100% renewable energy by 2030?

Paul Raven @ 21-01-2011

“Yeah, right,” I hear you say… and that’s pretty much what I thought as well. But a new study says that, on paper at least, an all-renewable energy infrastructure could be built within just two decades of today… and built is the operative word:

Achieving 100 percent renewable energy would mean the building of about four million 5 MW wind turbines, 1.7 billion 3 kW roof-mounted solar photovoltaic systems, and around 90,000 300 MW solar power plants.


Delucchi and colleague Mark Jacobson left all fossil fuel sources of energy out of their calculations and concentrated only on wind, solar, waves and geothermal sources. Fossil fuels currently provide over 80 percent of the world’s energy supply. They also left out biomass, currently the most widely used renewable energy source, because of concerns about pollution and land-use issues. Their calculations also left out nuclear power generation, which currently supplies around six percent of the world’s electricity.

To make their vision possible, a great deal of building would need to occur. The wind turbines needed, for example, are two to three times the capacity of most of today’s wind turbines, but 5 MW offshore turbines were built in Germany in 2006, and China built its first in 2010. The solar power plants needed would be a mix of photovoltaic panel plants and concentrated solar plants that concentrate solar energy to boil water to drive generators. At present only a few dozen such utility-scale solar plants exist. Energy would also be obtained from photovoltaic panels mounted on most homes and buildings.

Of course, the technological plausibility of an all-renewable energy economy has always been theoretically understood. So why does it seem so unbelieveable?

The pair say all the major resources needed are available, with the only material bottleneck being supplies of rare earth materials such as neodymium, which is often used in the manufacture of magnets. This bottleneck could be overcome if mining were increased by a factor of five and if recycling were introduced, or if technologies avoiding rare earth were developed, but the political bottlenecks may be insurmountable.

Ah, yes – the p-word. Might’ve guessed that’d crop up in there somewhere. The saddest thing of all is the lost opportunities for political solutions that pushing for even a quarter of this vision would create: massive building programs would create loads of jobs and envigorate flagging economies, at the same time as removing major sources of atmospheric pollution and the incentive to go to war over increasingly scarce fossil fuel resources. Pretty much everyone would stand to benefit… except that tiny percentage of people currently profiting from the status quo, of course.

But were I to suggest that they were involved in spending millions of dollars on obfuscatory political chicanery and misiniformation campaigns to prevent the status quo from shifting, why, I’d be some sort of rabid conspiracy theorist! After all, everyone knows the real conspiracy is being masterminded by neoMarxist extremists masquerading as climate scientists, right? Right?

[ I really shouldn’t need to point out that the last few sentences there are meant to be read with a tone of extreme sarcasm, but – what with this being the internet – consider this a disclaimer to that effect. And to pre-empt the other obvious objection, I strongly suspect the 100%-by-2030 projection is ludicrously optimistic, even were global agreement and cooperation toward that aim within grasp; however, the underlying point is that the technology exists right now, and we’re not using it to even a fraction of its potential. ]

Technothriller plot device of the month: volcano energy

Paul Raven @ 22-09-2010

Here’s a 500-page airport potboiler novel ripe for the writing… a number of Central American nations are looking to meet their energy demands by harnessing their unpredictable neighbours: volcanoes.

Geothermal energy has a high initial outlay, but after that it (theoretically) keeps pumping out current for years to come with very little interference. All well and good… but just add some Deepwater Horizon-style corner-cutting, skate over a few safety margins, write in a few scenes featuring the POTUSA, and bam! Topical technothriller with an exotic setting.

Of course, I’m a little too busy to write it myself at the moment, so if you’d like to make me an offer for full rights on the synopsis as it stands, please get in touch… 😉

Solar cells printed on paper

Paul Raven @ 06-05-2010

Chalk up another point for MIT, bounteous font of great boffinry – their latest offering to the world is a solar cell you can print out onto paper. However, I wouldn’t get too excited about it:

… the new solar cells are created by coating paper with organic semiconductor material using a process similar to an inkjet printer.

The MIT researchers used carbon-based dyes to “print” the cells, which are about 1.5 to 2 percent efficient at converting sunlight to electricity. That falls well short of the more than 40 percent efficiency record for a multi-junction solar cell, or even the recent 19 percent efficiency record for silicon ink-based solar cells. But Vladimir Bulovic, director of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Research Center, told CNET any material could be used to print onto the paper solar cells if it was deposited at room temperature.

It will still be some time before solar cells can be installed with a staple gun, however, as the paper variety are still in the research phase and are years from being commercialized.

Drill, baby, drill?

Cheap > good: renewable energy and the developing world

Paul Raven @ 29-09-2009

A chap from MIT called Daniel Nocero has been making a bit of a splash with a report on his recent development of a new catalyst for electrolysing hydrogen from water. While the catalyst itself is pretty big news, it turns out that Nocero’s research is geared toward a much larger vision – namely changing the way the global energy economy works.

Nocera pointed out that most of the work in providing carbon-neutral energy has focused on increasing efficiencies of existing technology and creating economies of scale, both of which will ultimately reduce the cost of electricity produced in the developed world. The problem has been that this has kept the price of the hardware expensive. As a result, the solutions we’re arriving at won’t make sense for the developing world. “We need to tackle the non-legacy world, and they don’t have any money,” Nocera said.


Hydrogen production isn’t generally considered a solution, because each step of the process involves energy losses and inefficiencies. But again, Nocera doesn’t care: if it’s cheap, the inefficiencies don’t matter, because higher-priced solutions are simply never going to be deployed.

There’s a strong general point here – namely that chasing after new and ever-more ingenious methods of generating clean energy is kind of self-defeating. We already have solutions that work – and while their efficiency curves may not appeal to the sensibilities of scientists and engineers, their ability to get the job done should be all the reason we need to roll them put to the places that need them most. We in the West can afford to wait for efficiency; the world’s poorest people cannot.

Scottish island to shift to tidal power

Paul Raven @ 27-08-2009

Lagavulin Distillery, IslayThe remote Scottish island of Islay suffers from irregular electricity supply thanks to being separated by the sea from the the soon-to-be-decommissioned Hunterston nuclear reactor on the mainland. That’s set to change, however, with ScottishPower about to sign a deal that will see the island getting all its power needs from tidal generators:

The company is close to signing a supply contract with Diageo, the drinks group, to provide electricity from the project to eight distilleries and maltings on Islay – including the makers of the renowned Laphroaig and Lagavulin whiskies.

The 10MW tidal project, one of the world’s largest, will provide enough electricity for Islay’s 3,500 inhabitants for 23 hours a day.

ScottishPower will submit a planning application in the next couple of months and expects the ten 30-metre underwater turbines to be operational in 2011. The turbines will cost about £50m to install.

Note that corporate tie-in? Smart move; gives you good leverage against the NIMBY lobby. In fact, the whole operation has a “hearts and minds” tone to it:

The Islay Energy Trust, a community organisation chaired by Philip Maxwell, has been helping to lobby local politicians and opponents of the project. In return, it will receive a small slice of the revenue to fund community projects on the island, such as a swimming pool.

I wonder if this will become a blueprint for renewable energy switchovers? Make the deal sweet enough, and the objections will shrink away… sounds like another battleground where the rules of infowar will come in handy. [image by _basquiat_]

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