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Will Renewable Energy Ever Meet All Our Energy Needs? 626

Posted by samzenpus
from the doom-and-gloom dept.
Lasrick writes "Dawn Stover has another great piece detailing why renewable energy will never provide us with all our energy needs. She deconstructs the unrealistic World Wildlife Fund report (co-written by several solar companies) that claims renewables will be able to provide 100% of the energy needs of several countries by 2050. From the article: 'When renewable energy experts get together, they tend to rhapsodize about the possibilities, believing that this will somehow inspire others to make their visions come true. But ambitious plans to power entire countries on solar energy (or wind or nuclear power, for that matter) don't have a snowball's chance in Australia. Such schemes are doomed to fail, and not because of the economic "reality" or the political "reality" -- however daunting those may be. They are doomed because of the physical reality: It's simply not physically possible for the world's human population to continue growing in numbers, affluence, and energy consumption without trashing the planet.'"
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Will Renewable Energy Ever Meet All Our Energy Needs?

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  • Err... you do know that Australia has alpine areas right? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Alps [wikipedia.org]
    • Err... you do know that Australia has alpine areas right?

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Alps [wikipedia.org]

      I'd think "a schooner's chance in a pub" might be more appropriate. Or perhaps "A Starbucks' chance in Melbourne" as a metaphor for poor survival choices.

    • by Paul Fernhout (109597) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @10:36PM (#42746199) Homepage

      That "reality check" need a reality check on more than snowballs; example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grid_parity [wikipedia.org]

      Most of the world is heading in a few more years to being able to make solar power more cheaply than getting power from the grid (the parts that are not already there, like much of India).

      I'm all for living within our current energy means in a reasonable way (and I abhor the pollution from mining and burning coal and oil), but she cites a calculation that projects exponential growth on Earth forward a few hundred years, calculates we will need to cover the whole Earth in solar panels (and then the Galaxy), and then concludes from that somehow that we should stay the way we are. That just does not seem to be a healthy emotional space to be in.

      She's probably against self-replicating space habitats that can duplicate themselves from sunlight and asteroidal ore, too? Even if it would mean quadrillions of people could live in the solar system and the survival of some aspect of humanity might be better assured? From the 1920s by J.D. Bernal on that:
      http://vserver1.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Bernal/world/ [umich.edu]

      Maybe we should all move back to live in trees in Africa? Or maybe that is too "advanced" compared to flopping around in muddy tidal flats?

      There are always at least four issues to a resource question:
      * How much stuff do we "want" based on cultural expectations?
      * How efficiently can we use what we have to make what we want?
      * How should we divide all that up?
      * How can we expand the scope of what we are doing to new types or resources or new areas to find them in?

      That is the complexity of the issue and she stakes out a position without discussing the possibilities or why she prefers one over the other. There might be a case to be made in the direction she tries to go (e.g. the Amish may have an overall happier community-oriented way of life), but she did not make it.

  • "Needs"? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:05PM (#42744601)

    Until you define "needs", the question is pretty meaningless.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:08PM (#42744621)

    his article is sort of an IQ test: if you agree with him, you fail
    for instance
    quote "Take solar power.... In only one hour, the sun delivers as much energy to Earth's surface as humanity consumes in a year....astrophysicist Tom Murphy calculates that, even with an annual energy growth rate of only 2.3 percent, a civilization powered by solar energy would have to cover every square inch of Earth's land area with 100-percent-efficient solar panels within a few hundred years. "

    I mean, do I really have to go thru all of hte problems with this one statement ?

    • by Vireo (190514) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:48PM (#42745103)

      Tom Murphy from the superb blog Do The Math [ucsd.edu] does indeed go through all of the problems with that statement and many others, carefully analyzing about all energy sources and energy storage scheme that comes to mind. A very recommended read.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by rubycodez (864176)

        Tom Murphy is an idiot. He ignores the fact that the human population will peak in 65 years and then decline. He ignores that energy harvested in space can be used in space to refine metals so the waste heat doesn't affect the earth's heat budget. what a short sighted moron, he would predict a pregnant woman would be the size of a house in 18 months.

    • by ceoyoyo (59147) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @09:21PM (#42745503)

      Dawn Stover doesn't seem to realize that a) unlimited exponential growth is untenable no matter what energy source you use and b) much of the planet is already experiencing negative growth. Virtually all of the rest is heading that way.

  • Experts? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by phantomfive (622387) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:10PM (#42744645) Journal

    'When renewable energy experts get together, they tend to rhapsodize about the possibilities, believing that this will somehow inspire others to make their visions come true.

    Those aren't experts.

  • by peon_a-z,A-Z,0-9$_+! (2743031) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:12PM (#42744671)

    The summary cites solar, wind, and nuclear as not being able to power cities. This is due to the fact that cities need power when they need it, and can't wait for the power to be there intermittandly. Therefore, viable options fall under the designation "baseload" power (power that you can have whenever - and in most cases wherever), and the summary's mention of solar and wind are rightly not grouped in this category.

    Incorrectly, however, the summary mentions nuclear, which is in fact a primary form of baseload power along with coal, gas, or hydro. Nuclear could, can, will, and does power entire cities, in fact, Chicago is roughly over 90% powered by Nuclear energy (rough statistic - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_power_stations_in_Illinois [wikipedia.org]).

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:19PM (#42744767)

      I lived off grid for 2 years, then had to move back into the city... It's pretty easy, you use batteries for things like lights, and you use high-draw devices when the sun is out and giving you power. No sun, no washing machine. If you change your routine a little, you can fit into renewable energy just fine.

    • Nuclear can supply base load, but base load is not this :

      "power that you can have whenever - and in most cases wherever"

      Base load is the predictable part of the load ... if you want power whenever, you need the peak load power plants (which are not nuclear).

  • Obviously (Score:5, Insightful)

    by countach (534280) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:13PM (#42744691)

    It should be obvious to anyone that you can't grow society forever without hitting some limit. Whether the limit is energy, or something else is rather moot. Talk about using all the energy in the galaxy is rather overboard.

    So... at some point we have to stop growth. But there is no will anywhere to do so. Only when we run hard into the limits will growth stop, and then by necessity. So, all this talk about how we must change is itself just "visionary" fluff. There isn't going to be much actionary. We can't even agree on emissions to make much progress on that. He is asking for a lot more, and thus it is a lot less likely to happen.

    • Re:Obviously (Score:4, Interesting)

      by kesuki (321456) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @09:01PM (#42745259) Journal

      the nice thing about an ecosystem in a bottle is that nature self corrects on usage of resources. the water evaporates but reforms as dew, the sunlight is temporary but the only form of energy waste, as the plant parts die and are consumed by micro bacteria, which make the co2 for the plants to process.

      the problem is the ecosystem in a bottle is totally ignored by many people. they cling to lies. they cheat. they rise above diseases, or pretend to. humans have clean tap water from underground aquifers. humans have plastic to wrap food in and protect it from competing life forms. if we built a dozen nuclear plants for the sole purpouse of making distilled water to feed our greed for fresh water, and thus made the earth even more inviting to symbiotic life forms (plants) we could exceed the nature easily. but atomic energy and fresh water only make the problem worse, by letting us get our glass bottle ecosystem to absurd levels of production. where nature would stop, humans would proceed. this is a problem created by humans and well known since the romans began moving water to fit their goals for life on earth. and yes atomic energy comes from stars and geothermal comes from natural thorium reactions. so there is plenty of energy but the way we use it is changing and it is scary because no one can find a state where we are 'happy' with what we've done to the earth.

  • Yes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cabraverde (648652) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:14PM (#42744701)
    Yes. Fast forward far enough and we're either extinct or running off renewables. Non-renewables are temporary, pretty much by definition. Stupid question.
    • Re:Yes (Score:4, Interesting)

      by rrohbeck (944847) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @09:22PM (#42745509)

      I think this graph summarizes it well: http://media.peakprosperity.com/images/A-brief-history-oi-humans.jpg [peakprosperity.com]

      The people who do the math come up with numbers around 1.5 to 4 or so billions of humans by the end of the century, simply based on the available resources like energy and raw materials by then. How we get there is left as an exercise to the reader.

      • Reminds me of this graph. [dieoff.org]

      • by swillden (191260)

        Bah. It's pretty clear that population will peak at about 10B, within about 30 years. This is based on already-existing trends; much of the industrial world is already at negative growth, and we've already passed "peak child" (maximum number of babies per woman) and are basically at replacement rate worldwide, though population will continue to grow because the prior growth makes the age distribution "bottom-heavy", so we'll keep growing until we fill out the populations of older people.

        After that we'll p

  • seeing as the "wasteful" sources are going to run out sooner or later.

  • by Lije Baley (88936) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:20PM (#42744783)

    I will be amazed if in 20 years any more than 50% of all these fiddly little generators are still maintained and working. Just look at what's left of the old wind farms in CA and HI. It would be nice if they kept them up though, to give my boy something to do when the new armies of H1B's finally take the entire tech industry back home with them.

  • It depends... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TrumpetPower! (190615) <ben@trumpetpower.com> on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:25PM (#42744831) Homepage

    ...on how you look at the problem.

    Cover every roof in the United States with photovoltaics at today's efficiency levels and you'll generate roughly as much energy as the entire civilization consumes. And lots of places in the world have roofs other than just the United States....

    But, though there's no problem with resource availability, there are two huge practical concerns. First, such a project would be massively expensive. Second, it generates electricity, which is not readily useable for transportation with today's infrastructure.

    Neither of those problems are insurmountable. Though solar photovoltaics aren't cheap, they're not as expensive as many petrochemical alternatives being seriously considered, such as tar sands. That is, we might not be able to afford widespread PV adoption, true...but, if we can't afford it, we won't be able to afford anything else when the existing wells run dry.

    (As a side note, we're already scraping the bottom of the oil barrel. Remember Deepwater Horizon? Imagine you're standing on the shore of the Colorado River in the middle of the Grand Canyon. A mile above you is the rim; that's how far below the ocean surface the wellhead was. Several miles above the rim is an airliner flying past. That's how far through solid rock the well was bored before it reached the oil deposits. That's how desperate we already are today for oil...loooooong gone are the days when you had to be careful in Texas with a pickaxe lest you start a gusher. Yes, we've got lots of oil left -- about half as much as the planet's total original reserves, in fact. But -- duh! -- we went for the easy-to-get-to, high-quality half first, and what's left increasingly fits the definition of, "dregs.")

    The problem with transportation fuels is more pressing. At the very least, with enough input energy, you can extract CO2 from the atmosphere and turn it into fuel (via the Fischer-Tropsch process, for example) that you can put back into a tank to burn it again, so we have alternatives. The catch, of course, is that it takes a lot of excess energy to do so, and so won't be cheap.

    TL/DR: Yes, we can run our society on solar power. No, it won't be cheap. No, we won't have any better alternatives. Yes, that means we're facing some tough times in the not-too-distant future.

    Cheers,

    b&

    P.S. Even worse than the looming transportation fuel shortage is the looming petroleum-based fertilizer shortage. That double whammy is going to result in lots of people starving to death. b&

    • Don't have exact numbers, I was led to believe that, as the price of oil increases, it would become cost-effective to extract large amounts of oil from currently known locations that are simply not cost-effective to extract at today's prices.
      • by Telvin_3d (855514)

        You are saying the same thing. Think about what "become cost-effective to extract large amounts of oil from currently known locations that are simply not cost-effective to extract at today's prices" really means. It means that the cost of oil has become so high that even silly sources are profitable. The kind where you spend 19 barrels of oil worth of energy to extract 20 barrels of oil. We are rapidly approaching the really crappy end of that bell curve.

        So if the cost of oil keeps going up, at some point i

    • Re:It depends... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by jafac (1449) on Thursday January 31, 2013 @03:10AM (#42747903) Homepage

      oh, pish posh. long before any significant amount of people start actually starving to death, they'll be nuking eachother to death.

  • Right... because our needs could never be met with less energy because... you know... things only become less efficient.
  • It's correct that we can't meet our growing energy demands with renewables. But to limit energy supply is also a dumb idea.

    People really should stop worrying so much about it. We can meet our energy demand for the foreseeable future with nuclear, and nobody can tell what the world is going to be like 50-100 years from now anyway.

    • by rrohbeck (944847)

      But we can't afford the energy (or money, same thing) to build out nuclear. It's called the energy trap and we're in it.

  • The technology is doable with current technology and works in reliable constant deep ocean streams which don't affect anything on land and darn near nothing in the ocean.

  • Timeframe : (Score:4, Funny)

    by jxander (2605655) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:30PM (#42744897)

    On a long enough timeline, all energy is renewable.

    Once the next comet hits and wipes out humanity, it'll only be another couple million years until our graveyards turn into the next oil deposits.

  • by goodmanj (234846) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:34PM (#42744927)

    This is a classic case of weighting down an opponent's thesis with extra assumptions, and then using those assumptions to shoot it down.

    The basic question is, "is it possible to meet the world's current energy needs using renewables?"
    The question the author is answering is, "is it possible to to meet the world's energy needs using renewables, assuming continued exponential growth forever?"

    The answer to the second question is obviously "no", unless you're an economist. But the author only attacks the "exponential growth forever" idea, and says nothing about the first question, which is far more interesting.

    • by jythie (914043)
      *nods* yeah, the assumption at exponential growth is mandatory really seems to have gotten embedded in the economist culture, even though the models really do not support it. Exponential growth is only necessary if, well, you want exponential growth. The arguments in its favor tend to be rather cyclical and reduce to 'people will always want more, and the social circles we are part of depend on the idea that anything other then bigger numbers is personal failure'.
      • Without exponential growth or redistribution rent seeking will concentrate capital, which is unsustainable.

        Economists are generally not lovers of redistribution ... so exponential growth it is.

  • by eepok (545733) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:36PM (#42744957) Homepage

    No. The current status of renewable energy (geothermal, hydroelectric, wind, solar, etc.) can in no way support our current consumption habits.

    Can a more widely implemented renewable energy/less-polluting energy infrastructure support a society that uses less energy? Likely. Or some of us are going to have to die to make room for the bigger consumers lest we all die.

    The plan?

    (1) Assume all fossil-fuel-burning energy plants will shut down in 50 years.
    (2) Begin plans to install the most regionally appropriate renewable energy power plants to support those areas.
    (3) Calculate the energy shortfalls and make plans to supplement with the most reasonable nuclear options (insert arguments about recycling waste, using thorium, etc.)
    (4) Select a demo site, implement, learn, discuss, implement better.

  • I do not think it means what she thinks it means. Her argument seems to come down to people will use all the energy they can and thus renewable will never work by simple virtue of other methods existing.
  • by linuxwrangler (582055) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:41PM (#42745005)

    "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop," -Herbert Stein

    The absurd comment about ...with an annual energy growth rate of only 2.3%... reminds me of the population growth people a couple decades back who claimed that if the population keeps growing at this rate, by blah-blah-blah date the population of earth will be expanding at the speed of light.

    Conclusion, population will not continue to grow at that rate, energy growth will not continue perpetually at 2.3%.

    Of course we may want to influence *how* things stop. Stopping a car by applying the breaks is generally preferred over accelerating full-speed into a cliff.

  • No, because there really is no such thing as "renewable energy". There also really is no such thing as "sustainability".

    The world is a dissipative system. Stasis is impossible. Get used to it.

  • It will... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by AmazingRuss (555076) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:45PM (#42745043)

    ...just as soon as all the non-renewable resources are gone.

  • Eventually, everything else will run out.

    And then the 'renewable' sources will run out.

    You just have to take the long term view. Really long term.

  • by conspirator23 (207097) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @08:50PM (#42745125)

    A more accurate synopsis of her argument is this:

    "Since population growth and per capita economic growth are dependent on ever-increasing energy consumption, it is physically impossible for renewable energy to provide an indefenite supply of unlimited energy. Therefore, demand reduction is the only really-long-term answer."

    While I actually agree with this position, it's freaking worthless. First off, the author's argument and the WWF paper are speaking to entirely different time scales. It's functionally equivalent to saying we shouldn't waste time advocating the use of seat belts because they don't protect pedestrians. Scope matters!

    The second and larger issue here is that her counter-argument is just as reality-deprived as she claims the WWF paper to be. In her conlcusion, she states simply, "To which I say: Why don't we just not do it?" i.e. why don't we exert self-control as a species and stop growing. Stop adding to total population. Stop increasing per capita consumption. It simply doesn't matter how true that is on paper. I find it amusing that she name checks the Do the Math [ucsd.edu] blog which has been linked on Slashdot previously. The blog is compelling and well-written. It also avoids the flippant suggestion that converting to a zero-energy-growth global society will somehow be as obvious as a Nike commercial. The "reality check" is that the reckoning over energy consumption will be painful. Death and violence are in the cards long before equilibrium is reached. Human beings have the capacity to plan for the future and execute on those plans, but the number of years forward we are motivated to act upon have finite congnitive limits. The climate change issue is a recent-but-not-exclusive example of these limitations at work.

    There is of course an amusing logical fallacy in her argument as a whole. If we are to ever reach the equilibrium she seeks, whether that is by design or through painful reaction, that equilibrium would have to be completely fueled by renewable resources, since we must eventually run out of the non-renewable ones. Doh!

    Still, I'm glad this got posted to Slashdot. Undeneath her specific arguments there is a clear undercurrent. "Physicists are smarter than all the rest of you because we deal with real stuff so all of you can suck it." That kind of attitude definitely belongs here.

  • by divisionbyzero (300681) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @09:00PM (#42745249)

    It's energy storage. Energy storage is the ultimate limiting factor on human civilization. Anyone that can crack the energy storage problem will be very, very wealthy.

  • by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @09:08PM (#42745351)

    Oil alone accounts for 160 exajoules of the world's energy budget a year (about 30 billion barrels of oil - a year). The book referenced in this wikipedia entry ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubic_mile_of_oil [wikipedia.org] ) explains it in terms that are easily understandable. Google and a calculator should do the rest.

    We're literally out of gas by 2100 or thereabouts (Russia might still be fracking useful quantities but nobody else will be). While there will still be coal, natural gas and oil here and there, there won't be enough that's cheap enough, or with a high enough net energy to support a large scale industrial civilization. After that, those of us that haven't starved will be using biomass, wind, solar and hydro because that, as they say, will be that. There will. however, be many fewer of us to use it. Perhaps a LOT fewer, depending on how enthusiastic we are with nuclear weapons as tools of diplomacy.

  • by cervesaebraciator (2352888) on Wednesday January 30, 2013 @11:03PM (#42746409)

    Once upon a time, before about two and a half centuries ago in point of fact, renewable resources did provide all of our energy needs. They kept our shelters warm enough to fight off hypothermia--our most important need. They allowed us to grow our food with the aid of solar powered animals--our third most important need. And with that food we had strength and energy enough to do what was necessary to secure clean water sources and/or make alcohol--our second most important need. So if survival of the species is what is meant by "needs" here, then experience would show that the answer is yes. Certainly, the renewable resources still retained scarcity enough to justify killing one another, as though we needed an excuse, but that has and always will remain true even when we are awash in cheap energy, massive industrial capacity, and so much food that price supports are used to ensure farmers have enough money to eat. But our species needs for survival were met by renewable resources.

    But if "needs" is expanded to include everything we now do with the large quantities of cheap solar energy stored in fossil fuels, then the answer is no. We once had solar powered vehicles and farm equipment: i.e. horses, mules, asses, camels, and oxen. But since we want to go further in a day than those solar powered vehicles can take us--and most of us in the developed world, myself included, often need to do so in economies structured as ours--then we now seem to need non-renewable resources.

    This is question begging. It will of necessity prompt debate, and that fruitless, so long as the key terms remain undefined. To define these key terms, however, may be the more uncomfortable problem. If, on the other hand, you tell me what "needs" means, then most else is simple calculation.

  • by Weaselmancer (533834) on Thursday January 31, 2013 @02:13AM (#42747641)

    From the article:

    We simply don't have an alternative to fossil fuels that can be rapidly scaled up, doesn't require a daunting input of raw materials and energy, and has a relatively low output of air-polluting emissions.

    To which I say malarkey, bologna, and BS. This is an opinion, backed by no data. Here is a counter opinion. Which has data, which we like. [archive.org]

    From that article:

    NREL's research showed that one quad (7.5 billion gallons) of biodiesel could be produced from 200,000 hectares of desert land (200,000 hectares is equivalent to 780 square miles, roughly 500,000 acres), if the remaining challenges are solved (as they will be, with several research groups and companies working towards it, including ours at UNH). In the previous section, we found that to replace all transportation fuels in the US, we would need 140.8 billion gallons of biodiesel, or roughly 19 quads (one quad is roughly 7.5 billion gallons of biodiesel). To produce that amount would require a land mass of almost 15,000 square miles. To put that in perspective, consider that the Sonora desert in the southwestern US comprises 120,000 square miles. Enough biodiesel to replace all petroleum transportation fuels could be grown in 15,000 square miles, or roughly 12.5 percent of the area of the Sonora desert (note for clarification - I am not advocating putting 15,000 square miles of algae ponds in the Sonora desert. This hypothetical example is used strictly for the purpose of showing the scale of land required). That 15,000 square miles works out to roughly 9.5 million acres - far less than the 450 million acres currently used for crop farming in the US, and the over 500 million acres used as grazing land for farm animals.

    The TL;DR version is that we could replace all car gasoline consumption in the United States with farms equivalent to 15% the size of the Sonora Desert, using land that you can't farm on anyways, which would be a 100% carbon neutral 100% solar solution.

    The article also says:

    Never mind the infrastructure required for transmitting solar electricity to all who need it, and storing some for a rainy day.

    Biodiesel stores nicely even in the dark. See? Not a problem.

    The person who wrote this article is simply unimaginative.

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