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How Much Land Does Solar, Wind and Nuclear Energy Require?

Jesse Jenkins's picture

Jesse is a researcher, consultant, and writer with ten years of experience in the energy sector and expertise in electric power systems, electricity regulation, energy and climate change policy...

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A story of golf courses, bombing ranges, and wiser energy choices

Full Spectrum: Energy Analysis and Commentary with Jesse Jenkins 

UPDATE: Post updated on June 26, 2015 to correct nuclear and wind land use figures and add summary table at end.

What kind of energy system has the smallest impact on the natural world?

This seemingly straightforward question is actually bedevilingly complex, as evidenced by the rich discussions and debate at the 5th annual Breakthrough Dialogue hosted by the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland-based think tank. [Full disclosure: I worked as Director of Energy and Climate Policy at the Institute from 2008-2012].

The impacts of energy systems on the human and non-human environment are manifold, from climate change to ocean acidification, air pollutants to mining, ecosystem damages to physical land footprint.

While averting climate change dominates so much of the discussion about how to shrink the impact of energy systems on the environment, once we limit ourselves to a menu of low-carbon energy sources, real environmental tradeoffs still remain.

When it comes to wind, solar and other renewable energy sources, the diffuse nature of these resources and the relatively large land area requirements that result is often held up as a barrier to widespread adoption.

Do we really have enough land to turn en masse to solar and wind energy to power modern economies? Or is land use a showstopper for renewable energy?

The reality is that, excluding biomass (more on that later) and with the exception of a few densely populated countries with relatively poor renewable resources, the land area required for widespread renewable energy adoption is relatively minor, especially compared to other human uses of the landscape.

Let’s look at the numbers…

The recently released MIT Future of Solar Energy study contains this useful infographic, which puts everything into perspective.

Land use and solar energy
Source: The Future of Solar Energy, MIT Energy Initiative 2015

According to the MIT authors, powering 100 percent of estimated U.S. electricity demand in 2050 with solar energy would require roughly 33,000 square kilometers (sq-km) of land. That’s if we spread solar panels evenly across the entire country. If we concentrate solar production in the sunniest regions, the total land footprint falls to 12,000 sq-km.

Those sound like big numbers. On the one hand they are. Massachusetts (where I reside) spans about 27,000 sq-km, for comparison.

On the other hand, the United States apparently devotes about 10,000 sq-km of land just to golf courses. And as the infographic illustrates, it’s agriculture and forestry that truly drives humanity’s footprint on the natural landscape.

In reality, no one is calling for 100 percent solar energy. Even the most bullish renewable energy advocates typically envision solar providing less than half and usually no more than a quarter of U.S. electricity. (See: “Is There An Upper Limit to Variable Renewables”)

If solar provided one-third of Americans’ electricity in 2050, it would require just 4,000-11,000 sq-km.

In other words: with an area no larger than the amount of land currently devoted to golf courses, we could power a third of the country with solar energy.

An area of land no larger than that devoted to golf courses could power one-third of American electricity with solar power
Solar panels spanning an area of land no larger than that devoted to golf courses could power one-third of American electricity needs. Image source: Sunkist Country Club

That assumes we build solar farms on undeveloped land, in deserts or other untrammeled areas. If instead, we put solar on one quarter of U.S. rooftops and across parking lots, industrial brownfields, landfills, and other degraded lands, this total land footprint would shrink dramatically.

If carefully sited, it may even be possible to power a third of the country with solar without measurably expanding humanity’s land use footprint. Accomplishing that would end up costing more, as large solar farms in the desert are usually the cheapest way to harness solar’s potential. But if land use is your bellwether, there’s no reason not to embrace solar power.

What about wind energy?

As I discussed with Robert Wilson in this recent column, wind farms span a larger area than an equivalently-productive solar farm.

Powering one-third of the country’s projected 2050 electricity demand with wind energy could take a land area spanning on the order of 66,000 sq-km, according to land use figures calculated by Australian environmental scientist and Energy Collective contributor Barry Brook.

That’s a lot of land, but only about twice as much land as we’ve already devastated with coal mining or three times as much land as we’ve bombed to shit in military test ranges, according to the MIT study.

However, that’s the total land area spanned by the wind farms. Wind turbines are spaced out, however, and wind energy can cohabitate perfectly well with farming, grazing, and other productive uses of the underlying land.

The direct land use impact associated with wind turbine pads, roads, substations and transmission lines is much smaller.

According to data collected by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory on dozens of U.S. wind farms completed before 2009, the land area permanently taken out of production by wind farms amounts to just about 1 percent of the total area spanned by the wind farm. Another 2 percent of the total area is temporarily impacted during construction activities, used for staging areas, temporary access roads, etc.

Land use and wind energy
Source: Denholm et al. 2009, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Powering one-third of the country in 2050 with wind farms would thus truly impact only on the order of 2,000 sq-km, of which less than 700 sq-km would be permanently removed from production.

That’s an almost trivially small amount of land, equal to only 7 percent of the land area wasted, er, devoted to golf in this country.

Update June 26, 2015: Wind land use figures in original post were rounded to 60,000 sq-km for one-third of U.S. electricity. More accurate figure of 66,000 sq-km included above, with updates to direct and temporary land area impacted accordingly. End update.

If well sited and co-located on already disturbed and productive agricultural lands, wind farms could thus fuel a sizeable fraction of America’s energy demand without expanding the human footprint on the land in any meaningful way, except aesthetically.

Wind farms co-habitate just fine with other productive uses of the land, including grazing and agriculture
Wind farms co-habitate just fine with other productive uses of the land, including grazing and agriculture. Image source: Shutterstock

Indeed, as the MIT infographic makes abundantly clear, and as anyone who has flown over or driven across America’s vast agricultural heartland has seen first hand, farming and forestry are far and away the real drivers of humanity’s impact on the landscape.

Croplands span a staggering 1.65 million sq-km in the United States, an area almost as large as France, Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom combined. A majority of the 5.2 million sq-km of forests, grasslands, pasturelands, and rangelands in America are also under active management, placed into service for forestry, grazing and other human activities.

Agriculture and forestry has thus already disturbed three to four orders of magnitude more land area than would be impacted if we powered two-thirds of the country with wind and solar together.

That’s no reason to ignore the imperative to responsibly site wind and solar energy in order to limit their ecological impact, but it also means that discussions about shrinking humanity’s physical footprint on the planet should center on agriculture and forestry, not solar or wind energy.

That’s also why biomass makes so little sense from an ecological perspective.

Corn ethanol supplies only about 4 percent of transportation fuel in the United States, yet already requires 66,000 sq-km of agricultural lands, about five to ten-times more land than would be required to derive two-thirds of the country’s electricity from wind and solar.

Biomass for electricity is just as bad, requiring an order of magnitude more land than solar power, according to Brook.

While energy density is thus no reason to turn our backs on wind or solar energy, biomass is another story. From an ecological perspective, we would be wise to severely limit the use of biomass, perhaps to high-value uses without other alternatives, such as a bio-based replacement for high-density jet fuel.

Nuclear power is of course the densest form of energy harnessed yet by humankind. A ton of nuclear fuel used in a light-water reactor contains more than 200,000 times more energy than a ton of coal, making nuclear five orders of magnitude more energy dense than fossil fuels.

Nuclear fuel is so compact that only two grams of natural uranium, about the weight of two paperclips, would fuel 100 percent of an average British person’s energy needs for a day, according to Cambridge University engineering professor David Mackay.

Four grams of uranium would be sufficient to meet a fuel-hungry American’s daily needs. Slightly more than 3 pounds would power your life for an entire year.

Uranium weighing as little as this sack of potatoes could fuel an American's entire energy needs for a year

Uranium weighing as little as this three pound sack of potatoes could fuel an American’s entire energy needs for a year. Image source: Sun-Glo of Idaho

That incredible density means that everything associated with the nuclear fuel cycle—from the size of the reactors themselves to the impact of mining to the amount of spent nuclear fuel that must be stored or reprocessed at the end of the cycle—scales down accordingly.

To fuel one-third of the United States’ 2050 electricity demand with nuclear power would require only 440 sq-km, according to the land use figures compiled by Brook.

Update, June 26, 2015: It was brought to my attention that the land use figures used by Brook and Bradshaw assume “fourth generation” nuclear reactor designs and are thus not appropriate for comparison to current generation solar and wind here. Brook and Bradshaw assume a land use intensity of 0.1 sq-km per terawatt-hour per year (sq-km/TWh/year) of generation for fourth generation nuclear, which was the basis for the calculation above. My apologies for not closely veryifying the assumptions behind the Brook and Bradshaw paper. 

Thanks to commenter “Som Negert” for providing a link to this table compiled by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which lists the power output and total site area for all nuclear reactors in the United States.

Using NRC data, I calculate that the actual U.S. nuclear fleet spans 1.02 sq-km per TWh per year of generation (assuming an average 90 percent capacity factor for all reactors). That figure includes the full site area for each reactor, including buffer zones and cooling ponds/lakes etc. in addition to the reactor site itself, and is two orders of magnitude less energy dense than Brook and Bradshaw assume. It does not include land area required for uranium mining or spent fuel storage.

Using these real-world figures, I estimate that suppyling one-third of projected 2050 U.S. electricity demand with nuclear reactors would require nearly 1,500 sq-km of land. That’s still only 15 percent of the land currently devoted to golf courses in the United States.

Using these updated figures, nuclear energy is still less land-intensive than solar or the total land area spanned by wind farms, but nuclear’s land requirements are larger than the land area actually taken out of production by wind farms, and equivalent to the total area disturbed during and after construction of wind farms. At the same time, the cooling ponds/lakes and buffer zones at nuclear sites are also often used as recreational sites or wildlife sanctuaries, so only a portion of the total site area spanned by a nuclear facility is devoted solely to electricity generation. 

The most compact nuclear power facility in the United States is the 84 acre San Onofre site near San Diego, California (now closed), which has a land intensity of as little as 0.017 sq-km/TWh/year. 

If every reactor was able to utilize natural cooling and was built on a site as compact as the San Onofre site, powering one-third of U.S. electricity in 2050 would require as little as 24.3 sq-km, demonstrating the incredible potential density of nuclear energy.

But as they say: real-world mileage may vary. End Update.

The density of nuclear energy is a thus major advantage, from an environmental perspective. More nuclear energy means fueling humanity’s energy appetite will require a substantially smaller physical footprint.

Minimizing the land use footprint of our energy system is an important part of considering the most environmentally benign energy portfolio. But it’s only a part.

Some advocates of nuclear energy take a philosophical preference for energy density to extremes, arguing that nuclear’s density makes it wholly superior to wind or solar energy.

Yet as we’ve seen, land impact is hardly a barrier to widespread use of wind or solar energy, and of course, land use is just one of several important ecological metrics to balance.

As Bradshaw and Brook, a staunch nuclear advocate himself, write:

Because there is no perfect energy source … conservation professionals ultimately need to take an evidence-based approach to consider carefully the integrated effects of energy mixes on biodiversity conservation. Trade-offs and compromises are inevitable and require advocating energy mixes that minimize net environmental damage.

Updated June 26, 2015: A reader requested a summary table comparing results, which I’ve created below.

Land use requirements of different energy resources
Click table to enlarge 

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Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Jun 30, 2015

@Roger Arnold

 

Similar concepts have been used in installations like the one I saw at the Pentagon Parking lot when I worked nearby. Numerous tracking panels were installed on light poles.

 

When first installed, there was a lighted billboard erected to display the output information to the people traveling (or semi-parked) on I-395, which passes adjacent to the parking lot. Within months, the billboard was turned off and taken down; it generated too many questioning phone calls about the low numbers.

 

 This link includes some photos and some information with an optimistic 2005 perspective http://www.geotimes.org/aug05/feature_renewables.html

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jun 30, 2015

Nice work Peter.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jun 30, 2015

Jesse,

Thanks for this well referenced, post.  It offers great perspective on land use and is a useful rebuttal to those who claim that land use is problematic for renewables.   Also I think it is great that you provided clarifying updates as readers offered additional information.  This will definitely be added to my links library.

Regarding land requirements for wind, it appears that the sources are all using averages of existing wind power installations.  However if we develop the best sites in the US, the density improves and the footprint will be further reduced.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jun 30, 2015
Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on Jul 1, 2015

Clayton,

What is the justificatiuon for wind power?  I assume it is primarily for reduceign CO2 emisisons intensity of elecity, right?  But how effective is it at reducing CO2 emissions?

Ireland, 2011, wind generated 17% of electricity and was just 53% effective at reducing emissions for every MWh of electricity supplied. 

Australia, 2014, wind generated 4.5% of electricityand was just 78% effective at reducing emissions for every MWh of electricity supplied. 

Australia, 2020, with estimated wind energy at 15% of electricity,it is projected to be about 60% effective at reducing emissions for every MWh of electricity supplied.

As the proportion of wind (an other intermittent renewables) increases, their effectiveness decreases.

The CO2 abatement cost increases in inverse proprtion to the wind’s CO2 abartement effectiveness

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jul 1, 2015

Peter,

I find interesting the number of anti-wind posters who don’t include any biographical information.  I wonder why you (they) do that . . .

Anyway, to your question, this post focusses on the geographic footprint of various generation technologies.  This is a topic grossly misrepresented by many in the anti-wind camp.  So I am more interested in focussing my energy on putting this to rest rather than opening another can of worms.  However I offer some food for thought:

In other threads I have commented at length on much of what you are bringing up.  Lets just say that if one looks back 35 years there was no utility scale wind or solar projects now there are.  There also was no Internet used by the masses, there were no credible EVs, lighting required 10X the electricity for a given amount of lumens, only a small percentage of homes had PCs or answering machines and watches that you could use to communicate were still the stuff of cartoons.  You are suggesting that we base our planning and thinking about what can happen 35 years from now on the current state of the art.  I look at the trends and underutilized technology of today and project forward and see a clear path to much higher penetration of renewables.  I don’t think that technology is going to come to a screeching halt, you apparently do.  Look here and here for graphs that offer a summary of renewable and related trends. 

Lets leave it at that and maybe reconvene on your comments in another thread.

 

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jul 1, 2015

I think Peter raised a valid concern which cannot be shrugged off by appealing to the possibility that unknown future technological breakthroughs will solve the problem.

The issue of fossil fuel lock-in due to intermittent renewables penetration expansion is clear and present, and it’s not going away just because we want it to.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jul 1, 2015

 

Regular reading of the MIT Technology Review can result in a different perspective on progress. A few things of note:

1. A process by which extremely tall towers can be frabricated on site using machines and materials that can be delivered by truck. At higher altitudes, the wind is more steady.

2. A process, already being commercialized, that cuts the cost of lithium ion cells in half.

3. A process for producing graphene at 1/100th the current cost. Graphene can improve batteries and even form super capacitors that hold a large charge for many hours.

And of course there are already companies making high-capacity low-loss transmission systems based on superconductors. 

Batteries are already being put in the towers of wind turbines to smooth the power availability. With super capacitors and cheaper batteries, a high altitude turbine could be a very steady source of power.

 

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Jul 1, 2015

Hops –

“…reading of the MIT Technology Review”

Unlike the old MIT TR which was written largely by faculty and alumni, the new TR has little or no connection with MIT as its current editor reminds readers periodically.   Now, MIT TR is overwhelmingly written by journalists without technical training or experience who rotate around the populist technical media outlets.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 1, 2015

Hops, when the wind dies for GE’s Invenergy 2.5MW turbine with storage, the puny 50kWh battery is dead by the time the blades stop spinning.

Like the ineffectual 5W solar panel included in the Nissan Leaf top level SL trim option, which doesn’t even generate enough power to run the car’s radio, integrated turbine storage is an expensive way to help customers who don’t know any better feel better.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jul 2, 2015

Another anti-wind poster with no bio.  Where could they all be coming from . . . ? ? ?

Here is a piece with links to a variety of studies on the externalities associated with various energy sources.

Henry KB's picture
Henry KB on Jul 2, 2015

“Mining, refining, and recycling of rare earths have serious environmental consequences if not properly managed. A particular hazard is mildly radioactive slurry tailings resulting from the common occurrence of thorium and uranium in rare earth element ores. Additionally, toxic acids are required during the refining process.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rare_earth_element#Environmental_considerations

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jul 2, 2015

No doubt, but how does that compare to the impacts of other sources?  The numbers mean little without context. 

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jul 3, 2015

Love it.

A bunch of links to studies funded by the “Association for Research of Renewable Energy in Australia”.

Great name.

 

 

Henry KB's picture
Henry KB on Jul 3, 2015

“While conventional power requires approximately 1 tonne of copper per installed megawatt (MW), renewable technologies such as wind and solar require four times more copper per installed MW.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copper_in_renewable_energy
“horses, goats and sheep are exposed in certain areas to potentially toxic concentration of copper and lead in grass.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_impact_of_mining

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jul 3, 2015

The demonstration Russian BN600 fast breeder has operated for over 30 years, with the best operating performance of all Russian nukes.

The recently completed BN800 demonstration FB (40 year planned life) will be used to gain working experience towards the commercialisation of the BN1200 FB (60 years planned life), which the Russians intend to use as the backbone of their civilian nuclear power capability. 11 GWe of them are planned before 2030.

http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Current-and-Future-Generation/Fast-Neutron-Reactors/

 

 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jul 3, 2015

We, as a whole have choices. Either we industrialize our way out of biofry or we sit around in caves and die (as the biosphere continues to heat up anyways).

You surely do not think that rare earths will destroy the biosphere – do you? I think they are the way out of fossil fueled depletion into an over heated biosphere – so the MORE mining, the better, right?

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jul 3, 2015

“Potentially toxic”. Really? Sounds like you’re getting your info from environmentalists that already have theirs (but which want everybody else to live in energy poverty). The ONLY way out is hard work aka industrialism. Let’s make it as non fossil as possible. We only have so much time before each climate disaster commences. Eventually, the entire biosphere will be destroyed by excess CO2 caused heat and chemical alterations. When the ice caps melt, it’ll all be out of whack and ocean anoxia will set in and cause poisonous atmosphere (caused by hydrogen sulfide emitting micro organisms).

Also, I understand the need for standards, and that we must force those same environmental and workers health standards on all the cheap labor countries so we have a chance at keeping the economic machine working. Perhaps our standards are slightly too burdomesome, too.

Take nuclear. The regs, fees, and downright silly non science based laws (and public misunderstandings) which prevents the all out development of the molten salt reactor (or better) – is literally killing the planet! Alvin Weinberg knew way back then that excess CO2 would become a global problem by this time. Unlike the other Al, he had a solution and it was called the molten salt reactor. Look into it. It would provide unlimited non fossil energy in the form of heat and electricity. Heat can be used to make clean liquid fuels from air and water. So can electricity. The efficiency is rather poor, but so what. There’s enough “heavy metal” to power the growing world and its need to sequester excess CO2 (into soils and carbonates) for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Plenty of time to develop fusion! The comparatively small amounts of waste (especially from the colsed cycle) can not destroy an entire biosphere. Best to learn how to manage advanced meltdown proof nuclear (and all the mining operations required for renewables, too) and stop this very real planetary warming/acidification!

Clean energy industrialism – its the only acceptable choice.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 3, 2015

Steven, great points about the importance of non-electrical energy use and the importance of not getting stuck with a frac’ing-based “low-carbon” energy system, when what we need is a zero-carbon system, or at least nearly zero.

That’s why I think it is important that we discuss and embrace carbon-free energy carriers which can be used in non-electrical application (and why solutions that center around continued used of hydrocarbons, e.g. the false hope of biofuels, stationary fuel cells, and methane-based solutions must be avoided).

For space and water heating in homes and businesses, hot-water based district heating systems are a solution which has been proven in Europe and Russia.  Hot water can be stored in tanks for thermal energy storage, to smooth and/or time-shift demand peaks.  The heat source can be combined-heat-and-power nuclear plants; the low temperature heat (around 90C) is about one tenth the cost of electricity (before distribution costs).  District heating systems are suitable in urban and dense suburban cities, particularly in colder climates.

The low-cost low-grade heat from nuclear combined-heat-and-power installations is also great for sea water desalinization.  Thus there is growing interest in this technology in the Middle East.

High temperature steam can be used as a heat carrier for industrial application.  When the heat source is a nuclear plant, the energy cost is about one third of the cost of electricity.  Today’s light water reactors can supply heat at 300C, and the new designs such as the HTGR or IMSR will be able to supply heat at 600C-900C (possibly enough to make cement, if a suitable catalyst is used).

The carbon-free fuels, hydrogen and ammonia can be made from sustainable electricity, and can be used in fuel cells or conventional combustion applications.  Ammonia is more easily storable as a liquid, therefore is suitable for replacing diesel fuel in many applications.  Hydrogen can be used as a pipeline gas.  However, both will always cost more than electricity: around 200% as much for baseload, and 300% with off-peak electricity (although thermo-chemical synthesis using high temperature nuclear heat promises to provide hydrogen for a cost equal to electricity), so it is really applications like that portion of transportation that can’t use batteries, which need a storable fuel that have the most syn-fuel potential. See NH3 Fuel association for info on ammonia fuel.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 3, 2015

Steve, agreed that the ultimate goal has to be zero carbon, and there’s no guarantee that replacing a natural gas-fired infrastructure and economy (the “bridge fuel”) will be any less challenging than replacing a coal-fired one.

That said, a low-carbon economy can be a waypoint to a zero-carbon one by focusing on adding  zero-carbon generation incrementally. Shifting from coal to natural gas may enable greater short-term gains, but it extends reliance on fossil fuels farther into the future.

Henry KB's picture
Henry KB on Jul 3, 2015

http://ecowatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/byecoal.jpg
Where are the trees, the rainforest, the native wildlife’s habitats? Now it is all ‘green’, green grass for pastures, large areas covered by solar and wind farms that fertilize soil with millions of slaughtered birds and bats.
A beautiful manmade landscape, so ‘green’, so hypocritical.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jul 3, 2015

“End use electricity consumption in the US works out to be about 10 Terawatt-Hours/Day out of total end use energy consumption of about 57 TWH/Day.”

EVs are shifting those numbers.  With Li-ion battery prices coming down rapidly the trend toward EV transportation will accelerate.  EVs play nicely with wind power.  In TX, for example, wind peaks at night, precisely when most EVs are charging.  Early data suggest that load shifting using Time of Use metering is effective.  As such, EVs are a double win, allowing the greening of transportation while supporting higher penetrations of EVs.

 

 

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Jul 3, 2015

EVs are shifting those numbers.”

Are?  Or will?  For transportation energy (per vehicle), is it not far more true that hybrids and improving efficiency of combustion engines are responsible for reduced transportation energy (per vehicle)?   With global production of nearly 90 million vehicles per year, pure EV production can’t yet dent the average, nor can it for some time. 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jul 4, 2015

Whoops, double post… That picture looks like they’re replacing the city for the wind alternators…

Here’s a link to my website…

whatsthebackupplan

 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jul 3, 2015

Solar is for rooftops, wind, for some applications and nuclear should provide the bulk of future world energy demands.

Fossil fuels will kill off all life as we know it. If it wasn’t for the potential of nuclear, i would say that it’s better to devote a million square km of deserts to solar and recycle it and their tremendous amounts of batteries in a way that doesn’t kill trees and wildlife. I hate having to contribute to unbounded pollution just to do “anything”.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jul 3, 2015

Thank you, let me clarify what I was getting at.  My post was in response to this aspect of Steven’s post:

“As the numbers show, there’s a lot more to the puzzle than the electricity piece.  Get rid of fossil fuels as the way to meet our current electricity needs and we’ve nailed only about one-sixth of the overall challenge.”

He pointed out that Electricity was a small piece of the puzzle.  My comment was to clarify that there is a viable approach to the transportation sector which is a larger piece of the puzzle according to his numbers.  Currently hybrids are carrying the water.  If battery trends continue their rapid cost declines, as analysts are projecting, then I expect EVs to replace ICE in a meaningful timeline i.e. in a timeframe relevant to addressing the human element of climate change.

 

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on Jul 3, 2015

Nathan,

<blockquote>That’s why I think it is important that we discuss and embrace carbon-free energy carriers which can be used in non-electrical application (and why solutions that center around continued used of hydrocarbons, e.g. the false hope of biofuels, stationary fuel cells, and methane-based solutions must be avoided).</blockquote>

You didn’t mention unlimited trasnport fuels from seawater produced by effectively unlimited nuclear power.  US Navy and Audi (for example) are both claiming thes same fules we use now can be produced from seawater at $3-$6 per gallon using currently commercial technologies and systems. Mos tof the cost is in producing the hydrogen by electrolysis.  The cost would come down enormously if the hydrogen was produced by high temperature nuclear plants instead of by electrolysis.

Economics rules.  Most of what you advocate in your post is not economic and would only have minoir impact on energy suplply and emissions abatement.  So it is not where we should focus our efforts.  We should focus discussion on the sectors and technologies that can have the greates effect.  That is we should apply the Pareto Principle.  Focus 80% of our effort on what we can do to get cheaper alternatives to electricity and transport fuel.

I believe the answer is in removig the impediments that are preventing the world from having low cost nuclear power.  The way to do that is for ASA, EU and IAEA to remove the irrational, unjustifiable regulatory burden.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 4, 2015

Of course I agree that “economics rules”, that we should start with cheap sustainable electricity, and removing the regulatory burden on nuclear will be a big help.  

However, I’m skeptical that hydrocarbon syn-fuel made from seawater will be economical.  It clearly will cost more than ammonia, since capturing CO2 for hydrocarbon fuel is harder than capturing nitrogen for ammonia.  

The Navy idea of using CO2 from seawater doesn’t work for stationary application, since the water discharged from the plant would be chemically out of balance with the surrounding water, which would likely have an adverse environmental impact (until it was sufficiently diluted).  And mobile systems always cost more than stationary.

The Audi/European idea of making fuel from cheap off-peak electricity depends on the hope that there will be near-zero electricity prices for 10, 20, or 30% of the hours in the year.  Maybe this will happen, but if it does, ammonia will be the cheapest fuel that can be made.  The other advantage to switching to ammonia is that if power-to-fuel doesn’t become cost effective, we can still make the carbon-free syn-fuel using fossil fuel with CC&S.

On the other hand, low grade heat from combined-heat-and-power plants (CH&P) is the cheapest form of energy there is.  The only obstacle is the infrastructure, and even this is not a factor in developing nations, which must deploy new energy infrastructure in either case: the cost will be roughly the same for either a fossil fuel sytem or for hot water based district heating.  As with ammonia transportation fuel, hot water for district heating can be made from fossil fuel CH&P with CC&S, whereas methane pipeline gas cannot.

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on Jul 4, 2015

Nathan,

 

Thank you for your reply.  However, I’d offer an alternative view on three points

First: “However, I’m skeptical that hydrocarbon syn-fuel made from seawater will be economical.  It clearly will cost more than ammonia”

Do you have cost estimates for the total economic cost (including the cost of safety) per L delivered at the bowser price for the change of infrastructure an to amoonia suystem.  Include the cost of dual system for every country for decades during the change over.  This estimate needs to be done by competent economists.  I know it’s been looked at in the past and I seem to recall it’s not in the ball park of being a viable option.

Second, the issue of mixing of water exiting the plant is an issue that is commonly handled by many kinds of industrial plants releasing waste products and effluant to the ocean.  That is not a show-stopper (I’d welcome evidence to the contrary from authoritatve sources).

Third, I realise Audi press release was about renewable energy providing the power.  But that’s just spin for the press release.  I didn’t mention renewables.  My comment was about nuclear.  The cost estimates by Audi and US Navy are with hydrogen produced by electrolysis.  The cost of hydrogen is estimated to be an order of magnitude or more lower if produced by high temperature reactors.  From memory, this could reduce the cost of the fuel by about half (or more).  Then there is also the potential to reduce the cost of electricity from nuclear power by more than an order of magnitude (over time).  So, I suggest there is potential to reduce the cost of transport fuels very substantially in real terms over many decades.

 

daniel perez's picture
daniel perez on Apr 3, 2016

This is great information.

I wonder if there should be consideration of where the land use would occur and if that impacts availability of the land or raises electricity transmission issues.

For example, Califonia is fortunate to have more densely populated areas running north and south along the coast, with less populated land just east.

In the densely populated northeast, I don’t see enough open area for wind farms and the sun does not shine as bright there as in Arizona.

If we are restricted to building the majority of capacity in rural areas, what transmission problems does this create as to right of ways and copper losses?

Also, why do you analyze the land use for 1/3 as opposed to 100% power generation needs?

Thanks much!

daniel perez's picture
daniel perez on Apr 3, 2016

@next-era, sure cows can graze under the wind turbines and lizards can keep on about their business, but the dead birds disagree with this land use calculation. Also, the eye sore of wind farms should also be considered.

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