Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Alternative Energy and the Importance of Scale

It's vital to have the right perspective on any problem you face. It's especially important to grasp the scale of the problem. Otherwise you end up either "using a wrecking ball to hammer a nail," or "drinking from a fire hose. A more everyday example would be something like driving 20 miles (using a $3 worth of gas) to save 5 cents on toothpaste.

A person, group or country can make great progress and produce impressive results in pursuit of a goal, and yet not realize that they are losing ground. It's the classic "Can't see the forest for the trees"

This article at National Review provides the "forest-level" perspective that I haven't seen discussed in the context of wind and solar power. For all the progress they've made, and the impressive amounts of energy produced, you never see the scale of the problem. They aren't keeping up with the yearly growth in electricity use:

Between 1985 and 2011, global electricity generation increased by about 450 terawatt-hours per year. That’s the equivalent of adding about one Brazil (which used 485 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2010) to the electricity sector every year. And the International Energy Agency expects global electricity use to continue growing by about one Brazil per year through 2035.
How much solar capacity would be needed to produce 450 terawatt-hours? Well, Germany has more installed solar-energy capacity than any other country, with some 25,000 megawatts of installed photovoltaic panels. In 2011, those panels produced 18 terawatt-hours of electricity. Thus, just to keep pace with the growth in global electricity demand, the world would have to install about 25 times as much photovoltaic capacity as Germany’s total installed base, and it would have to do so again every year.

Another way to look at it:
To keep up with the growth in global electricity demand by using wind energy alone, the global wind industry will need to cover a land area of some 35,000 square miles — about the size of Indiana — with wind turbines. And it will have to do so every year from now through 2035....the wind industry would have to cover 96 square miles every day with wind turbines. That’s an area about the size of four Manhattans.
At that rate, by 2035 additional area in use by wind farms (and, therefore, not used for anything else) is 805,000 square miles. That's the same size as:  California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming COMBINED.
Additional land needed for wind power to cover growth in demand through 2035.
Finding that much land close to where the power demand is (can't put it all in the Sahara) is.... well..... impossible. Some can go offshore, but that's expensive.

In terms of power per acre, nuclear, coal and oil are a much better bet. We should focus on cleaning the supplies that will work rather than subsidizing technology that can't keep up with demand.