What would you like to know about clean energy?

In a few weeks, ClimateProgress will bring on a new blogger/journalist who knows a lot about clean energy.

I haven’t covered clean energy quite as much as I had originally intended, given the urgent need to cover climate science, the climate debate and DC climate politics, the media coverage, the BP spill, and the like.

ClimateProgress has covered clean energy policy very extensively — and covered the big picture subject of clean energy solutions broadly, particularly laying out the “solution” to global warming and its cost:

Now  it’s time to really explore where we are in, say, PV or algae or cogeneration, and just what it would take to achieve wedge-like deployment scale-ups by mid-century.  That means  looking hard at all the plausible technologies and what strategies have worked — and haven’t — here and around the globe.  It also means trying to understand whether some of the “boutique” technologies, like ocean energy,  can really be scaled up affordably.

So I ask, what would you like to read about in the area of clean energy?  And what do you think people ought to know about clean energy that they don’t?

139 Responses to What would you like to know about clean energy?

  1. Jim Armstrong says:

    The most important question I have is whether it is really scalable. I have recently heard claims that it is basically impossible to create anything like the society we have now using renewables because we won’t have the energy to create the infrastructure, due to peak oil and other material scarcities. Is there enough energy and material left to really make the number of windmills, panels and whatnot we will need to prevent a general social collapse?

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    I’d like to see a focus on proven clean technologies, which in my opinion include only wind, solar, and geothermal. Even Khosla gave up on algae, and cogeneration is a supplement, not a power source. Biofuels, cellulosic or not, are also clearly not solutions.

    Wind is already here, and pencils out just fine, and so does geothermal. We could ramp up to wind and geothermal via feedin tariffs and some sort of carbon price. There are site limitations with both, however. Not so with solar, where only a small fraction of the Mojave could power the whole country.

    Whatever happened to solar thermal, which appears to be a key solution? Brightsource still hasn’t broken ground, the last I heard. eSolar has been doing interesting things here, including more precise and efficient placing of heliostats, and they have a big project in China. There are future economies in the form of high tensile strength steel, better geometries, and pile foundations, not concrete footings. I’ve seen studies putting the cost of solar thermal at about $.15 kwh busbar by 2015, with many further opportunities for cost reductions. PV is still up there, from what I’ve heard- $.18 even for thin film, which can degrade, but you hear lower numbers, too.

    I’d like to hear more about solar, and see better cost per kwh estimates on all renewables. They are currently all over the place, depending on many factors, as you know.

    I’m glad you picked a clean energy expert. I hope he is well versed in utility company accounting and construction/development estimating.

  3. Mirik says:

    Want to know about environmental impact/respurce use and inventory for renewable energy sources (example amounts per unit steel for all the windmills, production energy expense). Also very interested in battery technology and evirin impact of increased battery use, plus large scale energy storage tech (hot salt storage, pumping up water, hydrogen production and it’s environ impacts.)

  4. Stefan says:

    An unbiased, informed and clearly-argued answer to whether and why it’s possible to meet realistic energy needs (that is, without expecting it to go down) by focusing on clean energy as opposed to nuclear as a rapid coal replacement.

  5. Mirik says:

    Typed iphone, shows, sorry…

  6. David Smith says:

    1) I’d like to see a discussion of the pros and cons of centralized generation with distribution vs. local, point of use generation including analysis of where each approach might be more suitable.

    I find that our current system does not work at scale or does only as long as only 15% of the worlds population are alowed to participate.

    2) Thorough analysis (possibly with simple understandable graphics)of lifecycle carbon/environmental costs of all traditional and clean energy technologies, current and projected.

    3) Recently on this site, clean coal was referred to as an “alternative” energy source, (which I find in-appropriate and is probably off my point). Again, simple graphics indicating each energy technology, the current state of the art, technological advances required to bring technology to market in a big way, time frame for this happening, likelihood of it happening, etc…. Dirty & clean technoligies included.

  7. Leif says:

    In my view it is a criminal that “green tech” must directly compete with subsidized fossil fuels and their free polluting of the commons. I would like to see a clear chart of leveled costs to the consumer of all major energy sources. With as many breakdowns as practical. There is probably one out there but I have yet to come across it.

  8. LP says:

    I know CP is generally geared toward the bigger issues, but I’d like to hear more about smaller scale renewable energy and conservation projects as well. IE: household DIY type stuff that we, the people can take initiative on ourselves – instead of simply waiting around for politicians and industry to get their act together.

    For example I’m currently helping an organization I belong to build a solar thermal collector from scratch (MacGuyver style) as part of an effort to retrofit our headquarters into a self-sustainable building. It would be nice to read more professional tips, new developments, inspiring stories, etc on this sort of grass-roots front as well.

    Also, being a student who wants to work in the clean energy sector – any news involving jobs is a definite “yes, please!”

  9. Anonymous says:

    I’d like an extensive series on the pros/cons of geothermal – especially in relation to it’s potential to serve as a base load for the wider system; the environmental costs and concerns surrounding it; etc.

    I’d also like an in-depth series on the grid, it’s shortcomings, and what efforts are currently underway to address. I’m not necessarily talking about the concept of SmartGrid as it’s implemented in homes, but rather the physical structure as it stands now.

    I think it would be good to also understand quickly technology is moving in renewables, how much progress has been made over the past decade or two. For example, it’s often pointed out that turbines are now producing more, be it because they’re taller or there are engineering improvements on the generation. How quickly is this happening and can it be projected out? Where could we be in 5, 10 or 20 years?

    I’d like to know more about Bloom and their fuel cell technology. Are they catching on as hoped? Have they made progress towards moving past subsidies by building more and creating economies of scale. Is there a second generation of the Bloom Box in the works with significant improvements?

    I’d like to see some international coverage of what some emerging economies are doing to invest in renewables. This goes beyond what China, India or Brazil are doing – although it’s wonderful to follow them as well. Some of the fastest growing economies in the world come from less celebrated places like Turkey, Vietnam, Indonesia and the region of East African. Rapid growth requires rapid increases in electricity production. What’s being done to meet these demands?

  10. Leif says:

    Good question David, @ 6: I am a big fan of point of use generation. One aspect that does not get discussed IMO is if a family is producing a larger portion of energy than they consume, that family will find many ways of conserving more home use in order to maximize their monthly cash income. Perhaps even make that green energy tax free to some base line. After all EXXON et al do not pay much in taxes as is and we currently pay to clean their mess.

    People have a long history of extra effort working for cash.

  11. MarkF says:

    outstanding suggestions.

  12. mike manetas says:

    We need to really go on the offense and push the positive aspects of clean, sustainable renewables. Although political lobbying is important, it is vital that the average citizen understand that there are options in our energy policy. There should be positive ads on TV, and ele where in the media. Let’s play the game!

  13. Mark says:

    I would like to see:

    1) a comparison of Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) per kWh between conventional energy sources and renewable sources, if possible with trends and taking into account subsidies, incentives, credits, etc…
    2) a comparison of the external costs of conventional and clean energy sources,
    3) a comparison of the speed with which these systems can be brought online,
    4) a comparison of CO2 reductions per USD$ invested, a CO2 ROI if you will,
    5) a discussion of the obstacles involved in bringing renewable energy online and review of best practices and successful programs for implementing renewable energy.

    Thank you for asking!

  14. Joan Savage says:

    Begin with the climate change predictions and get a multi- decade perspective on the related risks to the clean technologies. Customer populations may migrate en masse. Wind patterns may change.

    Can wind farms and solar installations be taken apart and reassembled? What are the resource limitations to building them, such as supply of rare earths for permanent magnets or batteries?

  15. Doug burke says:

    Many good suggestions. Mine is not really clean energy but it is about technology to reduce atmospheric co2. What about biochar?

  16. ecospam says:

    I would like to see: working on energy *demand* before energy production, reduce it, think in term of negaWatts, then (and *only* then) speak about renewables energy production.

  17. ToddInNorway says:

    How fast is the innovation cycle progressing for 1)wind turbines (several developers claim 10+MW turbines, where are they?) and 2) CIGS thin-film PV, which in theory should give superior conversion efficiency, and many are trying, but why are they not succeeding?

  18. Barry says:

    Solar PV is going to be the first renewable to go viral in a big way.

    That is because it just needs to compete with retail electricity prices…not wholesale prices like most technologies. In fact solar PV only needs to compete with top tier electricity pricing to start with.

    So I’d love to see coverage of how close we are in different nations/states for this. That would include:

    — historical price curves for solar PV
    — retail electricity pricing trends in different regions
    — solar potential for these regions
    — distribution models that cover up-front costs for building owners

    I recently read that Italy just hit this price point and solar PV on buildings now competes without subsidies for retail electricity. Just imagine what will happen as solar PV prices continue to drop and fossil/nuke electricity prices rise.

    Spain is less than five years away. I’m sure many other areas are too.

    Everything will be solar eventually because it is so simple. There are no spinning parts in an ecosystem. There are no complicated moving parts to maintain. There are so few threats from malfunctioning. They will be deployable by everyone for much, much less than what they spend on their cars. They can be built right into building design as materials get better. The technology curve has huge potential for price drops and production increases.

    The big win in my book is when solar gets cheap enough to do air-CO2-to-liquid-fuel storage. That would solve the problem of transitioning all the fossil burning infrastructure.

    Very glad to hear a clean energy person is being added to this amazing blog. Looking forward to it.

  19. Heraclitus says:

    I’d like to see something on available green energy technology for new builds. Should it be mandatory for all new builds to have renewable energy systems integrated into them? This is much cheaper than retro-fitting existing buildings and the extra build costs could be offset by future savings. What are the most realistic technologies?

  20. GM says:

    Any “analysis” that looks at only one aspect of the global sustainability crisis is in great danger of turning into yet another piece of greenwashing, simply because “solutions” to one issue may not be solutions at all when all the other issues are considered in the same time. This is even more so the case when time and resource limitations to technology development and scalability are ignored. Biofuels of any generation are great example of that kind of secondary scientific illiteracy among people who are otherwise labeled “experts” gone out of control.

    So unless whoever you’re reading is thinking about Peak Oil/Gas/Coal/Uranium/, the exhaustion of a number of other mineral resources, climate change, aquifer depletion, soil degradation, general ecosystem collapse, etc., all in the same time and in their totality, and taking into account the demographic and sociocultural factors involved and the time we have left to do something, then that person has absolutely no clue what he’s talking about.

    For the record, once you consider all those things, it becomes very clear that there are absolutely no solutions that do not involve completely doing away with the very idea of growing the economy and that do not involve some severe form of population control. Problem is that those things are themselves practically impossible to implement themselves due to the great sociocultural bariers that have to be overcome and the huge momentum of ignorance about the situation, even among those who are on the surface on the right side of the issue

  21. Tom Gray says:

    Glad you asked. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) is currently working on a “top 20” list of “did you know” facts about the U.S. wind power industry and will be rolling them out soon. A preliminary list is being made available via AWEA’s Twitter account, @awea, on a one-a-day basis. The AWEA website at is also a good source of info on issues like utility integration that will affect wind power’s future growth. Regarding the question of wind’s energy payback, mentioned above, see .–Regards, Tom Gray, Wind Power Communications Consultant

  22. Bob Wallace says:

    I’m with Mark #13 – Price.

    Including hidden costs.

    Jim #1 –

    In the November, 2009 issue of Scientific America Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi published an article titled A Plan for a Sustainable Future: How to get all energy from wind, water, and solar power by 2030

    Jacobson and Delucchi present a blueprint for getting almost 100% of the world’s energy needs (electricity, transportation and heat) from renewables.

    They used population projections and increased standard of living projections to determine the amount of power for both electricity and transportation needed in 2030.

    Result: 10.5 terawatts (TW)is what we need.

    They surveyed the world’s available energy sites to determine how much power was available.

    They report that:
    1) Solar power in sunny locations can power the entire world for all purposes 30 times over.
    2) Wind in windy locations on or near land can power the world 6 to 15 times over.
    3) Only 0.4% of the entire planet’s physical land would be needed to power everyone, everywhere with wind, water and sunlight.

    Roughly sources of power break down in the following proportions:
    1.1 TW tidal, geothermal, and hydro (9%)
    5.8 TW wind and wave (51%)
    4.6 TW solar (PV and CSP) (40%)

    At this point in time we have about 70% of the hydro installed, about 2% of the wind generation, and less than 1% of each of the others.

    They acknowledge that some liquid fuel will likely be need for some types of transportation.

    They calculate the amount of each technology we would have to install each year in order to reach the goal of essentially 100% renewable in 20 years.

    They calculate the amount of materials needed to build renewable systems and find no significant problems meeting the need.

    Here’s the entire article. (Minus the reference section.)

  23. Richard Brenne says:

    Millions of words are written about clean energy every day, but Climate Progress is in the most unique position I know of to do the honest, full-cost accounting of all clean (versus dirty) energy systems.

    My intuition is that if you polled most Americans and people around the world about what percentage of total energy consumption (not just electricity) in the U.S. and world is clean, the answers would most often range from something like 10 to 50 per cent, with the other 90 to 50 per cent fairly easily attained.

    This is an inaccuracy that will kill us if we’re not careful.

    Right now wind and solar comprise less than one per cent of total energy consumption (not just electricity).

    Instead of being accurate and honest about this, most of the statistics about clean energy never mention this, but instead talk only about percentage increases that are impressive but without mention of total energy they’re misleading, and being misleading is being dishonest.

    Instead of various metrics the public doesn’t understand, we need to talk about percentages of total energy consumption, and never confuse that with total electrical consumption, which is about 1/7 all total energy consumption (on the useful end-delivery of electricity; closer to 1/3 total energy goes into generating electricity, but most of that is lost to the second law of thermodynamics – a fairly useful law to remember – in the process).

    Solar and wind are my own personal favorites and I want them to succeed and I ultimately want to have (and feel we have to have, if we are to survive) a solar and wind economy where we have a fossil fuel economy today.

    All other solutions are great as well, but all solutions also need to be put in the proper context of the overall problem. The focus on solutions without stating the overall magnitude of the problem would be like the Allies in WWII after Pearl Harbor discussing only what new guns and bullets they’re going to use.

    Instead the Allied leaders had to look at all the various resources and abilities the Axis powers had in order to develop a plan to defeat them. Particular guns and bullets ultimately played their part, but discussing such solutions without addressing the magnitude of the problem would’ve been foolhardy. Thinking new technologies alone would defeat the Axis powers except as part of an overall plan that acknowledged what they were up against would’ve contributed to defeat. It would have been a mechanism in the denial about how serious and powerful the enemy was.

    And it is the same with energy. What we’re talking about is a change from a fossil fuel to a renewable energy economy that makes what the Allies faced in WWII seem a small problem by comparison. If we don’t honestly and accurately state what we’re up against (as Joe has done more and better than anyone), we will never get where we need to go.

    When I attend climate change and other scientific conferences I generally find that all the best scientists presenting and attending are generally interested in the truth of their science.

    When I attend energy conferences I generally find that everyone is selling their energy source, and even if I’m as big of a fan of solar and wind as they are, all selling alone leads to exaggerations and distortions that are fundamentally dishonest.

    I hope and pray that doesn’t happen here.

    I used to catch a bus to the east side of the Sierra Nevada and backpack and climb the 48 states highest mountains for a week or 10 days, ending up on the west side of that great range and hitchhiking home. During that time I’d bring at most a liter of stove fuel, and during that time (excluding all that went in to everything I was wearing and carrying) that liter was my carbon footprint. Instead of the unrelenting and unrepentant orgy of consumption we think we enjoy today, something closer to what I experienced will need to be our per capita energy budget for the future if our species is to survive.

    Any communication that we can each consume all we want for all eternity is simply selling and a lie, and the primary one that will kill us off.

    To me Climate Progress is like Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s war rooms, looking at the big picture. A colonel occasionally coming in to make a presentation about the latest gun or bullet being developed is well and good, but should not come at the expense of always focusing on the big picture as well. Our society is comprised of almost nothing but such colonels selling their small (typically miniscule) piece of the puzzle, while no one is putting the entire big picture puzzle together itself. Climate Progress is putting the big picture puzzle (oddly all wedges) together better than anyone, and I trust, hope and pray that continues.

  24. Sunflower says:

    The latest on district heating and seasonal heat storage. What is Sweden doing?

  25. question says:

    Jim #1,

    The article bob #21 provides is excellent, but a back of the envelope calculation shows that re won’t run into the resources problem immediately… if we wait too long however….

    The world energy consumption/year is about 500 quad btus or about 5e20 joules. This comes to about 15 TW. Assume we are going to use wind with a capacity factor of about 30% and 5MW turbines. Then we need about 10 million turbines. Compare this to 60+ million cars/trucks etc. built each year worldwide. Clearly a turbine takes more resources to produce, but a decade of the equivalent industry would do the trick.

    Note also that while it is large, the automotive industry is not that large a portion of our economy… say $20K per car and we have $1.2 trillion/year versus a world economy of about $60 trillion/year. So only 5% of the economy for a few years ought to be sufficient… it is all political, not absolute feasibility!

  26. SecularAnimist says:

    Glad to hear you are doing this. Some suggestions:

    1. Reviews of studies, peer-reviewed and otherwise, like the Jacobson and Delucchi Scientific American article that Bob Wallace discussed above, which set forth plans for getting to a 100 percent renewables-powered energy economy, fast.

    2. Overviews of the current state of the various major renewable technologies that are already being deployed or are fully developed technologically and ready to be deployed — e.g. wind, PV, solar thermal, geothermal, biomass.

    3. Updates on technological breakthroughs — particularly in PV and storage, where there is a LOT happening very fast.

    4. Links to other sites that report on the renewable industry from both a business and a technological point of view. For example’s green tech news page is pretty good, as are some of the industry association sites (SEIA, AWEA, etc).

    5. Things people don’t know but should:

    5.a. The world has vast solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and other renewable resources that can provide far more energy than human civilization currently consumes, in perpetuity, with NO need to mine, process, transport or burn fuel of any kind, and NO pollution or waste products.

    5.b. With today’s powerful and mature solar and wind technologies, we already have the means at hand to harvest more than enough of these resources to power our civilization, and it is much easier and can be done much faster and cheaper than most people think.

    5.c. Moreover, as the technology improves — as it is rapidly doing, especially PV and storage — it will become easier and cheaper to harvest more and more of the vast, free ambient energy available to us. With fuel-based energy technologies, the cost of ever-scarcer supplies of fuel inevitably drives prices up. With renewables the energy itself is free, and the only cost is the cost of the technology to harvest, store and distribute it — and as we have seen with other technologies, notably IT, as the technology advances in both power and scale, those costs go down.

    5.d. Lastly, as with global warming itself, it is helpful to debunk often repeated denialist talking points, which tend to grossly exaggerate or completely invent obstacles to, limitations of, and even harm from renewables. Examples include: we don’t have the technology yet so we need nuclear until we do; the “intermittency” (actually variability) of renewables is an insurmountable obstacle; wind turbines kill huge numbers of birds; CSP necessarily destroys entire ecosystems; manufacturing PV causes massive toxic pollution; renewables are far more expensive than fossil or nuclear; etc.

  27. John McCormick says:

    RE # 1

    Jim Armstrong, you asked: “Is there enough energy and material left to really make the number of windmills, panels and whatnot we will need to prevent a general social collapse?

    Molycorp mine at Mountain Pass CA is the only rare earth minerals mine nearing production stage.

    Solar, wind, batteries, CFLs all require material the US is in short– or no supply.

    We can buy all the wind towers China will sell us. Not a great deal!

    Spend some time looking into the rare earth minerals issue if you really want to get depressed.

    John McCormick

  28. SecularAnimist says:

    Barry at #18 wrote: “Solar PV is going to be the first renewable to go viral in a big way.”

    Great post, my favorite on the thread so far.

    I think you are right. Ultra-cheap, high-efficiency PV is coming fast, and will likely hit grid parity within a few years, and then will quickly become cheaper than the grid. And it will get steadily cheaper over time. Not only that, but it will be implemented in many different forms. We won’t be talking about “PV panels” any more, but PV materials and PV surfaces — for example, the entire external surface of an electric car, or an office building, including the windows, will be a PV surface.

    The proliferation of cheap, high-efficiency PV will be a disruptive technology, like personal computers and cell phones, that will revolutionize the way we generate and use electricity. Not only can it facilitate the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels and save us from global warming, but it can enable an electric grid that is much more distributed, resilient and reliable. And by distributing the “means of production” of modern civilization’s primary resource — energy — it may even help to create a more democratic and just society.

  29. Marion Delgado says:

    I want a list of every clean energy source, what issues they have, etc. and especially sources beyond the big ones like (thermal and PV) solar and wind.

    I am assuming biomass is sort of clean and a big deal. Coal plant heat capture, geothermal, thermocouple energy, tidal. But what else is out there?

  30. LucAstro says:

    An astronomer who founded Mirror Lab in Arizona which produced superb optical telescopes, Dr. Roger Angel, has set the aim of getting prices down to 1$/watt for his solar concentrator array system (see RehNu: A very inspiring project that had the enthusiastic support of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. How does that compare to other energy sources? What kind of EROEI does it correspond to?

  31. john atcheson says:

    I’d like to know about earth-sheltered homes and other passive low cost designs.

  32. Bob Wallace says:

    John, are you sure about rare earth element shortages?

    First, we should make a differentiation between ‘reserves’ and ‘occurrence’.

    We don’t yet have production capacity for some REE such as lithium, but we do have sources. (Waste water from the Salton Sea geothermal plants, for example.)

    Neodymium is widely distributed in the Earth’s crust and it is no more rare than cobalt, nickel or copper.

    Samarium, another REE used for magnets, is the 40th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust and is more common than such metals as tin.

    Perhaps there are specific REEs which might occur in very small amounts and would cause us problems, but there are also work-arounds.

    We can build wind turbines without neodymium, but we give up something in efficiency. There are several ways to make solar panels.

    And we do not need to produce all the REEs we need within our boarders. We don’t grow our own coconuts.

    China cut back on outside sales for (apparently) two reasons. First, their manufacturing is likely using up a much higher percentage of what the are able to produce at this time. And second, because they seem to be cleaning up their act – starting to produce REEs with less pollution and cleaning up the mess they made in previous years.

  33. Davos says:

    I would like to here about “What do we do” when environmentalists clash with each other over Wind Energy siting (although the same could be said for other forms of clean energy I guess).

    In New England, it has been a very difficult road. It’s not the same as in China where they can just declare a site, a number of turbines, and it happens. We’re currently at the 8-year mark for continuous litigation and appeals for the Hoosic farm and about the same for a concept in the Berkshires. These drive up costs, have political rammifications, and often suffer to NIMBYs who DO want wind energy– just somewhere else.

    The same lies in-store for coastal sites, and of course there’s the debacle in Falmouth poisoning the well (figuratively) for future plans.

  34. Raul M. says:

    What would utility scale biochar look like?
    Would it have gassification ovens that move
    to and from the heat collection chamber?
    Would the 50 lb bags of biochar be available
    at the local store or by the ton to farming?
    Could excess heat energy be delivered to
    local high-rise buildings?
    Is there something about biochar on a utility
    scale they prevents it from development?

  35. Andy Hultgren says:

    All things related to cost parity, plus previews of potentially disruptive technologies or modes of deployment (ideally past bench-scale research and at or nearing study at small- to full-scale).

    One area of potentially disruptive technologies or modes of deployment of interest would be lost-cost, easily installed applications appropriate for the developing (or developed) world.

    Also, seperately, more detail on where renewable energy deployment is succeeding and how that can be replicated at local government, state, regional, and national scales (policy, economic, and social factors).

    And let me add that I’m very very excited to see what comes!

  36. Brian N says:

    One metric rarely addressed in RE discussions is power density / land use for large scale energy farms, dual land use potential, and aluminum/steel/concrete supporting infrastructure.
    In David MacKay’s “Sustainable Energy – without hot air” he quotes typical numbers for solar, onshore wind, airborne wind, ocean wave, tidal as being about 5W/m^2 ranging up to 10W/m^2 for outstanding sites.
    Offshore wind fares well. Makani Power estimated airborne wind is only expected to deliver 5W/m^2 and of course must be away from flight paths.
    If memory serves, he says geothermal is less than 1W/m^2 though it doesn’t occupy much surface land and bio-fuels are way less than 1W/m^2 and use a lot of water with no land sharing.

    Less densely populated countries like Canada, Australia, U.S. have best RE options land wise, but Europe even as a whole and especially Japan are severely land constrained.

    3 topics I’d like to see discussed are:-

    Energy storage such as Isentropic’s idea using an Ericsson cycle engine to create a delta temp between adjacent hot and cold gravel stores

    DME (Di methyl ether) which apparently can be made from CO2 and a huge thermal supply like nuclear.

    LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors) first developed at Oak Ridge National Lab and now being considered by China & France.

  37. Christopher S. Johnson says:

    The amazing GHG displacement power of *efficiency*.

  38. Mike Roddy says:

    Richard Brenne, excellent essay, thanks.

    Re other commenters and PV’s: If they were cheaper or even at par, everybody would be using them. In California, it’s about $40,000 to install a system, a number which can only be justified by feed in tariffs and state and federal subsidies. And here’s a factoid few know: only 1/3 of the cost of rooftop PV’s is the collectors, meaning that cheap thin film may not make solar competitive. Rooftop solar is more than a vanity solution, but less than the answer we need. If it’s competitive in Italy, it’s because electricity rates in the EU are much, much higher than here in the US, around $.25 kwh in some countries.

    In my opinion, rooftop solar’s capital and installation cost means we’re back to grid power, which also takes care of things like pumping water, commercial buildings, and so on.

    I’d like to see the health and pollution costs of coal, gas, and oil powered electricity computed nationally on a per kwh basis. I’ve seen stabs at this, but we need something detailed and comprehensive, resulting in a simple per kwh number that’s averaged nationally. Then, we could add CO2 pollution as a separate line item. Presto: fossil fuels are not competitive.

    Good discussion. Clean power could be a blog unto itself.

  39. Adam R. says:

    The impact of large-scale solar projects upon sensitive desert habitats concerns me. I would be interested in how much these effects have been studied and how they can be minimized.

  40. caerbannog says:

    The impact of large-scale solar projects upon sensitive desert habitats concerns me. I would be interested in how much these effects have been studied and how they can be minimized.

    In California, much of the really pristine, ecologically valuable desert has been protected by National Park, National Preserve, or Wilderness designation.

    There is lots of ecologically-degraded desert land (beat up by ORV’s, mined out, or otherwise thrashed) available for solar power generation. Shoot, if you put up solar panels on the land currently occupied by foreclosed and abandoned homes in the desert, you could generate a heck a lot of electricity…

  41. darth says:

    Mike at #38 has a good point about solar PV installation costs. What we need are building code changes to require solar PV on new construction. That will lower installation cost dramatically and people can then roll the cost into the 30 yr mortgage anyway – the slightly higher payment is offset by the lower power bill so it’s effective no out of pocket cost. Is anyone lobbying for such standards?

  42. BlueRock says:

    Rebuttals of the common anti-renewable propaganda, e.g.:

    * renewables can’t supply baseload

    * renewables are too expensive

    * renewables rely on rare earth elements and there’s not enough / China has it all

    * renewables are not viable without storage

    * etc.

    I can provide more if needed.

  43. Adam R. says:

    There is lots of desert land…


    And just because it is currently ecologically degraded, must we concede it should remain that way?

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree that AGW is THE extreme threat to all habitats and conservation compromises may have to be made, but I’d like to see habitat destruction understood and mitigation considered.

  44. Mimikatz says:

    LFTR and Next generation nuclear.

    Is fusion even a possibility by midcentury? Later? Ever?

  45. Mike Roddy says:

    Adam R,

    Most solar projects are sited on degraded or barren land, which is at low elevation and supports little biomass- creosotes, mostly. Talk to the rangers at Joshua Tree National Park. They will tell you that global warming and smog are far greater threats to the Mojave than solar. We could power the whole country on a 100 x 100 mile farm- half that is more likely, and more than enough barren land is available.

    Fossil fuel interests have been behind the don’t-destroy-the-desert play. They jammed solar meetings in Joshua Tree a couple of years ago, and tried to stop a plant that was going to be on an old airport next to the freeway. Coal and gas fear solar, and solar lacks the money and public support to fight back.

    And Darth, installed PV is a good idea, and should be mandatory in sunny climates. The mortgage cost will be recovered in asset valuation as well as electric bills.

  46. HP ClimateHawk says:

    Would be great to see life-cycle environmental impact of a rooftop solar installation. Throw in one electric car as an extended analysis.

  47. Nick Palmer says:

    Barry in comment #16 has a very good angle on “point of use” systems only needing to compete with the retail cost of electricity (for PV) and heating oil/gas (for solar thermal hot water). Similarly for home scale wind and home scale bio-gas digesters married with fuel cells.

  48. jakerman says:

    I heard a recent interview on Australian radio regarding wave power.

    The promoters of the technology stated that it would provide baseload equivalent and would be cheaper than coal within 4 years. Is this being over optimistic?

  49. Heraclitus says:

    What are the prospects for high-altitude wind? Greatly reduces problems associated with intermittency. And Brian N, maybe it’s the flights that should be moving.

  50. Nick Palmer says:

    Comment #18 actually

  51. Durbrow says:

    I would like to see a blog on getting some “Clean Energy Breakthrough” (e.g. solar, battery, etc) from the lab to the market. That is, and other sites are daily announcing some clean energy breakthrougn and then we hear nothing. An article describing getting a “breakthrough” to the market would be very enlightening.

    It would also be great to have regular articles summarizing best developments in the lab and in the market for solar, wind, and battery and possibly atmospheric carbon removal.

  52. Brian N says:

    I like airborne high altitude wind because it minimizes the hardware per MW though it increases the sophistication to automate the ascent & descent aspects.
    Kitegen in Italy looks promising
    Magenn air rotor is quite different though I wonder if helium supplies would be an issue for very large scale,
    Offshore airborne wind would seem even better and shrinking flying would seem to me part of degrowing economies.

  53. jo abbess says:

    I want to read about Big Numbers Today, basically the Socolow and Pacala “wedges” that we can do with current technology within a decade.

    1. Energy Efficiency – including end-use efficiency, vehicle fuel efficiency, energy demand management – the scope is the sky is the limit.

    2. Renewable Gas – I’m just researching what National Grid say is possible both in the USA and the UK.

    3. Insulation, insulation, insulation.

    4. Lots more wind power.

    5. Lots more solar power.

    6. Large geographical electricity grids to join up the solar to the wind and load balance.

    7. The spirit of investment enterprise – how Clean Tech people are diving into clean energy investment, with fingers in both ears to shut out the death cult drones of recession doom-mongering. Let’s hear about returns on investment into wind power and solar power – even without the subsidies/grants/feed-in-tariffs.

    8. NPV = Net Present Value. Let’s hear about how wind power and solar power have real asset value – unlike nuclear power plants, coal ash heaps and tar sands tailing ponds.

  54. Bob Lang says:

    #1 Jim Armstrong:

    “…I have recently heard claims that it is basically impossible to create anything like the society we have now using renewables …”

    Jim, don’t worry about peak oil. The problem of food security without diesel fuel has already been solved, as this video shows:

  55. Vic says:

    Two questions I’d like to ask,

    1\ Is it physically possible to use coal fired energy to power devices that would sequester more CO2 than what the combusted coal releases ?

    2\ Italian scientists/engineers Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi have recently claimed a major breakthrough in cold fusion. Is it a hoax ?

  56. Malcreado says:

    What is the real story with hydro? For year I have heard that we have pretty much developed most all the hydro in the US. However I just heard someone from the DOE give a talk, online, saying that only 3% of the dams actually produce energy. Which seems to match my observations. Is it just the mind set that only utility scale matters? I am not advocating for damming more rivers but if it is already dammed why not generate power. Any story there?

  57. Aubrey Enoch says:

    Wind, hydro, biomass, and PV are all solar. We have a huge fusion reactor sending us thousands of times more energy every minute than we’ll ever need and we’re wringing our hands about peak oil. This fossil fuel delusion is put forth by guess who? The fossil fuel owners. Like duh.
    And the Sun just keeps shining.
    And we spend billions to “research” CC&S while we’re still using the hundred year old lead/acid battery technology. Wonder who passes out the”research” grants?
    Sunshine is the only income we’ve got.

  58. adelady says:

    Apart from nega-Watts, which is THE main target, there’s a fair bit more low-hanging fruit.

    Every city has a sewage plant. Many have sub-optimal or abandoned landfill sites. Any temporary problems with intermittency during rollout of wind and solar and the necessary intelligent grids can be supplemented or ameliorated by biomass generation from sewage plants and landfills.

  59. Sou says:

    +1 for BlueRock’s suggestion at #42.

    Rare earth substitutes / work-arounds.

    Near-commercial developments and potential impact – eg all-in-one solar steel cladding, windows; ultra-capacitors for vehicles etc.

    Base-load vs on-demand requirements and how that will change as technology adoption changes.

    Rate of price reduction for renewables as adoption increases and technologies change.

    Mass transport/travel technologies and alternatives to solo traveller travel.

    Industry options for meeting very large and reliable power requirements.

    Ancillary developments – eg more efficient, green packaging of consumer goods, food etc.; waste (all types) as a source of energy etc.

    Comparison of actual trends in renewable adoption/carbon emissions around the world – eg Europe, Asia, north and south America, Oceania.

  60. paulm says:


    [JR: It’s wrong.]

  61. Mond from Oz says:

    Richard Brenne #23

    It is important to stress the absolute urgency of the converging events which will become critical within our lifetime. They include the continuing rise in world population, a looming food crisis, global warming, and a coming increase in the price of oil.

    The central link between these issues is the rapidly accelerating growth in atmospheric CO2. This is very clearly illustrated in the latest data from NOAA Muana Lua. (Pieter Tans/NOAA has agreed to my access and use of the data)

    I don’t seem to be able to reproduce my graph here, but it is important – perhaps as a visual slogan, because it depicts the subject with exceptional clarity. (It can be reproduced from the formula, below)

    I have plotted the yearly trend means: they are precisely (R^2 = .9991) described by the polynomial y = 0.0122x^2 + 0.7867x + c (here 313.71). The acceleration is implicit: y’ for 1968 is 1.031, and for 2036, when the predicted atmospheric C02 is predicted to be at 450 ppm, y’ = 2.98

    In other words, the rate of change is itself accelerating (y” = .02440). Of course,in the future the parameters may change in either direction: temperature sensitivity to increasing CO2 is unclear (to me!)as are the effects of decreasing albedo, methane release, and much else.

    However, unless mankind embraces the most rapid revolution in all history, it seems to me that the momentum of the present economic system is simply unstoppable. Unless, that is, ‘growth’ not only ceases, but – as in a major world recession, turns negative. The base cause of this growth may be stated with some confidence: cheap liquid energy has powered a dramatic rise in world population: in 1950, when the estimate was 2.56 billion, it had doubled in the preceding century. In the next 38 years it had doubled again, to more than 5 billion. And in 2010 it stands at some 6.85 billion. This growth is expected to continue, albeit at a decreasing rate: the prediction for 2050 is 9.56 billion. And how, in the developing circumstances, will they be fed?

    Accompanying this increase has been a growth in human activity per se, powered by the burning of fossil fuel, and without major revolution in the face of massively funded resistance, that will probably continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. (See Richard Brenne, #23, above)

    So what is to be done? On the positive side, press for the development of clean energy sources and their utilisation, on a household and community scale. And use less energy: leave flying for the birds. Bring about a world wide economic slowdown – its easy. Just don’t buy a new car. In fact, apart from rigorously defined essentials, don’t buy anything.

  62. Sou says:

    More on the cross-over price point – what happens to energy prices/cost if we don’t build renewable energy fast enough. (Energy prices continue to rise. Simplistically – if renewable is used to build more renewable then the max energy price should be lower than if we run very short of fossil fuel before building enough renewables).

  63. David B. Benson says:

    Appropriate storage technologies. Jacobsen & Delucchi reference a paper which seems to show that just 6% of car batteries would suffice; I find that hard to credit.

  64. Ziyu says:

    I notice that the solar industry has breakthroughs very often but they are from different people in different areas. Because of that, many of these breakthroughs only get applied individually. How efficient and cheap would a solar panel be if it incorporated the best of all the new breakthroughs instead of just 1 or 2? I bet a lot.

  65. Flash says:

    I’d like to know why everyone who talks about solar power assumes the only way to get ‘er done is to build in the pristine desert hundreds of miles from the cities that use the electricity? Instead, how about covering the thousands of miles of irrigation canals that crisscross the desert and the cities of the southwestern U.S.? Start by covering the canals in the city, then build out from there. When you’ve covered the canals, begin covering the flat roofs of large buildings and associated parking lots in those cities. Covering just those two things with solar cells could probably generate enough electricity to supply the power needs of the entire U.S., and you wouldn’t need to festoon the desert with transmission lines, which suck up nearly ten percent of the electricity before it gets to the load.

  66. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    I am glad CLIMATE PROGRESS will bebringing out articles and Blogs on CLEAN ENERGY, This is amust to know the latest trends and importance of Emerging Clean Energy Technologies.

    Renewable energy flows involve natural phenomena such as sunlight, wind, tides, plant growth, and geothermal heat.

    I look forward to the articles.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  67. David B. Benson says:

    Interesting to see how hydro, thermal and wind are actually operated in this region:

    Some aspects of these operational policies are worthy of articles here.

  68. Laphroaig says:

    I’d like to see more discussion of storage technologies and the trade-offs (or possible synergies?) between storage and better integration of regional grids. Poorly correlated variable energy sources can be pooled together to produce a much more stable total output, but to do this on a large scale would require relatively expensive upgrades to our national grid to more tightly integrate different regions. OTOH, relatively expensive storage implemented locally or regionally would tend to reduce the burdens on the future grid. Where is the sweet spot? Or, rather, where are the sweet spots, since the answer probably depends upon the particular mix of renewables on (and off) the grid.

  69. S. Majumder says:

    [JR: Traveling today. Will debunk Monday.]


    “Build enough wind farms to replace fossil fuels, and we could seriously deplete the energy available in the atmosphere, with consequences as dire as severe climate change”

    Escaping laws of thermodynamics?? Didn’t think so.

    [JR: Wrong and wrong, as we’ll see.]

  70. Bob Wallace says:

    Malcredo – #56 – “What is the real story with hydro?”

    Here’s a study which reviews the existing dams on federal lands.

    The study reports potential 1.3GW of generation from dams.

    There are thousands of existing dams on non-federal lands and some are now being converted to generation.

    A 2006 study of potential

  71. Biomapper says:

    A wholesale conversion to clean energy without massive ecosystem restoration projects is like stopping the assault but leaving the wounds untreated. Can you please also explore the ideas of ecosystem services? I think a lot of folks around here will enjoy that perspective if they are not already familiar with it.

  72. Colorado Bob says:

    One of the first articles I’ve seen on the energy crisis that Japan now faces :

    Japan’s dim capital faces further power crunch

    TOKYO (AP) — When a boiling summer hits power-starved Tokyo, even Japan’s culture of self-restraint will hit its limit.–hThQ9YpHSHKJHLHA?docId=b558e32484664594aa24212024ee3834

  73. Neal J. King says:

    IF we can use coal relatively cleanly, it will make going emissions-free much easier.

    So, are there known thermodynamic limits on how efficiently we can sequester CO2 from coal?

  74. danleySteel says:

    Ditto Mark @ 13.

    I am awash in numbers that aren’t directly comparable. What I would like to know are the numbers (probably levelized $/kwh) that let me understand different sources actual costs (including externalities, excluding price effects of subsidies and taxes), and current market price (including subsidies and taxes, and excluding any externalities not taxed subsidized). Naturally it would be best for policy makers to favor energy sources which are cheapest in actual cost (wind? solar?) and switch aggressively from energy sources with excessive costs (coal, oil, possibly corn ethanol).

    Some energy sources have somewhat controversial levelized $/kwh expenses depending on who you ask or what your assumptions are (nuclear in particular) so it might be better to offer a range of credible estimates. Some externalities are harder to price than others,(oil security or proliferation concerns or benefits as a national security thing seems harder to price than, say, direct health effects) but even with the challenges, putting some numbers on the relative costs of different kinds of energy–and compare those to the levelized $/kwh prices the energy market (failure) currently offers gives a good picture of what avenues are most promising for pressuring policymakers.

  75. Prokaryotes says:

    S. Majunder “Escaping laws of thermodynamics?? Didn’t think so.”

    He is wrong, because the energy is re-used, doesn’t vanish.

    The article or researchers also make failure “Much of the rest is dissipated as heat, which we cannot harness.”

    For example people use passive building/materials which react to temperature.

  76. dp says:

    a transcontinental distributed energy grid should improve our trade balance by keeping a much larger share of our energy payments inside our economy and whether fast transition took 10 years or 25, you’d have to describe that level of new public and private investment as a boom.

    households, businesses, governments, pension funds and so on will be wondering how to catch some of the revenue for themselves.

    let’s talk full-scale about the materials, costs, liabilities and possible timeframes, so that these things can be integrated in fiscal plans.

  77. Colorado Bob says:

    S. Majumder @ 66

    No free lunch , damn thermodynamics.

    I’m waiting for someone to do the calculations on O2, since we’re burning it, and destroying it’s manufacture, that candle seems to have both ends burning as it were.

  78. Andrew DeWit says:

    With all due respect to people stressing negawatts and other aspects of conservation at the expense of more energy, please keep in mind that the current global population is about 7 billion people. That number is, as you know, expected to rise to 9 billion over the next few decades. At present, the population of the developed countries is perhaps one and a half billion people. When we talk about energy conservation, we’re talking about the energy consumed by people in the developed countries. With rising middle classes in the developing countries, we have to ask what sort of energy they’re going to consume. Is it enough for us in the developed countries to cut consumption without at the same time seeking to foster a renewable energy revolution? If we don’t do the latter, then the energy consumers in the developing countries are likely to burn coal to produce electricity as well as burn oil to fuel their cars. Given their numbers, that will make all the conservation efforts undertaken in the developed world in vain. So while conservation is great, perhaps it’s best to see whether it’s enough to satisfy global needs. If it isn’t, then maybe renewables needs equal time. Wishful thinking on these issues is not wise: the fossil-fuel people are already using the reality of “energy poverty” in the developing world to override concerns about climate change.

  79. John B. Hodges says:

    One little detail I’d like to know is whether the use of utiltity-scale sodium-sulfur storage batteries is practical on a large scale. NGK/TEPCO in Japan is making them, and using them to buffer the output of wind farms there. How does that affect the economics of wind, and how much does it resolve the “intermittency” problem that is incessantly raised against wind and PV solar? See

  80. Anne van der Bom says:

    Many readers are asking for technical background information. I do not see that as very useful. There are many good sources around the web, why add yet another one?

    Your strength, Joe, is your deep understanding of politics. Imo you should use that strength to concentrate on the link between policies and renewables and how they interact. Or not, since some renewable energy projects come about without government involvement and/or subsidies. That it is a real, competitive industry and not a subsidy circus.

    That would add real value.

  81. nen says:

    Id like to see a simple tutorial that helps me calculate how much energy a given wind turbine or solar panel would produce in a day or a year. Even if it’s approximate or only gives the kinds of things to consider rather than the calculations themselves.

    Like if I am told a solar panel is a 500 watt panel, is that enough info to calculate daily and annual average energy production? If so, how do I go about calculating it?

    I know you have to take into account insolation at the latitude you live as well, so that’s one additional factor that has to be known. But are there more? I assume the weather – which affects turbines and panels – averages out pretty much over an entire year so as to be largely irrelevant.

    Deniers get a lot of traction from just being able to BS and claim solar panels and wind turbines produce hardly any power in condition X and time Y. While I can only suspect they are cherrypicking but don’t have the ability to calculate the actual energy production over a longer period.

    It’s strange because if I had to calculate the radiative forcing of doubling CO2 I could easily find loads of articles to do that. But to calculate the annual power output of a given solar panel I can’t find how to do that.

    I can only imagine that calculating power from a turbine or panel is non-trivial. But don’t these devices come with manufacturers “power output” levels precisely to make such calculations possible?

  82. Joan Savage says:

    Colorado Bob (#71)

    Ralph Keeling (Scripps Institute of Oceanography) has done important original research on O2. His work on O2 fine tunes the information on CO2. It shows that the far more immediate challenge is the CO2. There is however a gradual decline in O2, but the reserves are larger. I did the numbers on his numbers and made a guess we’d get below the 15% atmospheric concentration of O2 that is a threshold concentration for mammals like us. It’s about ten thousand years down the road. The CO2 levels and related methane release might make that moot.
    For a presentation by Ralph Keeling, with graphs, see video
    Understanding Oxygen: Global Carbon Dioxide

  83. Mauri Pelto says:

    We all learn from specific examples, so each post should emphasize specific local success story examples to make the point.

  84. Heraclitus says:

    Brian N

    My naive view is that off-shore kitegen is a winner. Having the turbine at sea level means the floating platforms required are much easier to design than for the traditional top-heavy wind-turbine and probably for the vertical-axled ones like the Aerogenerator.

  85. Sou says:

    @nen #80 – this calculator is pretty good for PV panel calculations for different locations around the world:

    And this site shows actual (current and historical) PV panel outputs, mostly from home installations in Australia:

  86. BBHY says:

    Personally, I feel pretty well informed about clean energy. I know that isn’t true for everyone so it is good that you are helping folks learn more about it.

    But I’m afraid that no matter what we learn about clean energy and no matter how great the benefits, out political “system” will prevent (as it has for so long), us form making major progress.

    What I would like to see is a blog dedicated to political activism on climate change and clean energy. There are plenty of progressive political sites, but most are focused purely on Democrats vs Republicans on a wide variety of issues. Climate change and clean energy become minor issues in the larger struggle, and focusing on getting Democrats elected is certainly no guarantee of progress on these issues, or even of progressivism itself.

  87. FS says:

    When you talk to opponents of clean energies you are often confronted with the baseload question. Therefore, storage and transmission should play a major role in your work on renewables.

    Also interesting: competition between wind and solar. Wind being the utilities’ renewable energy and solar being the utilities’ customers’ energy, we’ll probably get to hear some criticism of solar from the utilities.

    I’d also be interested in more analysis (I know others have already asked for it) on conflicts between clean energies and conservationists – and I mean analysis, not just reporting on the fact that it exists.

    And a lot of what has been mentioned in the great previous comments.

  88. Christopher Yaun says:

    Burning Down the House

    Financial analysis of solar PV can be found here.

  89. S. Majumder says:

    Prokaryotes : “energy is re-used, doesn’t vanish”. Could you kindly elaborate on that?

    As far as my understanding goes: Consider a black-box earth. The only external energy it can get is solar. For this black-box, energy input-output = +ve. Thus the system gains energy. Part of this goes for atmosphere, rest goes to plants. Living things get energy from plants. Over the years the slow accumulation of the energy results into fossil fuels.

    Then Humans arrive. They use most of the fossil fuel to change the functioning of the black-box internally. From external point of view the earth now takes in slightly more energy. Internally this means there is more energy for the atmospheric system and also for plants. This sudden (geologically speaking) increase in energy in atmosphere results in something we call climate change.

    Now take the example of wind energy. It taps energy from the atmospheric system. As long as we are taking out the extra energy introduced, it is fine. But as soon as we take out more, there is less energy available for the atmospheric system. This can again cause climate change (in the other way). Our current energy consumption rate will result into that (gist of the paper).

    To put it simply: Wind blows. Thus it does some work. It can do the work because it has kinetic energy. It takes that energy from atmosphere. Car runs. Thus it does some work. But it needs energy to do that. Take the kinetic energy of wind to do that work. Thus wind will blow less as it has less kinetic energy. This is climate change as wind is blowing less.

    “energy is re-used, doesn’t vanish”: Perhaps it is true in the long run. But one has to take into account the rate of energy consumption and availability of reusable form of energy in the short term.

    @Prokaryotes : I am not a climate expert. It is possible that there are drawbacks in my simplistic analysis. But I am an engineer and I think I have got the physics right. Do let me know your thoughts on this.

  90. Leif says:

    S Majumder, @ 90: To a degree I have to agree with you but as I see it the energy that gets “reused” is the waste energy that does not get used as “work”. A BTU of fossil energy will heat my tea cup Y degrees. In cooling that energy does indeed transfer to the atmosphere as stronger wind. However, the CO2 released by burning that fossil fuel will heat ~100,000 cups of tea Y degrees in its lifetime. Taking energy out of the system as work is a good thing but our current energy imbalance because of CO2 et al, far exceeds anything we can use. Currently about 190,000 nuclear power plants and climbing at about 10 new plants coming on line each day. The world has about 450 for ~20% of our current energy needs. (CP did a post on this ~ a year ago. I cannot find it at the moment). The wind energy available at the far end of a wind farm will be less and that collected will be available to heat many cups of tea but the zero CO2 out put will not be available to heat those 100,000 x (many) cups of tea. Wind is just another form of sun energy. Using it as work removes it from heating air directly and it does return to the system in a lower energy state. The killer is all the leftovers.

  91. Brad Pierce says:

    @durbrow #51: That is the difference between invention and innovation,

    According to Peter Denning, “An innovation is a transformation of practice in a community. It is not the same as the invention of a new idea or object. The real work of innovation is in the transformation of practice.”

    According to Bucky Fuller, “I learned very early and painfully that you have to decide at the outset whether you are trying to make money or to make sense, as they are mutually exclusive.”

    According to Robert Ringer, “Try to sell people what they need, and you’re liable to end up in bankruptcy court.”

  92. Liane says:

    Consistent myth debunking would be valuable. I live off grid in VT, and can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into people who have tried to tell me solar can’t work where I live “because there’s not as much sun.” Even telling them that solar is my family’s sole power source in northern Vermont is sometimes not enough to break through that particular myth!

    Then there’s the storage/baseload power myth. As they’re discovering in Europe, transmission via a smart grid answers both the storage and baseload power questions. If the grid is designed to reroute power from where it’s being generated to where it’s being used, no matter where the generation is occurring, then the need for any kind of storage is drastically reduced, and there is no intermittency issue from a baseline perspective. The wind is always blowing somewhere and the sun is always shining somewhere.

    In addition, it would be nice to address the system cost myth. Most people get system quotes based on their current power use. Without fail, that use is profligately wasteful. There is no reason for the cell phone charger to be plugged in when the cell isn’t charging; or for cable boxes to be on 24 hrs/day, 365 days a year (two of which = the annual consumption of a refrigerator!), or for having a space heater next to the refrigerator.

    There is no excuse for incandescent light bulbs just about anywhere 20 yrs after CFLs became commercially available; and now that LED bulbs with a 2700k color signature can be found at Home Depot, there’s even less excuse.

    There are an awful lot of ways to dramatically cut electrical use with little to no effort, which in turn will dramatically cut the cost of implementing alternative energy solutions.

    Also, addressing total cost of ownership vs cost to buy might be helpful, too – especially if done from the perspective of investment rather than payback period, for example, “Investing in these solar panels will give you a return of 5%/yr.” rather than “These panels will pay for themselves in 20 yrs.”

  93. Brad Pierce says:

    @ecospam #16: The fastest way to buy negawatts is to externalize the costs of carbon and other pollution with taxes that will make energy waste truly painful. The real costs of global warming and biodiversity loss are huge, so an honest tax would be hugely painful, and would quickly change behavior. Society should invest these fees in scientific research into renewables and energy efficient technology.

  94. Brad Pierce says:

    I meant internalize costs.

  95. Joy Hughes says:

    There are a number of RE topics to address!

    Land use and project siting – there are better or worse places to put a wind or solar farm. The cost of dividing the green movement over the use of high-value lands. Carbon sequestration value of desert ecosystems. Siting of PV panels over degraded sites and parking lots, which can reduce contaminated runoff or leaching.

    Energy Cannibalism – Careful attention to energy return on energy invested- the need to apply efficiency and conservation to offset the energy costs of building various technologies. Also, attention to “marginal EROI” – once panels and windmills are built their energy cost is very low.

    Energy psychology – It’s easier to get people excited about solar than about efficiency, and when people go solar, they pay much more attention to efficiency. “Efficiency veggies before solar cookies” doesn’t get much buy in. “Solar as the gateway drug” seems to work. Information feedback loops and social norms.

    Bankability – It’s hard for new technologies to get financed… Crystalline Silicon is a proven technology that investors feel safe getting involved in. How to set up finance structures to monetize efficiency and demand management?

    Cost of PV versus CSP – The continuing drop in PV prices has made it cheaper than big concentrated solar. Optimal granularity of PV installations to take advantage of economies of scale, with sufficient geographic diversity and storage to minimize gas needed for short term buffering.

    Distributed generation and point of use – yes!

    Diseconomies of scale – Large plants face greater costs for permitting, opposition, and transmission costs.

    Storage and demand response – finding cost effective solutions

    Utility monopolies, legacy grids, and perverse incentives – Utilities gain money from building transmission lines and power plants and obtaining cost recovery, while losing money from rooftop solar.

    360 degree view – consider all environmental factors when developing technology. Global warming is bad – but we can’t ignore waste, habitat destruction, and social factors.

    Community Ownership – A very fast growing movement allowing customers to own off-site generation, keeping money local.

    I would be happy to guest-post.

  96. Liane says:

    I’d also love to see a showcase of communities and other groups that are implementing alt energy and efficiency locally. One particularly interesting example is the Greening Greenfield effort in Greenfield, MA. They have had tremendous success, partially due to their use of social psychology in the implementation. One simple, but effective way to get more people to make their homes efficient: lawn signs. Anyone participating in the effort got a free lawn sign with which to proclaim their participation in the project (the goal is for each participating home to cut energy use by 10% within a year of joining the program). The lawn signs encouraged participant’s neighbors to ask questions, and as a result, they ended up with roughly double their 1st yr participation goal.

  97. David Smith says:

    How much of our dirty energy resources (those mined, drilled, processed, etc on American soil and territorial waters) are exported to other markets requiring us to increase our dependence on foreign sources?

  98. Anne van der Bom says:

    @nen #82,

    To show what wind power is actually generating in real time, visit the information pages of the Spanish grid operator RED. They graphically show what wind power actually contributes and how they regulate the other sources (mainly hydro and CCGT) to compensate for variability. They have some pumped storage, but do not need it very much. This information makes an important point, which is that variability over a country the size of Spain is not that large. You do not see wild swings, but more gentle slopes. Also wind power is not what I would call ‘intermittent’. There is always wind somewhere in a country. It is variable.

    There are more of these information pages, if you’re interested.

    As a rule of thumb, a wind turbine has about 2000 full load hours per year for wind on land and 3500 for offshore wind. You can use that to quickly calculate annual yield of a wind farm or turbine. A 2.3 MW land-based wind turbine will generate roughly 4.6 GWh per year (2.3 MW x 2000 h = 4600 MWh = 4.6 GWh).

    For PV I use a 1000 full load hours as a rule-of-thumb. This means every watt of PV will generate 1 kWh per year. It will be more in sunny climates (up to twice as much in a desert) and less if you go past 50 degrees latitude. This is for an optimally oriented pv installation that does not suffer serious shadow.

  99. Anne B Butterfield says:

    [PLEASE USE THSI VERSION TYPO CORRECTED] I am excited at CP’s foray in to clean energy reporting. Areas of clarity that need to be brough to a muddled and crowded information field, and CP is well positioned to lead:

    1. Organize reporting around the major divide of: tech that is scalable such as wind, solar, geothermal (or DG with FIT), OR it is a Hail Mary pass, such as turning light into hydrogen via photosynthesis (see technology/ innovations/ article/ 27-innovations/ 8978-synthetic-self-repairing-system-turns-sunlight-into-hydrogen) or creating utility scale batteries from freshwater near salt water (see releases/ 2011/ 03/ 110329134254.htm) NOTE: HMP’s are exciting and are worthwhile for readers because some pay off and can solve real problems, BUT they need to be framed properly, and separately.

    2. Organize reporting toward the basic concern of: What can be done at home or at the city or township level? The DIY question is huge, since pelting state and federal officials with policy requests is slow and frustrating, but working at home for more EE, or in a township or city for unique policy and franchise solutions can bring innovation faster. Our success will come through revolution on the local level and after that takes hold, THEN the federal levels might comply with supportive policy.

    3. Make sure your readers know how integration of intermittent resources are already done in at least 3 different grid systems and 3 reasons why batteries for the grid aren’t needed (yet). Conversely, your readers need to know about the top energy storage systems that are emerging or established in the market. Talking points against RE based on intermittency are tired and misleading to a credulous public, and I want to see an information outlet that systematizes truth about renewables and integration.

    4. Pay attention to the Bill Becker post of a few days ago (March 29 2011) including JOBS PER KWHR for each mode of energy generation, including EE, in a data base that’s regularly updated. It would quantify the life-cycle benefits/risks of modes of generation in a systemized way (could this be done thru open source, wiki style compiling??) … then propose a performance standard for federal subsidies, defining limits of net impacts on water, land use, energy consumption, GHG’s, public health, national security and job creation. As Becker says, no technology should be subsidized if it fails to meet an optimal standard.

    5. CP is already the go-to place for arguments and facts about climate protection; it can also be the go-to place for arguments and facts for a lean, clean energy future. IF CP became “the EIA for a clean energy future” that would be a great thing.

  100. S. Majumder says:

    Leif @ 90 : Thanks for the insight.

    From the discussion, one fact keeps on emerging. It is time to reuse. Those 100000 cups will get heated by y degrees but only during the life time of the co2 (which is very long). GHG effect will allow solar energy to get trapped and only then we can use it. Only in the long run.

    Talking from thermodynamics point of view, it is NOT possible to use the waste energy (high entropy) immediately. Just not possible. It takes time for the natural processes to bring the energy from ‘high disorder’ (high entropy) to ‘low disorder’ (low entropy) form that is usable. Thus time to reuse is the key. And this processes are very very long.

    The only sustainable rate of energy extraction is the net rate of energy accumulation (for example: accumulation in fossil fuel form). Anything other than that is a comforting myth.

  101. S. Majumder says:

    [JR: Traveling today. Will debunk Monday.]

    Please do that. Would appreciate a spirit of science in the debunk.

    I have raised some basic doubts @90 and @100. Would be really glad if you could point out where I might have gone wrong.

    Thanks in advance for your fact and physics based debunk (not a sarcasm based one).

  102. Colorado Bob says:

    John B. Hodges @ 80
    One of these batteries was installed last year near Presidio, Texas –

    Dozens of gray compartments, lined neatly in rows, inhabit a boxy concrete building on the edge of the impoverished border town of Presidio. The only sound, aside from occasional clanking, is the whirring of air-conditioners to keep the compartments cool.

    This $25 million contraption is the largest battery system in the United States — locals have dubbed it Bob, for Big Ole Battery. It began operating earlier this year, and is the latest mark of the state’s interest in a nascent but rapidly evolving industry: the storage of electricity.

  103. Alan Sangster says:

    As a long-serving electrical engineer I have taken a particular interest in the transition to renewable sources of energy, because it promises to be largely a revolution in electrical engineering supply. I have written a textbook (Energy for a Warming World) making this point for the benefit, I hope, of new students of electrical engineering, who will be responsible for making it happen – once the political anguish associated with abandoning fossil fuels is sorted out!

    When one studies the literature on renewables, much of which is heavily ‘spun’ by special interest groups and biased suppliers, it is clear that there is a significant mismatch between available energy claims and what is likely to be possible in real and hard engineering terms.

    Renewable advocates usually quote the insolation figure of ~170Watt/m2 , and sometimes quite inappropriately the solar constant of 1367W/m2, when making claims about the power available from concentrated solar power (CSP) or from solar photo-voltaic (SPV) generation plants. Claims that the deserts of the world could generate more than enough power for 7 billion people to live as we do now are frankly incredible. The ‘spinners’ fail to take account of engineering reality and the inefficiency inherent in electrical systems. Friction losses, hysteresis losses, conductor losses, dielectric losses all contribute to a considerable loss of power between generator and consumer. It is not difficult to calculate that about 4.5W/m2 is more representative of the power delivered to user sockets from CSP or SPV farms. If one then examines those global deserts that might be suitable for such farms it is unlikely that much more than 4-5 Terawatts (TW) can be generated globally from this renewable source.

    A similar picture is revealed when the potential of wind power is examined from a realistic engineering perspective. At consumer sockets, on-shore wind farms can generate approximately 3W/m2. The accessible global land area on which wind farms can reasonably be sited, and where they will be exposed to reliable winds, generally prevailing winds, is no more that the area of Mexico. Consequently, the total power extractable from wind by realistically engineered hardware is of the order of 7.5 TW. Given the onset of climate change and increasingly fierce weather conditions at sea, to say nothing of sea level rise, it is unlikely that off-shore wind will add significantly to this figure. To this can be added about 2 TW from hydro-power, and about the same from nuclear power. Engineering estimates suggest that very little can be expected to be extracted from wave-power (0.02 TW), tidal power (0.2 TW) and geothermal power (0.15 TW). In total about 4 TW can be generated from these other sources.

    Possibly with a concerted globally funded drive to engineer and build the infrastructure mankind could perhaps extract 14TW from renewable sources by the middle of this century. Unfortunately, on the business as usual path which mankind is currently following consumer demand will rise to 25-30TW. This seemingly unavoidable shortfall between supply and demand needs to be brought to the attention of the general public, because massive improvements in efficiency, eradication of trivial uses of electricity, and lifestyle changes, particularly in relation to transport seem inevitable.

    The energy shortfall will be made much worse if the intermittency of renewables is not addressed. This means enlarged grid systems incorporating a wide range of renewables and massive energy storage (MES). Currently the only operational MES system is pumped hydro. Several other schemes are possible and all have been developed to prototype level. These include compressed air, thermal storage techniques, massive flywheel farms, superconducting magnet systems and capacitor systems. All need to be publicised and boosted to the same importance as the renewable generators.

    Finally, large scale renewable power generation will not be possible without major developments in the electricity grid in order to incorporate ‘smart’ technology, and high voltage direct current (HVDC) methods. HVDC is needed to improve efficiency of transmission over long distances. Again the technology needs to be publicised and promoted.

  104. Nick Palmer says:

    S.Majumbder at #90

    Now take the example of wind energy. It taps energy from the atmospheric system. As long as we are taking out the extra energy introduced, it is fine. But as soon as we take out more, there is less energy available for the atmospheric system

    Wind is caused by pressure differences generated by the sun’s radiation. In travelling from the high pressure to the low pressure the moving air encounters resistance from the environment – “friction” – and the potential energy existing between the areas of high and low pressure is first transformed into kinetic energy – wind – then entirely converted to heat. If we intercept some of the kinetic energy with wind farms, before it ends up as waste heat, we can convert it into power which, of course, mostly ends up as waste heat. There is little to no difference in the end result – all the power of the wind ends up as the same amount of waste heat.

    As the location of where the waste heat is generated may differ somewhat, there may be a slight effect on climate – dampening down strong wind flows – but the amount of the total energy in wind flow intercepted by a wind farm is pretty low. Most of the wind energy is up higher above 300 metres – even the largest wind turbines only go 150 metres tall. Intuitively, I can’t see that there would be any significant effect on the atmospheric system at all. Numbers, anyone?

  105. STORAGE



    Updates on such methods as molten salt, and compressed air in caverns, etc, which have been mentioned over the years; where are they today in technology, cost, etc. And other methods (both up and coming and ‘shovel-ready’) for storage of renewably generated energy so when wind isn’t blowing and it’s cloudy, energy is still available from such storage.

    And stats debunking the claims made that ‘since there is no storage/very little storage possible, we can’t convert a large percent of the grid into renwables’

  106. Anne van der Bom says:

    Alan Sangster,

    You are talking about generating 14 TW from renewable energy, however current electricity consumption by humanity is 20,000 TWh per year, which is an average of 2.3 TW, not 14.

    Of course, there is the other energy use, mostly oil for transportation and natural gas for space heating. Replacing those with electricity (electric cars/heat pumps) is about 4x as efficient as fossil fuel power. The extra electricity needed would not be 11.7 TW (the gap between 2.3 and 14 TW). As an example, converting all passenger cars in an average western country with electric cars would add less than 20% to the electricity consumption. About the same is true for the natural gas that is used for space heating. Not enough to bump the electricity demand all the way to 14 TW.

    I suspect you simply used the figure for ‘primary energy’. Maybe I am mistaken but seeing your calculations it seems you do not know the difference between electric energy and thermal energy. Joules are not created equal.

  107. Joan Savage says:

    I’m having a lot of fun with the newscientist comment about wind energy which was brought in further up the comment stream. It might well be an April Fools’ spoof, as there are plenty of indications.

    I intend to buy myself a very fancy coffee if I have at least a 70% correct answer about what’s wrong with it.

  108. David B. Benson says:

    A fair and recent paper on storage technologies:

  109. Gnobuddy says:

    @61 – Mond from Oz says:

    I have plotted the yearly trend means: they are precisely (R^2 = .9991) described by the polynomial y = 0.0122x^2 + 0.7867x + c (here 313.71). The acceleration is implicit: y’ for 1968 is 1.031, and for 2036, when the predicted atmospheric C02 is predicted to be at 450 ppm, y’ = 2.98

    Mond, can you please clarify what “x” represents in your formula? I guessed that x was the number of years since 1968 (i.e. x = [year – 1968]) in your formula, but using this I do not get your number of 450 ppm CO2 in 2036. Instead I get y = 423.6184 ppm CO2. I also get only 370 ppm today (2011), which is also inaccurate, the correct number being closer to 392 ppm.

    I ran your equation through both the Open Office Calc spreadsheet and a generic scientific calculator with the same results, so it appears not to be an error in the calculation, but in the formula itself, or my interpretation of your variable “x”.

    Without a clear statement as to what “x” is, your potentially very illustrative graph is useless as an accurate indicator of anything. So please help me clear this up and discover what your formula is actually predicting.

    Out of curiosity, I would also be interested in the amplitude of the roughly sinusoidal annual CO2 oscillation. If you add something like A * sin(2 pi x) to your formula to roughly represent it, what would the value of “A” be?


  110. Gnobuddy says:

    @108, Joan Savage says:

    I’m having a lot of fun with the newscientist comment about wind energy which was brought in further up the comment stream. It might well be an April Fools’ spoof
    I’m not qualified to analyse the numbers quoted in that article, but I do recall reading many, many years ago that when France put their largest tidal electricity plant online it slowed down the earth’s rotation measurably. Measurably with atomic clocks of the era, that is to say.

    The measured reduction in the earths rotation rate was very small. I no longer recall the amount, but my faint recollection is that it might have been of the order of milliseconds per century.

    That was one single power plant, quite small – if I recall correctly, it was the Rance facility ( ) which currently produces about one hundredth of one percent of France’s electricity (i.e roughly 10^(-4) of the country’s electricity demands).

    Imagine a future world where we try to generate all our energy from tides. As a crude estimate, multiply the effect of the Rance tidal station by four orders of magnitude to allow for all of France’s electricity needs, by another two or three orders of magnitude to allow for all the other countries on earth, and perhaps by one more order of magnitude to allow for replacing other (non electrical) forms of energy use.

    That is a total of eight orders of magnitude increase. That may be significant. This very crude order-of-magnitude calculation leads to the possibility that this would slow down the earth by an amount a hundred million times greater than that single tidal power station did.

    I’ll leave it to those of you with more accurate numbers available to refine that rough calculation. But at this point, I would not be surprised if the substance of that New Scientist article was essentially right, whether or not the details are.


  111. Gnobuddy says:

    @110 – looks like Mond might have meant x = (year – 1958). (Not 1968, but 1958).

    Using this interpretation of x, I get y = 387.6 in 2010 and y = 391.8 in 2011, which are essentially right. Also y = 449.3 in 2036, which roughly agrees with Mond’s stated 450 ppm in 2036.


  112. Gnobuddy says:

    I found the entire NOAA CO2 dataset online here:

    Note the links to the actual data sets on that page, for example here is a direct link to the annual mean data:

    It will be interesting to see if thawing former permafrost, methane bubbles from the Siberian ocean floor, and other runaway climate change forcings start to drive actual CO2 levels away from Mond’s parabolic fit to the data so far. That would be an early indication that humankind has lost the chance to even try to reign in irreversible climate change, and that nature has taken over from us humans as the main driving force for continuing greenhouse gas emissions.


  113. Richard Brenne says:

    Thanks to my old friend Mike Roddy (#38) and new friend Mond from Oz (#61) responding to my comment at #23, and to many who echoed those views.

    Mike always has amazing insights, Mond from Oz had many of the best points and paragraphs here, and this post has become one of CP’s many epics, with great points by so many including (just among recent comments) danleySteel at #75; Andrew DeWit at #79; Anne van der Bom at #81, 99, 107; Joan Savage at #83 and 108; BBHY at #87; Liane at #93, 97; Joy Hughes at #96; Anne B Butterfield at #100; and most of all Alan Sangster at #104.

    First of all, while the dirty fossil fuels and nuclear industries are dominated by men, it’s great to see so many women taking the lead in the understanding and implementation of all kinds of clean energy, expressed by all the great comments from women here. Two of the great commenters I list are Annes, and five others have an “an” in their first name (sorry Joy), with Alan Sangster have two total.

    Alan’s (#104) expert comment, based on his own textbook, is the prime example of doing the full-cost accounting of all energy sources that I and many others are pleading for. We need to know all of the factors of every source of energy and with this light and transparency renewables will be seen as the primary and ultimately only way forward.

    My hope is that Alan would be invited here to do a guest post, with Anne van der Bom and all others having a chance to respond to clarify or point out math, metric or factual issues.

    Most of what I notice is that all 110 comments are basically on the same page, wanting the same things. If the full spectrum of what everyone (including dirty fossil fuel producers and their witting or unwitting shills) in the public wants could be represented by 180 degrees, I think all of us would be represented by just a few degrees at the most progressive and renewable energy end of the spectrum.

    Even if we have small differences in how to approach things or what to emphasize, we’ll succeed in the proportion that we work together, bonding, binding and banding together to fight those opposing us most, especially those representing the opposite few degrees of the spectrum profiting most from existing fossil fuel use and again their shrill shills.

  114. Richard Brenne says:

    And our buddy Gnobuddy. . .

  115. S. Majumder says:

    Nick Palmer # 105 :

    Well said. I agree with your analysis. However I have a few points:

    1. Waste form might be the end result of the natural energy in wind, but the question is which route it takes. For example it can be wind->carrying monsoon-> waste or it can be wind->carrying less monsoon + more cars -> waste.

    2. The NS article talks quantitatively on the amount of energy that will no longer be available for the middle processes (carrying monsoon for example). And the result says the impact on natural climate processes will be severe.

    3. I agree that the results defy intuition. But you have to replace ALL power plants in the world with equivalent energy producing wind turbines to get to the point. That itself is little difficult to imagine.

    To be very frank, I wonder how we can talk about renewables as if they are free from any side effects. This defies intuition given the rate at which we consume energy. There HAS to be a limit. Right or wrong, this article give a first picture (for me) of those limits.

  116. Daimon says:

    In addition to many good ideas so far…

    1. I’d like to see information on innovative financing arrangements, as the socially constructed flow of money seems to take priority over all natural cycles.

    For instance, community financing as in the Berkeley FIRST (Financing Initiative for Renewable and Solar Technology) makes investing in energy efficiency and generation financially advantageous at the building scale. A local government provides up-front funds (which can in turn come from private investment, pension funds or low cost jumbo loans from banks or other sources). The investment is secure because it is a tax lien with priority over mortgages, making a very safe investment. Building owners pay off the investment as a tax over 20 years, costing less monthly or annually than the utility savings. Thus they profit (not to mention the jobs generated in the local economy and additional municipal tax income). The arrangement passes on to new buyers, so there is no loss to the originator. The problem is that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae do not allow such programs to be ahead of mortgages. If this obstacle were removed there could be an explosion of building-level installations, energy upgrades and other generation and conservation measures. Details at

    2. Attention to the Architecture 2030 plan and how it is being implemented into law and codes. See This has great potential for shifting widespread behavior at a significant level.

    3. Analysis (and greater awareness) of the effect of fossil fuel subsidies with projections of the effect of removing them to make a level playing field, with reports on what is happening in that realm. What would that do to the cost of carbon emissions? What would subsidy changes do toward tipping the cost of fossil fuels to being higher than renewables, similar to a carbon tax but conceivably easier to pass (after all, it would reduce the deficit)?

    4. As mentioned (#87) it may be beyond the scope of this blog, but a focus on the political action needed to shift the votes of Congress to climate sanity. A spin-off?

    5. Is this a game-changer or not? This post (where I learned of it) refers to 25 TWh of wind being idled in the US due to lack of demand. Could this be true and what does it mean if so? Do we “just” need storage or fuel production to use it as in this (the source of the 25 TW figure): ? The latter says this excess capacity could replace our fuel imports and make the US a net exporter of liquid fuels with far lower carbon impact.

    6. To echo others, removal of atmospheric carbon. I have read that properly managed fields can absorb large amounts of co2 and produce agriculturally at a higher rate than conventionally managed fields while being more resilient to climate fluctuations due to higher moisture retention. While it is not “clean tech” in the mechanical sense, what we’re after is a solution. And agriculture was an early technological revolution. Perhaps it needs to (r)evolve again into being carbon negative rather than carbon positive.

    With the rate of innovation it seems that an all out effort could alter the course of history. What would it take? That’s the big question.

  117. chaitanya says:

    1. Peak oil and its immediate impacts. it would be a grave folly to look at clean energy without peak oil impacts on society.
    2. Scalability.
    3. Availability of raw materials.
    4. energy density
    5. energy return on energy invested.

    read: Richard heinbergs searching for a miracle where 9 key challenges to renewable energy are discussed.


  118. Gnobuddy says:

    @115 – Richard, thanks for including me in the very august company of some of the other people here! I’m not sure I belong there as I have no special expertise in the areas most discussed on this blog. However my background in physics does tend to lead me to look at very crude order of magnitude calculations, which sometimes can be quite revealing. Sometimes more detailed calculations overlook the forest for the trees, where a simple back-of-the envelope order of magnitude calculation can be quite revealing.

    As one more example of this, I do not have Alan Sangster’s expertise in electrical engineering. However his figure of 4.5 W/m^2 for solar power did not shock me at all, as I arrived at the same general figure using a crude order of magnitude calculation.

    To wit: roughly 1000 W/m^2 arrives on earth at the equator from the sun; conversion to electricity at 10% efficiency gets you down to 100 W/m^2. However, this needs to be cut in half (there’s no sun at night), cut in half again (to allow for cloud coverage and reduced sunlight during six months of the year), and cut in half a third time (not all solar power is generated at the equator, and higher latitudes get less sun).

    Put all that together and we’re down to 10 watts per square metre of generated annual average power at the point of origin. Figure half that power is lost along the way in transmission, and you get to a final figure of 5 W/m^2. That last figure is within 10% of Alan Sangster’s 4.5 W/m^2 number, which was doubtless arrived at by a much more accurate and much more complex calculation.

    There’s another even cruder (but also perhaps though-provoking) way to look at the likelihood that solar power might one day allow us to drive 4000 lb vehicles around at freeway speeds and even fly 100,000 kg planes around the globe. Just consider that nature has been experimenting with finding sustainable power sources for living things for three billion years now, trying random evolutionary experiments to see if viable power sources can be found. In all that time, nature has not managed to come up with one truly motile living thing that gets its energy from solar power, much less anything that weighs 3000 lbs and rushes around at 65 mph.

    The very best that nature has managed is to come up with is trees – organisms that use several decades worth of accumulated solar power to not only manufacture their own food, but also very slowly raise their own weight against gravity to heights of a hundred feet or more.

    In the end, nature’s solution was for one kilogram of animal to eat hundreds of kilograms of plant in order to come up with enough energy to be truly motile and capable of locomotion. Purely on direct solar power, nature could not even manage to power a snail, much less a creature of comparable size and speed to a contemporary automobile. Do we really think we can manage the several orders of magnitude improvement over nature that would be needed to one day power our insanely energy-hungry transportation vehicles purely with solar power?

    It seems to me the Sunraycer and similar solar “cars” are as much of an evolutionary dead-end as the equally impressive, and equally useless Gossamer Albatross (human-powered aircraft). Yes, both devices used incredible technological advances to extract surprising performance from miniscule amounts of power. However the Sunraycer cannot tow a cargo container from the shipyard to the supermarket, any more than the Gossamer Albatross can transport tulips from Amsterdam to New York flower shops in the pre-dawn darkness each day.

    In a nutshell: I’m willing to believe we can manage to generate enough solar power for earth’s teeming billions of people to light small homes using efficient LED lamps, and maybe even power electric bicycles for personal transportation over a few miles. But those who think one day everyone will drive a solar-powered 6000 lb SUV to work are living in a fantasy world. Don’t even bother thinking about solar powered Jumbo Jets.

    Oh yeah, here’s one contemporary data point: a small Southern California solar company is now selling a $10,000 Solar Gazebo. For that princely sum, on a very bright day, the gazebo’s pre-installed solar panels are claimed to generate 1000 W of electricity (during peak sun hours).

    In other words, for $10,000, you get just enough power to operate one electric hair-dryer.

    This is not a criticism of the high cost of solar energy – a better way to look at it is to see the insanity of using one thousand watts of power to dry your hair. THAT’s the thinking we have to chuck out the window.


  119. Mond from Oz says:

    Brenne #114
    Gnoboddy#110, 112

    Sorry! x = years from 1958. Shoulda made that clear. The differentials for 1968 and 2036 were cited to illustrate the increase in the rate of change. But please try and graph the function. Its a beauty. I just wish that y was something like ‘world happiness’

  120. Hank Roberts says:

    I’d welcome some attention to how we screwed up the last time around.

    Example, from builders I know, the many hundred-year-old houses now rotting from dampness inside the walls and under the roof, caused by adding weather sealing and insulation to the old house without compensating for the fact that you get much more condensation inside the walls and under the roof deck:

    It begins:

    Building Science Insights
    BSI-035: We Need to do it Different This Time

    By Joseph Lstiburek, 2010/02/19

    Stop me if you heard this before. It was anything but easy when we tried this the last time. Not because it was hard, but because we didn’t know what we were doing…. You would think that we would have all learned something from the experience. All that I can say is that it was an interesting time that proceeded to get even more interesting….

    … We began to insulate every roof in the country and replace oil furnaces with gas furnaces like there was no tomorrow. The hangover from all this activity hit in the early 80’s. Rot and mold joined bad music as the signature symbols for that decade.

    What happened? How could anyone screw up energy conservation? It was supposed to be easy, a piece of cake, a lead pipe cinch. In retrospect, the obvious happened. When you change one thing it changes something else. And when you change that something else the law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head. We discovered that buildings, houses in particular, are interrelated systems….”

    Yes, they do have answers:

    But most of the recommendations I’m seeing to add insulation to attics and walls in old houses doesn’t know about this issue at all.

  121. Alan Sangster says:

    Anne van der Bom @107

    Readily available global statistic on business-as-usual energy demand suggests that by 2050 the global economy will require 25-30TW from fossil fuel, nuclear and hydroelectric sources to sustain it. (see So my contention is that we cannot get there with renewables on their own. In other words BAU is not an option.

    By the way from an engineering perspective no matter how it is sourced a Joule=Watt.sec is a Joule is a Joule.

  122. Anne van der Bom says:

    “Joule is a Joule”

    Alan, you are mixing up the worlds of science and engineering. In science a Joule is a Joule. In engineering, not all joules are created equal. Renewable energy is an engineering problem.

    Allow me to give one more example: coal. This is in large part used only to generate electricity, with an efficiency of somewhere near 35%. Wat you are actually saying is: “we need 3 kWh of electricity to replace 3 kWh of coal which was used to generate 1 kWh of electricity. That is plain silly.

    Read the WNF/Ecofys report for a much more realistic job that looks at the real world instead of a simplification beyond usability.

  123. Jose says:

    A lot of good suggestions here and I think you sum it up quite well in the closing sentences of your article.

    Personaly I’d like less hype about unproven technologies. There’s a lot of press releases from start ups being circulated uncriticaly going around on Green blogs. I’d like coverage of Green Tech to be a bit more hard headed and practical than that and I think that’s aligned with your editorial slant on this blog.

    Show us the money. How much investment capital is out there for green tech projects. Where is it coming from? What kinds of legislation/regulation get the most bang for our buck in terms of encouraging more private sector investment capital? You can’t really extricate politics completely from the issue, it’s not something that can be siloed.

  124. Alan Sangster says:

    Anne van der Bom @ 123

    As it happens I have read the ecofys report and found it to be very optimistic in its assessments.

    But in relation to renewable power what I am comparing is 3kW of power collected from the wind by turbine blades, or from solar radiation by parabolic dishes in a solar farm, with 3kW of coal or other fossil fuels. It seems to me this is the only fair comparison if we wish to get a proper perspective on the transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

  125. Anne van der Bom says:


    In your post April 3, 2011 at 3:20 pm you were clearly talking electric energy. You are moving the goalposts.

    That said, why make it so hard on yourself? How do you plan to calculate the power in the wind hitting a wind turbine? And then for your calculations to be correct, you must assume that a wind turbine has the same efficiency as a powerplant. Even fossil powerplants do not have the same efficiency. We all know that a CCGT is much more efficient than a coal plant.

    I think a much more sensible approach is accepting that the only way renewable energy is ever going to make sense is when we do a technology shift from fossils to electricity (eg the electric car). Then, by sticking to electric Joules and estimating the electricity needed to run an electric car (5x less than fossils!) you can make a much more informed and realistic estimate.

  126. craig peterson says:

    artificial photosynthesis, which can generate hydrogen from solar energy to be used for powering vehicles. theoretically, vehicles can be made with this system and never require anything but sunlight to operate.

  127. Ric Merritt says:

    I agree with some of the comments decrying boosterism and craving realism. This area is chock full of hand-wavy extrapolations, like assuming that solar PV will get cheaper on some convenient schedule, when the real need is to build renewable infrastructure while using severely decreasing amounts of FF, eventually near zero. The cost curve extrapolation, like any extrapolation, assumes that the context stays about the same, when it is the very context that will change perforce.

  128. Michelle V says:

    To several of the comments above, I want to share the website I posted — CERTs works with community-based clean energy throughout rural and metro Minnesota… Issues of scale, capital cost, innovation, tech development, pilots, university partnerships are all at the core of the work by community teams throughout the state.

    I would love to hear case studies of average folks and their energy journeys, how they’re taking advantage of incentives and benefits, the challenges to overcome in distributed clean energy development… I can read about the big projects on the other blogs I subscribe to. I want to hear about how everyday folks are doing positive work and making progress (Climate _Progress_) in actually implementing clean energy.

  129. Michelle V says:

    Not sure if they’ll include the website I referred to, but it’s

    Thanks! Looking forward to the new writer!

  130. Richard Brenne says:

    Alan (#124, etc) and especially Anne (#126, etc) – What do you think of Gnobuddy’s excellent essay at #119?

    To me his back-of-the-physics-textbook calculations have the ring of truth, while replacing almost a billion internal combustion engine vehicles with a billion electric vehicles expecting anywhere close to the same performance does not. That has the ring of techno-optimism, and thinking that technology alone will create the problems that technology has created is like drinking to forget that you’re a drunk.

    As a climate scientist friend recently told me, “Nobody really understands anything, but physicists understand the most.” He could’ve said Gnobuddy as well.

  131. dp says:

    it seems like air travel is a good limited use for ethanol. so in a way that’s solar air travel.

  132. Anne van der Bom says:

    Richard Brenne,

    I did not find Gnobuddy’s post very informative. Lambasting the solar racecars as impractical does not help a lot. Anyone who spends half an evening on this, immediately sees you put the panels on the roof of your house and charge your car from them. Then you’ll see there is a lot of energy available.

    Also I found the following remark pretty uninformed: “But those who think one day everyone will drive a solar-powered 6000 lb SUV to work are living in a fantasy world” You can easily do the math on this and see that switching to electric cars a la the Nissan LEAF would require less than 20% more electricity. That doesn’t sound like a fantasy land scenario. Heck, we could easily cut back 20% on energy use without sacrificing comfort and run that electric car with no extra electricity over what we are already using today.

    People tend to exaggerate because they use the thermal kWh’s in gasoline instead of the electric kWh’s that we’re going to need. That’s my main gripe with most ‘renewable skeptics’.

    The 10% conversion efficiency Gnobuddy mentions is on the low side. Bog standard silicon pv panels are 15% nowadays. SunPower panels are 20%. CPV is over 30%. Only some thin film technologies have such low conversion efficiencies, like the FirstSolar CdTe panels at 12%.

    As to how Gnobuddy calcualted 5 W/m2, that is equally uninformed and pretty inaccurate. There is detailed data available about the real-world performance of solar PV systems. No need to do a longwinded calculation with all kinds of estimates along the way. In reality, where I live in The Netherlands (52 north, around 1650 hours of sunshine per year) a PV system with good orientation (south, 30 degrees inclination) and without shadow problems will generate around 1000 kWh per year for each kW of nominal system power. This increases to >2000 kWh per year for the same system in a very sunny region (Sahara, Mojave, etc).

    Free field installations are roughly 50 W per sq m of land, although many differences exist. You obviously have a to put the rows of PV panels closer together or further apart and these panels can be low efficiency thin film panels or high efficiency CPV on 2-axis trackers. So it is hard to give a single number. Going by the 50 W per m2 and 2000 kWh per year for each kW of system power, I can safely say that desert PV generates more than 10 W/m2 on average.

    Lastly, the system losses are exagerrated too. Gnobuddy has no reason to estimate 50% transportation losses. The figures I mentioned above are kWh’s AC, measured at the output of the inverter. So any inverter losses are already accounted for. Since rooftop PV is installed right where the power is used, grid losses are close to 0. Solar farms in the desert need to transport the power over longer distances, but the losses are more in the region of 5%-10%. And there is no need to estimate this too. You can look this stuff up. Grid operators publish this kind of operational data.

  133. Anne van der Bom says:

    Richard Brenne,

    Why would the replacement of a billion gassers with EV’s be impossible? It doesn’t have to happen overnight. If you have a target year of 2050, that’s fourty years from now. With an average life time of 15 years or so, the global car fleet will be replaced almost three times before 2050. Why could those replacements not be EV’s? That doesn’t sound like techno-optimism to me.

    Just 3 years ago I would have never even dreamed of being able to buy a practical EV. That moment was at least 10 years off, I thought. Today I even have a choice and all car manufacturers are scrambling to get an EV out the door. Competition, hurray! Same story with PV, which I bought last year. Just a few years ago I thought it would be competetive by the end of this decade. Now my system gives me cheaper electricity than the grid. Reality has over-deliverd on my techno-optimism.

    But of course I do not have a crystal ball ;-)

  134. Owen says:

    That’s good news. Many important points already covered. A list of papers from a variety of sources comparing costs of different energy service options, including end-use energy efficiency, would be valuable.

    The clean energy information should be better organized at CP. Clicking on the solar or wind categories at CP (which don’t currently exist) should bring up a summary of the technology including the latest actual installed cost per kWh and kW, capacity factors, historic trends and future estimates, links to studies on the potential by country and globally. Data for “BRIC” countries should be included.

    What is the solar and wind potential in Japan? What are the costs for replacing the existing and recently lost nuclear capacity in Japan with different energy sources, including end-use energy efficiency? Given the focus on the implications of electricity generation it would be valuable to have this information readily available.

    Summary information should be at the top of the list provided when a person clicks on the solar link for example. People should not have to dig through hundreds of posts to find summary information. There are 732 entries in Solutions for example. How is this useful? Ask yourself how many clicks does it take someone new to this site to bring up this information and how up to date is it? It appears the solar and wind core climate solution info has not been updated since 2008.

    Regarding wedges: Marty Hoffert’s Science commentary estimated 25 wedges are needed. A realistic consideration of this is needed.

  135. Richard Brenne says:

    Anne van der Bom (#133, #134) – Excellent responses! During my hitchhiking days I enjoyed everyone who picked me up because I always felt I could learn something from them. The same with thousands of chairlift rides when skiing.

    Now I produce and moderate panel discussions about climate and energy issues, and again get panelists who know far more than I do, as you obviously do about all the merits of solar energy.

    I feel your answers are excellent and also deserving of a guest post here at CP and large audiences elsewhere. I also think Gnobuddy at #119 and Alan Sangster at #104 make valid points in also well-written essays.

    I guess I’d like to see you three – and others on both sides like you – discuss and debate this in public, including and especially here at CP.

    I don’t have enough expertise to debate your many excellent points and optimistic vision (is this your profession, because it sounds like it), but I do have some additional concerns:

    I hope you’re right, but also hope that advanced technologies like the solar/electric car connection you describe is ultimately available to everyone or at least most on Anthro-Earth, and not just the richest few per cent who have tens of thousands of dollars available for a Nissan Leaf and the solar system you describe. (Wish us luck on this!)

    While stand-alone homes exist in great numbers, when everything else is equal there is always far more energy savings from denser living like multi-story condos, townhomes and apartments.

    Similarly electric trains are far, far more efficient than electric cars (odd that an American in a stand-alone home would lecture a European – and a Dutch one at that – about this since it’s your model we should’ve adopted).

    Ideally with dense enough living most could be served by electric light and heavy rail, designated train cars would be used to hold the bicycles most used to get to these trains, including electric bikes that act the way you describe electric cars.

    (As an aside my wife had an electric bike over a decade ago and a friend of mine was riding his conventional bike up a steep hill with his small daughter in tow on a trail-a-bike and since she wasn’t peddling she was dead weight. This friend and I rode many times together and he was a bronze medalist in bike racing and the first American to win a stage of the Tour de France and usually he could pass me like I was going backwards, but he had this dead weight and I was on my wife’s electric bike and I rode up, chatted chirpingly while he was out of breath, then rode ahead like Pee Wee Herman winning the Tour de France on his beloved cruiser in his dream. All these planets had to line up for this to happen.)

    I’m afraid that due to all the various limits to growth your excellent vision might not be realized for everyone (or even more than a few per cent of everyone), though all things considered it is the best direction in which to move.

    You’re a practical idealist while I’m different, probably an impractical dreamer – (just checked with my wife and that is confirmed) – but I think what was sustainable was never using fossil fuels and thus with wind, solar, hydro and electrical generation taking a lot longer to get electric light and heavy rail trains serving most villages towns and cities which had European and Japanese-style density with farmland surrounding them so even farmers wouldn’t be so isolated and require internal combustion engines to get anywhere or farm (practical electric tractors would’ve taken even longer to develop).

    Then everyone bikes or at most electric bikes to all the trains as I describe, and while I’m at it flying unicorns will pick you up on any corner and fly you to lollypop land, with streetlights made of chocolate. . .

    (And please note that I’m mocking how unattainable it seems my own vision is, not yours. . .thanks Anne, and are you a speed skater? My daughter is and in this area also we idolize the Dutch. Here’s a CP post I did just over a year ago that included a discussion of climate change and your legendary Elfstedentocht that my daughter’s speed skating coach raced:

  136. Anne van der Bom says:

    Hi Richard,

    Nice story. Remember to give me a call when you have one of these flying unicorns. I want one.

    Sorry, I am not a speedskater, my involvement in sports was limited to HPV racing (you know, these recumbant bikes with or without aerodynamic fairings). A lot of fun, a lot of inventive, idealist and practical people building their own bikes. And you can cycle almost 365 days a year while skating is limited to the winter months or indoor skating, which doesn’t seem like a whole lot of fun to me.

    If HPV racing taught me one thing, it is the value of efficiency and how much you can do on a very tight energy budget.

  137. Raul M. says:

    What are the ways to make electricty
    From a biochar heat collection chamber?
    Hot air funneled to different boiler
    generators generate electricity.
    Certainly it’s leaving to desire when
    The biochar is all burnt up, climate
    Worsens and the utility workers only
    Desire a excellent crop from farming
    After having used the farmers share
    Of water resources.
    So what is a good and cheap way to
    Turn wood debris into electricty, leaving
    Copios amounts of good biochar for the
    Farming without using up so much of the
    Water resource?

  138. Mike # 22 says:

    Alan @104, Better rewrite that text book.

    “It is not difficult to calculate that about 4.5W/m2 is more representative of the power delivered to user sockets from CSP or SPV farms” I’m not sure what the assumptions you may have used, but you have managed to make a factor of six miscalculation. One square meter of high quality PV in a horizontal position in Arizona will produce 338 kwh of DC per year, which after plant losses (conservatively) is 288 kwh at the busbar, which is 33W/m2 (calculated as total kwh divided by total hours in a year), and the average efficiency of the electric grid is 92%, giving 30W/m2 delivered to the consumer.

    A 183 by 183 kilometer are in Arizona would supply 1 terawatt. Current US electrical consumption is about 0.5 terawatt. Of course, no one is proposing that much PV, solar thermal baseload is currently cheaper and storage options are straightforward. But use the built environment for PV, distributed generation is smart and cheap.

    Projected global energy use. Review the extensive work done by the 2000 watt society organizations; 14 terawatts of end use energy yields a good lifestyle for all which is a worthy goal for those attempting to chart out the future of global energy use. BAU growth scenarios still leave billions very poor, and in any case reflect BAU assumptions which will not survive peak oil.
    Viable global wind resources are many time the 14 terawatts we might need in a few decades. And clearly, if a small part of Arizona could replace all US electrical generation, there is plenty of solar available.