterion, being inexpensive to produce, is becoming more and more important. With the credit unwind, the amount of money available for investment has already dropped. The credit unwind is not yet over, so I expect that the amount of money available for investment will continue to drop in the future, perhaps something like this:

With a smaller amount of funds (and energy) available for investment, all types of new investment will suffer. New energy infrastructure spending will need to be kept low, if we want to have funds for other things, such as building factories and maintaining roads.

Sustainability Grid

What happens when we evaluate various fuel sources on the now five sustainability criteria (assuming we add "new capacity inexpensive" to the four above)?. I tried to make a rough stab at answering this question, putting together a "Sustainability Grid".

In the Sustainability Grid, I used a very simple scale going from 0 to 3 for each criterion, with 3 being the best, and 0 being the worst. My evaluations are not very scientific--they are mostly based on impressions, rather than close comparisons of data, but they give a general idea of where the different fuels stand on the various criteria.

Besides the individual values for the various cells, another question is how a person combines the indications. I have just shown an unweighted sum. Theoretically, if one of the issues listed is vastly more important than others, (for example, low carbon, because of climate change concerns), one could weight the results, so that attribute is given much more weight in any consideration. Another approach would be to require that any possible substitute for our current energy sources meet all of the criteria. If that were the case, we might be left only with "energy efficiency", or perhaps "doing without" as an option.

I should also point out that these aren't the only criteria one might consider. One might consider whether a new fuel type fits with the existing infrastructure. If it doesn't, then the infrastructure conversion cost might be considered along with the new capacity cost.

There may also be specific issues for specific fuels. Nuclear comes to mind, with the question of how one handles toxic waste 100 years from now, if we are very short on energy supplies at that time.

Sustainability Grid: Looking at Various Fuels

The fuel that in some sense is best on my sustainability chart is wood. It is low carbon. In the areas where it grows, it doesn't need extra water. Planting and harvesting can be done in a low tech way, and new capacity seems to be inexpensive--all one needs to do is plant another tree in an area where trees grow.

The catch is that there are way too many people for the number of trees. Much of the US' (and world's) land is not suitable for growing trees, because of inadequate water or incorrect temperature. If people come to see wood as a "good" solution, it won't be long before we have serious deforestation issues. So wood is not really sustainable as a solution, if more than a small percentage of the population tries to adopt it as a solution.

If a person looks at the other energy sources on my sustainability grid above, most of them require a fairly high level of technology to sustain them. This could be a problem, if the financial situation continues to deteriorate, and we find ourselves with many fewer foreign imports. Without imports of spare parts and raw materials, it seems likely that much of our advanced technology could disappear within five or ten years.

The one exception to requiring a high level of technology is coal. Certainly, the current method of mining coal uses advanced technology. But coal production can also be done with very low technology--a few pick axes and a bucket in a makeshift mine. This approach is unsafe and certainly not recommended, but if other possibilities disappear, many people will consider this a fall-back option. Coal deposits are very widespread in the US, and many have never been mined. I suspect that if technology really fails, this will be an option considered by many who live near coal deposits. By that time, we may be using so little in fossil fuels in total that the carbon issue may be less of a concern.

Coal can also be burned in a very low-tech way. We did this for years before modern regulations. I wouldn't recommend it, but when people are desperate, I don't think they will be thinking of those details.

The question then becomes: What are our best options, as long as imports and technology hang together? Should be making wind turbines or solar PV panels, corn ethanol, or something else?

I am not certain I really have the answer to this question, because the answer depends on how one weights the various items in the sustainability grid, and whether the values I picked are even half-way right. It also depends on how long we think technology in its current form can be maintained. If we can only maintain our import-driven, high tech society for five or ten more years, then one could argue that we really don't need to be spending anything on new capacity, since, as I show in the next section, we already have quite a bit more electrical generating capacity than we are using.

If technology can be expected to hold together for 20 years, even then we cannot expect investments to behave as in the past. Instead, we must amortize the cost over a much shorter period, and investment costs become much more expensive than they have been in the past. It is only if our current high tech lifestyle can be maintained for 50 years or more that the type of investments we have made in the past make sense, because of the long planning cycle involved, and the long life (and high cost) of new generating capacity.

What Is the Structure of Our Current Electricity Generating Capacity?

I find it interesting to look at where we are today, in terms of electric generating capacity, electric production, utilization, and cost of new infrastructure (assuming we really can amortize costs over the conventional time frame).

If we look at EIA data, US electric generating capacity has grown as follows since 1996:

From this graph, one can see that coal, hydroelectric, petroleum, and nuclear generating capacity have remained almost constant since 1996. Natural gas generating capacity is now huge, exceeding even that of coal.

The electricity that is actually produced in the US has grown much differently, as shown in this graph of EIA data:

What has happened is that coal and nuclear generated electric power have increased in recent years, because these plants are now being operated longer hours. Natural gas production has also increased, but not in proportion to the additional capacity added. Wind capacity has been added, but production remains tiny--only 1% of total US electricity produced.

If we compute what percentage of nameplate capacity the various types of generation are operating at, using EIA data, this is what we get:

Nuclear operates nearly constantly, except down-time for maintenance. Coal plants operate in the upper 60% range, because many of them ramp down to a lower level at night, when demand is lower, and then back up again during the day time. On average, they are at very close to full capacity, considering down-time for maintenance and the fact that less power is needed at night.

Wind and natural gas operate at much lower percentages, about 25% for wind, and 23% for natural gas. Natural gas operating percentages vary greatly from power plant to power plant, with some operating many hours ("intermediate" or "base load"), and some operating only for occasional "peaking". I am sure many were originally planned to operate more hours than they in fact are operating. Natural gas costs were cheap when most of these plants were planned, but once the cost natural gas rose, the desire to use the plants dropped considerably. Recently, the cost of natural gas has fallen again.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has published this table of energy costs, for the various types of fuels. This table is for nameplate capacities, rather than actual production.

I made a stab at converting FERC 2008 costs based on nameplate capacity to costs based on actual electricity produced. In doing this, I assumed natural gas used "combined cycle" technology, since it is my understanding that this is what is currently popular. I assumed that coal used conventional coal, since IGCC is quite a bit more expensive, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) (which is the prime selling point of IGCC) and storage to go with IGCC is nowhere near ready. To fully amortize the cost of IGCC plus CCS, it seems like one would need a planning horizon of at least 70 years, because of the time to design and build the CCS.

When one looks at construction costs in terms of actual electricity produced, wind is highest at about $8,000 per kilowatt of capacity (adjusted for utiliztion). Nuclear is second, at $7,000 per kilowatt of capacity (adjusted for utilization). Natural gas is next, and coal is lowest.

The costs I show per kilowatt hour of capacity on the graph above are the costs assuming "normal" amortization. I would think we would need at least a 50 year timing horizon for this--ten years or more for planning and building, plus 30 or 40 years for the operation of the new capacity. Costs will be higher per kilowatt hour if the real time they can be used is shorter.

Combining cost of capacity with existing infrastructure

When I look at these graphs, I scratch my head. We have a huge amount of unused capacity for producing electricity from natural gas. Most of these natural gas plants need to be manned around the clock, whether or not they are actually producing electricity. We currently have natural gas selling for record low prices (at least in recent years). If we need extra electrical production, why not just burn a little natural gas? The capacity is already built, so its additional cost is $0, and even the additional manpower needed is low. If we support our unconventional natural gas producers, natural gas production could probably continue for quite a few more years. At this point, natural gas is out of favor, after being ramped up only a few years ago. We have the infrastructure, but we aren't really using it.

Longer term, it seems like we need to be doing better planning than we did for natural gas. We should be considering questions such as: What is the new mix going to look like, considering our views of sustainability? What other infrastructure (grid upgrades, electrical storage) is needed? How long do we really expect to be able to use it? What is the cost likely to be? Can we really afford it? Are there better uses for our capital, considering where society is likely to be 100 years from now?

This is a very thoughtful and comprehensive view.

But I'm a simple-minded person and tend to take words at face-value:

Is sustainable: "capable of being maintained indefinitely?" Or is it: "capable of being maintained over such a period of our choosing that it comforts us?" Isn't timeframe the very substance of this notion?

As prestigious an authority as Professor Albert Bartlett ridicules the notion of sustainability for a population of 6.7 billion, a number being outstripped as we speak.

"Sustainable" as a word now irritates me. Like "green" and "organic," it has become a buzzword, a feel-good adjective to append to absurd notions, so that we get people saying, with a straight face, "sustainable growth," "sustainable development."

(We also have "organic tobacco" and "green electricity.")

My little town organized a committee that I joined to plan "open space" and farmland and such. During the first meeting, we were regaled with a slick Powerpoint presentation on "Smart Growth" and "sustainable development."

I quietly left that group.

Can anything we do be maintained indefinitely?

The essay says:

"To be sustainable, clearly the fuel supply must be adequate--not run out shortly."

I love that "shortly"!

I humbly propose:

"To be sustainable, clearly the fuel supply must be infinite."

People will jump on the near-infinite capacity of wind and solar as "fuels."

Too bad they are utterly dependent on such finite matters as metals and plastics.

Contemporary human beings, no matter what they do, scatter ores and reduce energy gradients.

That these are inherently finite is simply fate and ultimately not our fault.

But forgive me--I'm just a former English major, and perhaps I've been reading too much Greek tragedy.

I wrote this post to try to get people to start do a little more thinking, instead of just the knee jerk reaction--anything that doesn't use an obvious fuel is sustainable and good; everything else is bad and to be eliminated.

I am afraid I don't have all of the answers on this, but I don't think that just jumping on the bandwagon du jour is the right approach.

Renewable resources should be exploited in a manner such that:
(1) harvesting rates do not exceed regeneration rates; and
(2) waste emissions do not exceed the renewable assimilative capacity of the local environment.

Balancing Nonrenewable and Renewable Resources
Nonrenewable resources should be depleted at a rate equal to the rate of creation of renewable substitutes.

Link is here written by Herman Daly

Here's another link to a lecture by Saul Griffth who has crunched the numbers in terms of Renewable Energy. By his own admission he's an optimist Saul Griffth pdf lecture, its over 7mb. Reading the numbers didn't make me feel over optimistic so I've got no idea why he is!

Sustainability needs a time reference, but if someone means for more than a generation there doesn't appear to be anything that looks remotely sustainable about our energy/resource consumption. Perhaps humans can solve environmental and energy problems, just the probability of a slimed down population looks high. I guess Gaia will tell humans what's sustainable in the end!

If that's an accurate quote, Herman Daly is spot on. However, you said "sustainability needs a time reference." Why? If you add any period at all, then you have a problem next year because your strategy now covers a smaller period (let's say 99 years instead of 100 years). The only sensible approach is to use a time reference of "indefinitely". That's a challenge, but any strategy for a finite period of time is not a strategy for sustainability.

I'm just glad we can leave the death of the Sun and Proton decay for future generations to worry about...


I thought the only thing sustainable was daily or stored photosynthesis .... if so

are we talking batteries and PV panels


trees - firewood

plants - food

or ??

PV panels may also be unsustainable, or unsustainable at some level. PV panels used limited resources. Also, all of the sun's energy, that gets trapped, is currently employed powering natural energy systems and growth.

Please detail the limited resources that the majority of silicon PV cells use.

Also, all of the sun's energy, that gets trapped, is currently employed powering natural energy systems and growth.

Such as parking lots, roadways, rooftops, etc?

All of the resources that go into PV cells are limited. No PV cell is made entirely of silicon, nor is the infrastructure to support its use.

All of the sun's energy is currently employed. Sunlight is absorbed by some of those structures you mention and re-emitted. Some is reflected off those structures you mention. I'm not saying that there isn't any level of redirection we can do, just that we should be careful about how we go about it and at what level. To assume that nothing bad could come of diverting some of the sun's energy is to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Most of the elements needed for PV cells/frames/wiring can come from the four most common elements in Earth's crust, so there probably isn't a practical limit within the next few hundred years given the projected world population in that context. If we, instead of having our roofs absorb light from the sun and radiate it as heat, do the same with solar panels, with an intermediate step where we convert some of that energy into electricity and back to heat when we use it, we still have the same amount of energy being radiated back into space as heat and so on. What's causing the most trouble is the use of fossil fuels, which changes how much of the energy from the sun is trapped in the Earth's biosphere. Even if we somehow managed to increase the rate of light absorption/radiation as heat to the point where we're trapping as much additional energy as we are now due to GHG emissions, it still wouldn't impact the climate as much as those GHG emissions because the original (w/o GHGs) emissivity of the atmosphere would allow for the vast majority of that energy to escape. The problem with GHGs is that we have this tremendous source of energy bombarding the Earth 24/7/365 and we're changing how much energy we're letting out.

"Most of the elements" is not all of the elements and "the next few hundred years" suggests unsustainable.

I agree that, on the face of it, roofs generating electricity that can do useful work (provided that work doesn't adversely affect our habitat) that ends up as heat is preferable to simply generating the heat in the first place, I'm now very wary of us assuming anything. There are always consequences.

Lesse, we have steel for the mounting hardware, Si for the panels, Al for the larger wiring, what am I missing that isn't present in sufficient amounts? In terms of the limiting factor, it would seem to be Al/Fe for mounting the panels and the wiring since Si is present in the crust in much greater amounts. I suppose we could look at the copper/lead on any circuitry in the panels, but even weighted for relative abundance that's below the limits presented by Al/Fe. Looking at current production of Fe/Al for one year, one quarter of that limiting factor would provide enough material to construct enough panels to supply enough energy for 10 billion people to live at a European standard of living the next forty years or so. The high quality Si, as well as the Al/Fe can all be recycled, so production for just forty years can supply enough in the way of solar panels for the next 6000+ years, not including recycling, which is already at ~70-80% IIRC and would undoubtedly increase in light of scarce supply, extending that to 30,000+ years.

Given that, I find it very unlikely that solar PV will be the limiting factor in sustainability, especially compared to current human impacts. Course, predicting anything past even a hundred years is more or less impossible, so at the very best all we can do is concentrate on being more sustainable, not planning for sustainability to infinity and beyond.

I don't have a full list of materials that go into the panels and the infrastructure to support the manufacture, distribution and operation of the panels and the resultant electricity but I'm sure it is far more varied that you imply. I understand indium is used in many/most panels, for example, and steel requires a carbon source. Ore extraction facilities require resources (and can do environmental damage). Manufacturing facilities require varied resources (for construction and operation).

Solar PV is a limiting factor in sustainability, just as using any limited resource (no matter what the theoretical size of the resource) would be. But solar PV could certainly be a help in providing energy at a limited but sustainable level.

There are more materials, but the bulk of overall materials is in the infrastructure, not manufacturing, unless we're destroying and rebuilding our manufacturing line every year. ;) Transmission is almost all Al/Fe. For steel news on biocharcoal seems to be picking up a bit, although it's not receiving a lot of publicity since coking coal isn't going to be in short supply any time soon, compared to oil at least. Indium is used in thin film panel manufacturing, specifically in CIGS, but thin film is only projected to capture ~30% of the market by 2012, and has been and will represent the minority of panels produced for a while. Even then, it's not like we can't make solar panels w/o Indium, just that at the moment they appear to be the cheapest, at least in bulk, with thin film Silicon not too far behind IIRC. While Indium may present a limit to CIGS based thin film, solar panels in general do not require it, it just happens to allow for the cheapest manufacturing at the moment.

Besides, saying that solar PV is a limiting factor in sustainability because it uses limited resources is kind of pointless since the sun's useful lifespan is also limited for the same reason. I mean, when looking at sustainability, we should be looking at likely (and present in some cases) limiting factors, not trivial ones. Sure, we can't have an infinite number of solar panels, just like we can't have an infinite time with the sun as it is now, but neither one is a meaningful limiting factor in terms of sustainability, at least not yet. If we manage to get to that point that they are likely limits whenever in the future I'll happily concede the fact, but as of right now we have thousands of years worth of other crap that'll provide a limit far sooner than solar panels, or for that matter the sun's lifetime, will.

You keep saying things like "the bulk of" and "almost all", as though they mean the same as "all". If any resource becomes scarce, no matter how little is used, that will define the limit unless there is a ready substitute of at least equal quality.

Even if we don't destroy our manufacturing capability each year (with or without a smiley), to increase the capacity will take extra resources.

Even if Al and Fe are vast resources, theoretically, in practical terms they are more limited. But just because a resource will last (and be able to be extracted at constant or increasing rates) for hundreds of years or thousands of years, or more, that doesn't make it infinite.

You also use throw away terms like "isn't going to be in short supply any time soon" without defining "soon" or citing sources for such optimism.

It is not pointless to point out that PV is not unlimited and has a limit for sustainability. It IS pointless to state the Sun's useful lifespan, since solar energy, per se, is not a limiting factor for sustainability but our diversion of solar energy, and the resources needed to do so, will be limiting at some level. We should not assume that there is no practical limit because that can lead to unsustainable strategies. Why not tread carefully? I don't see what the downside would be other than having to think before acting.

Interesting Venn diagram, and interesting evaluation grid.

But some more-or-less obvious criteria perhaps should be added, such as: () Does the production of the fuel compete too vigourously with other necessities, such as food? () Can the environment absorb and neutralize (detoxify) waste products from fuel production at least as fast as they are being produced?

I agree that looking at the demands of sustainability in the various relevant categories can cut through a lot of nonsense.

This is a first cut. If it gets too complicated, it gets hard to follow. You get the point, though.

Actually "you can't do that" with a Venn diagram... that is to say three overlapping circles can represent

1 A
2 AB
3 AC
5 B
6 BC
7 C

But with four circles (and mapping theory will explain this, but common sense will more or less demonstrate it) you can't topographically represent the intersection of only two circles if they are on opposite sides... because those circles only intersect in places where other circles also lie.

So unless you are attempting to diagram a complex and improbable dependency relationship between opposite side circles, which always involves other circles also being relevant.... the Venn diagram is inapt.

Because it's not a coloring book exercise... it is no fair just coloring in partial hemicircles!

But I quibble.

Gail the Actuary said:

I wrote this post to try to get people to start do a little more thinking

A little more thinking, Gail, is not inventing your own definitions of sustainability.

mikeB said:

Is sustainable: "capable of being maintained indefinitely?" Or is it: "capable of being maintained over such a period of our choosing that it comforts us?"

This is a very important question. If one want to talk about "sustainable" then one can't include riders like "over x years or centuries", because fresh, and possibly greater, problems arise as the end of that time period approaches. If you add a time period then you are making a totally arbitrary statement. Your time period might not match with anyone else's.

If we use a time period of "indefinitely" then we cover all bases, over which we have some control (obviously, we can't take much account of asteroid strikes, super-volcanoes and the like). So why include so-called sustainability criteria like the cost of increased capacity?

Growth is not sustainable. Period.

If we want energy, we need to figure out how to use whatever the resource is only at a sustainable rate and in a sustainable way, otherwise it is unsustainable, by definition. Sustainability means not consuming any resource (renewable or non-renewable) beyond its renewal rate and not damaging our habitat in a way that might negatively impact our ability to survive. These are the only criteria you should be considering, Gale, at least as far as sustainability is concerned. Obviously, it will take a while to get there and there are certainly population issues to address, but we aren't going to get there by assuming any non-renewable fuel is sustainable or that any renewable energy source can be used at any amount.

You have raised a good point about the time period. If we take "indefinitely " nothing is sustainable, the Universe will eventually die.
If we take as far ahead as we can extrapolate then 1,000 to 10,000 years would be the maximum.

"Growth is not sustainable. Period."

Do you mean growth in sustainable use of resources or unsustainable use?. Do you mean 0.1% growth/year or 5% growth per year?. Do you mean growth in GDP? growth in new music, new moves, new video games, new art works? or do you mean growth in energy use?
If you are implying all economic growth HAS to be accompanied by growth in energy use, that depends upon type of economy and growth rate and increase in energy efficiency(GDP/energy use).
If renewable and sustainable energy is the source of economic growth, then growth is sustainable IF sources of sustainable energy are not exhausted.

Yes, Neil, nothing can last forever but why should we put an arbitrary time limit on sustainability? To do so implies that we wish to consume more than the annual budget that is provided by the sun and our biosphere and could possibly damage our habitat, providing it was done slowly. Using a term like "indefinite" implies that we live within our means, always. Surely that would be a sensible thing to do?

As growth is not sustainable, it doesn't matter what growth we talk about. 0.1% growth per year is unsustainable, just as growth at 0.001% or 10% is. By making a distinction between different rates, you are implicitly putting a time limit on sustainability. See above for my views on that.

Growth in the consumption of resources, or in pollution or damaging emissions, is unsustainable. Apply this to any of your growth examples to see if they are sustainable. Do they consume more resources over time? Do they damage our environment?

Renewable energy is not sustainable, if it uses resources beyond their renewal rate, or in a way that damages the environment (i.e. alters it is a way that is detrimental to our wellbeing). So it's impossible to say that economic growth based on renewable energy is sustainable. Firstly, economic growth consumes resources other than energy. Secondly, renewable energy infrastructure consumes non-renewable resources, so increasing capacity, to fuel economic growth, is unsustainable on an on-going basis. Thirdly, extracting energy from natural systems, for our own purposes, may have small but significant impacts on our environment; it should never be assumed that we can't possibly do damage.

If we don't put a time limit on sustainability we have ridiculous outcomes, ie 0.1% growth in energy is unsustainable, but also is a 0.1% decrease in energy use, leading to less energy to sustain one person.

If an economy grows at 1% and GDP/energy use also grows at 1%, that's sustainable for a long time provided other resources are available, or can be substituted.

The examples I was giving entertainment, arts, were examples of "service industries" low in resource use, high in value, a $ spent on these products is one $ less spent on perhaps a new car or a power boat.

"Renewable energy is not sustainable, if it uses resources beyond their renewal rate, or in a way that damages the environment"

Let's look at wind power; used mainly steel and cement in manufacturing. Iron is 5% of the earth's crust, cement is composed of Ca, Si, Al also very abundant. Renewal rates are not relevant, if extraction could occur for 2Billion years.
Other components used may be sustainable for 100 years but not 1,000 or 10,000, but over longer periods technology can change, or products recycled.

I would agree about what you have said about damaging the environment, but surely a recovery time is also relevant!. If we are concerned with CO2, a rise will take >1,000 years to recover due to slow geologic processes, so "damage" has to be defined on terms that is relevant. On the other hand, harvesting timber is a short term process, 10-100 years, if an energy resource uses wood, it will cause a short term "damage" to the environment, but can be sustainable, just as Elephants "damage" trees but the forest recovers if elephant populations do not increase beyond a limit.

"Thirdly, extracting energy from natural systems, for our own purposes, may have small but significant impacts on our environment; it should never be assumed that we can't possibly do damage."

Does hydro power, by creating lakes, damage the environment? if so should we undo the "damage" created in the last ice age, when many lakes were created by moraine dams? I would argue the "damage" created by dams is short term(100-200years), but no different on a 1,000-10,000 year time scale to natural "dams"( ie all lakes).


A 0.1% decrease is not growth. Consuming less helps to get us on a path to sustainability but consuming more does not. I think it is certainly ridiculous, as you write, to contemplate 0.1% decline for ever, and no-one is suggesting that, although the decline will eventually become minuscule in actual quantity. It is also ridiculous to contemplate a 0.1% growth forever, since we live on a finite planet, but I bet we could go a lot longer with a 0.1% decline that a 0.1% increase.

"Sustainable for a long time" is not sustainable. The word becomes fairly meaningless, when used in that way. One might as well say that a 10% increase in oil consumption is sustainable for a year (because we're told that spare capacity could be up to 8 mbpd) but that is of little use, long term. However, suppose 1% GDP and energy growth can be maintained for a "long" time, you're right to point to the assumption that other resources can also grow as needed for such growth. So what would be the time period for such growth? Who knows? No-one, but many will make guesses, hope they're right and hope that some miracle will occur before a rethink is needed.

Entertainment and arts, though almost essential for quality of life, are not essential for living. Economic growth coming only from those areas may last a lot longer but the economy will look very different if that is what is relied on for growth. However, even low resource consumption, growing, is unsustainable.

Renewal rates are always relevant. You can't discount them simply because the mathematical proportion in the earth's crust is high. They still have to be mined and processed, with environmental damage repaired. But most people, surely, are not looking at growing energy consumption without doing anything with it? So what is the relevance of stating that some types of renewable energy can grow for a very long time, assuming that "a very long time" is a satisfactory time period for everyone?

Good point about recovery period but isn't that the point? Suppose wood was, again, an important energy source. Maybe coppicing or re-seeding at a low rate, providing the use was low, could look like an infinite supply. A 1,000 year recovery period might be difficult to view as a sustainable supply because it is well beyond the lifespan of any human.

Dams alter local habitats in periods that are significant to human timescales. Hundreds of years recovery time is too long for everyone alive at the time the dam is built.

Living sustainably, on timescales that are meaningful to individuals, make it more likely that societies can be sustainable indefinitely. Causing environmental damage deliberately, in the hope that the damage will be repaired over many generations (and assuming we don't continue to inflict that scale of damage) doesn't seem like a useful strategy for sustainability, to me.

Cat's already out of the bag on total human population. We can bring human population and resource down to indefinitely sustainable levels in a slow, controlled, gradual way by improving standards of livings all over the world. Or we can reject all technology and let it crash, throwing the world into chaos, which would accomplish the same goal but in a decidedly unfair and messy fashion.

Not all countries that have what might be called high living standards have zero or negative population growth, even without immigration. Even supposing the hypothesis is true, what standard of living will suffice, what will the population be, at that time, and what will the resource consumption rates be?

I don't think it's as simple as saying we need to raise living standards everywhere. Read the articles in the New Scientist special report for more opinion on how growth is unsustainable, including Does growth really help the poor?

I have stopped using the word 'sustainable'. "Durable" seems more in line with what we are trying to accomplish. We have finite lifespans - it is hard for me to imagine we will ever depress our discount rates to such an extent that we value something in 10 years as much as we value the present moment. Durability/resilience/redundancy is the angle to pursue. Regarding energy, I think we also need to look at 'risk-adjusted return' as opposed to 'mean return', and appropriately account for the shortfall risk in daily/seasonal/annual ecosystem services (solar, wind, biofuels, hydro, etc.) A Sortino ratio (mean energy return/downside shortfall%) might be a more appropriate measure of 'durability' of an energy tech. (a portion of forthcoming paper is devoted to this)

We have finite lifespans - it is hard for me to imagine we will ever depress our discount rates to such an extent that we value something in 10 years as much as we value the present moment.

You may well be right about the discounting, but I hope not. If so, I think that means we are truly screwed. On an individual level, human lifespan is finite, but taken in a species context, the lifespan of humanity is more on a societal time span (maybe even geological...if you're an optimist ;-). As long as humans are creating future generations, those generations will have needs and uses for the resources of this planet. Discounting those future needs relative to our own current needs cannot lead to anything but short-term, unsustainable decision making and behavior. Unless we, as a species, can begin to value the well being of our children and their children on par with our own, then long-term planning is essentially impossible.

So I understand what you are saying. Is that approach possible today? Socially? Politically? Economically? Obviously not. But if we cannot, over time, change those philosophies, then "sustainability" (under whatever name you choose to give it) is truly unattainable and the best we can do is to choose whether to screw over the next generation, or some generation after that (essentially, business as usual).

Based on your writing, I'm obviously not saying anything you don't know. I just worry about the moral hazard of allowing other people to define the language of the debate. If we mean sustainable, say sustainable. Define the word. Debate the word. Point out and criticize any use of the word you don't agree with (e.g., sustainable growth), but don't abandon the term to people whose only interest is the continuation of a business as usual, resource-wasting, short-term profit taking, exponential growth system that is patently not sustainable, durable, reliable, resilient, or any other positive long-term-oriented thing you choose to measure by.

Sustainability (in my opinion) requires that future needs have the same value as present needs. Durability, reliability, resilience do not. Discounting is fundamentally in conflict with sustainability. If we give up our right to define the language of the debate, we abandon the debate, and we lose the debate.

Just one man's opinion.


I wish the word sustainable and Green could be banned when discussing either environmental or energy issues. It seems to be used most often by politicians who want to support their BAU policies.

I have stopped using the word 'sustainable'. "Durable" seems more in line with what we are trying to accomplish.

It seems to me this is abandoning all hope of the boom/bust cycle. Nature shows B/B is the norm, so perhaps that is the right outlook so as to avoid taking Mother Nature on mano-a-mano.

I'm not quite ready to give up on building (relatively) cooperative societies, at least cooperative enough to manage resources intelligently. Of course this involves people standing against those who would attempt to gather to themselves more power and wealth than is in the public interest, extensive public discourse, etc.

Perhaps the limits we are imposing upon ourselves via our profligate past and present will be unambiguous enough to wipe away any illusions that we have any other choice if we hope to succeed as a coherent civilization.

It seems to me that abundant resources have allowed the oppressed/poor/etc. to imagine themselves as one of the wealthy and powerful, making them willing to accept the excesses of others in pursuit of the dream for themselves. But will that continue as constraints make it increasingly clear that the concentration of wealth and power puts a permanent limit on their ability to improve their lives? Might this not encourage a great move towards the Commons and away from monopolies of wealth and power?

Things to ponder...


I think you are right about the boom bust cycles. No matter how little there is in total, it seems like there can still be cycles.

Wealth distribution may vary in different parts of the world--I haven't really thought about this issue. It seems like quite a few poor countries now have a lot of disparity between the rich and the poor.

Why must the fuel be infinite? Did whale oil need to be infinite to get us to coal to get us to oil/nat gas? Any bridge energy is useful in my book if it has the slightest chance of getting us to sustainable nuclear.

Also, why does it have to be infinite to be useful? I may not be able to live forever no matter what, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't like to be a 100 someday. Societies aren't any different. Sooner or later Earth is going; there is no infinite for the planet.

Plastics can be recycled. And made of organic material. And most uses of plastics are nonessential. Metal can also be recycled. There is no reason to believe more buildings of the future won't be made of adobe/wood/whatever.

Your reactions are, to borrow Gail's words, kneejerk.

One thing I thought about writing about, but didn't find a place for, was the idea of bridge technologies. Here again, we presumably are talking about a limited time frame, so we don't want to put huge investment in temporary infrastructure.

I would think the ultimate energy would be something other than uranium based nuclear. Perhaps thorium based nuclear, if we could figure out how to do this, and scale it up in a sensible manner. It may also be possible to scale up heavy oil production over a long period, to provide some liquid fuel (with CO2) as well.

When I say nuclear, I don't mean just once-through uranium, but all of (and presumably the best) possibilites. Perhaps the time has come when nuclear should no longer be discussed as a single "class" of energy. That was my first thought when I looked at your chart. Thorium and uranium are so different in possibility that you really can't consider them in the same context anymore than you can fission and fusion... if you consider potential effect, the possibilities are so disparate and weighted towards thorium.

The likely outcome I see is a mad grasp at whatever is on hand while we try to develop thorium breeders commercially. Arguably, this has already started on both accounts.

Nuclear is unsustainable. However, some believe that there are ways to make use of nuclear reactions that may provide energy for thousands, or even millions, of years, with some upper limit on capacity due to waste heat.

What if it can't be maintained for that long, or some future society gets too close to the waste heat level, tipping the environment into some uninhabitable state? What if it lulls us into a false sense of security, because apparently unlimited energy may allow us to continue consuming other resources at increasing rates and destroying the biosphere by increasing amounts?

Nuclear is the dream of business as usual and should be abandoned unless strictly as a bridging technology to sustainable societies. Advocating nuclear expansion without a sustainability plan is foolish, in my opinion, and will not help future generations.

There is no guarantee that future generations wont screw up things with any technology.

I like people and find it asthetically pleasing with human culture and the potential for a complex and culturally rich future were people to state it bluntly do cool things. This leaves only one option for handling such problems, preserving and advancing knowledge and using that knowledge for a never ending job of using and taking care of ourselves and our world.

I thus find a "bio-nuclear" future where we have plenty of electricity a very good future since lots of electricity is a very good swiss army knife for running and advancing a civilization.

You might consider some version of the future to be good. However, living beyond our means and not acknowledging limits will likely ensure that your future will never be realised.

The comment that we don't know what the future holds is a cop out for making hard decisions now. We have some control over what we do, but no control over what future generations do. All we can do is set a good example. Surely that example should not be "use any means possible to continue consuming at increasing rates and try to deal with the ensuing problems as they occur"?

I often read the term "advancing civilization", or something similar, and I wonder how one defines "advance".

I do not assume that the future will provide magical solutions to todays problems or that all future problems will be easy to solve or even be solved. What I wish for is that we work with continously increasing our toolbox for problem solving and doing a lot of work with solving problems.

Getting the needs and wants to match with the available resources is of course extremely important. My skills are mostly on the technical side and thus I like finding and combining ways of doing more with less or doing things in a more benign way. If it is possible to get lots more of an enabling resource like electricity withouth hurting our environment I find it worthwile to pursue that but that do of course not guarantee that this additional resource is used to solve problems, it could be used for harmfull things.

Advancing civilization can of course mean manny things. I like definitions like increasing our toolbox, providing more ways for the next generation to find happyness, getting more people to grok how parts of the world works, use resources wisely, exploring, making works of art including nifty machines, etc.

"What I wish for is that we work with continously increasing our toolbox for problem solving"

Yes, that would be good. But what would be even better is not creating the problems in the first place.

"If it is possible to get lots more of an enabling resource like electricity withouth hurting our environment I find it worthwile to pursue that but that do of course not guarantee that this additional resource is used to solve problems, it could be used for harmfull things."

I agree. But if we do want to increase energy capacity without harming our environment, we need to do as thorough an impact assessment as possible and keep updating it, as new knowledge becomes available. Unfortunately, our quest for eternal growth makes it hard to take a decision to turn back. Who would willingly shut down a lot of capacity that could harm economic growth? We need a different mindset and a different economy.

As you say, "advancing" can mean many things. Your definition is good but I wonder if we already have plenty of tools in our toolbox, we just don't realise it yet.

What if it can't be maintained for that long, or some future society gets too close to the waste heat level, tipping the environment into some uninhabitable state?

I know I've made the argument that it can be sustained for millions of years, but its only demonstrative. I in no way believe it will be a major component in the energy mix millions of years down the road or that nuclear will be used to the limit of waste heat dissapation on earth. We'll move on to the next thing, space based solar, nuclear fusion, monopole catalyzed proton decay, or whatever.

Honestly if we're approaching the limit of waste heat dissapation, you're talking about an industrial civilization over a thousand times more intensive than we are today, which invariably points to space based infrastructure that far down the line.

Indeed, with the little intuitive sustainability grid, we end up with wood being the ultimate sustainable resource. As pointed out, this does not make a lot of sense. A better way to present the grid would be to consider the environmental impacts of each type of fuel, both short and long terms, instead of the low carbon/low water uses. What we try to represent intuitively with those point are the impacts on environment. But they are not the only impacts (namely water pollution/overuse and climate change). Deforestation causes soil erosion, which is not really seen in this grid; nuclear use represent a nuclear waste problem. Furthermore, this graph does not show is the total capacity of this fuel versus the energy demand... These little changes to the grid would make it more likely to generate the appropriate response from people.

Interesting analysis and comments.

The existing natural gas electricity generating capacity certainly is underutilized and the price of natural gas is favorable to swap with coal for some electricty capacity right now, this is actually the only thing holding natural gas prices up at all as the current price is right at the coal floor (price of gas to match equivalent cost of coal). I suspect as we get into the summer season this year we will see some increase in natural gas demand, with a resulting increase in price.

I think medium term (~5 years)as CO2 cap and trade is implemented the lower CO2 generation of natural gas per Megawatt will cause many utilites to start to simply swap coal generation for natural gas generation of electricity. Why would they do anything else as this is the zero investment option as you point out. This will really put price pressure on natural gas and also will increase these utilization numbers, possible up to current coal utilization levels, with coal utilization dropping. The real question is if the U.S. natural gas generation can respond to this demand increase. General consensus seems to be that it will not and LNG will have to be imported.

I suggest carefully watching the cap and trade legislation in particular the amount of CO2 to be auctioned by coal burning utilities and the anticipated auction price. This will have a huge impact on the future natural gas demand. I suspect lobbying will limit the amount of CO2 auctioned to about 20-40% of current generation for these large well connected utiliites, probably close to the amount of CO2 that can be reduced by fuel switching between coal and natural gas with existing capacity. With the resulting impact of increasing the imports of fossil fuels (LNG) and coal being sold to China, but maybe that is a pessimistic viewpoint...

I personally am very skeptical that any cap and trade legislation that will have any serious impact will be passed. If legislators meant business, they would pass a fairly high carbon tax. That is not even under consideration. I expect that if with a cap and trade system is set up, it will generate a lot of funds for those setting up the system. Otherwise, its impact (with whatever loopholes are passed) is likely to be pretty minimal.

The Australian Labor Party has put together an ETS, let's see how it pans out...


You could be right about cap and trade. So many freeloaders jump aboard the gravy train it can't move. However in tough times it may be easier to sell the idea of a low CO2 spot price rather than a burdensome fixed carbon tax. Maybe the trick is to implement c&t thinking it will be soft then toughen the rules. Auction theory has a host of ways to make these things harder to game.

But you KNOW that no politician is going to do those "host of ways".

What is the magnitude of spent nuclear fuel issues in relation to the cost of doing nothing and allowing AGW to continue its present course? I find the idea of a minor concern (the technology and will exists to deal with SNF) standing in the way of a solutions to far more grave outcomes. Don't build a shelter for yourself -- you might get a splinter. Instead you'll die of exposure.

There are a bunch of nuclear issues. One is that a lot of them are built along the ocean (and future ones are likely to be built near the ocean.) If the ocean level rises, major adjustments will be needed.

Another issue is that the fuel is 90%+ imported, and we don't have a firm handle on where nuclear fuel will be coming from in even the next ten years. Hopefully the Russians will have more recycled bomb material they are willing to sell us, or maybe we can recycle some of our own. There aren't enough mines in operation to supply existing power plants, plus those under construction, without some type of supplementation from some other source.

If more and more lesser developed countries develop nuclear facilities, there is a question of how safely they will be operated, especially if governments are overthrown or there is general civil disruption.

And of course there is the nuclear waste issue as well.

As discussed in recent articles on this site, as well as countless comment threads, LWRs are not the only nuclear technology, and uranium is not the only nuclear fuel. Existing nuclear technology is fine for the next hundred years or so without any additional prospecting or allowance for rising ore costs (the assumptions of the commonly cited MIT paper), which was discussed at length in the comments to your previous article on nuclear fuel supply. I also think EROEI of 6 for nuclear is an extremely low value, probably derived from multiple worst case scenarios, low ore grade, obsolete enrichment technology, once-through fuel cycle, etc.

All of the countries we're talking about here, the states that compromise the majority of world energy use, are already nuclear weapons states. Talking about the proliferation danger of civilian reactors in these countries is pointless. If you took over the country, you'd just use the existing weapons instead of trying to build a device of questionable utility from civilian reactors.

The constant roadblocks to nuclear development on specious grounds (e.g. waste storage, outlet temperatures) make me wonder if people are truly interested in moving forward, or are more interested in entrenching the status quo. (This is not directed to you, but in general to the community)


The low EROEI often cited for nuclear is worse than worst case scenario--it is purposefully misleading. Namely for this reason: "obsolete enrichment technology."

"Low level" waste, Snake River, Idaho.

Where does wood, figure into all this? A very large number of people burn wood/charcoal for energy use.

Is it not something we will use in the near future?

The catch is that there are way too many people for the number of trees.

KMO posted a good podcast on c-realm last night that touches here and there on the spiritual angles of sustainability. One of the problems few discussions of sustainability get to is just how bad things are already. Things are so bad - anyone who studies the environment understands - that it's logical nonsense to think we can "fix" them. So what is another way? It has to be non-material and non-technological (or at least non-industrial).

I'd suggest that sustainability is not enough, but that we need to restore much of the environment. Then wood could work, but we have to get down to that economic scale first. Discussions of sustainability need to include "starting point". The obambis want to stimulate world growth, and then, later, in the indefinite future we might be able to address sustainability. Sustainability is too low a bar; we need healing.

In the sense of fuels as Gail writes, the issue is what restores, not what depletes least. And what if there is nothing?

cfm in Gray, ME

Burning wood has all the attendant issues of coal, despite being CO2 neutral. I prefer breathable air.

If people just make a wood fire, and breathe the air, it is not at all good for their lungs--especially long term. We have some fancy new stoves, that are supposed to help this problem, but I don't know how long they will be produced. If people are poor, my guess is that they will just burn what is available, using the least expensive devise available for burning it in. This will make for very bad air pollution.

How many 100% preventable deaths due to burning of coal and wood? Tens of thousands per year. It is a travesty that this is not widely known by the public.

Why is it a travesty? This sounds like you are looking for someone to blame?

People have been making a choice to keep warm over frezing to death or having cooked food which kills pathogens over eating raw food and getting sick, for millenia. This is just one more way that nature keeps populaion numbers under control. If we end up burning coal in our homes and all die at around age 40, there won't be an overpopulation problem for too long. Bad for th individuals hat die but good for the species. No travesty.

There are ways to keep warm and cook food that don't rely on combustion, solar cookers, adobe, and so on, depending on location. Do people need these basics to promote survival? Sure. Do they have to be from burning wood/similar? Not necessarily. Some may argue that going with a more destructive, both to the environment and individual, way of providing the basics when there are alternatives that are much less destructive is a travesty.

Actually, some pollutants from coal-burning such as SO2 and Mercury are absent (or insignificant) wrt wood.

SO2 is a proven component in wood smoke, and as such, this hazardous chemical with toxicological profile should not be considered insignificant

I've given up trying to get those recreational Target firepits banned in our town after a 3 year crusade; common good trumped by burning wood. Sadly to many around Chicagoland, "building" a firepit (with store bought cords) is much more rewarding than growing a garden- frontal lobes awol.

What do you believe are the emissions of SO2 from an EPA class 2 woodstove versus a coal-fired power plant burning bitumen and lignite, on a BTU basis? What are your sources?

In your Sustainability Grid...

Nuclear got a 2 for low carbon while wind got a 3.

Nuclear got a 1 for sufficient fuel while coal got a 2.

And you see new capacity as being less expensive for coal, gas, and then oil. I understand you could mean plant costs, or you could be including fuel, but either way this is a "huh?".

Riiiight. Anyway, I understand that these are based on 'impressions', but your impressions are doing a poor job of representing the technologies.

Agreed. Her numbers for nuclear sustainability re: CO2 and fuel aren't based on any data or analysis I've ever seen. Most studies show nuclear competitive with wind in CO2. Also, I think the water issues are relatively minor and should be downweighted; most population is near the coasts, ocean water is easily used for cooling. In the desert, there are water recycling solutions for thermal power plants. Also with the global recession and decrease in commodities cost, the cost figures should be reconsidered as well.

With respect to low carbon: Nuclear=2; wind=3.

Neither of these sources use fossil fuels directly, except in the production of infrastructure, and in the case of nuclear, extraction of the fuel and processing of the fuel. The figures I have seen for uranium suggest an EROI of about 6 for nuclear; wind is supposedly somewhat higher (assuming long lives for all of the infrastructure). All of these things would suggest that wind is better than nuclear. Whether wind is as good as a 3 is another question.

With respect to sufficient fuel: Nuclear=1; Coal=2.

In the United States, we import over 90% of our nuclear fuel. Not enough mines are being built around the world to meet world demand. With respect to those mines that are being built, China and Japan are trying to line up controlling interest. We have kept our power plants supplied through a long term contract with Russia to purchase its recycled bomb material. This contract expires in 2013. I don't see any clear path in place to keep future supplies available--maybe it will be there (if we have good foreign relations, Russia has more bomb material to sell, etc.) and maybe it won't. There are lots of ideas for uranium from sea water, but I don't see them being implemented on scale. Se my post How Long Before Uranium Shortages

In the US, Coal should perhaps be a 3. We have a lot of coal that has never been mined. This coal is not considered in our reserve numbers at all--our reserves only relate to open mines. Recent US coal production has declined (at least in total Btus value mined), but I would attribute that to industrial production moving offshore, and electrical capacity remaining flat. There has been no need to open new mines, so we haven't even carefully evaluated what we have.

Cost of new capacity: Coal = 3; Natural gas = 2; oil = 0.

If we consider low tech capacity for coal (open a mine that has not been opened before; mine it with pick axes and buckets) the cost is very low. (Sensible is another issue!). Even high tech coal is cheaper than natural gas or wind, according to my cost comparison graph.

With respect to natural gas, we already have more natural gas electrical production capacity built than I expect we will ever use. If we want to more fully utilize it, we probably need more pipelines (to the Northeast, for example) and more underground storage. The cost of using the capacity that is already built is therefore the cost of the upgrades to infrastructure, not actually building new capacity.

Adding new oil capacity is now getting expensive. We can do deep sea drilling. I didn't have an easy conversion to electrical based capacity, but if coal and natural gas capacity are close to free, oil has to be quite a bit higher.

Go here for a more detailed look at coal. You may not be so inclined to give it a 3 for supplies.

Toss in externalized costs, especially with "low tech" coal, and we're narrowed or eliminated the gap. As "cheap" as it may appear, if we have to "pay" for it via health problems ( among other issues) later, it'd probably be better to go with something else in the first place, even if it is more "expensive".

Gail --

The topic of 'what sustainability means' is well worth broaching, since it is a big enough concept that people can use the term and mean completely different things. Your toe in the water makes a good place to start.

We have a huge amount of unused capacity for producing electricity from natural gas. Most of these natural gas plants need to be manned around the clock, whether or not they are actually producing electricity. We currently have natural gas selling for record low prices (at least in recent years). If we need extra electrical production, why not just burn a little natural gas? The capacity is already built, so its additional cost is $0, and even the additional manpower needed is low. If we support our unconventional natural gas producers, natural gas production could probably continue for quite a few more years. At this point, natural gas is out of favor, after being ramped up only a few years ago. We have the infrastructure, but we aren't really using it.

The recent build out of natural gas (particularly the combined cycle gas turbine) is emblematic of the limits of the 'free' market, IMHO. When wholesale power markets deregulated in the 90s, the private sector responded by building lots of these plants. The CCGT bubble burst around 2003-2004 when it became clear that too many were built, coal plants were not shutting down en masse, and growing natural gas prices undercut CCGT profitability. Post-CCGT bubble, we have seen the generation market seesaw between coal, gas, renewables, and even nuclear development efforts as they chased the fluctuating spreads between the fuels and between build costs. It has made investment planning difficult for even very disciplined developers. As with many areas of the economy, the appetite for speculative investment has dropped to zero.

Ideally, any energy source we want to emphasize in the future will meet all of these criteria, and additionally, will be inexpensive to produce. The problem is that it is very difficult to find fuels that meet all these criteria.

I have given some thought to a set of principles that together define 'sustainability'. In some cases they echo what you have written:

1. Conservation and efficiency. This needs to be a first principle, because whatever we do will require some materials, and we have seen that materials that at first appear abundant can turn out to be limiting. In a more ethical sense, conserving represents sharing: first with kin, than with others unseen, finally with those to come.

2. Non-polluting energy becomes primary. This implies classes of electricity such as solar, wind, and hydro. Research into applications for nuclear, carbon-sequestered coal, or biomass shouldn't be ruled out but can't be primary. The maddeningly low rate at which we can access clean energy puts a premium on the first principle.

3. Recognize the water cycle as a limiting element. Our difficulties accessing clean energy at the rates we need may be trivial compared to accessing fresh water. We can't increase fresh water appreciably, so its endowment needs to be managed carefully. This tends to reinforce principle #2, since sun/wind/hydro do not impinge large quantities of fresh water, at least on the energy production side.

4. Waste equals food. I take this one from Paul Hawken. Having honored conservation as the first principle, all manufactured and consumed products need to either decompose into products harmless to the environment or have an explicit life-cycle plan that provides for recycling. The consciousness around recycling has come a long way but in the current slowdown we see the limitations of recycling when it is not well-coupled with conservation and a life-cycle obsolescence plan.

5. Economic growth must be accompanied by increasing ecological complexity. We honor this principle in limited ways such as the Endangered Species Act, but need to become more proactive about expanding habitat and enriching the web of life. I am agnostic about whether 'growth' is possible, but I am convinced that expansion of a monoculture (more humans and fewer other living creatures) is unsustainable.

Maybe it's not possible to have a comprehensive set of principles that can together define sustainability. But absent that it is easy to see why the term would carry little weight.

Thanks! Your sustainability issues sound like a step in the right direction.

Thanks too for your comments on where the electrical industry has been. Many readers here have little background in this. From a distance, it looks like one long nightmare. It seems like there has to be a better way planning and organizing for the future.

I am agnostic about whether 'growth' is possible

Growth is possible, it is just not sustainable. How can you be agnostic about that, unless you think we might live on an infinite planet or we might be able to plunder resources outside our planet for ever, without trashing our environment?

Go here for a discussion about what sustainability means.

The easy solution is to just use less electricity. I mean 80%+ less. It is not very hard to do, as many off-grid types have shown by using 3kwh/day or as little as 1 kwh/day while living a normal modern lifestyle. (Compared to 30+ kwh/day for the average US home.)

The easier solution is to just burn more coal and gas.

But, when that solution is no longer so easy, whether due to geologic reasons or whether pre-empted by regulatory reasons, then we will probably go with the easy solution, which is use less.

These off-grid types have been working on this for almost four decades now. They found that it was far easier (which really means cheaper) to simply use less than it was to build out complicated and expensive power generation systems.

What I am saying is that we ALREADY ran the experiment, and it was a success. The resulting answer is: use less.

If electricity was $0.40/kwh, then we would be well along the road to "sustainability." At $1/kwh, or in other words $90 a month for 3 kwh/day, everyone would be living like the off-grid types. Quite happily, I might add.

Good idea, but we'll probably find some floors on use relatively quickly without radical restructuring of our built world. We're still going to require significant amounts of energy available. Unlike others on this forum, I find the idea of a 19th century lifestyle quite unpleasant. It's easy to be romantic about the past from a 21st century vantage point, and dramatically underestimate the amount of labor and pain involved in a high-population, low-tech world. I also support strong price signals to transition down to base levels quickly, but I'm afraid in a democracy like ours, it is politically untenable to advocate a position seriously, much less to get 50%+1 support for the idea. So we're somewhat constrained by our freedom.

Unlike others on this forum, I find the idea of a 19th century lifestyle quite unpleasant.

And I find this characterization unpleasant. It's a gross over-simplification and quite possibly very wrong. The 1800's had no electricity, no internet, farming was backbreaking... etc.

It simply does not have to like that.


It is the essence of the doomer predictions; no technology, no infrastructure, no high quality energy. If we don't get our act together, it will probably be realized, unfortunately.

The doomer position is that there is little, if any, evidence that the world is heading towards sustainability. If it doesn't, then it will collapse. By definition, unsustainable societies cannot be sustained and so must end. If that end isn't brought about in a controlled fashion, then it will come about in a collapse. If some semblance of modern technology can be salvaged after the collapse, great, but we'd be more likely to be able to continue to use and develop technology if we plan for, and move to, a sustainable society.

So you're right; if we don't get our act together, collapse is inevitable, along with the loss of much technology that could enable a more comfortable and enjoyable life.

I'm not a doomer because I'm optimistic the use of bridge technologies might buy us enough time to move to a sustainable world, with a low enough population and resource extraction to exist with renewable technologies. Personally I think there is alot of "Fuck You, I Got Mine" American exceptionalism to doomer thought. It's toxic and not constructive. I prefer to find routes to a non-raptured year 2060, which is somewhat relevant as I'm in my mid twenties.

"I prefer to find routes to a non-raptured year 2060, which is somewhat relevant as I'm in my mid twenties."

Good luck! I'll be gone by then, for sure, so I'm looking for more immediate action.

It is the essence of the doomer predictions; no technology, no infrastructure, no high quality energy.

It is *a* doomer prediction, not all doomers' prediction.

I find myself in a strange land between that and boundless hope. Essentially, I have boundless optimism that we *can* adapt and change, but am very pessimistic as to the likelihood of doing so.


He never said "low-tech world."

Efficiancy and conservation do not mean low-tech. I don't think that A/C's set to 70 degrees F add to GDP in anyway, and surely in no way that justifies the energy cost.

Difficult to get a good night's sleep in here in Houston during the summer w/o A/C. Too much humidity, not enough cooling breeze. Very few people were crazy enough to live on the Gulf Cost before the advent of air conditioning. We lost our electricity for a week after Ike. Not eager to repeat the experience. I'd say being able to stay awake at my desk contributes to GDP. :)

1) We don't all live in Houston. If the problems of Houston aren't solved they will cause higher expense and less people will live there over time.

2) I didn't say NO a/c... I said not setting it at 70.

3) Buy a small fan and put it by your bed and set your a/c to 85. Lots of people up north don't have a/c at all, and trust me, there are hot nights there too, just less of them.

4) Put desks in one windowless, well insulated room and air condition that.

5) Do any number of other things to reduce total energy usage. We will all be more motivated if price increases/rationing kicks in.

6) If your job depends on it, you'll find a way to stay awake. If not, I could use a new job. :)

If you are going to try and argue that the average household doesn't waste a TON of energy, you might as well just stop b/c I am not going to be convinced. I know how much I waste.

P.S. And seriously, why are you living in Houston anyway? That place sucked even when times were good.

I was attempting to introduce levity into the discussion. Anyway, I'm an urbanite and bicycle/mass transit user, and I'm here because it's where I grew up/family reasons. Yes, Houston does suck... unless you're in biomedical research, in which case it's a great, diverse community. However, I will probably move in the next 5 years, though.

Solar Powered Air Conditioning


Andrew, I don't know about you, but I feel downright cold when someone keeps his or her house on 70. I suspect most folks in texas don't. It is way too expensive, 78 with a fan is usually comfortable. But it still takes a lot of electricity to keep a house on 78 when it is 105 outside, even if the house is well insulated, and the compressor is a high efficiency model.

People who are in denial about the need for electricity claim that everyone in Texas keeps his AC on 70 no matter what. That is a lie.

Believe it or not, it's 30 degrees outside right now. In Houston.

EDIT: OOPS! lol. My Mac OS X dashboard widget had accidentally been set to Houston, ALASKA, not Houston, TEXAS. Still, it's 42 degrees outside. I thought that number was a little bit low!

I cannot believe that district heating would work in Houston, Texas. Not as an investment, not as a practical means of home heating.

The issue is not about making a choice to transition to a lower energy life.

The issue is not about whether we like the idea of a (insert your century of choice) lifestyle.

Just because I don't like the idea of growing old and dying ain't going to stop my hair from going grey.

Difficulty is "off-the-ranch" uses. Have you considered what services you would need to sacrifice in order to live within a 3kwh / day energy budget? Would you still be happy there if your child were diagnosed with eg. cancer? How about your spouse?

Just saying. Most of what's here is not thought through at all, by the look of it.

What does hospital energy use have to do with home energy use? We don't all get cancer. We do all (or most) waste energy.

How much energy does it take to cure cancer?


People here just believe this stuff is hard. They make up all sorts of (stupid) reasons why it is supposedly hard. It isn't hard, it's easy.

What was the total electricity consumption of the United States when the Empire State building was built?

So, you guys are saying you're ONLY interested in reducing residential energy consumption? Why are all other energy uses to be exempt from your plan?

What was the rural electrification rate? What was the standard of living in rural communities? Where the majority of US population reside? I can answer questions with questions as well.

re: wood and the scope of the article in general.

The posting is very good with focus on the macro-scale. I wonder how such an analysis would apply to a decentralized scenario or even a individual or a small business striving to sustain their own needs and contributions to a larger system?

My own interest is in wood as fuel and product feedstock is as short rotation, coppiced hardwood plantings. True we will still need outside inputs but when there is finally equity in value of energy these internalized sustainability actions will be significant where now - electricity and fuel is too cheap to implement on farm energy production as this.


Bottom line with wood or any other bio-mass as fuel is that nature's photosynthesis process is SO much less efficient than standard artificial photovoltaics that it is FAR more sustainable FOREVER to cover 1 acre with 17% efficient photocells than 100 acres with serially harvested forests. (300 acres of wood if you want the wood energy out as electricity from a 33% efficient boiler-generator plant). That really is a reasonable ratio, considering the energy going into planting, harvesting, transport ad return of nutrients. eg. photosynthesis is at MAXIMUM 1% efficient in converting sunlight into carbohydrate stored energy. Thats in tropical environments with ideal soil, maximum growth-rate species, ideal watering and continuous year-round growth. Use 1/5 % for temperate N America where growth shuts down 1/2 of year due to cold, dry spells occur periodically, soils are typically not perfect, solar angle is signifcantly less than 90 degrees, etc. etc. (ratio of acerage 17 / (1/5) = 85:1 then add 15 acres to provide fuel for planting / harvesting, acerage ratio = 100:1) Then use 33% efficient boiler plant to burn air-dried wood and generate electricity, acerage ratio becomes 300:1

Given knowledge we presently have, it WILL ALWAYS be better for nature and sustainability, to manufacture solar cells and use the electricity, than to exploit plant photosynthesis in any presently recognizable form. Including using the photocells to provide the energy to manufacture their replacements. However, more sustainable than that is solar-thermal generation, esp. eg. using stirling engines if cooling water is a problem. No shortage of exotic elements will ever impede replacements manufacturing, totally recyclable.

Plants are for FOOD and sustainable construction etc. materials. Period. Plants may become viable sources of direct energy IF some genius comes up with something like a workable algae-to-hydrogen or algea-to-biodiesel, but not now.

I've thought for a number of years that what the world needs is a solar-powered solar-cell manufacturing plant. Put a silicon operation into the industrial complex, and see it can be a closed system. If it can, sounds like a nice new industrial town/lifeboat settlement, and maybe we're not finished.

Good point! I see you are a chemist.

I think coal comes closer to being able to operate in a closed system than any of the other fuels on the list. It is possible to pulverize the coal, and run the extraction equipment with a pulverized coal/water combination. Alternatively, one can burn the coal, and from it generate electricity. Also, trains can be fueled with a coal fired boiler. These attributes still don't make coal a great choice, but one can see that in an energy-constrained world, coal is likely to get serious consideration, because it can almost be a closed cycle.

We've already had a coal closed-cycle world, and before that, a completely sustainable biofuels world. I'm not eager to return to those standards of living. :) I state this frequently, but my position is basically nuclear for the near-term to avoid AGW without population crash, with eventual transition to wind/solar many, many decades down the line. Take our time, keep our society running long enough to develop better wind/solar tech, and make smooth transitions. IMHO large scale nuclear deployment is one of the few ways to buy us that time without aggravating CO2.

Yeah, I see what you're saying, but from a collapse/lifeboats point of view, if there were independent industrial 'cells' capable of producing and installing windmills or solar operations under their own power and resources, they could essentially 'reproduce' themselves.

What I'm thinking of are the mill towns of the industrial revolution, where a wealthy person would build a town with a factory in relative isolation. I know solar cells are more complex than textiles, if possible they'd be small cities, but if these projects were possible it would be a real-world example of positive EROEI and they would be able to expand in time against the gradient of the 'outside' collapse.

Solar thermal is simple enough to be essentially entirely manufactured at a single location. esp. if using a stirling engine conversion rather than steam turbines.

Coppice produced wood as a farm product has multiple uses beyond and including energy. For example, willow whips can make woven containers to take produce to market, a gasifier can extract energy but saving charcoal as soil supplement. In addition, willows are both ecto and endo mycorrhizial, ie they make their own fertilizer and are excellent tool for resting and enriching the land.

The problem is that none of these things can be more than a small solution for our large population.

Small solutions sound good. Can we not come up with accommodations and lifestyles that would need minimal energy resources? Do we really need to produce as much energy as we do today?

IMO going from 0 kwh/day to 1 kwh/day enhances quality of life more than going from 1 kwh/day to 30 kwh/day. You can go from sitting in the dark to having some lights, small fridge, radio, tv, fans, maybe a water pump.

Depending on how we get those other 29 kWh/day, going from 30kWh/day to something less, maybe even 1kWh/day, could enhance the quality of life as well.

"Given knowledge we presently have, it WILL ALWAYS be better for nature and sustainability, to manufacture solar cells and use the electricity, than to exploit plant photosynthesis in any presently recognizable form"

Link please ....

I wonder if the future energy mix has parameter constraints, including

1) some coal use may be unavoidable
Experiments so far suggest jet fuel may have to come from coal via the Fischer Tropsch process. There will always be a need for some air travel albeit much reduced. Maybe nature can absorb say 10% of current CO2 emissions if we have to use some coal which incidentally will make the resource last longer.

2) 50% lower limit on dispatchable power?
It is not just the intermittency of wind and solar but the lack of capital for major new transmission lines. Energy storage that can be used anywhere anytime is not much advanced on lead-acid batteries. Countries with high renewables penetration such as Spain, Germany and Denmark seem to show that even 30% of the average grid supply is a tough ask. Maybe 50% or more of the grid input has to be a combination of baseload and controllable peaking power.

A version of Fermi's Paradox says even superbeings from another galaxy cannot solve the problem of interstellar travel. Alas I fear the technotopians will not accept any notion of physical impossibility.

I think their is room for some middle ground between believing that we can not have more than 30% of our electricity from wind and believing we can travel to the next galaxy.
1)Wind over small geographic regions ( Denmark, Spain,Victoria) is very different to wind power over continental size grids( EU, US) or the NEMMCO grid in Eastern Australia and Tasmania.
2)All of these large regions have hydro that can be run as peak back-up. Also some pumped storage, which can be expanded, or more turbines can be installed at existing hydro to give greater peak capacity at the expense of shorter duration.
3) Both wind, and solar resources are X10 larger than present electricity demand.
I am not optimistic that air travel will be common or affordable in future or that wind energy will allow us to travel to other galaxies, but solar wind may allow us to travel to other planets.

Gail -

Nice framework for an analysis of the relevant issues.

One thing puzzles me though. Under the category 'New Capacity Inexpensive', you have coal outranking natural gas, with a score of 3 versus a 2. Is not low capital cost one of the main reasons most utilities prefer to go with gas turbine generator systems when installing new capacity, rather than building more coal-fired capacity?

Nor do I quite understand why you consider coal more 'low-tech' than natural gas. Perhaps you are using a concept of low-tech that is different than mine.

Yes, it is true that with coal you just dig the stuff out of the ground. But when you go to burn it to produce electricity on a large scale, the resultant power plant is anything but low-tech, as I think anyone who has actually been in a large power plant would agree.

A large coal-fired power plant is a rather elaborate array of material handling systems, boiler feedwater treatment systems, a sophisticated steam generation system employing all sorts of heat recovery measures, a very powerful yet delicate turbine, a large cooling system, ash handling and disposal, and much else. Whereas a gas turbine generating system is far simpler, far more compact, and does away with almost all of the above ancillary systems required for coal-fired power plants. So, in that regard I think that gas deserves the more favorable 'low-tech' rating than coal.

While this is a good exercise to get the mind thinking about the various consideration, my experience with having done this type or ranking exercise for a living is they often turn out to be little more than a formal way of displaying ones opinions and biases.

There are several issues with respect to natural gas capacity.

1. We already have a huge amount--more than coal capacity. I would argue that we don't need any more natural gas capacity, period. We should just use what we have. If we need to string a few transmission wires, or add a little pipeline, or some underground storage, that will add some cost. But our cost is close to 0 because the natural gas capacity has already been built.

2. Natural gas looks cheap when companies price it out, partly because the capacity that is added at one location is generally a whole lot smaller than new coal capacity. Because of the small size of the plant, the total amount to be financed looks manageable. The plant can also be built quickly.

3. One reason that natural gas looks good to investors is because they imagine that the plants will be operated for many more hours per year than actually turns out to be the case. Once one factors in the low utilization, the plants don't turn out to be nearly as profitable in practice as they looked in theory.

On coal, I would agree that it can be either high tech or low tech. Our current approach is definitely high tech. What I am saying is if we have troubles with finances and imports of all types, coal has a possibility of continuing, but not on today's basis. It is likely to be more on China's basis, with a lot of small unsafe mines.

You are right that natural gas is in some ways simpler. For example, offshore platforms are operated with electricity generated from natural gas that is extracted along with the oil. There are not nearly as many steps as with oil in making natural gas a useful substance.

What I am saying here is different, however. When I say that coal is lower tech than natural gas, I am thinking that if we suddenly lost imports and many of our high tech equipment, it would be a lot easier for someone to extract coal with a pick ax than to extract natural gas from our tight gas or shale gas formations without modern equipment. Also, one pretty much has to have pipelines in place for natural gas, or high pressure ships for transporting it. One can pull coal on a cart behind a horse. Thus coal can be handled in a low tech way; gas is much more difficult.

Gail -

I see your point, which I think is quite valid.

Two further comments:

1) If we were to seriously consider using coal in a truly 'low-tech' manner, than that would automatically mean the abandonment of any semblance of trying to maintain even a marginally healthy level of air quality. Ambient particulate and sulfur dioxide levels would soar. (Think gritty London in Dickens' time, or Pittsburgh during the height of WW II steel production.) This would be especially bad if we reverted to using coal for home heating..... a truly retrograde step if there ever was one.

2) While you are quite correct in the potential for our built-out natural gas infrastructure to absorb a great deal more electricity generating capacity, there is a very valid question as to whether this is the wisest use of natural gas.

Natural gas is the only fossil fuel that really burns clean without the use of emission controls. Thus, it is perfectly suited for home heating. Furthermore, natural gas is a quite valuable feed stock for the production of petrochemicals. Thus, we need to decide whether it would be better to conserve our natural gas resources so that they can be more devoted to home heating and the production of petrochemicals, rather than burning it to produce electricity, a role that perhaps a combination of nuclear and renewables are better suited to fill over the long run.

I agree coal would be pretty awful as a fuel. I am willing to bet, though, that if that is what is available it will get used.

I also agree that natural gas has higher uses than for burning for electricity--especially chemical uses. One wonders what people were thinking when they built all of the natural gas generating capacity. With the current state of neglect of the unconventional natural gas industry, we likely will be losing production, possibly permanently.

One question we should really be looking at is whether we need any additional production of electricity at all. Our total electricity usage looks like it fell in 2008, based on data through November 2008. As businesses contract and more homes become vacant, the amount of electricity we need will continue to fall. One could argue that mostly what we need to replace is capacity that is close to the end of its useful life. This still could be a fair amount--more than we are adding through wind.

Hi Gail

First, hats off to you for all of your great postings and other work here on TOD! You are key to holding this forum together.

I like the analysis you did here, particularly the sustainability grid concept, which I'd not seen before.

The future investment chart is sobering. However, if unemployment continues to grow, the amount of funds available will be less important; people will be satisfied to have ANY job, and if those jobs are labor-intensive rather than capital-intensive, then much can be accomplished. Look at the pyramids, the Great Wall, etc.

The sustainability grid concept is also great - and I don't recall having seen IT before. As far as specific values, I would say wind ranks a "Low Tech; Low Imports" value comparable to hydro - i.e. 1 or 2. After all, a great deal of useful work has been done by the humble windmill over the centuries - pumping water, grinding grain, operating bellows and drop-forges, etc.

Does wood/biomass rank a "Sufficient Fuel" value of 0? It varies tremendously by region; some less populated areas have a great excess. Also, aggressive re-forestation efforts might be able to extend locally-favorable growing climates. Provided the larger weather patterns would allow it, the cooling effect, the retention of water, etc. of a forest once started could allow it to penetrate into otherwise semi-arid climates.

I would suggest that "Insufficient for Current Demand" would be a better metric than "Suffient fuel" (i.e. supply). If one assumes that human needs are infinite and insatiable (i.e. the bedrock faith of guys like Summers, Geithner, and the rest of our reining elites) then there is no such thing as sufficient. But if we assume Fundamental Human Needs are few, finite, and classifiable, then there is hope for our species.


The more we shrink our demand to fit our planet, the more viable all the renewables become...and the longer we can stretch out our use of non-renewables. Imagine, for example, how much longer US oil supplies would last if Americans found ways to play and amuse themselves that did not burn gasoline. We have not begun to admit that triage applies to ALL consumption of non-renewables; thus we have not BEGUN to get serious about curtailment.

You are absolutely right about people using coal if other sources are not available - and that the amount people are able to extract with de-industrialized tools will pose a far smaller threat to the climate. Fortunately most of the coal which is located near higher population densities lies in fairly temperate areas, and therefore use for de-industrial per-capita space heating would probably be modest.

It's great that you emphasize nameplate capacity versus actual production for electrical generation - this is one of the most "greenwashed" inconvenient truths out there! If there are no major breakthroughs in energy-storage technology, significant additional expansion of renewable electricity generation will elude us. Even George Monboit maintains we cannot Can afford to reject nuclear out of hand.

With reference to this comment by mikeB:

"As prestigious an authority as Professor Albert Bartlett ridicules the notion of sustainability for a population of 6.7 billion, a number being outstripped as we speak."

While I respect Professor Bartlett, his refusal to distinguish between the populations of homo sapien versus homo automobilicus strikes me as out-of-touch. If we consider the United States, for example, the modest needs of 300 million humans threaten Earth's carrying capacities far, far less than the rapacious needs of our vast, land-gobbling, energy-hungry motor vehicle fleet. Like many Americans, like sustainability guru Amory Lovins, Professor Bartlett apparently assumes that human = car.

I suspect the "human = car" worldview is not unrelated to how its adherents access their day-to-day and week-to-week destinations themselves. Although it would appear from walkscore.com that Bartlett (57) and Lovins (95) reside in pedestrian-friendly habitats, and both can ride the bus to work. (Do I love Google Maps or what?)

I am glad you liked my post. You make some good points.

I am not aware of anyone else with a "Sustainability Grid". It seemed like a logical way to try to bring the pieces together. Most people haven't even gotten to the point of realizing that the concept of sustainability is more nuanced than what one hears from politicians and the press.

I would agree that in some places wood/biomass will do better in some places than others. But the US is relatively forested and lightly populated, and we had trouble with deforestation back in the 1800s. I still think the take-home message is that it is very easy to expect way too much of wood/biomass.

You are right about the windmill. In its small, human-scale form, windmills make sense. I was at one point thinking about including that in this post, but didn't get it in. It is the giant wind turbines that have to be transported by huge vehicles and serviced by other large vehicles that have a real question mark by them, in my opinion. If a wind operated device can be made locally, and installed without huge equipment, it is a very sensible (and probably low cost) investment.


This is a good start at presenting a list of criteria and scores for future electrical energy sources (since you've left out solar hot water and solar thermal heating, as two examples). There will be many different opinions on the values in your matrix (for example, coal burning would rely on transport solutions that have a reliance on steel and other energy intensive technologies, and any solution that would scale to current consumption levels would be far above the pick and bucket level; PV costs will be coming down significantly; 25% capacity for wind is much lower than average), so the current scores would be higher for wind and solar than for coal, though other factors such as intermittance and reliability can make a difference. "Sufficient fuel" needs an explanation, as recent examinations of coal reserves has shown that the "hundreds of years of coal" assertion is not supported by the data.

I would suggest adding concentrating solar to your list as well. If you are referring to energy overall, I also suggest adding in solar hot water and solar thermal heating.

Additionally, a full life cycle look, instead of just contruction costs, would be more helpful in understanding the costs that will be passed on to consumers...

...as well as other external costs.

Regarding the list not being all inclusive, this post was intended to be a starting point for discussion, not an inclusive list.

25% capacity for wind is much lower than average

When I look at EIA data, I find that since 2006, the average wind turbine utilization has been 23.4%. Over the past five years, the average utilization has been 23.9%. I thought by selecting 25%, I already recognized the slight progress being made for wind.

With respect to full life cycle costs, in a declining world, we don't know how short the life cycle really will be. It is easy to kid ones-self about these costs. The costs I show are front-end production costs amortized over whatever lifetimes FERC uses.

You are underestimating capacity factor for wind because new capacity added in last year only contributes a small capacity factor, and new wind was 8.3GWcapacity in 2008(30% of all capacity). All of the new projects I looked at in US had 0.3-0.4 capacity factors. Some in CA in late 1980's were lower. Lower values in EU on-shore because of higher price, it pays to over-scale turbine and on-shore wind sites limited.

Please share the EIA data you refer to. A Berkeley study found that wind farms installed since 2002 have in excess of 30% capacity on average (figure 26);

Average capacity factor has increased from 0.225 for projects
installed before 1998 to roughly 0.33 for projects in 2006


And with excellent capacity factor data available for siting, much of the risk of low capacity factor results evaporates;

Operational and fuel costs also have to be factored into any energy comparison, or else the comparison is slanted in favor of non-renewable energy sources.

My data came from Electric Power Annual 2007 (Released January 21, 2009) Table ES1. Summary Statistics for the United States, 1996 through 2007. This is a link to the HTML version Table ES1. The table shows electric generation for all of the power sources, plus summer capacity for all of the power sources. I also made an adjustment for the difference between summer capacity and nameplate capacity, but that that was only .995.

It is difficult to see how the difference could be as large as it seems to be. One possibility is the EIA data may be comparing wind produced during the year to installed capacity an the end of the year (although the data names wouldn't seem to indicate that--summer is in the middle of the year), so that it is distorted by the rise in capacity during the year. If instead of using the summer capacity directly, I average it with the previous year's summer capacity, the value for 2007 becomes 28% and 2006 becomes 30%. The average of the last five years becomes 27%.

I note that the Annual Report on Wind Power notes that the capacity for individual turbines decreases over time, as the downtime for maintenance increases with older turbines. That could be a factor. The data I am looking at is a mixture of all installed turbines, so it includes turbines with "warts"--ones where the maintenance is less than stellar, and ones that a special study would tend to not consider. It also includes a mixture of older and newer turbines, but the installed base before 2002 was quite small.

I wonder how the two different agencies get their power data. My guess is that the Annual Report on Wind Power sends out a survey, while the EIA data collects more "actual" data. Another question is how all of the "stranded wind" is treated. It may be that the EIA considers stranded wind in its count of installed wind power capacity, but with 0 output back to the grid.

summer capacity for all of the power sources

There's the disconnect; wind tends to be much lower in summer (when solar is higher), so that gives a skewed perception of capacity factor.

The exhibit I reference gives year around wind generation (the numerator of the fraction). It is the denominator that is capacity. If it was low, it would make the percentage of capacity look too low.

I would hope the numbers that you reference are year-around numbers, not someone's view of what the best month of the year is.

I would be interested in finding out why your numbers are so high and mine are so low. Mine come from the "bean counters". Yours come from sources that are harder to figure out. In looking at the one from the Minnesota Department of Commerce, I see the footnote says:

"This map has been prepared under contract by WindLogics for the Department of Commerce using the best available weather data sources and the latest physics based weather modeling technology."

So these numbers are not real numbers.

The Annual Report on U.S. Wind Power Installation, Cost, and Performance Trends: 2007 is not as clear. The Introduction says:

. . . the data shown here represent only a sample of actual wind projects installed in the United States; furthermore, the data vary in quality. As such, emphasis should be placed on overall trends, rather than on individual data points.

I think the confusion is that average capacity factor of early wind farms( <1998) was <25%, and in 2007 was 35%. Your figures would have divided production(kWh)for 2007/ total installed capacity at Dec31, 2007. In 2007, capacity grew by 44% so one third of the turbines did not produce kWh for full year, and many of the older turbines were producing <25% capacity factor.

A capacity factor map is only relevant for a specific turbine at a specific height. Adding a 1MW generator onto a 2MW turbine blade will increase capacity factor but reduce total power because turbine will be at 100% capacity more often.
Raising the turbine hub height of a fixed size turbine will increase capacity factor because wind moves faster at greater height, but to get optimal total power, a larger generator would be installed( giving a lower capacity factor).

More importantly, better designs, taller towers are resulting in wind farms now with capacity factors of 0.3-0.4. If we wanted wind to provide 50% of grid power, then it would be possible to have farms with 0.5 capacity factors. A better option would be to combine with solar or use all North American hydro capacity of 170GW as peak power back-up for wind.

We probably need another post by Jerome explaining developments outside Europe.

Gail, I agree with Neil and would like to reiterate three points;

- New sites have higher capacity factor: Averaging in older smaller turbines on lower towers skews the data to old installations, not newer installations, so projecting new wind farm capacity factors with older, shorter turbines/towers gives a misleading picture.

- Better siting data: With wind maps that now identify the best sites based on winds aloft rather than ground speed, we are better able to more effectively site new turbine farms to achieve a higher capacity factor.

- EIA data: There are no clues whatsoever as to how the EIA data was compiled; for example, are older turbines that are now longer in operation automatically taken off the capacity list? How would we know? While most of the other energy were footnoted, nothing to give us any clues was provided for the wind data, so we have no idea how 'real' this data is.

There are databases both of capacity and of generation by facility. I downloaded the generation spreadsheet for 2007. (There is one for each year).

I saw the capacity spreadsheet earlier, but didn't download it yet. Sometime when I have time I will look at it.

With site by site data, one can see better what is going on. One can look at locations that were in operation at the end of 2006, and see what their capacity was. Also how much wind they produced in 2007.

One can also see if there are facilities with 0 production--perhaps stranded wind facilities, or ones that should have been taken out of the database.

Pardon if I have missed something: maybe this has already been discussed in another part of this forum and I simply haven't found it yet.

What about claims that North America is a carbon sink, absorbing/sequestering/whatever substantially more carbon than is released through fuel use and other human activity? Are we quite sure that carbon is a problem on the magnitude some would have us believe?

The tenor of this discussion seems quite collegial, and I do not wish to disturb that. Please accept this as an honest question, not intended to disrupt.

That could be a very provocative question, as you seem to realize. I haven't heard this claim, and considering the amount of ICE vehicle use, coal-fired electricity and our level of consumption in general (making the output of other countries contribute to our 'carbon-responsibility' I would say) I am hard-pressed to see this issue being very supportable.

That said, could you possibly offer a link and short quote from someone who is making this claim.. or set up the points in the issue yourself, perhaps?

Bob Fiske


I'd be glad to. The concept originated for me in a chapter of "The Bottomlesss Well" which has the name "America The Beautiful Carbon Sink". I just looked it up on Amazon (I don't have a copy now - I checked it out from the Library) and did a search on carbon sink. P. 162 says, for example, "Today, North America as a whole is, apparently, a carbon _sink_." (_..._ marks italics in the original.

This is preceded and followed by an explanation of carbon output from burning fossil fuels, prevailing winds, measured carbon values, and estimates that the continent is absorbing somewhat more carbon than is being emitted on it, apparently primarily because of forest activity in the absorption. "As best these things can be measured directly, America's terrestrial uptake of carbon--the amount moving down into the surface rather than up into the air--runs about 1.7 billion metric tons per year, just ahead of the amount emitted by the combustion of fossil fuels." (that's from pp. 162-163 in the 2006 paperback edition).

Later on page 163 it gives a sort of table labeled "Carbon Budget" where the continents are listed with estimates of production and absorption of carbon.

I am a bit of an outsider in these discussions, and I don't claim to have a strong background in the science. I may be reasonably well read, and I can understand an argument fairly well. I am reasonably convinced of the imminence of Peak Oil, or perhaps that it has already come.

I am asking - inquiring - how others here in this very reasonable and apparently well informed group have reacted to this carbon sink claim. I don't know enough to begin evaluating it, really. Might be malarkey. Might be overlooking a bunch of relevant data.

Hopefully one of you knows, or is willing to take a stab at it!

PS (edit) - I noticed a citation at the bottom of the page. Let me retype it in here: "S. Fan et al., 'A Large Terrestrial Carbon Sink in North America Implied by Atmospheric and Oceanic Carbon Dioxide Data and Models,' Science 282, no. 5388 (16 October, 1998): 442-446. Data are from 1988-1992."


I think a "sustainability grid" that leaves out Solar Thermal (CSP) is incomplete to the point of not being very useful.

Solar thermal is cheap and low tech. It is a good choice. It isn't what is used for electricity, but it is good for heating hot water.

CSP is something else. If you use it directly for electricity, a cloud going overhead will disrupt the flow. In the desert, you can use CSP with boilers to produce electricity, and build long distance transmission wires to a city. It hasn't been done a whole lot, because it is expensive. There are a lot of details--you have to keep the mirrors clean, to keep the system working.

A coal plant needs to be constantly feed coal at a rate of roughly 100 coal cars per day, and the process of blasting, extracting, moving, loading, transporting, unloading, moving, staging, and finally burning the coal is a much more complicated process.

Keeping the mirrors clean on a CSP plant is very trivial in comparison. Clouds aren't an issue in the areas that CSPs are targeted for.


Kudos to you for taking on this topic; it is vast, complex, and fraught with many differing opinions, but is a crucial examination that cannot be shirked.

CSP is beginning to ramp up more quickly now and will do even better as they improve their thermal storage capabilities. Projects larger than a GW are now being proposed. These two companies are very active

CSP is going to be an important part of our energy future!

Good post.

I think it is important to distinguish ultimate from transitional. Ultimately sustainable energy sources are only those, and those only in certain quantities, that can be had when we no longer are using underground resources to any significant degree -- i.e. after industrialism is kaput.

That severely limits the list -- nuclear is out, hydrocarbons are out, and even wind, water and solar are severely constrained. Wood and some bio are left, but with limits on drawdown.

Transitional is different. The industrial era is heading into wind-down, how gradual it will be no one knows, but an argument can be made the it could start collapsing rapidly at some point. In any case, two main points in terms of what's desirable presuming one cares about the future of the species:

One - old mines, fields, sources should continue being exploited, although at an ever declining rate, but no new sources should be developed that will in any way damage the above ground ecology -- which is ALL we will eventually be left with. Those sources that are doing the most damage to the above ground ecology should be closed down the most quickly.

Two - as rapidly as possible, restructuring to allow ever reduced consumption of all the energy resources should be pursued, and the restructuring should be in the direction of where we will need to be when the underground resources are essentially unavailable.

Any way you slice it, there key thing confronting us is an eventual drastic reduction in our energy consumption, but less precipitous if we start now, which we won't unfortunately, at least not by design.

I would argue with Nate upthread a little bit. When you get old, discounting the future is done differently. The longer horizon is the only thing one does have to really worry and think about (especially if you have grandkids)! In the shorter term, you only worry about keeping the drool off your shirt.

I think it is right to think about ultimate vs transitional. It is hard to get people to think about the possibility that the industrial era is winding down, though. What we will likely be able to ultimately is pretty limited.

I don't think that we are ultimately going to have a lot to say about how people coming after us use the resources. If there is coal than can be easily exploited, I expect that people will try to do it, whether it makes sense from an ecological basis or not. Thus we can try to close down existing mines, and not open new ones, but I am not certain the result will stick.

Duplicate - can't delete, so I emptied via EDIT - sorry.

Present wood burning technology is hugely CO2 intensive because the half the wood (roots) is left in the ground and rots (with help from termite fungi, sometimes) and produces greenhouse intensive CH4.
Perenial wood from coppicing does not have that problem but coppicing has other problems involving labor intensity and cropland competition.
With an EROEI for 6 to 600, nuclear seems to be the best. Why the range? Depends on whether you use the old isotope separation processes like gas diffusion at 6 from back in the forties, or the new centrifuge processes at 600 from around the seventies.
The new equipment and fuel fabrication technologies are also a factor in how long the plant lasts and how often it has to be refueled. The new long burnup nuclear fuels have doubled power production per refueling, and the new pressure vessals and other equipment is holding up much better than the old carbon steel designs.
But fuel enrichment costs are still key.

The other key is having the fuel for the nuclear reactors in the first place. I don't think this is nearly as assured as everyone assumes. See my post How Long Before Uranium Shortages?

Yes, but...yours was not the final word on this Gail. For example, in your replies there you note: "These aren't my numbers, they are the numbers in the particular paper I quoted. They don't go above $130/kg."

Right. So, more supplies go higher and stretch out more the higher one goes, even if the return on investment drops a bit for nuclear.

Secondly, there are reasons experiments continue on seawater, and, more immediately, coal ash, a much richer source of uranium, and with which we have a major problem right now with.

Thirdly, in the same post you did on uranium, breeding was explained as both a uranium and thorium source. Expect this to get more attention and produced greater returns.

Lastly, not included, of course, are the 13,000 US nuclear WMD we have sitting around that can ALSO be downblended stretching out supplies.

I think nuclear clearly has a full generation deployment as LWRs ahead of itself. The Chinese are planning out over 160GWs for 2030. This will have an impact on CO2 and, peak uranium, too. We will see. But nuclear clearly is being factored in, Greenpeace nay-sayers notwithstanding.


The problem on a lot of the uranium things is timing. No matter how accurate the theory that there should be plenty of uranium, if actual mines haven't been built, there may not be enough uranium to go around. Also, if our financial problems become overwhelming, we may suddenly discover that it is much more difficult to buy uranium than in the past--supplies may be locked in by long-term contracts that we are not party to.

In Australia, China is taking advantage of the GED to buy itself seats on the boards of major mining companies. Unless there is a sudden shift to resource nationalism here, count us and our uranium in the "locked-in" category.

The problem on a lot of the uranium things is timing. No matter how accurate the theory that there should be plenty of uranium, if actual mines haven't been built, there may not be enough uranium to go around. Also, if our financial problems become overwhelming, we may suddenly discover that it is much more difficult to buy uranium than in the past--supplies may be locked in by long-term contracts that we are not party to.

There may be a short-term shortfall, while production ramps up from post-Cold War to post-post-Cold War levels. However, that's irrelevant to a discussion of whether the uranium supply is sustainable for the long term.

A once-through one-gigawatt nuclear power station uses 162 tons per year of uranium. So the known mineable resources of uranium, shared between 6 billion people, would last for 1000 years if we produced nuclear power at a rate of 0.55 kWh per day per person. This is the output of just 136 nuclear power stations, and half of today’s nuclear power production. It’s very possible this is an underestimate, since, as there is not yet a uranium shortage, there is no incentive for exploration and little uranium exploration has been undertaken since the 1980s; so maybe more mineable uranium will be discovered. Indeed, one paper published in 1980 estimated that the low-grade uranium resource is more than one thousand times greater than the 27 million tons we just assumed. ...

If fast reactors are sixty times more efficient, the same extraction of ocean uranium could deliver 420 kWh per day per person. At last, a sustainable figure that beats current consumption! – but only with the joint help of two technologies that are respectively scarcely-developed and unfashionable: ocean extraction of uranium, and fast breeder reactors.

David MacKay's Sustainable Energy — without the hot air (2008)

The problem on a lot of the uranium things is timing.

This is the elephant in the room with nuclear overall. Those proposing a primarily nuclear solution seem to avoid bringing this up and deal with it when faced with. While it's natural enough for a cornucopian type to see only what can be, it makes for some biiiig stretches of reality.

For nuclear to be an option, even as a bridge, we have to be able, globally, to build thousands of them before the global economy collapses, before atmospheric CO2 reaches, say, 450 and before major resource wars break out.

It's all in the timing.

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I find it worthwile to pursue partial solution even if they only will be enough for the community I live in and others that already are technologically advanced and able to handle nuclear technology. When we do what we can we get the ability to create resources for export and can avoid importing fossil energy and thus leave more resources for less advanced countries.

Which is why I said

Those proposing a primarily nuclear solution

. Korea, for example, has literally no other choice. They are trying to build more reactors and I fully support that even though I personally hate nuclear. The geology is stable and Korea won't be much affected by SLR, but has pretty much no significant natural resources.

There is a fair bit of wind, but the place is littered with mountains. The Yellow Sea seems to have some fairly large tidal moves, so there might be some opportunities there for energy production. But at the end of the day, the lack of arable land (0.082 acres/person) and energy with a pop. density of near 400/sq. km = nuclear or bust. Heck, to get food they should build more than they need and export to Japan, NK and China.


Thank you for a thorough analysis of conventional fuel sources. One thing you have not discussed which would fit all the criteria for sustainability is water as a source of fuel. Water has the highest percentage by weight of any stable non carbon source of hydrogen (11% by weight). It is very abundant (70% of the earth is covered by it), renewable (the burning of hydrogen has water as its product) and therefore endless. This fulfills two of your criteria for sustainability; namely low imports (since most countries have ample sources of water whether it is wastewater, fresh water or even seawater. It has no carbon to speak of. Since this resource is endless, it is not difficult to see that this fuel is ample for any demand in the foreseeable future. If seawater or wastewater is used, then the low (fresh water) criterion is met. We all know that it takes energy to crack water to hydrogen. It also takes energy to produce gasoline from oil or ethanol from corn. So that is not necessarily a problem. The source of the primary energy in order to produce hydrogen from water is important as well as the efficiency of conversion. If geothermal or solar heat is used as a primary source for cracking water, then we definitely have a means of providing a source of fuel (hydrogen from water) that does not compete with food production or competes with other industrial activities. The other criterion is efficiency. Does a technology exist that uses solar or geothermal heat with seawater or waste water as a source to produce hydrogen in great abundance at sufficient efficiency to be commercially viable. The good news is that this technology exists. Genesys, LLC, www.genesys-hydrogen.com has such a technology in development that meets your criteria of sustainability. If you check out their web site, you will see that they have made progress towards commercialization of their technology. I think it is one of the more hopeful signs that there are innovative solutions to the problems of peak oil and global warming out there. We must not lose hope.

Good report Gail.

In calculating the utilization cost did you account for the lifetime of windmills 25 yrs, vs. 60 yrs for new nuclear?

Coal plants are designed for a 40 year lifespan, and the average age of U.S. coal plants was 40.7 years in 2007.

If we go with a massive wind and solar construction program, the cost estimates should include the new backup plants that will have to be built to cover intermittency and seasonal variation. Promises of cheap wind and solar power never include these costs. Also include cost of new transmission lines for wind and solar. That would change the cost figures dramatically.

Nuclear plants are more reliable than the coal plants they will replace and do not need backup plants.

Intermittent kWh’s are not nearly as valuable as reliable predictable controllable kWh’s, they should not be treated as if they are interchangeable.

All I did was use the FERC numbers. I presume they used the "correct" life spans to amortize costs over.

I agree that wind has problems with being intermittent. It is also most available at night, when it really isn't needed. It is hard to be a big fan of wind. People make a lot of money with wind sales, construction, etc, which I think helps to make it popular. Without subsidies, I think it would stop quickly.

I knew coal plants were old, but I didn't realize it was quite as bad as an average of 40.7 years.

You may want to reconsider your views on solar and wind (though it does, perhaps violate the low tech criterion) in light of the following: (from: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126990.500-from-ac-to-dc-going-g...)

"However, engineers at Chubu University in Kasugai, Japan, have been testing a 20-metre length of HVDC superconducting cable and they believe it could eventually revolutionise electricity distribution. The team, led by engineer Satarou Yamaguchi, have come up with a new cable design that can be cooled more effectively and store up to 4 megajoules of magnetic energy per kilometre. Use thousands of kilometres of this cable as an HVDC line and it would act as a giant battery, Yamaguchi suggests, helping to smooth the output from solar or wind. Superconducting HVDC cables have been proposed for linking grids on the east and west coasts of the US, as well as to transport electricity generated in the oil-tar fields of Alberta in Canada to southern California."

Thanks! I added a copy of this to my wind file.

I wish it didn't take so long and cost so much to get new technology implemented. It seems like for petroleum technology, it takes an average of 17 years between invention and widespread use. (That is from memory--I need to actually check the National Petroleum Council report Facing Hard Truth's for the exact quote.

"It is hard to be a big fan of wind."

On the positive:
How about high EROEI, very low life cycle emissions of CO2, no water used for cooling, almost no impact on other land or sea uses, very large resources, scalable, capacity growing at compound 30% per year, no weapons of mass destruction concerns, good match of output for re-charging electric cars(complements solar), low financial risk, low technical risks, safer than other energy sources( except solar)

On the negative:
Is technically complex( but is manufactured by many different companies, not dependent on one supplier); so are cars, planes, TV's DVD players, mobile phones.
Production varies at one location but the US and Canada has a grid covering 10million sq km(4,000 x2,500Km) enough to even out most variation.
Requires new grid investment; happening now, needed anyway
Requires a functioning financial system:( what energy source doesn't? new wind farms still being financed)
Requires other sources of power for peak demand; US and Canada have together 170GW hydro capacity, enough to provide peak back-up for 340GW wind capacity. Solar can provide peak power.

Inherent in the poitns made above, + and -, is the idea of maintaining BAU. This is fascinating because so many people here rail over and over that BAU ain't gonna happen and, not only that, can't happen if we'd like to not end up Crispy People Fritters. But the discussions at the theoretical level virtually always default back to future energy = current energy.

Are there not a number of people who post here living on single digit Kw/h/day? If that is not the end goal, are we not wasting our time discussing this at all?

From this frame of reference, why can't wind supply a significant portion of our power? Is it needed all day by all people? Nope. Can micro-production meet most of the needs of many people? Yup. (It does. Right now. As we speak. Er, type.) The same goes for other techs.

What about concentrated solar for the home? While the big production facilities use mirrors, what about fresnel lenses for the home generator?

Got a bicycle? Want to stay in shape? Turn it into a generator. Ride two hours a day and you can have lights for 8 hours.

I can stress hard enough that these discussions really need to morph into comprehensive discussions that consider serious power down, serious localization, serious back yard innovation, etc... and maybe just a little blood, sweat and tears.



"the cost estimates should include the new backup plants that will have to be built to cover intermittency and seasonal variation.Promises of cheap wind and solar power NEVER include these costs. "

See this link, cost of back-up for wind power: $5/MWh( 0.5cents/kWh) That was a first hit on Google, perhaps you mean you have NEVER looked.


You don't invest billions in wind energy without considering ALL costs.
As far as lifetime of turbines goes, 20 years is assumed the minimum for financing, with longer experience of operating the 1-5MW turbines may have a better idea if its 25, 30 , 40years or longer and how much maintenance will be required. Some of the new turbines don't have transmissions, a major source of wear.

That 0.5c per kwh must be idling costs of backup plant, not the extra fuel burn to make up for intermittency. Here's an alternative sample calculation for wind at 25% capacity where we want to output 1 kwe for 4 hours. For every 1 kwh of wind we want 3 kwh of backup on average. Let's make those backup kwh 5c each.

That's 15c of backup per kwh of actual wind, way more than 0.5c.

I suggest you do more research on wind power and intermittent costs. Jerome has some links in his articles on wind energy.
Name plate capacity is relevant for building connections to grid, average power production 90% of the time more relevant. All energy sources can have interruptions, as WA discovered even NG peak power can be cut off for months. Wind power in WA must look very reliable in comparison.

Our studies and experiences show that wind energy integrates effectively and reliably into our power systems with regional market operations to mitigate the impact of wind variability. In these cases even with 25 percent of the electricity on our system from wind we forecast cost for operating system reserves of approximately $5 per megawatt-hour, or roughly ten percent of the cost of the wind energy.

Neil, That is an unsubstantiated statement, where are the calculations, the assumptions and references?

The O&M cost for a coal plant is 3.1 cents/kWhr, of which fuel is 2.4 cents.


Assuming 90% reduction in fuel burn for spinning reserve, the O&M cost of spinning reserve is 0.94 cents/kWhr. Now add the capital cost / kWhr to replace old coal plant fleet, say 5 cents per kWhr, the cost of wind backup power is 5.94 cents per kWhr, and the emissions should be assigned to the windmills.

And that is at the 25% level. France is 80% nuclear. What would the backup cost and emissions be to make the U.S. 80% wind?

By the way, the reference claims Denmark is 20% wind. Actually Denmark’s wind production is equal to 20% of consumption, but they export half of that because they cannot use it all when wind is good. They import hydro and nuclear.

You said
" Promises of cheap wind and solar power NEVER include these costs. "

The link I provided is one of many. This is the full quote
"According to Paul Bonavia, Chief Operating Officer of Xcel Energy, one of the nation's largest electric utility companies: "Wind energy is an integral piece of our power supply portfolio. It provides a hedge against fuel price volatility associated with other forms of electric generation. Our studies and experiences show that wind energy integrates effectively and reliably into our power systems with regional market operations to mitigate the impact of wind variability. In these cases even with 25 percent of the electricity on our system from wind we forecast cost for operating system reserves of approximately $5 per megawatt-hour, or roughly ten percent of the cost of the wind energy. As we gain experience with wind we keep seeking ways to achieve low integration costs."

Some earlier studies in Europe report on initial problems with integrating wind energy, early adopters often have problems, it doesn't mean that they cannot be overcome. Any grid hooking up a wind farm is going to consider costs of integrating.
Your comment:
"The O&M cost for a coal plant is 3.1 cents/kWhr, of which fuel is 2.4 cents."
Not very relevant when we run out of coal or have to close down due to GHG warming.
We were talking about sustainable energy, not ALL energy from wind, not 80% energy from wind, wind needs to be combined with hydro, solar and perhaps nuclear.
Gail has shown that NG and coal capacity are cheaper to build, but wind has almost no operating costs,( apart from the cost of integration) so comparison is not valid. Also neither coal or NG are sustainable >100-1,000 years. Wind is!

So your comment about Denmark illustrates that Europe has a grid larger than a small country like Denmark, the exported wind power means a NG or hydro dam is not operating saving NG and water to be used later. Whats wrong with that?

"The O&M cost for a coal plant is 3.1 cents/kWhr, of which fuel is 2.4 cents."
Not very relevant when we run out of coal or have to close down due to GHG warming.

Neil, windmills depend on conventional plants for free voltage and frequency stabilization and for backup power. Our aging coal plants will be decommissioned long before we run out of coal. What technology are you proposing to build that will do all these things for ½ cent per kWh?

Gail has shown that NG and coal capacity are cheaper to build, but wind has almost no operating costs,( apart from the cost of integration) so comparison is not valid. Also neither coal or NG are sustainable >100-1,000 years. Wind is!

NG, coal and nuclear produce reliable, controllable, stable kWh's, windmills do not so comparison is not valid. Earth will have abundant supplies of uranium and thorium when the sun runs low on fuel.

Denmark has the most expensive electricity in the world at 35 cents per kWh and they use half as much per person as the U.S., about 700 watts. Their 20% wind would be 10% wind in the U.S. after thirty years of massive subsidies, and they release more CO2 per person than France, which ramped up to 80% nuclear in a shorter time span.

the exported wind power means a NG or hydro dam is not operating saving NG and water to be used later. Whats wrong with that?

Nothing wrong with that if you compare the total cost of the kWh's from the whole system, which is quite high. Wind makes sense in the limited case where the fuel saved costs more than the wind power, but nuclear fuel cost is only ½ cent per kWh.

The grid needs three types of stabilization; short term(order of secs to minutes) voltage and frequency stabilization, ramping capacity( mins to 1-2hours) and ability to provide base load and peak kWh's power.

"Neil, windmills depend on conventional plants for free voltage and frequency stabilization and for backup power. Our aging coal plants will be decommissioned long before we run out of coal. What technology are you proposing to build that will do all these things for ½ cent per kWh?"

Coal and nuclear provide base-load power. Hydro provides the best spinning reserve and can ramp very quickly. Hydro can also provide some peak power and can absorb some excess off-peak power using pumped hydro. NG can also ramp and provide peak power. Coal and nuclear are not very good at supplying additional peak power or rapid ramp changes, THEY RELY ON NG AND HYDRO, it's not free, the customers pay.
The customers pay for additional peak power and ramping services by higher peak charges, of the 1,100GW capacity of Canada and US, NG provides 440GWc, hydro 160GWc most of which is used when prices are higher. Neither wind, nuclear or coal pay for NOT supplying additional peak power, they just get less than the hydro and NG suppliers, if they sell on a fixed supply basis.

If all coal is replaced by wind power, their will be two additional costs; the extra cost of generating kWh's by wind( say 5cents rather than 3cents/kWh) and the cost of supplying NG or hydro power at periods when their is low wind power available. If 600GW of wind capacity was built to replace 250GW coal capacity(40%capacity factor for wind), would not need most NG and hydro at some daily peak periods as we ALWAYS do now, but we would sometimes need NG or hydro at times when presently coal provides base-load power. If the 600GW of NG and hydro capacity is not enough to replace wind power and provide peak power then additional capacity would have to be built OR more load could be shifted away from peak demand, using "smart grid", off-peak charging of EV etc. Additional hydro and NG capacity is cheap but power(kWh's) expensive. Extra hydro capacity also provides extra spinning reserve EVEN WHEN NOT generating power.

Wind power will not replace hydro or NG peak capacity just replace the kWh's generated MOST of the time, allowing less NG or water to be used and saving it for peak demand. We could run NG with 0.10(presently 0.2) capacity factor and hydro 0.3(presently 0.45) capacity factor. A lot of the new wind turbine farms in US have 0.4 capacity factor.
Wind power will need a better HV transmission lines for the grid to move both wind and hydro the longer distances. On the upside less coal transport will be needed.

The US and Canada are going to need all the wind and nuclear power they can get, in 2008, wind added 9GWcapacity(3Gwa), NG guessing 5GW capacity(1GWa)?? HOW MUCH DID NUCLEAR ADD?

One of the basic problems with this entire analysis is that it has no context. An inter-disciplinary approach is needed, because a basic underlying question that needs to be answered is: sustainable with respect to what sort of social and economic system? The author seems to assume the existing social system, but there are much better systems that could be developed where some of your criteria for sustainability wouldn't be as relevant.

For example, water. Yes, we are "running out of fresh water," but that is only within the context of a social(and hygienic) system that wastes half or more of our available fresh water by flushing it down the toilet or using it to wash clothes. A social system where people had some scientific understanding of how water can be cleaned and drunk again, would accept "drinking urine" (cleansed, of course) and we wouldn't be filtering our drug-laced urine through our ground-based system. A different social system, in other words, may not have water supply problems.

A different way of inhabiting the earth may also not have as great a need of energy as we do today. We need massive amounts of electricity for air conditioners because of our urban and tropical lifestyles. If we were to live in earth-sheltered dwellings, we could cut out 90% or more of our heating and cooling costs.

I am wondering why geothermal is not included here. Surely that is plentiful, as sustainable as the life of our planet, definitely low-tech--all you need is a pipe full of water and a hole.

And given a search for alternative energy sources that was not limited--prohibited?--by existing models, maybe we could use far, far less energy than we now use. How about earth-based batteries? Easy to make, a couple pieces of wire, and a constant one-volt that could be multiplied easily--for light, if nothing else.

Yes, we are constrained by built infrastructure. It costs a lot to replace it, so that is where our thinking starts.

On fresh water, flushing our toilets is only a tiny part of the problem. We are using a lot of water for irrigation--also for electric power plants.

Geothermal works best in a few places, near active volcanos.

The best bet is renewables.
But a lot depends on our lifestyles.

A 1 Kw peak rooftop solar array(100 square feet) can produce 3-6 kwh per day depending what time of year it is, latitude, etc.
That's a significant amount of energy.
A six foot wind turbine on your roof can produce 1-2 thousand kwh in a year.
Together this is about 1/3 of the electricity an average home uses(3000kwh per year, 8.2 kwh/day).

It's amazing but 8.2 kwh per day is enough energy to lift 1 ton over a mile in the air(including efficiencies).

We are simply using too much electricity!

For example, a Passive house often uses much less than the prescribed 120 kwh/m2-yr of primary energy (of which 18 kwh/m2-yr is for heating and cooling)--some use only about 60 kwh/m2-yr. If that energy comes from the grid it would amount to 23 kwh/m2-yr or for a 1500 square foot home that's 3220 kwh/a.
IOW, a sustainable lifestyle is practical--FOREVER without going back to the Middle Ages.

Can you live without a clothes dryer, dishwasher? Do you need your plasma TV or stay up all night? Could you put off plugging in an appliance for a few hours?

Start thinking positively about a lower energy world.

For most people in today's world this level of energy is normal.

We can do this thing.

And folks, this is the problem....a race downward, to poverty. "We are using too much energy". STOP! It's not how much, its how, and how it's produced. If renewable energy advocates stick with this "use less" (as opposed to just more efficiently) you have lost the argument, everywhere.

Developed countries, already outfitting more efficiency, are not going to allow their utility companies to turn off their AC in the summer time. They are not going to allow them to hand over control of their usage to Big Brother through some fancy "Smart Grid". It's NOT going to happen.

Developing and poor countries want to increase...READ THAT: INCREASE their standard of living: more food, REFRIGERATION 24/7, lights that go on when you turn on the *light switch*, maybe a TV or computer hooked up to the internet, MODERN health care, etc. The *minimum*. Renewables do not promise this, it promises "less". With "less" you get revolutions.

Only conventional sources of power can provide this 24/7. Of these only hydro and nuclear can do this at more or less almost zero carbon out put.

If you look around, this is *exactly* what is going on. People are not going to do with "less" when they are already using almost nothing.


Gail, I think you misunderstand how the power grid works. Power demand is not constant. It varies by time of day and time of year. The reason there is a lot of natural gas capacity sitting around that doesn't generate much is that it is needed to avoid blackouts on hot summer days when everybody has their air conditioning running and demand is high.

As a rule of thumb about 40% of generating plant runs all the time ie baseload. Another 40% cycles on and off every day. The remaining 20% is reserve and provides a margin of capacity to deal with very hot weather, breakdowns and mistakes in demand projections.

NG plant is ideal for reserve because it is cheap to build ($400/kw) and very very cheap to maintain. Coal plants have much higher manning requirements.

For example, CalISO demand today went from 20,000 MW to 27,000 MW. The record demand, on a very hot day a few years ago, was 50,000 MW.

Two final points:

1/I have never seen a good definition of sustainability, so I think you ask a very good question. I would suggest asking, "Could we do this for 1000 years?" If so, it is sustainable.

2/ I like nuclear much more than you do. Fuel supplies are ample. You can reprocess the waste to give uranium and plutonium, which can be used as fresh fuel. You can run enrichment plants more efficiently. You can use thorium. You can try breeder reactors, which 60 times as much energy per kg of uranium. However there is no need for any of that, because uranium supplies are ample and are a very small part of the cost of nuclear generation.

As a rule of thumb about 40% of generating plant runs all the time ie baseload. Another 40% cycles on and off every day. The remaining 20% is reserve and provides a margin of capacity to deal with very hot weather, breakdowns and mistakes in demand projections.

Kind of, sort of. Hydro plays a role as a load following source of mid-load and even peak load generation. In California, that's about 11%. Traditionally, prior to 1999 or so, there were very few plants that went from "on and off everyday". Most plants in the state (I worked at one for 24 years) went from minimum load (about 20% of their rated full load capacity) to full load. The difference in load for each plant, combined with all plants, and what could be "imported" from the Pacific Northwest was our 'reserve'.

These plants were traditional gas fired thermal plants and many, prior to 2000, had dual-fuel capability (nat. gas and oil).

Since the mid-1990s, more and more of the traditional thermal plants have been decommissioned or taken off line and decommissioned or placed on "cold standby" for use for a few weeks in the summer time. They have been replaced by simple or combined cycle gas turbines with an "on/off" capability from zero to full load in usually less than 20 minutes. These are the 'cheap' NG plants talked about.

But what you leave out and what makes the CalISO fearful, is the return of "$9 gas", or 9/mmbtu which would effectively double the cost of running these plants. It's VERY scary that this could happen, even with the down turn economically we are facing.

If load stagnates and even drops, then the incentive to pay generators to simply be on 'stand by' goes down and could create a shakeout.

Ideally, for the state of California (the 6th or 7th largest economy in the world) replacing all base load power (that's about 24,000 MWs including non-ISO territory) with nuclear and established hydro and the mid-load and peak load for GTs. Just a thought.


I think we need to re-look at this whole concept of nuclear waste. Here is a good article that takes a different approach to this dealing with this.


Hmmm...then again, maybe not. Try reading this:


Hi Gail.

Just to echo Schrodinger1's comments. NG power plants are much cheaper to build and can be finished in as little as 18 months, where as a GW coal plant might take several years and cost more. NG can also be spooled up and reach peak efficiency in as little as 1 to 2 hours, where as it can take a coal plant 12 hrs go 36 hrs to reach max. efficiency. As a result, the hierarchy of power in terms of load carrying is

1) Hydro - Lowest down time and most reliable (assuming no water shortages!)
2) Nuclear - Typically up time around 85% to 87%.
3) Coal - Used to carry base load, but down more than top 2.
4) NG - Used for peak power because of fast response

Now, that being said, every region and state has a different mix, depending on its local resources, so the above is not a hard and fast rule.

In terms of wind, the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado did a study in 2008 that showed the U.S. could expand wind generated electricity to 20% by 2030 with only a 2% or so increase in cost over current projections. They accomplished this substituting wind turbines for new fossil fuel power plants. Their cost estimate included the grid to distribute the power.

http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy08osti/42794.pdf - Renewable summary
http://www1.eere.energy.gov/windandhydro/pdfs/41869.pdf - Wind study

In terms of sustainability, the best definition I've heard was from a keynote speech by Robert Kennedy Jr. at a 2006 San Francisco environmental conference (not recorded unfortunately by his request).

For any item, product, service, industrial or social sector:

1) When made, all source materials (including energy) are renewable and produce no lasting pollution
2) When used, the item produces no lasting pollution, resource consumption or env. damage
3) When discarded, it is 100% recyclable

The term "lasting" was used to indicate nothing beyond what ecosystems or the environment can tolerate or absorb without being adversely affected (cumulative effect). This also comes with the obvious caveat that this is balanced from the micro to the macro level.

I do understand about wanting peaking capacity next door.

It is strange how FERC doesn't think Natural Gas is nearly as cheap to build as you do.

The total amount of peaking capacity is amazing. How can we need more natural gas peaking capacity than coal? If natural gas was operated 40% - 40% - 20%, the utilization percentages would be well over double what they are today.


Another dimension to this is geography. Location does matter, one solution doesn't fit all.

For example, I live in the midst of some of the most extensive hardwood forests in the US. I could, if I needed to and had the time, walk with a cart, axe and saw into the forest, cut up a load of wood, take it home, splt it, and burn it in my wood stove. So could most of my neighbors. It makes perfectly good sense for us, and wood is thus arguably our "default" #1 "sustainable" energy supply if all else fails.

On the other hand, wood is not a good option at all for people living in the prairies or deserts. It isn't a good option for people living in large cities, either, even if those cities are situated in the midst of naturally forested lands.

Similar considerations apply for other geographic situations. The southern US, and especially the southwest, is going to be more favorable for solar. The windy prairies, mountain ridges in the west and east, and some offshore coastal areas are going to be most favorable for wind. Geothermal and tidal are very site-specific, but are things not on your list that probably have some potential. Hydro is mostly developed by now, but there are still some micro-hydro sites that could be developed; these are mostly not in the flatlands, but rather in the mountains and hills. Corn ethanol makes no sense anywhere, but ethanol from sweet sorghum or biodiesel from oilseeds has a little better EROI, and might make sense on a small scale for some of the agriculturally-intensive rural areas. Biogas (methane) from municipal and agricultural wastes has a very favorable EROI, and would have come out as one of the top rated alternatives if it had been included on your chart; even this, however, has its limitations.

As for the non-renewables, these are somewhat site-specific as well. IMHO, if we are going to be using coal at all, we really need to be looking at coal gassification, especially developing an in situ process if we can. Then, the gas could be fed into existing NG pipelines and transported over long distances. Absent that, coal is very bulky and heavy to transport, and will be most advantageous for those who are located closest to it. The best case for nuclear can be made for those places that are least well endowed with other options. That's why the French went for the nukes: no oil, no NG, very little coal.

Thus, when it comes to energy I think we really need to get away from thinking in national terms and start to think more in regional, state, and local terms. Each area will have its own optimal mix.

I think you are right. You probably noticed that I said people in areas with coal would probably be inclined to use it, whether you and I think it makes sense or not.

Australian TV ran a story that touched on relocating aluminium smelters from coal intensive Australia to hydro intensive Iceland. While Australians fear loss of jobs Icelanders are worried about their salmon fishing or whatever. All true perhaps but from a global perspective it makes sense.

Everybody wants to protect their patch even though some sacrifice may raise the overall global benefit. I guess industrial relocation for energy resource reasons is another version of the tragedy of the commons.

Overall, I give this work a B- respect to technical content, but an "A" fo effort, and for having put it forward as an idea which has generated lively discussion and served as a point of departure for further discussion.

The lower grade for technical content, Gail, is due primarily for having left out promising technologies (fuels) under development, which have the promise of radically altering the panorama of the options you have attempted to chisel into stone. Convective Available Potential Energy alone dissipated in the atmosphere is 6000 times the mechanical energy man produces. And this doesn't include the low-grade heat in seawater that could serve as an energy source.

What I am referring to, of course to the AVE technology which is described at http://vortexengine.ca and which I have brought to the attention of this group previously. This technology can be developed within two years with but a tiny fraction of the investment costs of competing technologies, and could penetrate the industry up to 50% within a decade. While primarily a generator of electricity, this could penetrate the heating market as well by utilization of heat pumps.

As a "conditional" entry I give you my evaluation for the AVE under the various categories you have proposed here: Low Carbon, 3; Low Water, 3; Sufficient Fuel, 3; Low Tech/Imports, 3; New capacity cost, 3. This gives a total of 15, wiping out all of the competition, except perhaps, wood (biomass) which you have admitted there is not enough of. I also give it a 3 for distribution, since it can be generated just about everywhere, obviating the need for long transmission lines; a 3 for availability at time of day most needed, and a 3 for its beneficial side effects and potential for use as a geo-engineering tool.

It is our responsibility as temporary guardians of the planet to "leave no stone unturned" in our quest for a solution to both the energy crisis and Global Heating (imbalance in the earth's energy budget). Louis Michaud, P.Eng. is responsible for developing the AVE idea, but people in the industry seem perpetually inclined to walk past this idea (stone with an X on it, and someone jumping up and down, pointing and screaming "LOOK UNDER THIS STONE!!!")

This seems to have given added truth to the expression that says, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

Given the possibility of becoming unbelievable rich by supporting or buying into this technology, as well as the obvious clues as to its viability given by nature, I can't understand what the cause of the "blind spot" people have with regard to it might be. It seems especially entrenched in those who have consistently staked out a negative position with regard to the "Woe are We--Doom and Gloom mindset."

Again, I expect E-P, the "designated debunker" to respond to this without being able to tell you why it can't work (as always), but "pay no attention to the man behind that curtain", if you hope to save the planet.

May the AVE-Force be with you. (ref: http://vortexengine.ca)

I am afraid I am not an expert in all of these things. When a person introduces an idea, they don't usually try to flesh out every nuance.

To me sustainable practice is one that can be carried out until the sun burns out.

But I think most people think of sustainable as being something that can be carried out throughout their lifetimes and possibly also the lifetimes of their living descendants.

How sustainable would farming be in Canada during the next ice age? So should Canadians not farm. Don't worry about CO2 in atmosphere, it will all be gone in 50,000 years due to chemical weathering and release of Ca and CaCO3 precipitation.

Continents, oceans are going to be long gone well before the sun burns out, even billions of years earlier before the sun swells and fries off the atmosphere.

We can project the effects of CO2 released having an effect on sea level and temperature for next 1000-5000 years. Some cities have been occupied for >3,000years, that seams a reasonable time to consider if a practice is sustainable.
On that basis cutting down a 300 year old forest is sustainable IF we then wait 300 years for it to grow back AND IF this can be done 10 times. On that basis a lot of agriculture is sustainable provided a long rest period is used to restore soil organic carbon, create new soil A horizon from subsoil. World population is too high to have that rest period, but if it declines to <1Billion probably that would allow 90% of agriculture land to be resting, regenerating.

The exceptions in agriculture would be river valleys where periodic floods restore fertility or volcanic regions where eruptions restore soil fertility, basically these will be sustainable as long as rivers flood or volcano's are active, perhaps 100,000 years BUT not for >millions.

How sustainable would farming be in Canada during the next ice age? So should Canadians not farm.

We will have to adapt to what nature throws at us. When it comes to the problems we cause ourselves, we should be able to do better.

I guess "sun burns out" is too far out. I will change it to "until life on earth is no longer possible".

Since farming in Canada and the Ice Age are not related I would consider farming sustainable.

Good point about the old growth forests. But with population growth the pressure is always on to pave over any clear cut forest.

Years ago in certain areas of America they used to separate out garbage (food waste) from regular trash. The garbage would be given to farm animals to eat. It is questionable whether that could be done now for producing material to refresh farmland, as Americans cannot be counted on to completely keep non-garbage out of the garbage stream, but it's a thought.

They have tried using sewage to fertilize fields but apparently there are some real problems with that as toxic materials are also sent down the drain.