We do think that small-scale renewables can be a clean and effective solution for off-grid and undeveloped regions. But in developed areas, the grid is expected to perform as reliably as our water, sewer, fire and police “utilities”: They serve us 99.9+% of the year, night and day, rain or shine.
When you try to scale WWS technologies to run a factory, hospital or town, much less a city, state or country, the notion becomes more hopelessly impractical the more you think it through.
For starters, here’s a big reason why:
Energy must be collected and directed to do work.
Mother Nature has already gathered and stored her energy in substances we call fuel – stable, portable stuff from which we can extract the energy we need, when and where we need it.
WWS advocates don’t seem to fully appreciate these two essential points:
That’s worth repeating:
Burn those points into your brain, and renewables will be a lot easier to understand.
Thus far, civilization has advanced by exploiting ever more energy-dense fuels: Wood, coal, petroleum, gas and nuclear.
Fossil fuel takes about 100 million years to form, as carbon-rich organic material is drawn into the earth’s crust by the motion of tectonic plates, where it’s heated under pressure to form coal, petroleum and natural gas.
While fossil fuels are some of the most energy-dense
substances we use, nuclear fuel is a million times denser. Its heavy atoms were formed in the supernova shockwaves of dying stars, where small atoms were fused into larger ones, becoming trace elements in the stardust that coalesced into planets.
These oversized atoms can be thought of as tiny fusion batteries, retaining some of the ancient energy that formed them billions of years ago. Nuclear fission is the process of splitting these unstable atoms to exploit their stored energy.
In fact, over half the heat in the earth’s core comes from the radioactive decay of thorium, uranium, and potassium-40, along with some naturally occurring fission. That heat, plus friction, and the residual heat from earth’s formation, keeps the outer core’s rotating mass molten, or melted.1
The constant circulation of this liquid metal creates our magnetic shield. This shield is what prevents the solar wind from destroying our atmosphere. That’s what happened to Mars eons ago, when its core cooled and solidified.
So whatever misgivings you may have about nuclear material, realize that life on planet Earth wouldn’t exist without it.
Before we get too deep in the weeds, we should clarify some terms:
Pour some gasoline on the sidewalk and light the fumes. [Disclaimer: Don’t try this at home, or anywhere else for that matter.]
The ball of flame that sets your hair on fire also releases the gasoline’s stored (potential) chemical energy.
The combustive energy dissipates as an undirected force, jostling the air around the flame. We experience this jostling (kinetic energy) as heat, or first-degree burns.
Burn that same gasoline (plus oxygen, of course) in a car’s engine, and what was potential heat energy now produces explosive force that pushes down on the pistons. Their motion is successfully applied force doing work.
Doing it over and over again for an extended period of time is how the engine generates the steady power to move the car. The potential energy stored in the gasoline has now become the kinetic energy of the moving vehicle.
Some of the potential energy in the fuel is wasted as exhaust heat and mechanical friction. This applies to any power source.
The period of time that the engine can propel the car
depends upon two things: How much energy (gasoline) is stored in the tank, divided by how much of that energy is used per unit of time. Energy ÷ time = power.
Energy, power, and storage are the three interlocking parameters that any power plant must contend with,
whether they use actual fuel or not.
The recent interest in renewables appears to be a reversal of the historical trend toward more energy density, in the sense that wind, water, and sunlight are regarded as less-dense forms of fuel.
Except they’re not really fuels at all.
Renewables are fuel-free systems that exploit ambient natural phenomena by gathering and concentrating diffuse and variable bits of energy from the environment.
But the light and motion they exploit are not stable,
storable, or transportable. That light and motion must
either be utilized on the spot to make energy, or converted into something that can be stored for later use, typically as the electricity in a battery or the water in a reservoir.
That conversion will always entail a loss of energy. And
while this stored energy can be loosely thought of as fuel,
its wind, water and sunlight precursors cannot.
An example is the potential energy of an elevated reservoir. The water isn’t actually fuel; the reservoir is simply storing the energy that was used to pump the water uphill.
Most of that energy is re-generated when the water flows back downhill through the same reversible turbines, with about 20% of the energy lost in the round trip.2
Implementing the Roadmap would easily dwarf our industrial mobilization for World War Two, and last nearly nine times as long: 35 years instead of 4 years.
Even so, we’ll probably still need to import a massive amount of wind and solar equipment – if it’s available. And that’s a big IF.
Because if the rest of the world embarks on their own Roadmap, which the Solutions Project recommends, no major exporter (read: China) will be able to keep up with global demand, and may stop exporting altogether to build their own national WWS grid.
Long story short: Everybody will be on their own.
Nevertheless, Dr. Jacobson and his colleagues have just released a Global Roadmap for the 139 countries that generate 99% of the world’s carbon energy.3 As you read through our examination of his 50-state U.S. Roadmap, it will be easy to see that their global roadmap is doomed to be just as impractical.
To stop and reverse anthropogenic (human-caused) global
warming and ocean acidification, the entire world must replace the fossil fuel it uses with a reliable and “renewable” (read: inexhaustible) source of carbon-free power.
We strongly suggest nuclear energy, the next step in fuel’s historical evolution of big punch / tiny package. Renewables are all about tiny punch / big package.
The notion of running the country on fuel-free renewables may sound like an elegant solution to pollution and climate change, but WWS advocates should keep three fundamentals firmly in mind:
The U.S. has just 4.4% of the world’s population, but we currently consume 18% of the world’s energy – about 4X average global consumption.4
An all-renewables U.S. electric grid would be the largest construction project in history, by far. And the most expensive – like we said, nearly equal to an entire second military budget for 35 years, and that’s without adequate backup or storage.
Another way of looking at it: The bare-bones Roadmap would cost three times what the U.S. spent, in constant dollars, on World War Two and the Iraq War combined.
Wind and solar systems capture diffuse and ambient energy to generate power. Which means that vast tracts of land and boatloads of equipment will be needed to gather and concentrate the energy into a useable form.
And if it’s not used on the spot, or if there’s not enough
to satisfy demand, backup and storage will be needed to ensure an adequate supply, and that will require even more land, equipment and resources.
And even then, the entire Rube Goldberg scheme will only generate a reliable flow of power if the weather cooperates.
Wind, water and solar are not, and never can be,
independent, consistent, and dependable sources of power.
While their “fuel” is free and renewable, gathering and exploiting the energy that results is expensive. And, their intermittent nature greatly complicates the effort and cost.
Wind, water and sunlight ebb and flow, come and go. Harnessing them as a source of power requires converting enough of their motion and light to energize the grid.
Hoover Dam is mighty impressive, and its massive turbo-generators are a sight to behold. But what’s often overlooked are the tens of thousands of square miles needed to gather the rain that eventually flows into Lake Mead, its artificial reservoir.
Also overlooked are the downstream effects: Northwest Mexico was once a lush delta of verdant farmland, before the U.S. dammed the Colorado. Now it’s a desert wasteland.
The same principle applies to solar and wind. Vast tracts of land and a stupendous inventory of equipment placed on that land would be needed to collect and concentrate the fitful energy of wind and sunlight.
That energy can either be exploited in real time, or stored for later use – if we can afford an adequate means of storage (more on this later.)
Like any form of renewable energy, hydro power is also at Mother Nature’s mercy, though the effects play out in slow motion. As the drought increases, Lake Mead drops inch by inch, gradually decreasing the output and reliability of Hoover Dam.
Currently, the power production of U.S. dams is down about 20% since the mid-1990s. They now generate just 6% of domestic electricity.5
Our increased awareness of the environmental and ecological impact of dams and reservoirs, including the methane released from their algae blooms and drowned flora, is making dams increasingly unpopular.
In some cases, the greenhouse effect of methane from a dam’s reservoir, or a pumped hydro system’s reservoir, can actually be worse than if the same electricity was produced by fossil fuel.
Water scarcity is another issue. Indeed, as our drought unfolds, hydro may eventually become as unreliable – and impractical – as wind and solar.
See 5th line in list: “hydro power”