Running the U.S. on Solar Power

How much land would it take for solar power to satisfy the electricity demands of the U.S.? I made some attempts to calculate this before, but a recent story may enable me to calculate some more reliable numbers if the solar is provided via solar thermal power:

Solar Power Heats Up: Another Plant Planned for Southwest

Two bits caught my eye:

Abengoa Solar, a subsidiary of a similarly named technology company based in Seville, Spain, and Arizona Public Service on Thursday announced plans to build a 280-megawatt solar thermal power plant about 70 miles southwest of Phoenix.

So we know the planned capacity of the solar thermal plant. In case you are unfamiliar with solar thermal:

Solano will use parabolic mirrors to follow the sun across the sky and concentrate its energy, heating a fluid to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, and using the fluid to make steam that will spin turbines to generate electricity. The plant will use an unspecified heat storage technology so the plant can continue generating electricity for six hours after sunset.

So, how much area to produce 280-megawatts?

The project will bring economic benefits, too. During three years of construction, it will employ 1,500 workers at the 1,900-acre site near Gila Bend. After completion, 80 permanent employees will work at Solano.

OK, let me say before running through this calculation that I have no idea how it is going to turn out. And if someone spots an error in math or logic, please bring it to my attention. I am going to scale this up to produce all current U.S. electricity demands.

Peak U.S. demand, according to the EIA, is almost 800,000 megawatts. Actual available capacity is 900,000 megawatts. So let’s make our solar capacity equal to today’s total installed electrical generating capacity.

Assuming the entire 1,900 acres is needed for the plant (maybe not a good assumption, but all I have), then this breaks down to (280 megawatts)/(1,900 acres), or 0.147 megawatts per acre. This of course includes all of the land associated with support functions, and it may include area for future expansions. So the calculation may be conservative.

The second assumption is that the areas in which will put our solar plants will be as productive as this one in Arizona. That is not a conservative assumption, and will somewhat offset the previous conservative calculations.

Then to get 900,000 megawatts is going to take (900,000 megawatts)/(0.147 megawatts per acre), or 6.1 million acres. How large of an area is this? I don’t know. I have to get out my calculator.

My calculator indicates that 6.1 million acres is an area of 9,531 square miles, which is equivalent to a square of just under 100 miles by 100 miles (which would be 10,000 square miles). That’s a large area, to be sure. But the possibility is there.

A couple of caveats. First, this calculation does not make a provision for a mass migration to electric transport. That would clearly require (a lot) more power. On the other hand, we already have a lot of installed electrical capacity in the form of hydroelectric (78,000 megawatts), other renewables (24,000 megawatts), and nuclear power (100,000 megawatts). This lessens the power requirement from solar.

How does this compare with my previous calculation for solar PV? I don’t know. Let me check.

OK, I checked. Not too bad. In A Solar Thought Experiment, I had assumed a slightly lower power requirement and only included the actual area of the solar cells. I came up with an area of about 50 miles by 50 miles of PV panel surface area. So it was in the ballpark. The 100 by 100 mile number is probably more realistic (and is for solar thermal – a different animal), given the need for the real estate for supporting infrastructure.

Other conclusions from the previous essay remain the same. For solar PV, there are around 100 million houses in the U.S., so there is quite a bit of surface area readily available, right where the power is needed. Your results will obviously vary depending on whether you live in Maine or Nevada. The cost is still a staggering $6 trillion. However, to put that number in perspective, at $100/bbl, the U.S. would spend $6 trillion on oil in less than 8 years.

What is the limiting factor? Are there particular components that are critical, but not available in large enough quantities to make this work? Possibly, but I don’t know what those might be. I actually believe that this could be our Manhattan Project, and it could be done. But it doesn’t even have to offset all of our current electrical capacity. We just need to start chipping away, and substituting solar in place of fossil fuels and new capacity that is needed.

Can we afford it? The key question to me is, “Can we afford not to try?”

135 thoughts on “Running the U.S. on Solar Power”

  1. Robert – I’ve run through this thought experiment a couple of times myself. The 50 x 50 mile area I think was for PV solar not thermal solar. PV is more efficient but also more costly.

    PV solar is limited by the production capacity of the solar panel manufacturers. There just aren’t that many. But PV solar doesn’t require any special manufacturing facilities. Sheet metal shops and plumbing contractors could fabricate the equipment.

    Using Google Earth, your 10,000 square miles is an area just slightly larger than New Hampshire.

    Or imagine extending the eastern border line of Colorado north through Nebraska, cutting off the western end of the state. That is an area about 13,000 square miles.

  2. Robert, I think you forgot to scale the numbers by the capacity factor for solar. Solar doesn’t operate at anywhere near the 90+% capacity factor of conventional coal or nuclear plants.

  3. Doug, that should be factored into the 280 megawatt number for the Arizona plant, right? Since I scaled off of that number, the capacity factor should already be in there.

  4. I got 100 X 100 miles to generate all the electrical energy the US uses with PV solar. You seem to be comparing peak electric power with nameplate power which is a different comparison.

  5. The plant will use an unspecified heat storage technology so the plant can continue generating electricity for six hours after sunset.

    This needs to be understood before a capacity factor can be assigned to the new plant. It’s likely that the power it generates after sunset is a lot lower than the peak capacity quoted for the plant, but the devil’s in the details. Also unclear is whether storing energy in this way reduces the output of the plant during the day. I’m sure you’ll agree that what matters is the plant’s net output to the grid.

    It’s interesting that so little space was given to this issue, because IMO power storage is the critical issue for solar – a scalable solution to that problem means energy salvation for humanity.

  6. It’s likely that the power it generates after sunset is a lot lower than the peak capacity quoted for the plant, but the devil’s in the details.

    However, peak capacity for solar is going to correspond to peak demand. I think the limiting factor will be storage, and the capacity at 6 a.m. as people get up to go to work. Maybe that’s where some backup power kicks in.

  7. You seem to be comparing peak electric power with nameplate power which is a different comparison.

    But nameplate power has got to be able to produce enough for peak demand. Right? Whatever peak demand is, nameplate capacity has to be at least that much.

  8. “A lot of ‘land’ is available right now on rooftops.”

    But I’m pretty sure solar thermal won’t work on rooftops. The mirrors and pipe for the fluid are heavy, the mirrors have to track the sun and get cleaned from time to time. None of this lends itself to being run through a neighborhood or office park. Solar thermal would require open land.

    There is quite a bit of land currently used by coal fired power plants (not to mention strip mines) that should become available for this use though.

    Also, I like the idea of a combination of photovoltaic and solar thermal. Put the PV panels on the roofs. Supplement that power with solar thermal plants, and the amount of open land required would drop dramatically.

  9. I don’t think solar-thermal and rooftops really go together.

    Indeed, I think our California push for rooftop PV, especially where it finds its nexus in the cloudy bay-area is misguided.

    We have a lot of desert out there. We have a lot of desert without a sustainable water supply. It is ideally suited for solar-thermal. Heck, why stop at 100 sq mi?

  10. FWIW, this page is subtitled “5000 square miles of silence” … and that’s just the Sonora (the Mojave is the other big one in California … you Texans might know the names of your deserts …)

    Actually, that picture, and the neighboring Sea of Cortez is enough to inspire the cornucopian in me. What if large scale solar-thermal and desalination could be combined?

  11. There’s all kinds of load balancing issues that we are handwaving away in this back of the envelop calculation to determine “Is it Feasible?”

    Yes, if you can’t meet the peak power demand you are in trouble. Assuming no storage. But if you can’t meet the total energy demand you are in trouble too and storage won’t help with this problem.

  12. These guys are trying to market a small-scale (i.e. individual building scale) solar thermal power solution. I don’t know how real they are, though, and the website is kind of spotty.
    http://www.sopogy.com/

    I agree that solar thermal isn’t a good solution on a residential rooftop scale, but I could easily see the technology being scaled down to where it would fit productively on the roof of a warehouse or a large office building. I think the limiting factor there will be sufficient market demand to pay for the engineering required. As it is, until very recently, the solar thermal power was just barely getting enough attention to keep it alive.

  13. But if you can’t meet the total energy demand you are in trouble too and storage won’t help with this problem.

    On the other hand, we have wind, hydro, and geothermal that we can throw into the mix. It’s not all on solar.

    The sole point of this exercise is a to define the scope of the problem as see if it is basically tractable. It appears that it is.

    In other words, the question is not if we can power our culture on renewable energy, but if we will choose to do so while we still can.

  14. The January Scientific American had a plan for installing 46,000 square miles of Solar in the Southwest. (As already posted here, there’s deserts bigger than that.) They thought about a lot of related issues (like high-voltage DC powerlines to send the power to the NE) and said you’ll only need $400b of government subsidies over 40 years. The article costs money, but there’s a free sciam podcast transcript discussing it, and Googling the authors might yield more links.

  15. I would like to point out that rooftop solar is great for making hot water, if not steam. You’ll still need a backup heater for cloudy days, but it still offsets a lot.

  16. Tim has hit on a significant point, solar thermal isn’t going onto rooftops, but solar PV can.

    But here is another thought experiment to perform. Take a known house, and figure out how much of it’s power requirements can come from outfitting it’s roof with PV. And how much it would cost.

    Don’t pick a mansion. And location will be a consideration, the results for Arizona or Texas will be significantly different from New Hampshire.

    And then there is Ascent Solar’s large thin file PV technology to consider.

    Interesting article at Canada’s National Post.

    And remember the Arctic Sea ice? The ice we were told so hysterically last fall had melted to its “lowest levels on record? Never mind that those records only date back as far as 1972 and that there is anthropological and geological evidence of much greater melts in the past.

    The ice is back.

    Gilles Langis, a senior forecaster with the Canadian Ice Service in Ottawa, says the Arctic winter has been so severe the ice has not only recovered, it is actually 10 to 20 cm thicker in many places than at this time last year.

    OK, so one winter does not a climate make. It would be premature to claim an Ice Age is looming just because we have had one of our most brutal winters in decades.

    But if environmentalists and environment reporters can run around shrieking about the manmade destruction of the natural order every time a robin shows up on Georgian Bay two weeks early, then it is at least fair game to use this winter’s weather stories to wonder whether the alarmist are being a tad premature.

    And it’s not just anecdotal evidence that is piling up against the climate-change dogma.

    According to Robert Toggweiler of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton University and Joellen Russell, assistant professor of biogeochemical dynamics at the University of Arizona — two prominent climate modellers — the computer models that show polar ice-melt cooling the oceans, stopping the circulation of warm equatorial water to northern latitudes and triggering another Ice Age (a la the movie The Day After Tomorrow) are all wrong.

    “We missed what was right in front of our eyes,” says Prof. Russell. It’s not ice melt but rather wind circulation that drives ocean currents northward from the tropics. Climate models until now have not properly accounted for the wind’s effects on ocean circulation, so researchers have compensated by over-emphasizing the role of manmade warming on polar ice melt.

    But when Profs. Toggweiler and Russell rejigged their model to include the 40-year cycle of winds away from the equator (then back towards it again), the role of ocean currents bringing warm southern waters to the north was obvious in the current Arctic warming.

  17. larryd – more news you won’t read in the mainstream press. Last week NOAA released a study saying that global warming has NOT contributed to more frequent or severe hurricanes:

    “There is nothing in the U.S. hurricane damage record that indicates global warming has caused a significant increase in destruction along our coasts.”

    Anthony Watts blog

    And it appears that snow has in fact returned to Kilamanjaro. Snow returns

  18. King, storm severity was always a fuzzy question. It is one of those areas where one input is clear (the sea-air temperature differential) but where it is unclear how that driver interacts with others.

    So, take the whole storm angle away. It doesn’t matter a hill of beans, well other than as a vehicle to sell GW to the non-rational.

    The more rational can listen to the genuine climate science. It abounds.

  19. Robert – Have you read the recent Scientific American Solar Grand plan article: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=a-solar-grand-plan

    Here is a quick summary:

    1. Solar PV and Solar Thermal with conservative assumptions
    2. Efficient DC transmition from Southwest to populated areas
    3. Compressed air underground energy storage. Compressed air stored in a similar manner to underground natural gas storage.
    5. Cost of around $10B in subsidies a year over 40 years.

  20. Robert:

    Taking your calculation one step further, if you divide the 10,000 square miles of solar collectors by the 100 million households, you get about 2,800 square feet of solar collector per household, or an area about 52×52 feet.

    That’s a little bigger than the typical residential roof, but it’s at least the same order of magnitude. Factor in shopping malls, factories, office buildings, etc. and you’ll probably find that we could (in theory) meet 100% of our electrical needs just through putting solar collectors on roofs.

    Compared to many of the other land uses in the United States, 10,000 square miles is a drop in the bucket. Consider how much land is devoted to crops, grazing livestock, etc…

    10,000 square miles is 6.4 million acres. In comparison, according to the USDA, in the U.S. we use about 102 times as much area (651 million acres) for forest, another 92x that amount for pasture (587 million acres), 69x that amount for crops (442 million acres), 46x that amount for parks and wildlife preserves (297 million acres), and 9x that amount for urbann areas (60 million acres).

    In short, we have no lack of solar energy available if we build the infrastructure to collect it. The land required is probably less than what we’ve set aside for bombing ranges in the desert southwest.

  21. “my name” … I haven’t read that study, but it wouldn’t surprise me that it was true … for specifically home installations of PV.

    The sad thing is that casual reports paint solar-thermal with that same brush.

  22. Grist’s analysis of Borenstein’s study:
    http://tinyurl.com/18r


    found that if you compare the current cost of distributed generation solar PV, which delivers retail power, with the wholesale power cost of a gas peaker running on pre-Katrina natural gas prices — and leave global warming and environmental benefits out of the equation — then solar “isn’t cost effective.”

    Quick, someone call the Nobel Committee.

    Indeed.

  23. Doug, that should be factored into the 280 megawatt number for the Arizona plant, right?

    No, typically when they write articles about projects they always cite the capacity but not the expected output. If they had given a figure in megawatt-hours per day (or per year, or whatever) then I would believe they had allowed for capacity factor. This is a common error with news reports, most often with wind projects. There will be some headline along the lines of: “wind capacity installed in fill-in-the-blank area/time period versus fill-in-the-blank competitor”, but they neglect to mention that wind runs at capacity factors of 25-30%. It’s worth double-checking, at any rate. It won’t change your basic conclusion, just the square miles net result.

  24. In other words, the question is not if we can power our culture on renewable energy, but if we will choose to do so while we still can.

    Surely the question is specifically “will utilities choose renewable energy?” since it’s really down to private enterprise and not consumer choice or government mandate.

  25. However, peak capacity for solar is going to correspond to peak demand.

    Not quite – it’s correlated but typically lags. At least, I know that to be true for California – demand peaks about 2 hours after the solar power does. The correlation helps (since it reduces the need for a power storage scheme), but it’s imperfect.

    BTW I agree with some other posters that PV is probably the technology of choice over existing structures, and it’s all to the good since the net land usage is zero. That said, PV doesn’t have a good power banking solution (batteries are too expensive and we probably can’t make enough of them to run the entire grid at night). The economics for solar thermal are a lot better than PV, and thermal mass banking (as this project appears to be planning for) may be the winner for greenfield (perhaps I should say brownfield?) projects at utility scale. Worst-case you can augment a solar thermal plant with gas-fired technology and leverage the cost of any common components (steam turbines or whatever). Note that the thermal mass banking schemes are in their infancy and not without some risks. One of the most promising materials from a theoretical perspective is molten salt, which is obviously tricky stuff. (Some proposed nuclear technologies also involved molten salt.)

  26. Robert,

    Thanks for keeping up this site.

    The most important fact here, though is probably that you’re just talking about replacing electrical generation, right? IIRC, that’s only about 30-40% of US energy consumption (heating and transportation being the other big culprits).

    To run the US on solar power (electrical, heat, and transport), we’s need a lot more power than that.

  27. If we were serious about reducing fossil fuel use,Congress could mandate solar panels or solar roof shingles on new homes. Studies have shown that solar panels increase a home’s value more than the cost of the equipment. It’s an expense most people can’t afford. But,it would be affordable for most folks if their solar roof was tucked into the mortgage payment. It would take $20,000 in panels to power my home. Louisiana rebates half of that. The Fed another $2000. $8000 over 30 years is less than $50 a month,even with an 8% interest rate. My utility bills average $150 a month,and they aren’t getting any cheaper over the next 30 years. I’ll probably get the solar panels anyway(the Louisiana credit just became available last month),but it sure would have saved a lot of hassle if the house had just come equipped. Louisiana is a grid-tie state,with a hefty solar subsidy. Waiting lines for soalr installations are around the block. Every state should be so lucky. It shouldn’t be that way. Congress needs to get its act together and come up with a national standard.

  28. Maury, my bill is down to $12/mo.

    Should Congress mandate that I build solar panels?

    Maybe instead we should just make electricity prices more tiered, so that $100+/mo folks are encouraged in that direction.

    Really, from a public policy perspective it doesn’t matter if you reduce your grid-draw by efficiency or private generation.

    (One other argument for solar-thermal, or wind, or geothermal, is that regions benefit from a diversified electrical supply. Then should nat gas prices spike etc., the effect is muted.)

  29. Dudes:

    We have just spent $1 trillion in Iraq.

    Of course, we can afford to build solar plants in the U.S., and to switch to PHEV cars.

    A real question, “Is can we afford not to?”

    The nice thing about PHEVs, is that they recharge at night, when grid demands are way down.

    Yes, solar, and it can be boosted by geothermal, nukes, wind, clean coal, and prisoners on electricity-generating bicycles (my own idea: prisoners are sentenced to generate a set amount of electricity, not a set amount of time. We get power, and the USA will win all bicycling events always fom now on).

    There are so many solutions to the “energy crisis.” If we can get out of our own way, we will do it.

  30. Surely the question is specifically “will utilities choose renewable energy?” since it’s really down to private enterprise and not consumer choice or government mandate.

    Most utilities are either publicly owned/operated (municipal utility districts, etc) or owned by investors but so heavily regulated as to resemble a public entity in many ways (e.g. PG&E).

    To characterize the decisionmaking process of these entities as being that of typical private enterprise is… not accurate.

  31. U.S. wind power grew by 5200 MW last year. Worldwide solar power only grew by 3800 MW. A Manhattan Project to power America with any combination of renewables would be sweet. Even sweeter would be a concurrent shift to plug-in hybrids and fully electric cars. We can do it,and will HAVE to do it eventually. I’m just afraid it won’t happen until push comes to shove.

  32. “Maury, my bill is down to $12/mo.”

    Congrats odograph. I’m jealous.

    “Should Congress mandate that I build solar panels?”

    No. But,I’d like to see a mandate for solar panels/shingles on new home construction. I think Americans are ready for it. I also think it’s the only way 95% of people will ever go solar.

  33. Thanks Maury, but given the current-tech superiority of solar thermal, let me throw something else out there.

    I live in coastal California, land of “June gloom” (an overcast that comes in both June and September actually). At the same time, those big deserts are about 100 miles away, as the crow flies.

    Why mandate solar panels here in the fog?

    If my power company can’t afford building out there (they probably can), I’d actually prefer that I buy shares in a desert plant. Then my payback could follow me from home to home … and I don’t need to sweat washing the panels every year etc.

  34. They K-guys might appreciate that I still favor scrapping all energy production subsidies. They might be less enthused that I still favor a carbon tax.

    … but I think the combination of those two is enough.

    The fact that it is fiscally responsible is just icing on the cake.

  35. LOL, I just noticed that larryd talked about sea ice and king answered with storms!

    And the snows on Kilamanjaro! According to An Inconvenient Truth these things shouldn’t be happening.

    A year ago people were quoting the extent of Arctic sea ice and snowfall in North America as further proof of AGW. Yet this year when we’ve had record snow fall and snow coverage and the Arctic Sea ice is back with a vengence we hear . . . nothing.

    2008 so far is shaping up to be cooler than normal. January was well below average and February is extending the trend. Lots of stories in 2007 how AGW would put ski resorts out of business. This year, not so much.

    Enjoy the pretty pictures though Amazing Pictures of the Big Freeze 2008

  36. Those are, as I’m sure you know, ankle-biter arguments.

    Any theory can be broadly supported and wrong in some details, or in the cases deniers like to quote, subject to local variation.

    It has not snowed here here in CA in a century, but it could tomorrow. Random variation, and local variation, are superimposed on broader global trends.

    The freak storm would not (to any sane person) disprove broader issues of climate.

  37. Odo – I would agree with you that a single year doesn’t make a long term trend.

    But whay are they ankle biter arguments when I make the argument but NOT when Al Gore puts them in AIT?

  38. Stuff I’ve read claims that solar thermal using molten salt provides energy storage for several *days* with fairly small losses. Any insights as to how true this is?

    I guess you could make the losses almost as low as you wanted by improving insultation…in the extreme, you could make the storage chamber in the form of a giant thermal bottle…but the interesting question is the economically-practical storage level.

  39. I know I’ve gone over this with RR, but I’ll regurgitate it here again.

    About 2 years ago, I tried to calculate the solar efficiency of biofuels and got some very low numbers. It’s difficult to calculate accurately, because of all of the fossil fuel inputs, but it’s down in the <1% range of conversion of the solar radiation that falls on the crop over the season. I was amazed at the amount of effort and land use that has gone into biofuels with this low of a solar conversion.

    The general problem with solar is that as an intermittent power source, wind is more feasible. It has to be base load reliable to become the primary electrical generation system. What we have seen so far in large scale Solar PV and Solar Thermal are systems that are geared towards providing power for peek usage and not base load. This is understandable because the capital cost per kilowatt is still too high compared to fossil fuel generation to compete outside of peak usage hours. Great for the southern US, but not-so-great for the northern US and Canada where peak electrical happens in both August afternoons and midnights in February.

    Geothermal is base load reliable, but not available everywhere and not necessarily renewable where it available. The other problem is that like OTEC, if the temperature gradient is too small and the hot and cold points too far apart, it takes too much energy to move the working media for the system to be energy positive.

    The SHPEGS idea is to build a massive solar powered water heater and use it to create a local geothermal source. The concept is much like an air-coupled heat pump pool heater, but rather than using a compressor style heat pump, a solar powered absorption heat pump is used. The theory being that in wattage much more heat can be moved from the ambient air than takes to move it. This heat is at a much lower temperature than is possible with CSP, but it’s the quantity of lower grade heat and the efficiency that this massive quantity is moved that is the point.

    The system would be similar to Drake Landing Solar Community with a binary geothermal generator like UTC Power supplies and is used at Chena Hot Springs.

    The peak efficiency and output of the SHPEGS system is going to be lower than a traditional CSP or Solar PV system and the capital investment higher per peak kW output, but it is base load reliable, much more efficient than any biofuel idea and can be built anywhere the sun shines.

    Way back at the top I mentioned biofuels. A Solar Sterling system is at around 30% efficient, solar trough a solid 20% and existing solar PV in the 15-20% range. Putting solar panels on corn land is at least a 20x improvement in solar energy conversion over ethanol. Not a liquid fuel, but it tells you why we aren’t going to win with biofuels if a system that is 20X more efficient at converting solar energy still isn’t feasible competing with Coal/NG power generation.

  40. Basically, projects like this are a fine idea, but we need to inject a bit of realism into our calculations.

    First, we need fossil fuels to manufacture, transport, deploy, and maintain this hardware. If we think of the future, it’s all the more incentive to conserve fossil fuels. And the corollary is, we will probably never be completely “free” from fossil fuels.

    Second, there is the matter of dust, which I think many people overlook. Dust settles on everything, and not all of it is removed by rain and wind. This I have learned from my solar hot water heater. Going up on the roof a few times a year to clean the glass panels raises efficiency. Of course this comes under “maintenance” mentioned above, but it’s almost completely overlooked.

    Third, missing from this post, and from just about every essay and article one reads on alternative energy supplies, is the idea of powering down. Why is “power down” such a dirty word? Actually, we can do with much less energy than we now wastefully consume. How many lights are left on in rooms with no one in them? How many televisions are left on with no one watching them? And that’s just the start. Cut the waste and the glitz, and modern economies could probably cut their energy consumption by one-third.

    Since “power down” is a dirty word, especially in America, we always calculate our energy “needs” by factoring in the waste, as was done here. So, if we factor in conservation instead of waste, we could do with a lot less area.

  41. You can probably find me faulting Gore for the storms here, or for the time-compression on sea level rise.

    But interestingly his highlight on the feedback between ice melting, freshwater lakes, fissures and rivers, and accelerated melting are holding up pretty well.

    To make it clear though, Gore sometimes bites ankles ;-). Its a good thing the broader science is broadly on his side.

  42. “Why is “power down” such a dirty word?”

    It isn’t with me. I only need enough electricity to replace my $12 electric bill … oh, and my $22 gas bill … oh, and maybe power a scooter or NEV. Then I’m good.

  43. “power down”

    I’m going to throw out some ballpark numbers on banning electric and NG clothes dryers and mandating solar powered clothes dryers across North America.

    Suppose that the 280MW peak Solar Thermal plant puts out average 2GWh/day for a cost of $4b. Assuming that an average home has a 4kW electric clothes dryer that runs for a half hour per day average, 2,000,000/2=1 million homes. If a $100 grant was given out to install clotheslines in 1 million homes, that is $100 million to save 2Gwh/day.

    $100 million is a long way from $4 billion for the same amount of power.

    This plan would fail miserably because even if you could find someone in that many homes willing to put the extra effort into hanging out their clothes, many subdivisions have by-laws against clotheslines.

    Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.

  44. As an incremental improvement, apparently we can save half the power used in electric clothes dryers.

    I suspect that there are many such improvements waiting in the wings.

    I know I get distracted by bright shiny things, and side discussions about storms and clothes dryers.

    But here is what I think is key:

    On a hard engineering level, efficiency is cheaper for an individual than private production (rooftop wind or solar).

    On a hard engineering level, industrial scale solar-thermal beats PV.

    The arguments for other approaches are .. let’s face it, emotional. It’s about how you feel about your roof and your solar cells.

    As far as how fast and how quick to go … I don’t think we need to justify speed. There is plenty of opportunity to just increase the share of wind/solar in each region. I’m talking about incremental improvement. Add a little bit to diversify your sources and improve your footprint.

  45. By the way, it looks like solar power will take up lots of land.
    So, we say, put it in the desert.
    A better idea? Put it ner desert towns, on top of huge warehouses. Rent the space underneath, and sell the power from on top.

  46. David writes:
    Stuff I’ve read claims that solar thermal using molten salt provides energy storage for several *days* with fairly small losses. Any insights as to how true this is?

    Sandia National Laboratories claims just that.
    http://www.sandia.gov/Renewable_Energy/solarthermal/NSTTF/salt.htm
    The uniqueness of this solar system is in de-coupling the collection of solar energy from producing power, electricity can be generated in periods of inclement weather or even at night using the stored thermal energy in the hot salt tank. The tanks are well insulated and can store energy for up to a week. As an example of their size, tanks that provide enough thermal storage to power a 100-megawatt turbine for four hours would be about 30 feet tall and 80 feet in diameter. Studies show that the two-tank storage system could have an annual efficiency of about 99 percent.

    So the molten salt thermal storage technology is there. I don’t know about the cost.

    Speaking of costs… the Abengoa solar thermal plant is to be 280MW peak and is supposed to generate $4 billion in energy over 30 years. If bc is right that the capacity factor is around 25%, then that’s
    280,000KW x 0.25 x 24 h/day x 365 days/year x 30 years = 18.4 billion KWH
    generated over that 30 year period.
    $4 billion / 18.4 billion KWH = 22 cents/ KWH.
    A bit pricey, but as RR concludes, the energy and technology and desert area is out there to run US on solar power…. if we’re willing to pay for it.

  47. Robert- We dont get all our electric power from one fuel. I just got an Email from aler@energysmart.com to which I subscribe. They were talking about wind turbines going blue blazes in Texas. This one rancher is getting $5oo p/mo. each for 78 on this. Now, Boone Pickens wants to invest 1 billion for his own machines. I am not a WEsterner but you must realise there are a number of other states endowed with plenty of wind. Try adding that to your calculator. J.C., Sr.

  48. “The arguments for other approaches are .. let’s face it, emotional.”

    I see it as a matter of national security odograph. The technology is available now for people’s homes to provide their energy needs. Not in every state,but in enough states to make a serious dent in fossil fuel usage. If Congress doesn’t mandate solar roofs on new homes,solar power will never be more than a curiosity for most folks. Some day our homes will be viewed as batteries. The sooner we act,the better. Oil and gas imports bloat our trade deficit. They fund hostile regimes. And they foul the air we breathe. If we can fix those problems with solar roofs and electric cars,you’re damn right I favor a Congressional mandate. There would still be room for commercial production of all forms of renewable energy. There is no single cure for our fossil fuel addiction. But Robert has the right idea about a Manhattan type project. Something that lends the air of urgency is needed.

  49. My electric bill is $2.50 a month. That’s what they charge me to have someone read the meter and verify it’s still running backwards.

  50. “My electric bill is $2.50 a month.”

    That’s nice Robert. But,how many people will go to the same lengths as yourself absent a federal mandate? Enough people to make a difference? I don’t see it happening.

  51. 1. NREL says that the annual average solar radiation available (insolation) to a two axis tracking solar concentrator, as would be used by this type of project, in the desert around the CA, AZ, NV borders is about 7.0 — 8.5 kWh/m^2/day, I will use 8, because it is a nice round number.

    2. A solar collector in the southwestern desert would collect ~2920 kWh/m^2/year.

    3. EIA says that the US generated about 2,874 Billion kWh from fossil fuels in 2006.

    4. No energy conversion device can be 100% efficient. The maximum efficency of a heat engine is based on the ratio between the temperature of the hot fluid and the cold fluid measured in degrees from absolute zero (-273.15 C). The article above mentions a hot fluid at 700 Fahrenheit, but that is ~370 Celsius or 640 Kelvin (in round numbers). One issue that strikes me about solar thermal plants in the desert is the cold side. Deserts tend not to have much cooling water available. I suppose you can use air cooling, but that might limit plant efficiency and drive up cost and land use. Further, not every inch can be used for solar collectors. Just guessing I would think we would be lucky to see 33% thermal efficiency, and by the time you factored in all the land that was used for things other than collecting solar energy, I think we would be lucky to see 20% of insolation turned into electricity. YMMV.

    5. So to generate ~2900 Billion kWh/yr at an insolation of 2920 kWh/m^2/year and an efficiency of 20% would require 5 billion m^2. One sq km is one million m^2, so we are discussing an area of 5000 sq km or about 70 km on a side. (about 640 times the size of the plant above)

    6. All of this ignores the issue of matching production to consumption.

    7. It also ignores the environmental impact on the Devil’s Hole pupfish.

    8. Nor does this cover the other uses of energy such as residential heat now supplied by fossil fuels, and transportation. Covering those uses might require doubling or tripling the amount of land covered.

    9. Disclaimer: I am neither an engineer nor a physicist, nor I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

  52. “If Congress doesn’t mandate solar roofs on new homes,solar power will never be more than a curiosity for most folks.”

    And if they do new homes will never be more than a curiosity for most folks.

  53. This plan would fail miserably because even if you could find someone in that many homes willing to put the extra effort into hanging out their clothes, many subdivisions have by-laws against clotheslines.

    Yeah that and it’s pretty hard to dry your cloths in the winter time when it’s below freezing. But hey I guess people don’t need to have clean cloths year round.

  54. To add to Ricefarmer’s solid common sense —

    There are seasonal variations as well as daily variations in power demand. Lots of power demand in winter-time, when days are short and 6 hours of storage won’t get us from sunset to the next shivering dawn. Required nameplate capacity & energy storage have probably been significantly under-estimated.

    Those “deserts” that people here are so keen to cover with industrial solar plants are (in certain other people’s eyes) sensitive irreplacable valuable ecosystems. Anyone care to guess how many decades it would take (under current environmental rules) to go through an approval process for covering thousands of square miles of land with industrial equipment?

    None of this technology is new. Fly out of Albuquerque NM and you can still see the solar tower Sandia Labs built many years ago, surrounded by mirrors. The issues were (and probably still are) costs and energy storage. Once those problems are licked, this technology will move ahead as fast as the environmentalists will let it — without any subsidies or mandates.

    And let me add an editorial comment — any large-scale energy supply scheme is going to face a serious problem from over-regulation, wealthy litigious environmental extremists, and assinine counter-productive Congressional mandates.

    If we can find the democratic will to overcome those self-inflicted obstacles with sense & balance, then we could more straightforwardly meet our energy needs by installing proven nuclear technology.

  55. bob rohatensky said… “many subdivisions have by-laws against clotheslines.”

    Right, and this is one more example of why modern economies are structurally wasteful of energy.

    paul said… “Yeah that and it’s pretty hard to dry your cloths in the winter time when it’s below freezing. But hey I guess people don’t need to have clean cloths year round.”

    That depends on how bad you want to save energy. We don’t have a clothes dryer, and never have. Yet we have clean clothes year around. And we live in the mountains where it’s freezing in the winter.

    Power down!

  56. Yeah that and it’s pretty hard to dry your cloths in the winter time when it’s below freezing.

    Not really. My Grandmother and Mom would hang out clothes in the winter in Canada. Although the air temp can be as low as -30C, the relative humidity is zero. The wet cloth freezes and if there is any sun at all they dry out rather quickly even in sub-zero temperatures.

    The problem is that if you are hanging clothes in sub-zero temperatures is what it does to your hands.

    In rural Saskatchewan, electricity was only installed in the 1950’s and people managed prior to that.

  57. ‘A lot of “land” is available right now of rooftops.’

    Although it won’t change your total area, there’s probably an optimal size for a non-PV solar power site, eg, where fluid is heated and sent through a turbine, there’s likely an optimal turbine size that maximises efficiency. So even if you can put them on roofs that may (I have no knowledge on this) lose so much energy being piped to the turbine that it’s economically seriously suboptimal. So it’s not just “have you got the land?”, but “have you got enough of the right sized chunks of free land?”.

  58. Algeria exports oil and gas. And they’re planning to export solar energy to Europe by 2015. I guess we can just sit on our hands and import solar electricity form OPEC when the oil runs out. After all,they have more sand and fewer environmentalists,right?

  59. Maury — any energy source that is economic will get used, somewhere. No question about that.

    The primary issue is the economics — both of generating the power and of getting the energy to the point of use (maybe thousands of miles away).

    China & India (which don’t have to worry about wealthy environmentalists who have been given the legal right to stop absolutely anything anywhere) are putting a lot of resources into nuclear power. Draw your own conclusion.

  60. On the dryer thing (bright shiny object #2), I thought the heat-transfer argument made sense, but no biggie. Either it works in Consumer Reports testing or it doesn’t.

    On PV here’s an opportunity for the industrious. We are trying to compare house-solar to industrial-solar. The variables include:

    Efficiency of placement, on a roof profile or, ideally on a tracking mount.

    Optimality of location. Rooftop PV seems clustered (in CA) around the bay area. At first sight that seems a poor location, and follows less a solar-efficiency map than a political (lefties) or wealth (richies) map.

    Diligence in maintenance, especially washing the panels.

    Someone with the time and chops might compute how many more MW we’d get spending the same tax subsidies in the desert, on maintained PV (or of course solar-thermal).

    I don’t think we should subsidize energy, but if we are going to, we should at least be engineers about it.

  61. @larryd and @kingofkaty

    What’s the relevance of current ice extent, tropical cyclones and the kilimanjaro glacier to the topic at hand?

    Regards
    Luke

  62. “The primary issue is the economics — both of generating the power and of getting the energy to the point of use”

    I see the primary issue as national security kinuachdrach. Our nation isn’t secure until it’s energy self-sufficient. The oil shocks of the 70’s were nothing compared to what we face shortly. Our way of life is in danger,and unless we act quickly it can go to hell in a handbasket before people even know what hit them. Spare oil capacity is only a couple million barrels. Either the world has a severe recession,which would make supplies stretch a bit further,or the oil goes to whoever can afford the most within the next year or two. Either way,the brakes are about to be applied to the U.S. economy.

    USA today ran a story today about the lack of grid capacity for all the new wind farms. The 45% jump in wind power last year used up all the spare capacity. Just one more reason I believe new homes should come with solar roofs. I remember the same arguments made about government interference in private markets when catalytic converters were mandated. But,how many people were willing to pay extra for that option?

  63. I don’t think we are on quite such a precipice, but it is common sense to have a diversity of supply. I’d hate to be tied to a single source of power.

    Luckily Southern California Edison feels the same way, with the largest source’s share (nat gas) at around 33%.

  64. Odo, add my voice to the chorus saying the dryer thing is a scam. Heater coils convert electricity to heat with almost 100% efficiency. If that heat doesn’t go into the air blowing into the drum, where does it go?

    Of course in low humidity conditions a dryer needs no heat at all, just blow air through the rotating drum. Takes a lot longer and yields more wrinkles, but saves tons of energy. Most dryers also have low temp settings which also use less energy. I think that’s basically what this guy does — cooler air for more time. The $300 oil radiator is just a gimmick.

  65. FatMan – your math is OK but you can’t place trackers next to each because they’ll shade each other in morning and evening. Single-axis (trough) systems have more than twice as much land area as collector area and two-axis (e.g. Dish-Stirling) run more like 4x. That’s why you need 100×100 sq miles instead of your 45×45.

  66. I’m convinced we’re on that precipice odograph. Some “experts” are predicting $200 oil by the end of the year. I see plug-in hybrids and all electric cars as one answer to increasingly tight supplies. Unfortunately,even if the public snaps the cars up when they start hitting the market in 2010,the grid isn’t prepared to handle it. High power lines can take 10 years to build. Utility companies won’t start building until they see the demand. It’s chicken and egg time. And 2010 is crunch time in my opinion. When demand will overcome supply and the shiite hits the fan.

    Allowing private enterprise to provide solutions as needed sounds good until you realise big projects take years to implement,while lines at gas stations can form overnight.

  67. silburnl said…
    @larryd and @kingofkaty

    What’s the relevance of current ice extent, tropical cyclones and the kilimanjaro glacier to the topic at hand?

    Nothing. About like discussions on clothes lines.

  68. Allowing private enterprise to provide solutions as needed sounds good until you realise big projects take years to implement,while lines at gas stations can form overnight.

    Maury, a lot of leftists get hung up on the ownership issue. When we are talking about introducing new technology (as we are here), the real issue is — Who gets to make the decision about which way to go?

    If some bureaucrats or a handful of politicians get to make an uninformed decision and force it down everyone’s throat, we end up with really stupid government political wastes of money like the ethanol mandates that our host has so ably speared recently.

    The other approach is to let as many people as possible put their money on the table and back their own choices. Typically, that is a market economy. In theory, we could provide multiple choice even with government involvement, but first we would have to change the nature of government. Elected leftists tend to be control freaks — unfortunately often ignorant stupid control freaks.

  69. Is anyone aware of any anti-solar arguments, what I call “The Solar Asphalt Argument” where complaints about land area use? It usually involves invoking the image of pristine land covered over with silicon cells placing flora in deadly shade.

    Fresnel lenses arranged like an artificial photocanopy forest overstory (think crytalline palm trees) shouldn’t have much of an impact.

  70. And carbon dioxide molecules are in fact ultra-fine particles.

    Writing for the lay public does that to web authors sometimes.. 🙂

  71. What’s the relevance of current ice extent, tropical cyclones and the kilimanjaro glacier to the topic at hand?

    A not entirely unrelated aside. The article relates thusly: Anthropogenic Global Warming is over-hyped. But if we’re in for a climate minimum, all energy options should be considered. However, cost is a consideration.

    Is anyone aware of any anti-solar arguments, what I call “The Solar Asphalt Argument” where complaints about land area use? It usually involves invoking the image of pristine land covered over with silicon cells placing flora in deadly shade.

    Any solar collectors, with or without concentrators, will keep the solar energy diverted from falling on ground, even if the physical footprint is 1% of the area covered.

    What some environmentalists want is a return to the 18th or 19th Century, with the implicit die-off of people. As long as it isn’t them, they’re fine with it. You can’t make them happy. Don’t bother trying. We will have to take their opposition into account in our planning though.

  72. “The other approach is to let as many people as possible put their money on the table and back their own choices. Typically, that is a market economy.”

    Yes,and I’m normally in favor of letting the free market do its thing. Did you see the comments by by the Chairman of Shell recently? Earth’s population is set to rise 50% in the next 40 years,and energy use is expected to double. Shell also believes it will be decades before renewable fuels are economically viable. That leaves coal and nuclear to make up the difference.

    We can either wait decades for the “free economy” to get on board,or we can use government to make renewables economically viable today. Tax the hell out of fossil fuels,and renewables become viable immediately. Right or wrong?

  73. Flashy object #1:

    Larryd, a doctor told me I might have cancer once, but it turns out I didn’t. Since that doctor was wrong, in that one case, cancer is overrated?

    Flashy object #2:

    Oil-filled room heaters do have a better reputation that simple coils, why is that?

  74. Tax the hell out of fossil fuels,and renewables become viable immediately.

    Tax the hell out of fossil fuels, and people become poor immediately. Since those poor people have no money to spend, jobs are lost, children go hungry.

    And, since so-called “renewables” depend very heavily on fossil fuel inputs for mining & manufacturing their raw materials, the costs of “renewables” will go up along with the price of fossil fuels.

    Ah, you may say, but Big Government will spend the tax money wisely and make up for all those bad effects. Big Government is just people — often the least creative and least competent people, and sometimes even just plain corrupt people.

    Having Big Government make all the decisions has been proven, time & again, not to work. Look at Cuba under the communist dictatorship of Castro. This is a far-left intrusive government — surely the people should be doing well? Instead, families have to prostitute their daughters to Canadian sex tourists in order to feed the rest of the family.

    One other thing to think about, Maury, since you like the idea of high taxes.

    High taxes put up the price of oil, but the exporters get no benefit from it — get no incentive to invest in production. That won’t last indefinitely. If we want to pay a high price for oil, the exporters will gladly take our money. If we want to get the same effect by high taxes, we had better be prepared down the road to share those tax revenues with the exporters.

  75. “Tax the hell out of fossil fuels, and people become poor immediately. Since those poor people have no money to spend, jobs are lost, children go hungry.”

    For some values of “the hell out of” this is true, certainly.

    The economists say they have some answer short of this, of course.

  76. @kingofkaty

    And it appears that snow has in fact returned to Kilamanjaro. Snow returns

    The article you refer to is in the Travel and Dining section of that newspaper. The author mentions how there was more snow than they expected, and I quote:

    “As it turned out, we had simply been lucky. …several weeks of heavy rain and snow preceded the arrival of our group…”

    This is not what I would call scientific evidence of snow returning to the mountain.

  77. mark – take it up with Al Gore. It was his stupid claim that Kilimanjaro was representative of AGW. And over the last year we’ve heard that lack of snowfall and Arctic sea ice are caused by AGW. We were just pointing out that it is back this year and no mention in the news.

    So the Travel section isn’t a good place for news about science? I suppose the editorial page isn’t either.

  78. Kinuachdrach writes:
    And, since so-called “renewables” depend very heavily on fossil fuel inputs for mining & manufacturing their raw materials, the costs of “renewables” will go up along with the price of fossil fuels.

    And yet despite the rising price of oil last year, the price of photovoltaics actually decreased in 2007.
    http://www.solarbuzz.com/

  79. My friend Jerry Unruh e-mailed me a response to this. Said he tried to post it, but had a problem. He was the second person yesterday to tell me he had a problem posting. Anyone else?

    Here is Jerry’s response:

    Robert: The number you calculated is amazingly close to the number calculated using energy instead of power and assuming 15% efficiency as is obtained for single crystal Si solar panels. The average energy/Sq meter – yr for the lower 48 states is 1,800 kWh (NREL). Using these numbers I obtain 10,048 sq mi. However, I have not factored in storage efficiency and the fact that there has to be space around the PV panels to avoid shadows. Never the less, both calculations show that it is feasible, particularly with conservation which has to be a part of all solutions to the energy crisis. In addition, there are now experimental panels operating as high as 40% efficiency.

    This is a great time to point out my grave concern for push toward biomass. The solar efficiencies for biomass (ignoring fossil fuel inputs) is quite low; ~0.1% for ethanol from corn; ~0.025% for biodiesel from soy; ~0.25% for biodiesel from palm oil. In addition two articles in “Science Express” indicate that clearing native ecosystems to plant crops for biofuels leads to substantial CO2 deficits that take 17 to more than 400 years to break even. To put this in perspective, to meet our transportation needs of ~25 quads of energy requires the entire area of the lower 48 states at 0.05% solar efficiency (total U.S. energy use is ~105 quads). Concentrating solar power, thermal solar, PV, and concentrating PV make more sense.

  80. Robert, I’ve been reading about solar satellite systems lately. The Pentagon recently expressed interest. If they receive 8X the sunlight of a terrestrial system and work 24/7,how many square miles of atmosphere do we need to power the U.S.? And would it be enough to reverse global warming?

  81. maury…check out this discussion on another blog. It runs through some of the issues with space based solar.

    http://tinyurl.com/33cpbh

    I think the military is looking into it because for them cost is no issue. Fuel is very hard to transport into a combat zone, but if you could beam solar energy straight to your troops it would be worthwhile.

  82. Robert Rapier, 10,000 sq miles seems about right for all US energy demand using concentrated solar.

    About a quarter that for SiO2 based PV.

    I am trying to collect data on all the PV players, their efficiency (% of sunlight converted into energy, cost per square feet of panel surface, cost per kilowatt adjusted for life cycle costs and installation costs)

    Is there a breakdown in projected PV capacity (preferably 2008 or backward looking 2007), broken down by company:
    Sharp’s PV division
    STP
    SPWR
    FSLR
    YGE
    TSL
    BP’s PV division
    Many others

  83. It’s no longer just anecdotal, Anthony Watts compares the indicators: (emphasis mine)
    January 2008 was an exceptional month for our planet, with a significant cooling. January 2007 started out well above normal.

    January 2008 capped a 12 month period of global temperature drops on all of the major well respected indicators I have reported in the past two weeks that HadCRUT, RSS, UAH, and GISS global temperature sets all show sharp drops in the last year.

    Here are the 4 major temperature metrics compared top to bottom, with the most recently released at the top:

    This cooling period just happens to correlate with the absence of sunspots over the same period, as the last solar cycle ends and the beginning of the next was late.

    On AGW being over-hyped: see Dr. Lindzen
    Dr. Lindzen is proud of his contribution, and that of his colleagues, to the IPCC chapter they worked on. His pride in this work matches his dismay at seeing it misrepresented. “[Almost all reading and coverage of the IPCC is restricted to the highly publicized Summaries for Policymakers which are written by representatives from governments, NGOs and business; the full reports, written by participating scientists, are largely ignored,” he told the United States Senate committee on environment and public works in 2001. These unscientific summaries, often written to further political or business agendas, then become the basis of public understanding.

    As an example, Dr. Lindzen provided the committee with the summary that was created for Chapter 7, which he worked on. “Understanding of climate processes and their incorporation in climate models have improved, including water vapour, sea-ice dynamics, and ocean heat transport,” the summary stated, creating the impression that the climate models were reliable. The actual report by the scientists indicated just the opposite. Dr. Lindzen testified that the scientists had “found numerous problems with model treatments — including those of clouds and water vapor.”

    When the IPCC was stung by criticism that the summaries were being written with little or no input by the scientists themselves, the IPCC had a subset of the scientists review a subsequent draft summary — an improvement in the process. Except that the final version, when later released at a Shanghai press conference, had surprising changes to the draft that scientists had seen.

    The version that emerged from Shanghai concludes, “In the light of new evidence and taking into account the remaining uncertainties, most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.” Yet the draft was rife with qualifiers making it clear the science was very much in doubt because “the accuracy of these estimates continues to be limited by uncertainties in estimates of internal variability, natural and anthropogenic forcing, and the climate response to external forcing.”

    The summaries’ distortion of the IPCC chapters compounds another distortion that occurred in the very writing of the scientific chapters themselves. Dr. Lindzen’s description of the conditions under which the climate scientists worked conjures up a scene worthy of a totalitarian state: “throughout the drafting sessions, IPCC ‘coordinators’ would go around insisting that criticism of models be toned down, and that ‘motherhood’ statements be inserted to the effect that models might still be correct despite the cited faults. Refusals were occasionally met with ad hominem attacks. I personally witnessed coauthors forced to assert their ‘green’ credentials in defense of their statements.”

  84. larryd – I see you read Anthony Watts blog also. What do you make of Dr. Joanne Simpson’s letter? Now that she is retired she is free to express her opinion:

    There is no doubt that atmospheric greenhouse gases are rising rapidly and little doubt that some warming and bad ecological events are occurring. However, the main basis of the claim that man’s release of greenhouse gases is the cause of the warming is based almost entirely upon climate models. We all know the frailty of models concerning the air-surface system. We only need to watch the weather forecasts. However, a vocal minority of scientists so mistrusts the models and the complex fragmentary data, that some claim that global warming is a hoax.

    Few of these people seem to have any skeptical self-criticism left, although virtually all of the claims are derived from either flawed data sets or imperfect models or both. The term “global warming” itself is very vague. Where and what scales of response are measurable? One distinguished scientist has shown that many aspects of climate change are regional, some of the most harmful caused by changes in human land use. No one seems to have properly factored in population growth and land use, particularly in tropical and coastal areas.

    My emphasis in bold above. I’ve had this same argument with Odograph multiple times. I remain an agnostic on the science side of the debate. I just don’t believe we have enough good climate data or adequate computer models to make the kind of definitive statements the AGW crowd throws around. I think good intelligent people can look at the data and come to different conclusions.

    You can count on the name calling to begin soon.

  85. @Larryd and @Kingofkaty

    You’ve already admitted that this AGW-septicism stuff has nothing to do with the original blog post. Why do you keep harping on about it?

    Regards
    Luke

  86. Blogger clee said…

    Kinuachdrach writes:
    “And, since so-called “renewables” depend very heavily on fossil fuel inputs for mining & manufacturing their raw materials, the costs of “renewables” will go up along with the price of fossil fuels.”

    “And yet despite the rising price of oil last year, the price of photovoltaics actually decreased in 2007.”

    But I think Kinuachdrach is onto something. Products might indeed go down in price despite rising input costs because of efficiency gains and economies of scale. But those compensating factors can’t last indefinitely. If they could, then we could still power the world economy with wood. Kinuachdrach is right to point out the dependence of “renewables” on fossil fuels. This should be a big warning sign, but unfortunately hardly anyone deems it worthy of consideration. People just assume the energy to manufacture, transport, deploy, and maintain the infrastructure for renewables will be there. This is the same flaw in the thinking on how we’ll keep our fleets of cars on the road: People consider only the energy needed to propel vehicles, but not that to manufacture the vehicles or that to maintain our vast road networks. But it seems no one is willing to pick this fly out of the ointment.

  87. LarryD said…
    Any solar collectors, with or without concentrators, will keep the solar energy diverted from falling on ground, even if the physical footprint is 1% of the area covered.

    Yeah, like trees shading an understory in agroforestry. A concentrating lens (not reflector) will never be black-hole 100% effecient. And plants can’t use much of a fraction of 100% of peak insolation anyway. Add on the <1% overall productivity of plants ("biosolar") perhaps we should be using daily just-in-time solarelectric harvesting to grow our food, fix carbon dioxide and nitrogen and oxygenate our air, in addition to the usual biofuels pathways(electrolysis, ammonia for yeast, algae and fungi, reduction syn gas for fermentation, and other biochemical intermediates, as well as the conventional inputs like fertilizer)

    Sorry, just having a flashback to the 100-years-old idea of making food from coal gasification. 😉

  88. Rice Farmer writes:
    Products might indeed go down in price despite rising input costs because of efficiency gains and economies of scale. But those compensating factors can’t last indefinitely. … People just assume the energy to manufacture, transport, deploy, and maintain the infrastructure for renewables will be there.

    Well, if that energy isn’t there, then we’ve got bigger problems to worry about than the price of renewables. World wide depression. But some amount of bootstrapping can be done. I do worry about transportation fuels because we seem to be far away from a scaleable solution. But most of the other stuff can be supplied by electricity, which could include nuclear power. Good or bad, I think if fossil fuels get too scarce and if renewables can’t be built quickly or cheaply enough, people will turn to nuclear energy rather than conserve their way to energy independence.

    Well-sited wind farms and high temperature geothermal power are already close in price to natural gas, so if there’s not much efficiency gains and economies of scale left, they may still be economically viable. I read that a 7 MW wind turbine is being built. Just last year the largest was 5 MW, and only a few years ago it was 3 MW. So there are still some gains left.

    Solar electricity is no where near as cheap as fossil-fuel electricity, but there’s still lots of room for cost reductions. The lower cost and higher efficiency improvements in thin film PV last year alone has been amazing. So while you’re right, there is likely a limit to how much cost can be taken out of photovoltaics, there’s no way to know for sure today if that limit will eventually be below the price of fossil fuel electricity or not. I’m sure not going to tell the scientists and researchers that they should stop trying just because some pessimists believe they will fail. That’s the same reason why I don’t begrudge cellulosic ethanol researchers their subsidies even though I’m convinced it’s doomed to fail. I could be wrong and if they succeed, to me it’ll be worth the subsidies.

    I suppose I quoted Kinuachdrach out of context. I am not advocating “tax the hell out of fossil fuels”.

  89. rice farmer wrote:
    Kinuachdrach is right to point out the dependence of “renewables” on fossil fuels. This should be a big warning sign, but unfortunately hardly anyone deems it worthy of consideration.

    Thanks, but I cannot claim any originality for the concept, rice farmer. It was well-explained by Prof. Reynolds in his book “Scarcity and Growth Considering Oil and Energy: an Alternative Neo-Classical View”.

    Prof. Reynolds invokes what he calls the “entropy subsidy” — we use high quality (concentrated energy) fossil fuels to mine the materials & make the equipment to capture low quality (highly diffuse) “renewable” energy. For sustainability, the energy inputs to manufacturing the equipment for “renewables” will ultimately have to come from “renewables” themselves. This loss of the entropy subsidy will, he predicts, eventually drive the cost of “renewable” energy to unforeseen heights — and thereby cut the supply of usable energy to a low level.

    Because of this thesis, Prof. Reynolds is very pessimistic about the future of civilization. Humanity will survive, but technological civilization will follow many earlier civilizations into the dust.

    On the other hand, he unnecessarily rejects the possiblities for expanded nuclear power — probably a consequence of working in a politically correct university environment.

  90. Thanks to Kinuachdrach for mentioning Reynolds. I have not read that book, but your mention of the “entropy subsidy” reminded me of this article, in which the term appears.

    http://www.hubbertpeak.com/reynolds/MineralEconomy.htm

    People do not realize how much fossil fuel energy is invested in what Petroleum Man has already built, and in the “renewable” infrastructure now being built. There is much expectation that renewables are going to maintain what oil has built, but it ain’t gonna happen.

  91. You guys still come to these old threads?

    “My emphasis in bold above. I’ve had this same argument with Odograph multiple times. I remain an agnostic on the science side of the debate. I just don’t believe we have enough good climate data or adequate computer models to make the kind of definitive statements the AGW crowd throws around. I think good intelligent people can look at the data and come to different conclusions.”

    What happens when you ignore the “crowds” and the implied strawman, and just listen to the foremost scientific organizations in the land?

  92. Alarmist odograph wrote:
    What happens when you ignore the “crowds” and the implied strawman, and just listen to the foremost scientific organizations in the land?

    Odograph — we have had this discussion before. You failed to support your point then, and nothing has changed.

    “Appeals to authority” have their (strictly limited) place. However, they are no substitute for a well-reasoned scientific case based on measureable facts.

    When so many devotees of alleged anthropogenic global warming are incapable of presenting any kind of reasonable scientific case, and when the “authorities” turn out to be rather inauthoritative or compromised by their own financial interests, then it is not surprising that intelligent observers refuse to drink the Kool-Aid.

  93. You have a basic misunderstanding of the “argument from authority.”

    You are making it, not I.

    I, in my humility, listen to the not just scientists, but the national and international organizations set up to screen for the best answers from the scientists.

    You’ve wanted me to reject that, get down in the dirt, and argue with their conclusions.

    Indeed, you’ve demanded that I claim myself an expert.

    As you yourself claim to be, right?

  94. odograph wrote, quite wisely:
    anti-intellectualism is a poor substitute for real science.

    Agreed. Now, which is anti-intellectualism: Insisting on a coherent fact-based scientific case? Or shouting that all arguments are over, and that the little people simply have to accept unquestionningly what their superiors have told them?

    Real science should be the basis for any horrendously expensive (and thereby option-closing) public policy. So why are the proponents of alleged anthropogenic global warming so averse to discussing science?

  95. What is anti-intellectualism?

    It is rejecting the people who actually get the degrees and spend their lives trying to understand these things.

    It is insisting that the uneducated have a HIGHER insight.

    As in:

    “[…] that the little people simply have to accept unquestionningly what their superiors have told them?”

    You put in the word “superiors” because you didn’t want to think about the effort and achievement involved.

  96. You put in the word “superiors” because you didn’t want to think about the effort and achievement involved.

    No, little odo. The word “superior” was what some people would call irony.

    Any discussion about a scientific/technical matter ought to be focused on facts & testable hypothesis. But proponents of alleged anthropogenic global warming don’t seem to want to have that discussion; too many of them want to make it be about credentials of their saints.

    For my taste, that is too much like a religious discussion between Sunnis & Shias. Let’s stick to science, please. If the science is on your side, odo, what do credentials matter? Whoops! Irony again.

  97. Well, as I think I’ve said before, you got nuthin’

    Which is why rather than naming learned and august institutions who agree with you … you go off on “religion” as your next duck and weave.

  98. Odo — I don’t think you are as dumb as your comments on alleged anthropogenic global warming make you seem. But you obviously have an intense need to be part of the pack: “Four legs good, two legs better” — as George Orwell wrote. In the hope of reaching smart odo inside conformist odo, let me make something clear:

    I simply don’t care what it says on some guys’ business card. It is of zero importance. If Jesus, Mahommed, & Budda appeared together and said that alleged anthropogenic global warming was really really real, I would still want to see the data and to understand the physics as best I can. Of course, there are many elements of any theory that most of us are not going to be able to check completely, but we should at least be able to satisfy ourselves that the theory passes the smell test.

    If you pay more attention to job titles & credentials than to facts & theories, that is your perogative — but it is certainly not science.

    The basis of the scientific method is making testable hypotheses. If CO2 really drives global climate (as alarmists assert), then surely there should be an excellent correlation between atmospheric CO2 content and global temperature? But there is not — not over recent decades, and not over hundreds of thousands of years of reconstructed records. Does that suggest the CO2 hypothesis is deficient?

    I don’t expect conformist odo to respond. After all, this is science, not credentialism. But maybe deep inside conformist odo, smart odo might start to ask himself some questions.

  99. You are stuck asking commentators in back-threads to explain the science for you?

    This while you say you want to ignore the scientists with the degrees (“credentialism”) ?

    I’m not sure that is a formula for success.

  100. @Odograph
    “…I’m not sure that is a formula for success.”

    Indeed.

    I’ve had to bite my tongue several times at some of the ridiculous assertions that have been advanced by the septics here. However this whole kerfuffle is off-topic for the original post and I don’t want to derail the discussion.

    Suffice it to say that I disagree with pretty much everything larryd, kingofkaty (and latterly Kinuadrach) have raised here about AGW, but I’ll reserve my detailed arguments for another day in a more appropriate forum.

    Regards
    Luke

  101. Conformist odo wrote:
    You are stuck asking commentators in back-threads to explain the science for you?

    Not really. I have spent a fair amount of my valuable time trying to get an understanding of what alarmists claim is the most important issue of our times. Your (non-)responses simply help confirm an important observation from that research — most people who promote alarmism are incapable of presenting any kind of coherent scientific explanation.

    Smart odo would surely find that odd, even if conformist odo has to cover his ears.

    Simple analogy — if you were asked, odo, why you believe that the world is round, you could (I am sure) give a simple coherent scientificially-reasonable explanation, based on observation & theory. You would not be reduced to dragging out a list of academics who supported the “round earth” theory.

    Why are you not able to do something similar for the alleged anthropogenic global warming hypothesis? Think for yourself, man!

  102. You know, it’s kind of crazy to make it all about me

    … as if I alone prop up the scientific institutions of the world with my respect.

    It’s a amusing thought though:

    Doctor X: “It’s good news and bad news Jim … we got our funding but I’m worried that ‘odograph’ is starting to doubt us!”

    Doctor Y: “Oh, man! and EVERBODY goes to the old r-squared threads for their climate research!”

  103. … as if I alone prop up the scientific institutions of the world with my respect.

    Quite a burden there, odo!

    To be serious, it is not about “scientific institutions”, it is about science.

    It is amazing the number of educated intelligent people who simultaneously claim (1) that they believe in alleged anthropogenic global warming and (2) that they have no idea about what observations & theories underpin that hypothesis. Truly strange!

    Even our esteemed host, Robert Rapier, made a recent post on The Oil Drum where he in effect made the above claims.

    People like RR and you, odo, clearly have the intelligence & the technical background to make your own informed independent judgements, if you simply took the time to do a similar level of research into alleged anthropogenic global warming that you have done into many other energy-related matters.

    Why the refusal to look inside Pandora’s Box?

  104. Even our esteemed host, Robert Rapier, made a recent post on The Oil Drum where he in effect made the above claims.

    As I said, in areas in which I lack expertise, and it doesn’t look like I have the time to develop sufficient expertise, I defer to the experts.

    This is the same standard I apply if I go to the doctor. If a doctor tells me I have cancer and I need an operation, and then one after another concurs, am I going to put more trust in one in ten who says not to worry? How about if that one isn’t an oncologist? What if he is my dentist?

    As I said, the consensus of the experts can be wrong. But not too often. It happened recently with ulcer causation. But it looks to me like – and I do completely discount the sensationalism on the issue – that we have a significant scientific consensus on the issue.

    RR

  105. Our host wrote:
    But it looks to me like – and I do completely discount the sensationalism on the issue – that we have a significant scientific consensus on the issue.

    With much respect, Mr. R. — if you have done enough reading of serious scientific literature & listening to serious scientific discussion to have direct knowledge that there is “significant scientific consensus”, then you also have done enough spadework to make your own informed judgement about alleged anthropogenic global warming. Your excellent posts on a variety of other technical topics certainly show you have that ability.

    If all you have done is seen a press report of some very unimpressive work by a California historian claiming that there is a “consensus”, then you have not even been to see the first doctor, let alone got a confirmatory second opinion.

    Two simple questions, Robert:

    – What caused the indisputable variability in climate prior to any possible anthropogenic influence?

    – Why is the correlation between atmospheric CO2 and global temperature so poor?

    I ask those questions in good faith, as an honest seeker after truth — someone who is prepared to accept the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis if I ever see a convincing case. If the “scientific consensus” is so overwhelming, then surely the answers to questions like that would be at everybody’s fingertips?

  106. I really don’t intend to debate this, as I don’t have time to give it the time it needs. But this is what I mean by scientific consensus:

    THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE

    A joint statement issued by the Australian Academy of Sciences, Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts, Brazilian Academy of Sciences, Royal Society of Canada, Caribbean Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, French Academy of Sciences, German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina, Indian National Science Academy, Indonesian Academy of Sciences, Royal Irish Academy, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (Italy), Academy of Sciences Malaysia, Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and Royal Society (UK).

    The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) represents the consensus of the international scientific community on climate change science. We recognise IPCC as the world’s most reliable source of information on climate change and its causes, and we endorse its method of achieving this consensus. Despite increasing consensus on the science underpinning predictions of global climate change, doubts have been expressed recently about the need to mitigate the risks posed by global climate change. We do not consider such doubts justified.

    For me, the questions are 1). What do the experts say? 2). Is there considerable dissent among the experts? 3). What is the theory behind the observations?

    The answers to your questions are that there are many factors that affect climate – that is beyond dispute. But on the backdrop of the natural variation, is human activity contributing?

    This is, without a doubt, a complex issue. You can get different answers by looking at the data in different ways. That’s why I think it’s important to listen to those who do this for a living.

    Cheers, RR

  107. There is an interesting recent contrast.

    The long list of (taxpayer grant-pursuing) organizations you reported, Robert, said:

    The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) represents the consensus of the international scientific community on climate change science.

    Basically, this is an unscientific circle jerk — you point at some institution, that institution points at the IPCC, the IPCC … well, we all know about the IPCC, the organization that “denied” the existence of the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age.

    Note that no-one is actually taking responsibility for collecting, validating, & interpreting data. All we get is a scientifically-meaningless chant of ‘consensus’.

    Now compare that to real science.

    http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/space/2008-02-29-nasa-spacecraft-anomalies_N.htm

    Mysteriously, five spacecraft that flew past the Earth have each displayed unexpected anomalies in their motions. …

    A host of explanations have been bandied about for the Pioneer anomaly. At times these are rooted in conventional science — perhaps leaks from the spacecraft have affected their trajectories. At times these are rooted in more speculative physics — maybe the law of gravity itself needs to be modified.

    Here people are wondering if our understanding of gravitation needs to be changed — and there are no nasty insinuations about ‘gravity deniers’ or long lists of organizations asserting a ‘consensus’ on gravity.

    What we have here is normal good science. People measure things, they formulate hypotheses & make predictions, they test those predictions by making other measurements, and anomalies must be taken seriously and explained. Appeals to authority are no susbstute for measurements & testable hypotheses. And no theory is above scientific challenge.

    Why is alleged anthropogenic global warming different from all other science?

  108. Kinuachdrach writes on Feb 26 at 3:38 PM
    China & India (which don’t have to worry about wealthy environmentalists who have been given the legal right to stop absolutely anything anywhere) are putting a lot of resources into nuclear power. Draw your own conclusion.

    So I decided to see if I could find some numbers.

    http://www.iaea.org/programmes/a2/
    In China in 2006 and 2007 1000 MW of new nuclear power generation came on line each year.

    http://www.gwec.net/index.php?id=30&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=139
    In 2007, 3,449 MW of new wind power was installed in China. Considering the differences in capacity factor between nuclear and wind, the two would seem on par for new GWH of annual generation.

    http://www.iea-shc.org/publications/statistics/IEA-SHC_Solar_Heat_Worldwide-2007.pdf
    http://www.iea-shc.org/publications/statistics/IEA-SHC_Solar_Heat_Worldwide-2006.pdf
    Solar Hot Water installed capacity in 2005 was 53.5 GWth or 75 million square meters compared to 2004 was 43.4 GWth or 62 million square meters. So new installations in 2005 was 10.1 GWth or 13 million square meters

    I conclude that China finds wind to be as valuable as nuclear and that neither have reached their saturation point in China. Solar thermal hot water seems quite economical too. Solar electric, not so economical yet. Coal eclipses them all in China.

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