Geophysicist Klaus Lackner on Fueling the Future

Last night I attended a lecture at a nice Upper West Side Restaurant by Geophysicist Klaus Lackner as part of Columbia University's Cafe Science series of science talks. He got right into by saying that that we are running out of oil, have probably hit the peak or close to it. But, he added, but there are plenty of energy sources around - specifically coal, uranium and solar. The trick is transitioning now in a responible manner. And he thinks that the best way to do so it by taxing or capping carbon emissions and developing a real plan for nuclear waste disposal.

This lecture was geared for the well educated lay person so he offered generalities on major subjects with only vague estimates of the numbers involved. Below is a brief outline of his lecture, which is not to say that he doesn't have hard numbers to back all this up, he just did not hand them out for us to write down. Still it would be interesting to follow up with his sources at some point.

He set up the problem of finding a renewable source of energy that could potentially meet the world's current energy needs all by itself. He then listed out all the various "renewable" energy sources: Solar, Wind, Tidal, Geothermal, Biomass & River Hydro. He made a fairly convincing case that even if you exploited all the available Wind, Tidal, Geothermal, Biomass and River Hydro, you could not scale it all up to meet more than a large fraction of worldwide demand for energy. And it was not a matter of technology for those, since there are physical limits that each of these meet eventually that cap their overall scale of impact. Furthermore getting too good at stopping the wind and water flows could have dramatic impacts on the environment itself.

However, he said that solar was the only renewable potential source of energy capable of scaling up to meet energy demands and that the technology was getting much better, similar in efficiency gains as the early computer technology. So for renewable, he would bet the farm on solar being the best long term investment.

But he said that we should not dismiss the potential of coal and uranium to meet our energy needs either, at least for the next 200-300 years. After that, he could not begin to imagine what technologies might be available. The trick is dealing with coal's carbon output and uranium's potential for proliferation into the wrong hands.

He talked about the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the case for human activity causing global warming, which he thinks is a major threat over the next 50-100 years, especially if we go from current 380ppm to 500-800ppm. He strongly believes that if we were to tax carbon output at it's source or cap output through a trading system we could create a whole new economic incentive for reducing carbon output. This is where he put forth some interesting ideas that I guess he has worked on himself about sequestering carbon from fixed sources (like power plants) and storing it under ground or below the ocean floor. He also thinks that pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere directly might work to offset non-fixed sources (like automobiles run on gasoline). That sounds a little like fantasy right now, but given that there is currently zero incentive to take carbon out of the air, it's not hard to imagine that with some strong incentives, this might not be possible.

Turning to uranium, he stated that there is a limited supply of uranium assuming you use it once and dispose of the spent fuel. But if you use breeder reactors and other ways of reusing fuel to create more and reuse it again and again, you can magnify the limited supply to be 10-100x as large as currently estimated. The problem is where to store the waste and the risk of plutonium proliferating to the wrong folks. He thinks again we should look far beneath the Earth (and far away from water sources) to store the nuclear waste, but also consider places like Yucca mountain to be a good temporary option until we find a good final resting place. Anti-proliferation efforts should be increased dramatically to be as strict and enforcable as possible.


Editor's Comments: This was certainly an interesting lecture. He made the case better for solar and carbon taxes and against the other renewables as well as I have heard before, if not better. That gave me a fair bit of hope. I was however underwhelmed with the feasibility of long term nuclear storage and carbon sequestration - I would love to see more specifics on these issues. But all in all a great speaker on energy issues. He brought a welcome sense of scale and proportion back to the debate in my mind over the way forward. torage.htm

is the most authoritative document on carbon sequestration.

In short:

- yes it's economic, if you put a reasonable price on carbon emissions either via a tax, or a 'cap and trade' system

It would probably add c. 2 cents per KWH to your electricity bill (that's me summarising, a closer read of the report might give you a better view)

- the big problem is we don't know where to put the CO2 once we capture it:

  - geologic storage may only defer the problem (geological formations leak) and could pose a significant safety risk (I can hear NIMBY coming a mile off).  But the fact that we have all these empty oil and gas fields gives confidence that the problems are solvable.

  - oceanic storage is entirely speculative, we would need to do a lot more work on the consequences for marine ecology

The Economist this week has a fantastic special section on global warming.

is the editorial leader, there is a 12 page special section in the magazine.

When the raving Marxists at the Economist say Global Warming is of concern, the game is over for corporate America.
"there is a 12 page special section in the magazine." is actually 24 pages. Huge by Economist standards.

Actually, it is standard by Economist standards. Their regular mid-section surveys, of which the climate change survey was one, are always about 24 pages.

That doesn't take away from the significance of the magazine committing resources to the topic and their reasonable conclusions.

So, is this good MSM or bad MSM? Is this a superficial 24 page treatment of climate change? If the MSM avoid contentious issues just to sell advertising space, then what happened here? Won't this rare bit of truth set the sheeple shaking on their hooves?

Please help me out, I find these sweeping generalizations and plot theories so difficult to follow.

Just below the Citgo pop-up television screen ad are these mixed messages: (clever pop-out ad by the way)

the costs of climate change are unknown, the benefits of trying to do anything to prevent it are, by definition, unclear. What's more, if they accrue at all, they will do so at some point in the future. So is it really worth using public resources now to avert an uncertain, distant risk, especially when the cash could be spent instead on goods and services that would have a measurable near-term benefit?

Thought control?
Paid-for by whom?
Everything is "unclear" in the land of the fog heads.

I am not disputing that companies, governments etc. are spending money to influence people's thoughts. I agree that oil's attempted undermining of awareness of climate change is reprehensible.

But elevating the MSM to public enemeny number one often just means only listening to those you already agree with.

It's nuance, man. Haven't we had this same discussion before - or did I just get a glimpse of ther matrix?

who said MSM is an enemy?

they perform a service by bringing the sponsor's messages to the public.  ;-)

Not to put too fine a point on it, but we have many rulers.

The Agency "embraced more than 800 news and public information organizations and individuals." --CIA's 3-Decade Effort to Mold the World's Views, New York Times, 12/25/77

"The final Church report was a disappointment, having been audited by the CIA. A subsequent House investigation was suppressed, though a leak it was published in the Village Voice. The House report indicated that Reuters news service was frequently used for CIA disinformation, and that media manipulation may have been the "largest single category of covert action projects taken by the CIA."" Neoconservatism: a CIA Front?

Operation Mockingbird is what you want to read about.

The CIA and its tentacles into the MSM.

Unbelievable in its range and depth. We are truly sheeple in this regard.

I unplugged my dish satellite the very day my wife left the farm. It only plays DVD movies now.

I wonder if carbon taxes are really going to work as well as people think.

The benchmark value I often see quoted is $100 per ton of carbon, equivalent to about $30 per ton of CO2 (because CO2 is about a third carbon). Now, actually I think this is an overestimate of the true costs to the world in terms of greenhouse warning. I found a study a while back that compared over 100 separate analyses of the estimated marginal cost of carbon over the course of this century, and the median value was only $14 per ton of carbon:

But even if we use the higher value of $100/tC, that corresponds to only about 20 cents per gallon of gasoline. Does anyone really think that a 20 cents per gallon tax is going to dramatically change people's behavior? We see fluctuations of greater than that amount all the time. Gasoline has fallen by over 50 cents a gallon in the past few weeks. A 20 cent per gallon tax is going to have very little impact on people's energy usage.

And yet, this is the amazing $100 per ton carbon tax which people think is going to save the world, drive sequestration, promote conservation, encourage alternatives, and have all of these wonderful effects. I don't think so.

Next time someone tells you that a carbon tax or carbon trading is going to fix things, just keep in mind this 20 cents per gallon figure. And maybe also take the economic estimates I linked to above into consideration, which implies a 3 cent per gallon gasoline tax as the economically optimal level. That's not going to change a thing.

I don't think the costs of GW are the only costs people would include.  There's security/military, direct pollution, occupational health costs, etc.

Some recent estimates of the cost of GW would be higher, I suspect, as estimates of the speed and impact of GW rise.

You have to be careful on 'consensus' costs of Global Warming.

Because the range of temperatures, and consequences, is a probability distribution, it's not possible to say 'global warming is going to cost us $100bn'.  the right hand half of the curve includes a number of possibilities which are of such great concern as to justify radical action.

Because it might cost us civilisation.  We don't know what the planet would be like if sea levels were 6 metres higher (what's the cost of relocating the US Eastern Seaboard, and London?).  One major Katrina-style disaster in say, NYC or London, could cost $100bn+.

And we don't know what the world would be like if, say, the Amazon dies.  or the sub permafrost methane is released rapidly (it happened once before, about 50 million years ago, and 90% of the species on the planet died).  

Or what the costs of 2 billion people migrating out of uninhabitable equatorial areas are.  

In terms of the 'necessary' level of carbon taxation, the picture is unclear.  Since we don't tax carbon emissions, no effort is made to reduce them.  Yet the evidence from previous effluent taxes, eg on water, is that economic agents can reduce output by 90%+ in some cases.

Also there may be cheap ways of increasing the uptake and sequestration of CO2.

So high price elasticity activities will follow first.  Consuming gasoline is a low price elasticity of demand activity: it may be the case that much higher price changes are needed there to change behaviour (but improving standards for fuel economy may help).

It might be better to use a 'cap and trade' system, which has the advantage of producing a quantitative limit on CO2 emission.  Such a system has the advantage of not putting a tax in the hands of government, that might be tempted to use it for economically inefficient purposes.

Either way, the increasing evidence of rapid global warming, species extinction, and the 'right hand' of the distribution of possible outcomes, means we are going to have to do something, do something dramatic, and sooner rather than later.

I would happily settle for a century's worth of time lag on CO2 emissions.  In 2100 one way or another we're only going to be burning 25% of the fossil fuel we are now.
I hate to be a party pooper on the solar cost business, but to say that solar is now at a stage similar to the computer industry in its infancy is simply wishful thinking.  Increases in computer capacity have roughly followed Moore's law, i.e., doubling processor throughput roughly every 18 months.   The outcome is that one can get twice as much computer power for the same price by waiting 18 months.  Solar hasn't behaved like this at all - it depends upon the surface area of the silicon, not how many transistors one can jam on a given piece of silicon.  Because of this, the price of solar has remained roughly constant over the past 5 years - see

Of course, this all could change due to thin films, nanotechnology, etc., but that is more or less the same as saying that cellulosic ethanol will save the day for oil depletion - the potential is there, but the devil is in the details (i.e., scaling up to the necessary levels).

" the price of solar has remained roughly constant over the past 5 years"

The price has stayed high, even going up some, but costs have been falling consistently.

How can that be?  Silicon production hasn't expanded as fast as demand, so Si prices have jumped to ration supply.  Similarly, cell production hasn't expanded as fast as demand, so cell prices have jumped to ration supply.  So, while costs throughout the supply chain continue to fall exponentially, prices are rising and profit margins are skyrocketing.

Supply is doubling every two years, while demand is growing even faster.  That's why it looks like Moore's law.

I'd very much like to see that calculations for each energy source.

Wind potential in the US has been estimated as higher than current total production, but the US may be much better off than most of the rest of the world.

The world-wide estimate is 72 terawatts.

For the uninitiated, that's about 2150 quads of pure electricity.  Current human energy consumption (raw, not final) is ~400 quads/year from all sources.

Good info.

World electricity generation averages about 1.6 terawatts and the Stanford estimate is an average, not a peak, so the worldwide wind potential is 45 times the average electricity usage!  Total energy usage is only about 2.5 times the electrical usage (IOW, electricity is 40% of the total), so total wind energy is 18 times total human energy use.  Doesn't sound like a practical limit to me.

The difference between my ratio, and E-P's ratio of about 5 to 1 is that in effect I used final energy, rather than raw, which seems more useful for comparison purposes.

Interesting that the Stanford study finds quite a lot of very high wind potential in the American South-East, an area that is often described as not having much wind potential.  The difference seems to be that this includes off-shore wind.

I talked with an insider about solar PV just yesterday.  He said that there is way too much hype there, totally unjustified by the facts on the ground.  Sure, he said, you can make a tiny multijunction cell with 35% efficiency in the lab, but to do it in large numbers at reasonable cost is not yet in sight, or anywhere near it.  He also said that those high efficiency cells degrade fast when exposed to many suns, as their advocates say they should be used.

On the other hand, another solar technology that is real, here now, and intrinsically much cheaper is being ignored by everybody.  The NASA space power free piston stirling engines can put out an honest 35% efficiency right now, and do so for decades, as is required by the NASA space missions.  And they don't use any exotic materials or processes.

So why no talk about that????

So why no talk about that?

Talk is all there is about stirling.   Show me some shipping engines that are mass produced at a good price point.

Well, Eric, talk is all there is about high efficiency multijunction PV, at least when it comes to my buying some down at the hardware store, no?  So we might say they are neck and neck with stirlings, yes?

No, I don't think so.  Reasons.  1) look at the $ invested in the two. Maybe (guessing) at absolute minimum 100/1.  2) Look at the basic physics of the two- lots of quantum miracles trembling on the wings of angels vs mere 19th century newtonian iron.  3) boots on the ground (or in space) NASA and the Army are going for stirlings in a big way.  They know all about quantum dots and such stuff, And in the recent Army portable power JP-8 shootout, stirlings won going away,right  here and  right now, and fuelcells, thermophotovoltaics and the rest were but nowhere-ten years from now.

I spend my time thinking about power for the people in a fossil-free world, the while trying to be true to my sainted professors, and I keep coming up with little steam turbines, IC engines running on moonshine, and stirlings running on anything including sun.

PV does have one huge and maybe overwhelming advantage- lots and lots  of thoughtless VC money in it. Where do they find all those thoughtless VC's???

So we might say they are neck and neck with stirlings, yes?

Not at all.   You have talk from KAmen - no shipping engine.   You have talk from
No shipping engine.   You have a price reduction of $20,000 on the whipsergen.

Yet, where are the shipping stirling gens at reasonable pricing?   (because $5000 for an oil burning stirling isn't a bargin.)

Perhaps the military sourcing (using tax dollars) will lead to cheaper civilian stirlings.

Eric.  Can you tell me where I can buy a "reasonably priced" triple junction 35% PV with concentrator?

I'll bet Kamen is feeling like a fool for not going with a free piston instead of that very ordinary crank he cooked up, containing all the problems everybody knew about for maybe 50 years.

It's easy to find examples of stupid stirlings, there are lots of them.  But look at NASA space power stirlings.  They are not stupid.

What about the Boeing/Spectrolab cells?  I haven't seen pricing, but they're starting to be used for terrestrial applications, and I assume that they're in concentrators.
Eric.  Can you tell me where I can buy a "reasonably priced" triple junction 35% PV with concentrator?

Err, why do I need a 'concentrator' when Unisolar has been selling their triple-junction cells for years w/o a concetrator?   Well?  (it looks to me like you are trying to toss out a herring to distract the readers from understaing how few stirlings are shipping)

I've asked you to respond in the past when you've been pimp'n stirlings.  And, well, you havn't.  Rather than addressing the lack of low-cost stirlings (like the omnachron claims) or even how a known working design (the ST-5) isn't able to be bought anymore....your reply is 'show me where a triple junction with concentrator is'?

Come on.   Where are the low-cost stirling engines?   Or, how about cost competitive enngines?


Come on.   Show the readers where the solar powewred stirlings are able to be bought.   becuae I can put down $$ and get a triple jkunction from unisolar.

Eric.  I made a long reply trying to answer your perfectly good question, but it seems to have got lost somewhere.  If it does not show up, I'll repeat it later.
FAQ'S--Why are stirling engines not on the market?

Stirling Disadvantages- they need high temperature metals, high pressure gas, preferably helium or hydrogen; crank stirlings have severe problems with  wear, oil contamination, power variation and working gas leaks. Free piston stirlings have been made only in relatively small sizes for special purposes.

Advantages- very quiet, vibration-free, efficient, able to use any heat source,  have very long life in the free piston configuration.

Competition- If a user is satisfied with a Honda genset, or a Toyota sedan, or a Cummins diesel truck,  and is willing to accept a fuel price rise, then stirlings offer no advantage. They cannot compete with IC engines in first cost, power density, or even efficiency, relative to a good diesel.

But if there is a need to use biomass, or isotope heat, or sunlight, then stirlings might be advantageous. NASA, for example, presently rates the free piston-linear alternator stirling as the leading candidate for space power using plutonium isotope heat source.

Until recently, the cost of oil has been so low that stirlings had little appeal  relative to much cheaper IC engines, and there has been low demand for solar or biomass energy generation. And little money had been devoted to their development.  By far the greatest amount, some 500 million dollars, was expended during the automotive stirling effort up to about 1990. Despite intense efforts by Ford, GM and United Stirling, crank stirlings could not be made to compete- they had short life, high cost, mediocre efficiency and intractable problems with power control, wear and leaks.

The present is different for two major reasons- the cost of oil has risen, giving solar and biomass some appeal, and most important, the NASA  success with space stirling coolers and engines (both free piston) has justified new hope in their application to  renewable energy sources, especially solar.

But these are recent events.  There has been too little time for industry to respond by producing affordable engines.  Hence, we cannot buy them for the most basic of reasons- to this date they have not been considered a profitable investment by manufacturers.

Wimbi, I know you love Stirling engines. Here's an article in Wired which mentions Stirlings on pages 2 and 3. But the company decided to go with a mirror/concentrator system...
Wimbi is to solar stirling
ALanofBigEasy is to trains

Keep up the good work Wimbi !!
You're my inspiration.

To repeat my mantra, all of this is a waste of time unless the growth paradigm (population, resource use, also put to bed - which I think will be harder and more complex than all the energy issues.

I'm in agreement with you that population explosion and social /cultural stagnation are the Pink Elephants in the middle of our living room.

The solar business is a good way of making finite bounds understandable.

At high noon the best one can hope for is 1kWatt of incident energy per sqaure meter (that's a mere ten 100 watt light bulbs for each 3 foot by 3 foot parcel of land if you need to think of it that way.)

However, since conversion efficiencies are so poor, even at a wondeful 25% efficency we are quickly down to 250 watts per square meter (two 100 watt bulbs and a 50 watter) being squeezed out of that 1m^2 parcel of land (or rooftop). And that is only at high noon on a cloudless, pollution free day.

On the other hand, it's far far better to design new, emission-free solutions rather than sitting around and becrying the overbreeding problem day and night. The crying game gets us nowhere.

If you can get 250 W/m^2 out of a panel and you cover a 100 m^2 roof with them, your peak power is 25 kilowatts.  Your average power might be as much as 5-6 kilowatts.

Even 5% efficiency would take a huge bite out of net electric consumption if it was cheap enough per watt.  Our problem isn't efficiency, that's for sure; it's cost and lifetime.

EP --I know there is a part of you that is on our side. What is the COST of continuing to pump CO2 into the atmosphere? What is the lifetime of our grandchildren if we poison the air now? How much carbon dioxide does it take to generate and transmit a KiloWatt of electricity to a home appliance from a coal-fired electric plant? How can we generally accept accounting (GAAP) that does not account for these costs?
I understand that only too keenly, and I have proposed schemes to fix it.

What you don't seem to realize is that expense is a proxy for resource inputs.  If solar costs too much without its externalities of production accounted for, it's going to be even more expensive if they are.  (Of course, coal will rise considerably more.)

EROEI considerations currently favor wind over solar; energy return on a land-based wind farm may be as little as 0.26 years.

The funny thing is, that the growth paradigm IS being put to bed, in terms of population and resource use.

Population growth globally is stabilizing.  Some people argue that it will stabilize at a level (about 9B) that is higher than the Earth's carrying capacity, but it's not heading out for perpetual growth.

Same thing for resource consumption.  For instance, per Alan the US now puts out only 2.4% more CO2 from liquid fuels than it did 30 years ago, despite roughly a doubling in GDP (and France, for instance, puts out 30% less, despite substantial GDP growth).  Similarly, car sales are only a bit higher than they were 30 years ago, despite much higher population (due to immigration, not the birth rate).  In general US resource consumption is stabilizing.

Now, you can argue that the whole world can't imitate the US in getting to the same levels of resource consumption (and clearly in the simplest terms that's correct), but it's not the same problem as perpetual growth.

It's funny - both the cornucopians and the anti-growth people are arguing about a problem (perpetual growth) that doesn't really exist in the terms in which it's often put.

I have switched to PV, and while I wouldn't trade it for the grid, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to just everyone.

The cost is astronomical, in comparison to the grid. Our system produces less than a kilowatt hour per day, (which the grid sells for 15 cents), at a cost of over two grand.

plus, the support is very poor; unless you pay a heap to a contractor, you basically have to research and design it and maintain it yourself. And, worst of all, all the "experts" disagree about battery characteristics (equalization, etc.), about how to lay out a PV system, etc. etc. etc. It's really quite vexing.

It suits my personality (I studied electronics for a semester and a half, and I'm very good at doing the math in my head). But for someone of very limited technical knowledge and skills, it might be very challenging.

But having designed a comfortable lifestyle for my wife and myself that uses less than a KWH/day, I can confidently state that the VAST majority of residential electrical energy used is wasted. Our society can, without significent sacrifice, cut it's electricity usage in half. But there is no desire to do so until costs get much higher than they are at present.

For a quarter century I have had conversations with environmentalist friends (who rail about mountaintop removal for coal, for instance), about simply turning off lights they aren't using. It's rare that behavior changes as a result.

Beliefs about the outer world rarely seem strong enough to force change; often times huge energy bills don't provoke change either; they just whine about how much it costs. And blame the providers of energy for gouging.

So you paid about $50,000 system cost per actually delivered steady state kilowatt.  Better than my friend down the road who paid $63,000  PV system cost per delivered kilowatt averaged over a year.

Compared to maybe $1000 system cost per delivered kilowatt for a big fossil fueled power plant, or $300 for a diesel.

But all this is nuts.  How much juice do we throw away on big signs urging me to buy soda pop, which I detest?  Or you-name-it pet wasteful caper offering us a destroyed planet in return for some sort of rotgut or rotsoul? As I said, time for a change of species.

Ah, well, maybe my home power stirling will work tomorrow. I'll let y'all know.

"Compared to maybe $1000 system cost per delivered kilowatt for a big fossil fueled power plant"

It sounds like he has a very small off-grid, battery system.

You'd expect it to be much more expensive: it's standalone, and it's very small.  Beyond that, for the central plant you have to add a lot of other costs: system overhead, capacity factor (a natural gas plant may be cheap, but it doesn't run that much), transmission, fuel, etc, etc.

Solar PV costs about $.25 all told, and utility costs average $.10 in the US.  About half the PV cost is for the support structure, installation, etc, which ideally would be eliminated by making PV a standard item on new construction and making the PV the roof itself, instead of an expensive retrofitted additional layer.

The last step is to reduce the cost of the PV itself, which is happening.  Already PV is cost-competitive in parts of California, and in Japan, and PV is doubling every two years, and demand is growing even faster.  It's at a tipping point of hyper-exponential growth now.  As costs fall it's area of cost-competitiveness will spread, and it will be unstoppable.

Actually, it's not as bad as all that. My former electricity bill was $25/month, which means the system pays for itself in 7 years.
But if you only cut your use to 1 KWH/day (my hat off!), and stayed on the grid, your grid bill would have been much lower.  What's the right way then to compute the pay-off time for the PV system?  Also, after 7 years you'll need to replace the batteries.

There are many ways we could use fairly benign government regulations (imposed on utilities) to encourage people to conserve electricity.  E.g., about 30% of my bill (for about 7 KWH/day) is the fixed monthly amount (before the first KWH).  If the utility was forced to fold their fixed costs into the KWH charge, that would encourage people like me to cut back further.  A per-KWH cost that escalates with the consumption level would be better yet, to encourage the high-users to cut back.  So would time-of-day rates to reduce the peak demand.  

Finally, grid-tied distributed renewable (solar, wind, hydro, biomass) generation is far more efficient than off-the-grid systems that rely on expensive, high in embedded-energy, short-lived, polluting batteries.  (Alas, currently the grid-tie unit itself is still fairly expensive, perhaps mass-production of those would help.)  Regulations should force the utilities to buy all surplus power from small-scale grid-tied renewable systems.  That may already be the case in some states, but not here in Vermont for example (our "net metering" law is not what its name seems to mean).  I don't think the utilities should be required to buy such power at retail cost, though, as they spend the money on distribution.  Either use some reasonable rate that is lower than retail, or else subsidize that purchase by charging the other customers more -- that's a policy decision.

Note: the efficiency of grid-tied microgeneration is due to the grid infrastructure already being there.  Where it does not exist, either people should not be building a house (live off-grid and commute by 4WD?), or, in parts of the world where people live already but without a grid, the energy cost of building the grid may not be worth it, not sure.  In a thread yesterday talking about "peak copper", Alan from the Big Easy said that transmission lines are made of aluminum.  Is that true for the neighborhood (lower voltage) parts too?

AFAIK, all new distribution wiring and utility feeders to the meter are aluminum today.  (Lots of older feeders were copper).  Steel wires sometimes mixed in for extra strength.

Also, nickel iron batteries (only 1.2 V/cell) can last for a half century.  Rare & expensive AFAIK.

But having designed a comfortable lifestyle for my wife and myself that uses less than a KWH/day, I can confidently state that the VAST majority of residential electrical energy used is wasted. Our society can, without significent sacrifice, cut it's electricity usage in half. But there is no desire to do so until costs get much higher than they are at present.

That's the key.

Sure wish I had as much hard evidence as Alan does!  Always loved trains.  So civilized compared to sitting in my own little stinker cussing the guys rushing by me  in their own little stinkers.
Thanks, JN2, I saw that a while ago.  The guy tried a little crank engine. Not the way to go!  Why does everybody have to do his own thing instead of just taking what other people have busted their guts over for generations?  All he has to do is steal or maybe even buy one of those NASA engines and go home happy.

Make a little bet here.  The Chinese, with lots of brains and even more cash, are gonna run off with the whole solar show in no time, leaving us Amero- Europeans in poverty and disgrace--well deserved, by the way.

A link to NASA's Stirling engine research is here:

A fairly recent article about Dean Kamen's stirling
"Furthermore getting too good at stopping the wind and water flows could have dramatic impacts on the environment itself."

This is something I think deserves more attention.  We are already concerned about GW.  If we massively shift to wind in the next 100 years, the energy which had previously created our weather is now running our computers.  What would be the effect of this.  Same thing for solar.

There really is no free lunch.

Lackner did distinguish between these two. Wind he said, could really effect weather systems because they would be concentrated near high wind corridors and if you actually removed all that air movement, you could really mess things up a bit for the weather. Same for tidal power.

But for solar, he is less worried because it's really just absorbing heat in one place and then releasing it somewhere nearby a little later.

Problems I see with solar, for which people may have already discovered solutions, but I don't know:

  1. environmental costs of solar panel production.
  2. displacing surface area

#2 touches on this - the solar panels have to go somewhere, and if they're taking up surface area that was doing something else, it could be a problem.  For example, you can't rip up a forest and replace it with solar panels.  You similarly can't go plant the panels all over the desert, either, since deserts are also immensly diverse ecosystems.  You can plant solar panels all over any human-made surface that was going to be there anyway, but if you take away my windows, by gosh I'll yell! ;-)

CO2 in the atmosphere is our biggest concern and we need to reduce it, and I think solar is probably the best way to go for replacing much of our energy needs - but as was said, there really is no free lunch, these things will have costs, too.  Which is why reduction & conservation is so important!

Now, if we can figure out a good way to store & transport energy, someday we can put solar cells in far away places and harvest the energy intermittently...  Maybe in the arctic regions where so much energy is just reflected back into space and nothing lives there anyway?

After that, just put them on the moon like people have dreampt of.  Or just out in space itself.  We could create a ring of solar panel stations just above Earth's orbit and harvest them in turn throughout the year...  But then will we be stealing energy from the rest of the solar system, causing interplanetary ecological disaster?

" You can plant solar panels all over any human-made surface that was going to be there anyway, but if you take away my windows, by gosh I'll yell! ;-)"

There's enough roof area in the US to provide 100% of electrical generation from PV.

You can use transparent dye-cell PV for windows, if you want, but it's not necessary to get enough surface area.

Cover the malls, Wal-Mart, houses, parking lot structures, etc. Serves extra duty of providing shade and reducing AC demand.
Yeah.  And eventually integrate it as a standard part of new buildings and roofs, to greatly reduce costs.
"Problems I see with solar, for which people may have already discovered solutions, but I don't know:

1 environmental costs of solar panel production.
2 displacing surface area."

#1 is significant, since PV cells are doped with toxic heavy metals. A lot of mining, toxic waste production and embedded energy goes into making PV cells. Plus, you can count on them losing 1% of their power each year.

#2 is not significant. I know certain people talk about providing x% of the countries power needs by covering a sparsely populated SW county with PV cells.

Well, I have bought a PV system and mounted it on my roof; it does't take much energy, but costs a good deal of money. Plus, I live in one of those SW counties, and when I go on a long drive I think about trying to cover that much area with PV cells. It is utterly ridiculous. I don't believe it can be done. What's more, I am certain it will NOT be done.

Probably the way to go is covering rooftops with some future thin film PV material. Even that will be a challenge.

A basic problem is that PV is uneconomic in places like Oregon even with tax subsidies.  For example, a modest 1.5kw system generates:

kilowatts/hour    1.5
solar hours/day    4.5  <- inland Oregon
kwh/day        6.75
kwh/year      2,464

installed cost: 7,000 (ignoring tax rebate)
retail kwh rate:  .08
payback period:   29 years (with tax credit of $1,500)
                  36 years (no tax credit)

This modest system requires 200 sq feet of roof space, a non-trival area, assuming using amorphous panels (4x5' each).

While stealing solar energy may not be a disaster, the other energy required to manufacture and install current solar systems is significant and probably negative net energy.

Sorry, but you assumed the system would actually deliver at its peak rating of 1.5kW.  Way too much.  Around here (eastern midwest) a PV usually actually delivers only about 1/10 its peak, averaged over the day and year, so your system here would deliver 8760 times 0.15 or 1300 kW-hrs per year- about half what you said. As I remember, Oregon is pretty drippy sometimes.

A PV delivers its "peak" rating only at high noon pointed at the sun in a clear sky.  This misleading rating is just one of the many frauds thereunto associated.

I sound like a meany solar-hater.  Far from it, would love to have real solar become real.  But so far, a long long way to go.  What gets me is all this fibbing  by the solar salesguys. Does not help!


I'm in California near Sacto and love my nominal 3 kW system. We have generated about 7,300 kW in 1 yr 9 mos, essentially all our needs. At PGE baseline rates around .12 per kW, it will take 15 yrs to pay us back - if there is no further rate increase. Panels have a 25 year guarantee and we plan to stay and use them well past that. At the top tier PGE rate of .35, they would pay in 5 years. This is all after state rebates, etc. Our retirement power is already paid for - no worry about rate increases, etc.
Interesting.  That gives your year average delivery as about 0.15 times your system rated power, about what my eastern US 0.1 times rated would predict for more sunny climes.

So  we can say that the owner can expect maybe between 1/10  and 1/7 the peak rated power, for purposes of estimation of kW-hrs/yr.

That is, if the peak rating is 3kW, and the system is in LA, then he can expect  3/7 times 8760 or 3700kW-hrs per year.  

That would be the number an honest salesman would tell his customer, not the peak rating.

the KWH cost is misleading. You pay, say, $.15, but you have a hefty minimum (around $15 or so per month here). If you conserve, your per KWH costs are far higher than fifteen cents.
Conservation is always the best bargain. I have done a lot of insulating, changing windows, adding exterior shades, etc to reduce our consumption and plan to do more.
Yes, thanks,  and my numbers are kilowatt-hours, not kilowatts as you rightly inferred.

We have 18 panels rated 165 each, or nominal 2970 watts. Subtract inverters, weather and other factors and you get actual AC production. Ours are fixed and quite shallow angle, which is fine for summer, but I may get mounts that would allow me to angle them up in winter, which could add about 15-20% during those months.

It is incredibly hard for me to believe that windmills could have a significant impact on weather patterns. There's just so much air that moves above, below, and through a windmill that the the change in average air velocity must be miniscule. And even in Alberta's wind-electric capital, Pincher Creek, there really aren't that many wind mills. In my half-baked opinion, a few trees would have as large an impact as a windmill.

But maybe the presenter has future technologies in mind that I don't. Or perhaps, he's just thinking about the microclimate directly leeward of the windmills. (I mean, I did plant several hundred trees this year to create a microclimate for my benefit.)

I remember this concern being put to rest in 'Natural Capitalism'. Unfortunately, that was a library lone, so I can't look it up and share.

He was taking it from a theoretical perspective. "What if I could draw all the power from wind over a certain geographic area? How much would I need to power the US now (nevermind the future...)? He estimated that you would need to basically stop all the wind over an area the size of Colorado. He did not cite a source, just his own back of the envelope math on the subject.
I think he really hasn't thought this through.  Nobody is proposing the kind of thing he's talking about.
He's really just saying that there are hard limits to the scale of wind power.
I suppose, but the question is, what's the magnitude of those limits?  IIRC, surveys have found wind power potential of about 2.9TW in the US, which at 30% capacity factor would be about 970 GW average output, which is about twice the current actual average US electrical output.

That doesn't seem like an important limit.  Much more important is the problem of intermittency, which as best I can tell would limit wind to about 35% of average output (I can provide further info on if you want).

I think the point is to think it through.  No one seriously thought we could possibly release enough carbon emissions to alter global weather way back in 19 whatever when we started burning oil.

Lets not make the same mistake twice.

Yeah, the sensible thing is to do a lot of research to catch problems early, while still going ahead with a serious alt energy program.
18something for oil.

It was in a response to a global shortage of whale oil for lighting: whales were becoming extinct (many species did cease to exist).

Of course, Arrhenius first postulated the global warming thesis in 1898.

You could argue no one thought of global warming when we invented controlled fire (c. 30,000BC?).  Or when we first used coal (c. 2000BC?).

It's worth noting, though, that wind, solar, tidal, biomass all fall into the category of using current solar energy that falls on the surface of the planet.  The problem with our fossil fueled world is that we 'borrow from the past', we are using the carbon legacy of the Pleistocene era.

So in a fully solar world (be it wind, solar PV etc.) we aren't increasing the amount of energy out there, just using it differently.

I like your approach of categorizing energy sources.  As you say, we have current solar (wind,wave, pv, biomass) and prehistoric stored solar in fossil fuels.

What would you call geothermal?  Or nuclear?  Are these stored forms of big bang energy?

What would you call geothermal?

My understanding of current scientific theory is that Geothermal is nuclear energy --aka radioactively decaying heavy isotopes.

Gravity draws the heaviest elements closer to the core than any other elements. So near the core of the Earth (but not at the very center where net gravity is zero) you have a high concentration of molten uranium including decaying U238 of course. Neutrons from that decaying mass heat up the other surrounding molten metals. Iron (Fe) is less dense and therefore forms a heavy liquid iron shielding (magma) around that radioactive core. Because of the massive shielding we can't detect the radioactivity from the core and can't prove it is actually happening. So it's just a "theory".

Good explanation.  Thank you.
Think of it as 'past solar' and 'current solar'.

As poster shows very well below, the lead theory re geothermal is that is created by radioactive isotopes.

Nuclear you could categorise in a number of ways.  Call it 'geologic energy' and it aligns it with oil, gas and coal.

Tidal is the other (and one with huge potential).  The sun prevents the seas from freezing, so you could call it 'current solar'.  Or you could call it Lunar.

The real dividing line is 'carbon release or no carbon release?'

In the case of biomass, it is carbon release, but with inherent sequestration.  I have my doubts whether we can really scale biomass (too taxing on the soils and ecosystem) but biological waste (sewage, rubbish dumps, agricultural waste etc.) is a huge area of potential.

Unconstrained fluid flow (not in a tube) has a maximum energy capture rate of 10% (quote from others).  So, at max, a wind turbine can capture just 10% of ther energy flowing by it.

I remember covering this in school, but do NOT remember the answer.  Other engineers have quoted this to me and it seems reasonable.

Mark:  I agree 100%; compare the landscape in Nebr. Okla. & Kansas with 30 or 40 years ago. All the pastureland used to be bare native grass and now it is covered with Cedars that are multiplying and growing taller with each succeeding year. Also if you look at pictures from the 1800's for this area you seldom see a single tree because the prairie fires eliminated all the trees. Now each city and town is over grown with 100 to 150 foot hardwood trees, and also along the roads and fence-lines. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Blame it on the folks that settled the land, the cedar waxwing, and no prairie fires in the farm country.
If we massively shift to wind in the next 100 years, the energy which had previously created our weather is now running our computers.  What would be the effect of this.
Not much.  Maximum energy recovery from a wind stream is 59%; this amounts to a 36% decrease in wind speed over the disc.  The net effect is that the wind flows a little higher on average.

The wind loses more energy to friction against the ground than humanity uses.  This is not something to worry about anytime soon.

But you realized wind/solar, while small on a global scale, actually works in the right direction?  It sucks heat out of the global warming system.  Some is returned later as heat from our motors, but some is "wasted" as work ;-)
This is a nit-pick, but that is a wrong headed idea. Energy is neither created nor destoyed ("wasted"). That's the primary law of thermodynamics --well, of basic physics. This so-called wasted work you talk about becomes thermal energy and radiates out into space mostly in the infra red band. If it did not, the Earth would be constantly getting warmer and warmer.

Global warming does not "stop" energy from leaving the Earth. It merely impedes (resists) the outward radiation a bit, thus increasing the black body temperature of the emitting sphere (aka our planet).

I get that.  My little joke about "wasting" some of the incoming energy was that we could use in places not connected to the weather system.

Consider a roof that bakes in the sun, or a roof with solar cells that power indoor appliances.  Do the appliances contribute equally to GW as the roof?  Or do sound waves from my tv, visible light from my LCD, etc., "waste" some electricity, convert it to non-thermal energy, and return a smaller portion of heat to the environment?

(maybe the big win is in winter when we want all that indoor heat anyway)

Actually, probably the better question is what color is the roof?

The % of light reflected vs absorbed is important.

Maybe the biggest thing we could do quickly for global warming would be to paint the roofs of all manmade structures silver.  

I've suggested that all cars be white ;-)
I did some back of the envelope calculations and concluded that all human structures are likely less than 2% of the planet's surface (which would still be 1/15th of all land area).  Closer to half of one per cent.

So increasing the planet's albedo that way is a neat idea, but a non starter.

However painting roofs is a great idea: it will save at least 10% of air conditioning bills in summer, and so would reduce a major source of global CO2 (not sure what to do about winter, but perhaps simply lay down black plastic?).

"increasing the planet's albedo that way is a neat idea, but a non starter"

hmm. IIRC, the daily energy inputs and outputs for the planet are astonishingly large, and the excess heat trapped by CO2 is a very small %.  If the difference between stable temperatures and GW is a very small % of daily solar insolation, than we might need to raise the albedo of the Earth by a very small %.

I am skeptical that we could not build a 100% renewable grid that supplied our needs with zero to 1% solar PV.

Hot rock geothermal seems a shorter hill to climb than solar PV.

One dam in Africa (Grand Inga) could produce 44 GW.  Basically, Africa could be run off hydro.  Also close to true for South America.  Add some wind & geothermal.

Electric rail trades 20 oil BTUs (heavy trucks) for one electricity BTU.

India is looking at building 66 GW of hydro, and they have decent wind resources.  China has some major hydro in planning (3 Gorges = ~9% of Chinese electrical demand).

Europe and China will likely require nukes and some nukes (~20%) would make things much easier in North America.

Australia will require solar, nukes or coal I am afraid.  Also true of Indonesia.

Still, solar is "trailing the pack" and we should build out other renewalable alternatives ASAP, IMHO, while waiting for solar PV to improve.

3 Gorges = ~9% of Chinese electrical demand

Point of correction. Three Gorges is 17 GW; total Chinese installed capacity is 575 GW as of the end of 2005. That would make it a shade less than 3% of installed capacity, and even less of production, since hydro plants have lower load factors than the predominant coal-fired plants.

The entire output of the Three Gorges hydro project has been more than "eaten up" by the explosive growth in residential air conditioner ownership over the past 5 years. Supply responses aren't always the most reasonable.

Sorry, I used an "old #" for Chinese demand.

Many of their other power plants also have low load factors.

When announced, I remember 3 Gorges would supply 12% of Chinese GWh.  Such has been Chinese growth.

I went there back in 1999. Saw what they were doing. I don't care how much electricity they get from the thing, it isn't worth the damage they've done.

I find it difficult to understand why this had to be such a mega project, why not a series of smaller dams?

Just the loss of the gorges was substantial. And they're only just beginning to see ecosystem damage.

Must say, though, the size of the undertaking was impressive.

The better solution (opinion of US & Canadian hydro experts) would have been to build a series of smaller dams up-river (now under construction) and then 3 Gorges later, if ever (perhaps as a run-of-river project has even been floated).

India is taking that approach, storage reserviors in the head waters and then a series of run-of-river projects down-river.

Sediment control at 3 Gorges is "questioned" by those here.

The chinese engineers were already talking about sediment removal backup plans when I was there. I thought it odd that they were taking the time to address this with political scientists and public policy academics who didn't even ask about it. I guessed that this meant that they saw real potential problems.
I am much less fond of hydro than you are, although I do believe it has an important place. There are huge costs in many places, however, including destruction of vast tracts of fertile land, of ecosystems, disruption of communities, adverse downstream effects, destruction of fisheries, various problems related to water use, salinity, etc.

But simply from a power generation standpoint it has major problems in any region (which is most) where droughts occur periodically. And when this happens, the failure of the electrical system is catastrophic, widespread, and very long lasting (measured in months or years, not hours or days). See the current situation in Tanzania, as an African example:

Drought in Tanzania has slashed power generation in the country's six hydropower stations to less than one-third of their usual output, forcing electricity rationing to be extended. More than two-thirds of Tanzania's total generation capacity is hydroelectric, meaning power rationing affects businesses nationwide, as they are forced to turn to expensive diesel generators to maintain their production. "This situation is not just bad, it is scary," President Jakaya Kikwete told an energy conference in Dar es Salaam in February.

In January, Kikwete told the nation that a prolonged dry spell had led to a severe drop in water levels at dams feeding the country's hydroelectric power plants, forcing the Tanzania Electric Supply Company (TANESCO) to resort to power rationing.

"We are now approaching a point where we must shut down the hydropower generation plants," Kikwete said at a meeting of elders in Dar es Salaam on 31 January. The following day, power rationing of eight hours per day began.

A few days later, Ibrahim Msabaha, the minister for energy and minerals, announced that rationing had been extended by four hours. In Dar es Salaam, the reality was that some sectors of the city were without power for up to 18 hours each day.

Kikwete said the water level at the Mtera Dam, which feeds the major hydroelectric power plants in central Tanzania, was below the permitted power-generation water level of 690 metres. In January, the government amended the regulation to permit TANESCO to continue until the level dropped to 687 metres.

The level has since dropped to 687.59 metres, leaving a narrow safety margin and raising the possibility that power plants will have to be shut down.

Kikwete said the 447 megawatts of power generated by TANESCO's hydro and thermal stations and produced by state-contracted firms fell well short of national demand: Tanzania's power needs are double the amount that is currently being generated.

Industrialists are already complaining that erratic power supply could drive them out of business. "We cannot compete if we use generators to produce. It is expensive - the only option is to close down the factory until mid-March," said Clifford Antao, an engineer with the corrugated roofing sheet manufactuer JJ Industries.,%20Great_Lakes

Solar PV costs about $.25 all told, and utility costs average $.10 in the US.  About half the PV cost is for the support structure, installation, etc, which ideally would be eliminated by making PV a standard item on new construction and making the PV the roof itself, instead of an expensive retrofitted additional layer.  This is starting to happen - California just mandated solar as a "standard option" on new home construction by 2011.

The last step is to reduce the cost of the PV itself, which is happening.  Already PV is cost-competitive in parts of California, and in Japan. PV is at 2.4MW per year and is doubling every two years, and demand is growing even faster.
It's at a tipping point of hyper-exponential growth now.  As costs fall it's area of cost-competitiveness will spread, and growth will continue at this very high rate.  In 10 years it could easily be 60MW per year, which would make it a major player.

PV already makes sense for off grid applications, or where the grid is never likely to be built: rural Africa and Asia for example*.

Price of PV cells is falling by c. 5% pa ie halving every 14 years.  Right now, in Western Europe, PV is 3 times more expensive than gas fired, for large central c. 21 years before it is competitive on a pure price basis.

But for the retail user in Western Europe, distribution charges are 40% of the cost of electricity (40-50%).  So if you have a PV system on your house, it is 1.8 times more costly than a grid solution.

At that rate, in about 12 years, PV will be breakeven with gas fired electricity IF:

  1. no carbon charge is imposed on electric power in the meantime
  2. gas prices don't rise any further

I expect PV power to be economic in places like Spain, Greece and Italy a lot faster-- domestic energy is very expensive (Italy is 70% gas fired) and sunlight is constant almost all year round.  Crete for example powers itself with a 500MW oil fired station: and a real stinker too (you can see the cloud layer of smog coming out of it and sprawling across Heraklion Bay).

It will be a race between PV and Wind to power Meditteranean Europe-- in fact Spain already has the second largest wind grid in the world (after Germany).  Remember those windmills in 'Don Quixote'/'Man of La Mancha', well, he would need a longer lance to tilt at the new ones!

'If Spanish wind-power developers and turbine manufacturers meet the government's goal of 20,000 megawatts by 2010, wind would supply around 15 percent of the country's energy needs. Even that figure is somewhat misleading, however, since natural fluctuations in wind mean that when wind is plentiful, it could supply half of Spain's needs.'

Wind power is now 6% of Spanish energy needs, but on certain summer days, 15-16%.

* analogy.  There will never be a fixed line phone grid in much of the world.  Mobile has gotten there first, and the fixed line solutions are too costly and inflexible to ever be economic.  This is how Africa has gone from under 10 million phones 15 years ago to 100 million now.

"Price of PV cells is falling by c. 5% pa ie halving every 14 years."

Costs are falling much faster, but prices are high to ration supplies.

A major supplier recently projected a 50% drop in costs by 2010, another 50% by 2020, and another by 2030.

"BERLIN - Japan's Sharp Corp., the world's biggest maker of solar cells, expects the cost of generating solar power to halve by 2010 and to be comparable with that of nuclear power by 2030, Sharp's president said.

"By the year 2010 we'll be able to halve generation costs," Katsuhiko Machida said on Thursday.

"By 2020 we expect a further reduction - half of 2010 - and by 2030 we expect half the 2020 level.

"By 2030 the cost will be comparable to electricity produced by a nuclear power plant," said Machida, speaking on the fringes of the IFA trade fair in Berlin, the world's biggest consumer electronics fair.

Asked how the costs were likely to compare with those for producing electricity from fossil fuels such as coal, Machida replied: "Fossil fuel resources will be totally out by then.""

It's a measure of how solvable this problem is, if true.

Convert the majority of electric power generation to wind and solar.  At least 2/3rds should be feasible in most countries.  There is enough uranium out there to fill the remaining gap via nuclear power also pumped storage etc.

We already have electric cars here for commuting in London

and plug in hybrid vehicles could suffice for much more of the market that needs to drive on highways.

The new layer will be using hydrogen as the major transportation fuel.  Which is not there yet for cars (but is imaginable) or airplanes (conceivable, but who knows?).

So the problem of global warming (and Peak Oil) is solvable.  What is lacking is the political will and the institutional adjustments to make it happen fast enough.

It will cost money, and it will require sacrificing the now for the future of other people (like our children).  As human beings, we are not very good at that kind of tradeoff.

Yeah, it's pretty solvable.

My best guess is 30% wind, 30% solar, 12% hydro, 22% biomass, 6% other (wave, geothermal, etc).

Maybe nuclear - I don't like it because of proliferation risks, but it's workable otherwise.

I think that battery technology is moving much faster than portable hydrogen fuel cells, and with the infrastructure and renewable conversion inefficiency problems I think hydrogen has clearly missed it's window of opportunity.

The current trends are not bad: Wind and solar are both growing very quickly: wind is doubling every 2 years in the US, and every four outside the US, and already is the single largest source of new generation planned for 2007 in the US.  Solar is doubling every 2 years, and has reached 2.4GW per year, so I think it's going to be here faster than nuclear can.

I agree we need an Apollo style push on alt energy for the sake of preventing global warming, but current trends could be worse.

Plenty of energy sources my ass. Coal is finite. Uranium is finite. Exponential growth will quickly deplete these resources. Even at a growth rate of 1% a year, it'll all be gone before you can blink.

And with nuclear, no one ever talks about the REAL waste problem--uranium mine tailings and depleted uranium. Don't ever forget that depleted uranium makes up over 98% of the mass of refined uranium ore--and it has a half life of 4 billion years. Nuclear is the worst idea ever, only closely followed by coal.

Re: Coal is finite

There is a common misconception, especially here in the "Saudi Arabia of Coal", that we have enough to burn the stuff for hundreds and hundreds of years. That is simply not the case, aside from the obvious CO2 problems. It is another Cornucopian fantasy.

To be more precise, US recoverable reserves are estimated at 267,311 million short tons, consumption in 2005 was 1,133 million short tons  =  an R/P ratio of 236 years. Sounds like a lot but it all hinges on what you mean by "recoverable" -- which is a lot different for coal than oil & gas because you are mining it (deep mines, strip mines, mountain-top removal). Unless, of course, you don't mind that large parts of the country would resemble the surface of the moon.

What do you make of Matt Simmon's claim that we've used up most of the good coal, and the stuff that remains is almost too dirty to be of much use? (I'm trying to remember link; Jim Poplova interview?)
Expotential growth is an entirely different class of problem, IMO a much bigger one than any energy source issue.  It is going to be a problem regardless of what we do energy-wise, solar, wind, bio, coal, or nuclear.  From the perspective of expotential growth, I don't think that renewables have any advantages over finite (coal) or near-infinite (nuclear) energy sources, they all run out or max out at some point.

Uranium is everywhere, and is a naturally occuring element in plants and animals.  There is alot of it around and all life on Earth has lived and is living with uranium exposure. Depleted uranium is less radioactive than this naturally occuring uranium (we use the more radioactive isotope as fuel).  Some places have much more uranium in the environment than others, like Colorado compared to Florida.  An interesting fact is that cancer rates in Colorado are lower than those in Florida, despite the greater exposure to uranium and the greater level of background radiation due to the higher altitude.  People have argued from facts like this one that low levels of radiation may have a beneficial effect, or that too low a level has a harmful effect on people.  If true, then nuclear is definitely not the worst idea ever.

Good for you? Like a glass of beer or wine?
I think some links are in order, here.

George Monbiot's piece in the Guardian.. re: Dounreay Reactor site spills in Scotland

"Before the reactor at Dounreay was completed, the operators - the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) - bored a tunnel under the sea bed, through which its liquid effluent would be discharged. In order to remove the spoil, UKAEA dug a 200-foot shaft a few yards behind the cliffs. Though this hole was unsealed, though groundwater could flow in and out and though coastal erosion could pull the whole thing down into the sea within 100 years(7), in 1959 the British government gave UKAEA permission to use this shaft as a dump for radioactive materials.

In 1977, the shaft exploded, blowing the lid off and scattering hot particles. It would not be strictly true to say that the incident was covered up. After rumours of the accident reached the press, UKAEA issued a news release entitled "minor incident at solid waste facility"(8). The word "explosion" was not mentioned.

The full story did not emerge until 1995. The hole had been used to dispose of everything from rubber gloves to fissile waste. It is not hard to see why this dirty bomb went off: sodium and other reactive chemicals had been dumped with the radioactive materials. One estimate suggests that around 2.2kg of plutonium and 81kg of uranium-235 ended up there(9). But the auditing was patchy: some of the disposals were never recorded; some of the records later disappeared. In 1998, the Guardian discovered that a second hole had been dug, and was still in use despite the demands by government inspectors that it be closed(10). This one was slightly safer, as it was lined with concrete. But it contained a similar mixture of fissile materials and reactive chemicals, which had not been kept apart. Underground fires had already broken out(11).  "

 ~ Too much is never enough..

I don't think that definitive studies have been done yet, but there is some evidence:

The important finding from the NSWS is support of the hypothesis that a moderate dose rate of radiation is beneficial to the health. The NW>0.5 group had a death rate from all causes 24% lower than the control group. That is, their death rate was 16-std. dev. lower than the controls (p< 10 to the -16 power). . If the study aim had been to look for health benefits of ionizing radiation, it would have been a huge success. As a study to find radiation risks, it was an abysmal failure. This may explain the reason the study has yet to be published. I published a brief summary of the results in 1992, shortly after the final report was submitted. (Cameron 1992) I know of no other publication or reference to this important study.
How about we stop bitching about what we think isn't possible and start giving the scientists the means to actually try and find out what is and isn't possible.  Basic energy and materials research has always suffered from a lack of funding.    And recently the situation has become a lot worse.

Here is a list of techs that we should be exploring but aren't:

We need an Apollo program.

What makes you think that its the scientists who will find answers? Seems to me that assumes that this is a technical problem. It's not clear to me that is the case.
Most of the problems can be solved through conservation (since, IMHO, the great majority of energy used is wasted). That is not a technical problem; it might be considered political, but it is probably social and economic.

If electricity cost $1/KWH instead of fifteen cents, people would use it more wisely. Same with oil, since if you multiply the efficiency of an ICE (20%) by the payload (10%), you get a net efficiency of 2% for autos. At best.

What makes you think that its the scientists who will find answers? Seems to me that assumes that this is a technical problem. It's not clear to me that is the case.

I honestly don't understand how this isn't a technical problem.  The Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley says an Apollo program is our best and possibly only chance.  We spend $69 billion a year fighting marijuana and who knows how many billions we hand out to Big Oil, coal, and the boondoggle that is the grain ethanol industry.  The fact that we can't spend $5 billion a year developing technology that might not only save the planet, but will easily drive our economy for years to come makes me sick.

Your faith in technology is something. Tell me this, how are you going to convince those same boondogling politicos to fund the technology that you think will work?
I think it starts with talking to them.  Alanfrombigeasy gave a little tutorial on creating influence with government, a little while ago.  It sounds like he's had some success.
Unfortunately, when government decides priorities this generally go astray. FOr instance, during the 70s the government wanted to sink umpteen billions into turning shale oil into real oil, declaring the four corners states "a national sacrifice area."

One of the things that scared me about Kerry's energy plan was his proposal to nationalize the gas lines. Then the lines are run for the benefit of big contractors, instead of efficiency. Plus, you can fight El Paso Gas if it wants to dig up your land, but you can't fight the federal government very easily.

Yeah, government power can make a bad idea worse.

On the other hand, there's a lot of energy policy already in place, and if we don't get involved it'll just be in the hands of more self-interested people.

Your faith in technology is something.

My faith is no more than other scientists in the field.

Tell me this, how are you going to convince those same boondogling politicos to fund the technology that you think will work?

Smalley already covered this. Distribute money among organizations like DOE, NSF, NIST, NASA, and DoD.  They decide.  Get the politicians out of it and run science like it's supposed to be ran.

"Distribute money among organizations like DOE, NSF, NIST, NASA, and DoD.  They decide.  Get the politicians out of it and run science like it's supposed to be ran."

It's convenient if you want to skip over the way our society and government work in your head. But when it comes to the real world, it is the "politicians" and bureaucrats who decide on where the money is distributed. Until you come up with a plan to convince the politicians to allocate the money to these organizations and then convince the top brass in those organizations to accept your plan of letting the scientists decide, you have an insurmountable problem.

But when it comes to the real world, it is the "politicians" and bureaucrats who decide on where the money is distributed.

In case you'd be interested:

The Myth of the Rule of Law


"What was happening [was that] annually, starting in 1995, the Federal government, the auditors underneath the auspices of each agency's Inspector General, would come forward and say, "This year we could or could not produce audited financial statements, ... and part of the reason is that we have undocumentable adjustments of $59 billion or whatever the number was." And so in this annual sweep up whereby the individual Inspector Generals would report into the Secretary of the Treasury and to the General Accounting Office (which is the auditor for Congress), it would come in through this annual sweep, and they would come in and say, "OK, we can't produce audited financial statements, and we have this much of undocumentable adjustments." At some point after the numbers got really crazy, they just decided after 9-11 to stop reporting them.

Now, when people say to me "What is $3.3 trillion of undocumentable adjustments?", let me give you an example. In fiscal 2000, the Department of Defense had $2.3 trillion in undocumentable adjustments. OK now, there's no way for us to know Jim, how much of that translates into cash. `Cause $2.3 trillion is more than total taxes paid in a year by ... say tax payers in that year would have paid taxes of about $1.6 trillion. So, there's no way to know if $2.3 trillion translates into how much cash, or how much cash is missing.

What we do know is that under the laws of the Constitution, which say money cannot be spent unless it is appropriated. It is essentially a violation of the Constitution to do that, with one exception. And this is where the black budget comes up. There are provisions under the National Security Act of 1947 and the CIA Act of 1949 for military and military intelligence to crawl money from outside of different agencies' budgets, and spend it on non-transparent purposes. That's sometimes why it's called the "black budget"."   America's Black Budget & Manipulation Of Markets

The "logical" science site is pie-in-the-sky.  The algae for the farms don't exist yet (though it's a great prospect and deserves attention), OTEC is only usable on tropical seas with deep water nearby and has questionable viability, ethanol is a boondoggle (it even refers to Robert Rapier)... you get the idea.
The "logical" science site is pie-in-the-sky.

So was the moon.  That is why Smalley calls it an APOLLO program.

 The algae for the farms don't exist yet (though it's a great prospect and deserves attention),

ok, so we agree.

OTEC is only usable on tropical seas with deep water nearby and has questionable viability,

Are you saying we shouldn't even bother exploring it?

ethanol is a boondoggle (it even refers to Robert Rapier)...

GRAIN ethanol is a boondoggle.  Rapier thinks cellulose & E3  have great promise.

you get the idea.

Not really.  It's a long list and you have a long way to go to convince me we shouldn't even bother trying.

OTEC is only usable on tropical seas with deep water nearby and has questionable viability,

Are you saying we shouldn't even bother exploring it?

I'm saying that it deserves no more attention than its potential merits.  That potential is small.
ethanol is a boondoggle (it even refers to Robert Rapier)...

GRAIN ethanol is a boondoggle.  Rapier thinks cellulose & E3  have great promise.

I'm afraid that it's all a boondoggle, including cellulosic and synthetic; the low efficiency of the engines it's intended to feed, combined with the losses in conversion to ethanol, guarantee that supplies will be only a fraction of today's gasoline demand (and leave nothing to replace diesel, jet fuel, petrochemicals, etc.).

It talks about "laddermills", but doesn't mention the mechanical limits.  Gyromills don't have those limits.

It mentions ethanol from power-plant emissions, but omits the detail that the 40% reduction in CO2 falls far short of the 70+% reduction we need to balance uptake from the atmosphere.

The site mentions "artificial coal", but says nothing about the technology which can make the most efficient use of carbon such as charcoal:  the direct-carbon fuel cell.

I wonder if that site isn't a deliberate distraction from measures which would work in the near term, like Bush's constant push on hydrogen cars while never mentioning batteries.

The measures I propose are medium term.  We could start electrifying our inter-city railroads in 9 months and start construction on the first $100 billion of Urban Rail in 1 to 3 years.

On a non-crash program, I could reduce US Oil consumption by 10% in ten to twelve years.

Quite a range of views here, including enthusiasm for unproven technologies. Perhaps we all have a personal ranking system so here's mine...

expand: nuclear, efficiency
reduce: coal, tar sands
niche: solar, wind, biofuels
won't work: geosequestration, fusion
no opinion: hot rocks, Stirling, wave, algae

Sometimes you think a commentor has an irrational fear or optimism of a technology. Could be they just haven't made their case strongly enough.

Wind is not niche.

Wind is key.  20% of the capacity, if not demand, of the US, UK, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Spain, France (maybe), Greece, Italy....

could be more.

Wind is not niche.
So why not 100%?
Because every source has it's strengths and weakness, and you wouldn't want to have more than about 1/3 of your energy coming from any one source.

In particular, wind's biggest problem is intermittency, which is pretty easy to handle up to 20%, and which could be pushed with a reasonable amount of work to 35%.  Over that I think you'd run into diminishing returns, though Alan has argued for 52%, and I haven't seen his calculations.  Alan, how did you come up with that??

Offshore wind actually has very low intermittency-- the wind can blow 70,80% of the time.

To get wind over more than about 30% of national power requirements, you probably need to have some quite clever storage technology eg pumped, flywheels, super batteries, fuel cells etc.  Except for hydraulic pumped storage we aren't there yet.

There is a case for wind + nuclear + demand management.  Taken together, you can sketch a power system which is carbon free (post installation).

The key is peak meggawatage at 4.30pm on a summer's day, in California, is about 3X the 3.00am load.  So if you can use smart demand management (eg interruptible power to appliances etc.) then you can run a system that only uses fossil fuels at the absolute peak.

If those fossil fuels are in turn based on carbon sequestration, then you have a CO2 free system, near as damnit.

I think it depends on your definition of "offshore". I've been following the wind data for Nantucket Sound as provided by the Cape Wind developers. Granted, I've only been watching it since the beginning of August, but there has still been some interesting behavior.

On an hour-by-hour basis, things are fairly steady, but you do see occasional changes in wind speed of 5nm/h over the course of an hour. According to Cape Wind, this change in wind speed results in a change in electrical power output of 50MW to 100MW. Over the course of a day or two, the changes can be even more dramatic: 10nm/h to 20nm/h in wind speed, equating to changes in output of 200MW to 300MW.

I expect that the offshore wind is more consistent in some areas compared to others, which brings us back to the discussion of how best to pair up wind with a more reliable source: water, gas-turbine peaker, baseload coal, etc.

agree.  The data I was thinking of came from Offshore UK.

One of the staples of UK culture is The Shipping Forecast.

Every night, before signing off the BBC gives the weather forecast for the areas in the seas around Great Britain.

Generations of us have grown up falling asleep to the announcer intoning 'Dogger Bank: 7, North; Faeroes 13,  East':







It is one of our last general links to the world where we dominated the world's oceans, and make our health and livelihood from the sea.

in terms of wind power, the winds blow offshore on these islands virtually all the time.

So I guess that's why I think offshore wind has a huge future...

Thanks for the link. I just listened to it and it felt like someone was describing a bridge tournament or a cricket match (I don't play either). Nonetheless, I could picture myself in some cottage on the coast at night with a nice hot cup of Barry's tea.
It is probably one of the most definable totems of 'Britishness' that is left.  I used to have a cousin who named her dogs after the Maritime wind regions: Dogger etc.

Cricket, warm beer, footie-- bahhh, humbug.  Cricket is a game our colonial descendants have mastered and perfected.  Football is a wellspring of greed, corruption, big money and a justification for bad behaviour off the pitch by players and fans.  The footballer's wives are of greater interest than the players.  The majority of beer sold is ice cold lager in bottles, and the objective is to get p-ssed or blasted as quickly as possible.  Bridge is dying out (to be honest, I know far more players in North America).  English tea (the PG Tipps kind) is drech-- even Earl Grey is hard to take.  Once the Queen goes, the monarchy itself is in question-- we might as well make Paris Hilton our monarch.

I listen to it in a London flat, 40 miles from the sea.  it ties the nation together as few things do...

We might as well make Paris Hilton our monarch.

Now that's what I call "Value-Thinking," my Friend. Although, I would consider Scarlett Johanssan

There is an element of "By Golly, By Guess" in putting together a renewable + nuke North American grid (I could not make a 100% renewable grid work).

HV DC continent wide grid to shift power around (4 hour delta in peak between E & W coasts for example).

Geothermal would be reworked from max output/capital $ (work at 99% load factor) to using geothermal for peaking (same steam resource, more wells & turbines).  Some days (say Sundays) can be skipped and steam saved but NOT longer than that AFAIK.  Hot rock with injected water + natural steam plants.

Massive pumped storage (-19% of grid energy to pump up, +15% generation) projects.  Nameplate/Peak Power >> 15% of total.  Most hydro for weekly power shifting, some pumped air for seasonal shifting (spring > summer; fall > winter).

Manipulating Great Lakes (within natural limits) could add tremendous peaking power and hurt Niagara Falls tourist potential.

Refuel nukes in spring & fall.

Shrink demand and expand hydro for hydro to be 12% of total grid energy (also peaking power mainly).

Some solar thermal & PV in desert SW,  Saves pumped power from near peak (solar noon) for actual summer peak.

Most wind would be on "wind only" AC grids feeding a DC node.  This would allow Hz & voltage to vary MUCH more and grid stability would not be the issue it is today.  This is a major conceptual break !  It will allow much higher wind penetration, IMHO.

So much hydro helps stabilize grid.  Massive multi-pole generators help power quality is just spinning in air.

I am still at my parents caring for father post knee surgery and away from calcs.  The concepts listed above


Thank you.  There are some good thoughts there I would like to explore more with you at another time when your time permits it, either here or by email.

email is lbsgrad2003 (at) yahoo (dot) co (dot) uk

I had thought tidal was further along than you suggest, and I still think it could make a significant contribution, at least to places like the UK that have long tidal barrages.

I looked at North America, and the tidal potential is just the Bay of Fundy.  The fisheries damage may outweigh the power there.


I believe San Francisco is exploring a large tidal project.
There's a tidal project being pursued in NYC. Maybe more of a tidal hybrid because its intended for the East River, which is a actually an estuary (for the non-NYCers). It's not based on the change in head, but the strength of the current. The turbines would rotate so it can catch the current going in either direction.

It's in its very early stages and has had a difficult time getting the permits for the six-turbine pilot project.

I attended a presentation by the developers of the East River project.  IMHO, the technology is workable, the economics are questionable and we are a LONG time away from 0.5% of US electricity from this source.
One factoid about wind from the HydroVision conference.  On an annual basis, wind does not vary much, less than half as much variance as rainfall/hydro.  + or - 15% of mean (forgot confidence interval).
Expand: (in order) Efficiency, Solar hot water, Wind (all proven & doable today), Pumped Storage

Limited Expansion - Hydro, Nuke, Solar Space Heating, Wood Heating

Niche - Solar PV (for now), geothermal, biofuels

Won't work - Wave

Geosequestration works on old oil fields to expand production

Why do you say wave power won't work?

There are a number of promising trials.

What about tidal power?

Add to that the potential for solar space heating is very big.

A well designed and insulated home can keep warm almost entirely by the heat, lights and appliances of its inhabitants, plus sunlight (with a backup system using gas or wood).

This is particularly true in sunny mountain regions, and in the US Southwest.

Wavepower is, IMVHO, still a LONG way from competitive life cycle costs (salt water is nasty and adds costs to operate in, strong storms are an ongoing problem).

Moreover, the estimates show that a group of 12 states in the midsection of the country have enough wind energy potential to produce nearly four times the amount of electricity consumed by the nation in 1990.

It is interesting that the US, so endowed by nature with timber, oil, coal, rich farmland, hydroelectric power, etc.

turns out to have yet another trick up its sleeve: one of the world's best potential for wind power in the Midwest and Southwest (and some coastal areas).

The difference being that wind energy is not in any sense exhaustible whereas coal, oil and farmland are-- it will literally last forever.

Good post Everett.

Crazy Pat is aptly named.