Monthly Archives: January 2012

Our Energy Needs and Global Warming

I’ve been avoiding the discussion of global warming/climate change, because it always degenerates into folly. However, here it is as simply as I can put it.

I have made as strong a case as I can that energy consumption on this planet will grow faster than expected, reaching 1,000 quads around 2030, 2000 quads around 2050 and 3000 quads around 2075. As things stand now, over half of that energy is expected to be produced from burning coal or liquid fuels.

The world used 3,730 quads between 1990 and 2000, a period of time when temperatures rose rapidly. We will be using an amount approaching that total every year during the lifetimes of your children.

What I have written above alarms me.

Why Solar Is The Best Alternative

There’s sort of an 11th commandment in the renewable energy sector–‘Thou shalt not speak ill of another renewable form of energy’. So I’ll have to phrase all of this carefully.

Without speaking negatively of other forms of renewables I want to speak about why solar is the best of the lot.

Nah–I’m not going to get away with that.

We in the solar industry are not any nicer or better-behaved than professionals in the wind power industry. We’re not kinder to small animals and we don’t eat better food.

But the reason we’re going to win is inherent in the properties of solar as it is offered on the market. Let me explain.

Wind power as it stands today is marketed by large, multi-national companies (usually divisions of really, really large companies like GE) to equally large government bodies or utilities. It’s big business. It operates on big business timelines and is subject to the constraints that normally make big business difficult. If government starts to frown at wind power, it hides under a rock until things change.

For many of the multinationals, wind power is almost a sideline–they don’t live or die on wind. For some, in fact, it’s there to provide a green sheen to their reputation. So they don’t pay as much attention to it. And this has led them to ignore important pricing and supply signals, which led them to raise prices at really inopportune times, halting the momentum of their particular sector.

Wind is more expensive to install–but it’s also more expensive to maintain. You can’t put it up and forget about it. And when it fails, it does not fail gracefully–there are pictures of burning wind turbines all over the intertubes.

As I said, we in the solar biz are not better people than those in wind. But we can sell smaller scale systems to homes and businesses. We’re not exclusively tied to the same dinosaur customers. There isn’t the same concentration of manufacturers–there are maybe 10 serious wind turbine manufacturers. There are thousands (for now) of solar manufacturers. That’s why innovation is helping us more than wind right now–we’re not brighter than they are. We’re just under greater pressure from the competition.

Finally, although the big solar farms in the desert get the publicity (when it isn’t being lavishly bestowed on solar companies going out of business), solar’s footprint can be small enough to grow quickly without attracting hostile attention from the real forces that would fight us–the fossil fuel industry and (until recently, when they finally woke up) the utility companies. We snuck in under the radar, letting fracked natural gas and offshore wind farms get all the ink while we kept slapping small systems on your neighbor’s rooftop and the warehouse down by the strip mall.

So now we’re here. Imagine that.

…The Behinder We Get

In 2010, renewable sources of energy (mostly hydroelectric) produced 55.2 quads, or 10.5% of all the primary energy used on the planet.

The Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration expects production of renewable energy  to almost double by 2030, to 100.6 quads. At which point it will represent 13.9% of their projected total for that year (721.5 quads).

If energy consumption is closer to my projection of 963 quads, that same 100 renewable quads would be exactly the same percentage of the total as it is today…


What is our goal? To safely provide enough energy for the current and future population to allow for development and enjoyment of a lifestyle demanding as much energy as Americans now are privileged enough (and wasteful enough) to permit themselves.

This is 3,000 quadrillion BTUs. That’s how much energy a population of 9.5 billion humans (the probable population in 2075) would use if they used the same energy per capita as we do in the U.S. (327 billion BTUs per person right now). Note that most of Europe gets by on far less, and they have a pretty good lifestyle, so 3,000 is certainly an upper limit, not a conservative estimate.

Just to state the obvious, we probably cannot and certainly don’t want to do this with fossil fuels–not unless we want the world to look like China’s most polluted cities. We’ll certainly continue to use them–but they’ll get hard enough to find and prepare that they’ll be much more valuable commodities than they are today, and we’ll be using renewables shortly because they’re cheaper and easier to produce.

Last year renewable energy provided us with 52 quads. That seems like a very long ways from 3,000. But thanks to the miracle of compound growth and endless innovation, to reach 3,000 quads from renewables by 2100 only needs an annual growth rate of 4.6%. To do it by 2050 would require heroic growth–about 10% per year.

Is this feasible? The workhorses of renewable power right now are hydroelectric power and combined heat and power (also known as cogeneration). Hydroelectric power is set to double over the next 20 years, and CHP is growing so fast that nobody can keep track of it.

The renewables that get all the press–wind, solar and biofuels–have grown strongly over the past decade, but from such a small base that one has to wonder if they can continue at the same rate. I certainly think that wind has peaked–at least temporarily, due to the fall in the price of its natural competitor, natural gas. I think biofuels have a long ways to go in terms of fourth generation algae, but ethanol and biodiesel can fill in for the moment.

My long term bet is on solar power, which is dropping in price and spreading in terms of deployment and possibilities. From simple solar thermal for home water heating to complex concentrated solar power stations, solar is spreading like wildfire.

But for all the possibilities, the total energy from renewables has only grown 2% per year since 2007, in a favorable investment climate and with all the good will in the world.

We’re going to have to do better, which is why I’m certain we’ll have to look at nuclear.

And while we’re doing so, we can certainly look at the other elephant in the room–energy efficiency, or ‘negawatts’ as Bush the Elder termed them.

We currently waste half the fuel we burn in producing electricity, and there are endless opportunities to improve energy efficiency in our homes, offices, manufacturing plants and in the appliances and machinery we stick inside them. We could save billions and reduce power consumption greatly by being a bit more diligent in this regard.

For the moment, the final score is that renewables can and probably will play an important part in our energy future–but they won’t be enough on their own. Nuclear power and improving efficiency will have to step in to get us over the hump.

But note the above–we don’t need to invent a new technology or completely turn our economies on their heads. We just need to keep doing what we’re doing, take it seriously, and trust the innovation engine inherent in free market societies to do the job.

And we’ll get there.

Unmet Need for Energy

India is the best example of how an inability to provide energy to those who need it is both a cause and a result of the problems afflicting the developing world.

India’s consumption of energy is rising quickly–at 7.9% per year since 1946 (So why does the DOE think that will fall to 2.3%?). But although India produces a lot of coal and has significant hydroelectric resources, it isn’t keeping pace with rising demand. So India needs to spend money on oil imports that it would probably rather spend on roads and schools. A lot of that oil is attractively priced from Iran, which needs a reliable customer because of its own problems with foreign affairs, so this complicates India’s relationships, especially with the US.

But India really has little choice. 800 million people in India burn dung and whatever firewood they can find for fuel. 40% of the households in India aren’t even hooked up to the grid. Power blackouts and fuel shortages have been holding Indian industry back for decades–and it isn’t getting better.

India is trying to compensate with domestic development of nuclear, hydro, wind and solar. But India’s poverty and the high price tags for getting those sources up and running have made it a long, slow process.

The latent demand for energy in India is such that if energy was magically made available to the country at a price they could afford, energy consumption would triple in nanoseconds–and keep growing from there.

Development is tough.

What normal people in wealthy countries can do

Don’t think you’re powerless. You are not.

Put solar panels on your roof or in your back yard. Buy an electric car. Use solar power to charge your batteries as well as supplement the electricity for your home.

Use less electricity at home. Replace the gas you’re using now with solar power.

It’s real, it’s measurable, it’s beneficial and it’s available now. And you could not get the solar charger from the company I work for. You’d have to use a competitor for that (although we’d be happy to put the solar panels on your roof).

Do it. Seriously–if you live in the American Southwest or West Coast, you really should do it.

Are there real-world energy alternatives?

If energy use is set to effectively double between 2010 and 2030 (and this blog has tried to make the case that it is), and if most of the fuel to power that energy use is expected to be coal, then we have a problem. Several problems really, ranging from air pollution, mercury and fly-ash to mining fatalities, black lung and CO2 emissions.

But as I hoped to show in my previous post, the infrastructure we’re planning to build does not change the portfolio mix–the percentages of energy we will get from nuclear, hydroelectric, natural gas, wind and solar farms–and coal–don’t look set to change. For every old coal power plant we retire in the U.S., China and India will build two or three. And for every new nuclear power plant we build throughout the world, the developing world will clamor for more–but that ‘more’ will be delivered by coal.

Kind of a pickle we’re getting into.

In order to change the equation, we would need fuel sources that could be built without long term planning and permitting schedules, sources that could respond to local needs and conditions. It would be ideal if they didn’t have a large footprint, as that is often the cause of planning and permitting delays.

And it would be nice if the energy was clean.

So I offer for your consideration solar power. Not the big photovoltaic solar farms that are beloved by utilities (as it meets their requirements to generate clean power without surrendering ownership or control).  They are just as difficult to permit as other plants. Their electricity has to be piped to customers, often at long distances. A plant the size of a coal-fired plant produces a tenth of the electricity.

Nope. We really have one realistic hope to get us through to 2030 without choking on our own exhaust. And that’s your roof. The roof of your home. The roof of your business. The roof of your church, synagogue, fire department, school and city hall. Rooftop solar produces local power for local consumption. It requires zero additional footprint. The investment is real–but getting cheaper by the month. The fuel is free–and will remain so forever.

I work for a solar power company, a home solar specialist. I am not writing this because I work for a solar power company. I went to work for a solar power company because I wanted to write this.

Solar power produces 0.1% of this country’s electricity. There are roughly 160,000 homes with solar panels on their rooftops–and roughly an equivalent number of offices, warehouses, IKEA or Walmart stores, community centers, etc. with solar.

But solar power drops in price by an average of 7% per year. By 2015, it will be cheaper than electricity provided by a utility for about half of American home owners. It already is cheaper in places like Hawaii, the Netherlands, Aruba and Curacao. Utilities keep raising prices. Solar keeps getting cheaper.

After 2030 we will need to supplement solar–but that’s the subject of another post. For now, while other fuel sources are running frantically on a treadmill just to maintain their percentage of the market, only small-scale solar can effectively serve as a substitute for coal.