Can we build it? Yes we can!

As a father of a four-year-old, I’m a big fan of Bob the Builder. The basic plot of each episode of the charming stop-motion children’s series revolves around one or more pieces of heavy machinery learning self-discipline, which, as a new PNAS study shows, is a key skill associated with success and happiness later in life. I also like the optimism embedded in the catch-phrase that Bob’s machine team invariably declares: “Can we build it? Yes we can!”

If only that can-do spirit were as evident in the public debate over how to respond to the threat of climate change. Recently a spate of reports and papers are beginning to point in that direction. Are they too optimistic? Hard to say. But they are worth a look at least.

Some would have us believe that new-fangled, clean, renewable sources of electricity aren’t ready for prime-time and the only way we’ll replace greenhouse-gas-generating fossil fuels is with an aggressive research effort to turn prototypical schemes into commercial reality. Nobel laureate Burton Richter, author of Beyond Smoke and Mirrors, is one such scientist. He derides hydrogen fuel cells as lunacy, loves nuclear reactors, and generally insists that everything else already on the shelf is insufficient to make a serious dent in our power mix. Here he is at a 2010 conference organized by the like-minded Breakthrough Institute and the AGW-denying American Enterprise Institute, both of which don’t care much for the idea that we already have the tools we need to forestall catastrophic climate change.

But Richter, TBI and their ilk never seem to offer more than broad generalizations of existing technologies. Always missing is a detailed critique. Sure wind power contributes only fraction of what coal does to the U.S. electrical grid, but it turns out it’s already competitive with natural gas in some markets. Yes solar photovoltaics are expensive, but costs are falling fast (as opposed to nuclear power) and it’s only a matter of five or 10 years at current rates before even PV arrays make economic sense for select consumers.

Finally, we’re getting some honest assessments. First up is a pair of papers in the journal Energy Policy by Stanford’s Mark Z. Jacobson and UC Davis’ Mark A. Delucchi collected under the common title of “Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power.” Part 1 deals with the physical issues and Part 2 the economics. The conclusion of their exhaustive research is that is it entirely possible to run the entire world on wind, water (hydro-electricity) and solar power (both PV and concentrated thermal) by 2050. And they aren’t restricting themselves to the electrical grid. This includes replacing all fossil fuels with batteries and fuel cells:

Such a WWS infrastructure reduces world power demand by 30% and requires only 0.41% and 0.59% more of the world’s land for footprint and spacing, respectively. We suggest producing all new energy with WWS by 2030 and replacing the pre-existing energy by 2050. Barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic. The energy cost in a WWS world should be similar to that today.

How will we build it? Well, the numbers at first look daunting.

We estimate that ~3,800,000 5-MW wind turbines, ~49,000 300-MW concentrated solar plants, ~40,000 300-MW solar PV power plants, ~1.7 billion 3-kW rooftop PV systems, ~5350 100 MW geothermal power plants, ~270 new 1300-MW hydroelectric power plants, ~720,000 0.75-MW wave devices, and ~490,000 1-MW tidal turbines can power a 2030 WWS world that uses electricity and electrolytic hydrogen for all purposes.

But given how rapidly a modern industrial nation can build things like tanks and airplanes — as the American experience during the Second World War proves — the author’s argument that we DO have the technology is pretty convincing. That’s not to say that the proviso of “Barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic” isn’t important. But it puts the lie to the argument of TBI, Richter et al. that even if we wanted to make the switch, we couldn’t.

What I find most intriguing about Jacobson and Delucchi’s vision is that it doesn’t include ANY contribution from nuclear. There are good reasons for this, even apart from the security threat that proliferation poses. Jacobson makes a slam-dunk case against nuclear in this TED presentation. My point is that, if we assume for sake of the argument that Jacobson is wrong about nuclear’s problems and grant some contribution from reactors — reaching the goal of a “clean” 2050 only gets easier.

(I don’t think Jacobson is wrong. Nuclear reactors do take too long to build and are too expensive, but we will probably have to accept a few new nukes as part of a compromise with those who oppose restrictions on fossil-fuel emissions.)

The WWF also decided to exclude nuclear in its recent report on the subject. The Energy Report: 100% Renewable Energy by 2050 makes many of the same observations as the peer-reviewed papers in Energy Policy. Plus it comes with lots of eye-catching photos and charts, instead of the dry tables that Jacobson and Delucchi’s medium favors.

Drawing on the expertise of the EcoSys energy consultancy, WWF says:

…it is technically feasible to supply everyone on the planet with the energy they need, with 95 percent of this energy coming from renewable sources.

To get all the way to 100%, WWF proposes some “social and technological changes.” But I say 95% is pretty good. Certainly enough to avoid the worst of what climate change has in store on a business-as-usual path. And really, some of those changes aren’t so radical. The WWF reminds us that governments subsidize fossil fuel use to the tune of $700 billion a year. Imagine if that kind of money was funneled to renewables instead.

These two studies aren’t going to be enough to sway the powers that be, of course. But if they represent just first of a deluge of such thinking, then maybe, just maybe, we’ll remember them as the light that came at the end of tunnel.

By the way, in case anyone was puzzled by my embrace of a children’s show about energy-intensive construction, it’s important to add that most of Bob’s projects are renovations, and often involve solar panels and the like, rather than new construction. Go Bob.

9 Replies to “Can we build it? Yes we can!”

  1. It’s a shame that neither side understands that energy diversity is the only way to truly solve our problems and create a flexible and robust energy infrastructure. We are stuck now because we have an inflexible mono-culture of energy sources that cannot adapt when new problems arise (Climate change, peak oil, etc). Who knows what problems will arise in the future and the only way to be ready is to have diverse sources of energy.

    The optimism you suggest is exactly what we need. We need the optimism to invest in science broadly. We can do it! we can invest in Nuclear research AND fund solar panel start-up companies! We can push electric companies to build windmills AND work out ways to conserve energy. In fact, there are only two types of people, “do something” people and “don’t do something” people. All of us “do something” people should realize we’re not being limited by our peers, but exclusively by the “do nothing” people.

  2. I think another issue that is inextricably tied with the switch to renewables – but seldom gets mentioned other than in the context of foreign oil dependence – is the issue of energy security.

    Nearly all renewables are far more decentralized than our current sources of power. Decentralizing power grids makes them far more resistant to terrorism, accidents, and natural disasters, and builds in additional redundancy. More numerous and smaller sources of energy also reduces the likelihood of energy monopolies. One of the big problems with nuclear is that the cost and technology involved limits the potential players to huge MIC companies like General Electric. Things like solar panels and wind turbines can be installed and run by independent power producers, thus making the energy market much more competitive and less subject to price-fixing and market manipulation.

    In short, the switch to renewables represents the democratization of energy and an enhancement of social and economic energy resilience.

  3. The sad fact is that we almost certainly wont invest in both ‘Nuclear research AND fund solar panel start-up companies!’.

    Nukes are like pond weed – they basically suck up all the light and oxygen of investment cash. The future for conservation, micro generation, heat capture, solar, wind and wave are potentially huge and there are people out there talking about it (Walt Patterson is inspiring, and of course RMI does excellent work). Yes, we can build it, if people have the nerve to.

    The problem comes when big projects like tidal power and nuclear start to get taken seriously. Big pork laden projects, full of political machismo and the assured supply of large amounts of subsidy kill alternative projects.

    The UK government has said that it believes in the market when it comes to energy. It could be argued that it relied on the market when it should have done something, but hats another matter. It does however have plans to support nuclear build with fast tracked planning permission, will cap liabilities for decommissioning and presumably will charge a ‘reasonable’ fee for waste disposal. It already funds a nuclear ‘office’. The alternatives? barely mentioned, little face time with ministers, and large cut backs on tax breaks etc.

    I always wonder why free marketeers love nuclear so much, when nuclear breaks pretty much every rule of the free market. If we are going have to create a new energy grid, lets leave nuclear to the market alone. It can live or die on its strengths, and we can get on with alternatives, which is where the real growth can be found.

  4. I get a bit worried about costs when talking about scaling up like this.

    Sure, some costs come down as manufacturing gets more efficient, but skilled-labor pools can become strained and raw materials can become scarce.

    It feels weird using this as an example, but companies in the tar sands quickly found out what happens when everybody is jumping into the pool at the same time. Costs went through the roof and nobody had a project that wasn’t severely overbudget and significantly delayed from its start-up date. And much of the tar-sands construction boom from 2005 to 2008 resulted in shoddy work that’s probably going to haunt them down the line in terms of increased costs and temporary shut downs.

    I love the proposed wedge strategy and we should strive to get us off of hydrocarbons ASAP (certainly, papers like these give policy makers ways to foresee potential hurdles and then make policies to buffer them), but I’m not as optimistic it can be pulled off in the proposed timeline. But, we should still give it a shot because the alternative isn’t acceptable.

  5. 270 new Hydropower facilities with a capacity of 1300MW each… That is over 1/2 the capacity of the Hoover dam. These better be fish friendly facilities.
    The coyote is coming back and he is not going to like what he sees.

  6. What fraction of these facilities would be needed in the US?
    Suppose we say 20-25%. That means about
    1 million 5-MW wind turbines,
    10,000 300-MW concentrated solar plants,
    10,000 300-MW solar PV power plants,
    400 million 3-kW rooftop PV systems,
    1000 100 MW geothermal power plants,
    50 new 1300-MW hydroelectric power plants,
    35,000 0.75-MW wave devices, and
    100,000 1-MW tidal turbines.

    Granted that different countries have different resources, and that these devices would not be distributed evenly. Nevertheless, consider the resistance to wind turbines. No one wants them close by or off-shore near them. There seems to be tremendous difficulties in getting to 1000.

    How many buildings are in sunny regions that can get, on average 3-kW for 8 hours? Full sun can deliver less than 1 kW per square meter. If a roof had 5 square meters of a PV system that is 20% efficient, that would generate only 1 kw in full sun.

    How would we scale from a handful of geothermal plants to 1000, considering how few suitable sites there are, it seems that a few dozen is a more realistic number.

    The same limitation is true for tidal generators, and the ecological effects are usually severe.

    In addition, the ecological effects of mining the rare earth elements that are needed for many of these systems is one of the reasons that only China is now producing these materials.

    I think that more realistic analysis is needed.

  7. As David Roberts at Grist has said, this is “the equivalent of America’s massive industrial build-up for WWII, only across the entire globe, for 40 years straight (at least), against a faceless enemy.”

    “Of course we have no idea what the actual mix will end up being. There’s no predicting innovation, much less politics. But the one thing we do know is that the task ahead is enormous, so gobsmackingly big that the smart money is almost certainly on failure. If we want a chance at success we’re going to have to rethink a lot of our assumptions about consumption, economic analysis, policy design, and political strategy.”

    It’s all very well put out a report and a lot of tinkerbell talk. It’s another thing to actually do it.

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