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Ten Reasons Intermittent Renewables (Wind and Solar PV) are a Problem

Gail Tverberg's picture

My background is as an actuary, making financial forecasts for the insurance industry. In 2015, I began investigating how the limits of a finite world might affect the financial system, oil...

  • Member since 2016
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  • Jan 23, 2014

Intermittent renewables–wind and solar photovoltaic panels–have been hailed as an answer to all our energy problems. Certainly, politicians need something to provide hope, especially in countries that are obviously losing their supply of oil, such as the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the more I look into the situation, the less intermittent renewables have to offer.

1. It is doubtful that intermittent renewables actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

It is devilishly difficult to figure out whether on not any particular energy source has a favorable impact on carbon dioxide emissions. The obvious first way of looking at emissions is to look at the fuel burned on a day-to-day basis. Intermittent renewables don’t seem to burn fossil fuel on day-to-day basis, while those using fossil fuels do, so wind and solar PV seem to be the winners.

The catch is that there are many direct and indirect ways that fossil fuels come into play in making the devices that create the renewable energy and in their operation on the grid. The researcher must choose “boundaries” for any analysis. In a sense, we need our whole fossil fuel powered system of schools, roads, airports, hospitals, and electricity transmission lines to make any of type of energy product work, whether oil, natural gas, wind, or solar electric–but it is difficult to make boundaries wide enough to cover everything.

The exercise becomes one of trying to guess how much carbon emissions are saved by looking at tops of icebergs, given that the whole rest of the system is needed to support the new additions. The thing that makes the problem more difficult is the fact that intermittent renewables have more energy-related costs that are not easy to measure than fossil fuel powered energy does. For example, there may be land rental costs, salaries of consultants, and (higher) financing costs because of the front-ended nature of the investment. There are also costs for mitigating intermittency and extra long-distance grid connections.

Many intermittent renewables costs seem to be left out of CO2 analyses under the theory that, say, land rental doesn’t really use energy. But the payment for land rental means that the owner can now go and buy more “stuff,” so it acts to raise fossil fuel energy consumption.

Normally the cost of making an energy-related product gives an indication as to how much fossil fuel energy is involved in the process. A high-priced energy product gives an expectation of high fossil fuel use, since true renewable energy use is free. If the true source of renewable energy were only wind or solar, there would be no cost at all! The fact that wind and solar PV tends to be more expensive than other electricity generation gives an initial expectation that the fossil fuel energy requirements for creating this energy source are high, rather than low, if a wide boundary analysis were to be done.

There are some studies based on narrow boundary studies of various types (Energy Return on Energy Invested, Life Cycle Analysis, and Energy Payback Periods) that suggest that there are some savings (from the top of the icebergs) if intermittent renewables are used. But more broadly based studies show that the overall amount of fossil fuel energy used by intermittent renewables is really so high that we don’t come out ahead by its use. One such study is Weissbach et al.’s study in Energy called  Energy intensities, EROIs (energy returned on invested), and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants. Another is an analysis of Spanish installed solar power by Pedro Prieto and Charles Hall called Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution: The Energy Return on Energy Invested.

I tend to use an even wider boundary approach: what happens to world CO2 emissions when we ramp up intermittent renewables? As far as I can tell, it tends to raise CO2 emissions. One way this happens is by ramping up China’s economy, through the additional business it generates in the making of wind turbines, solar panels, and the mining of rare earth minerals used in these devices. The benefit China gets from its renewable sales is leveraged several times, as it allows the country to build new homes, roads, and schools, and businesses to service the new manufacturing. In China, the vast majority of manufacturing is with coal.

Figure 1. Energy consumption by source for China based on BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 1. Energy consumption by source for China based on BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Another way intermittent renewables raise world CO2 emissions indirectly is by making the country using intermittent renewables less competitive in the world market-place, because the higher electricity cost raises the price of manufactured goods. This tends to send manufacturing to countries that use lower-priced energy sources for electricity, such as China.

A third way that intermittent renewables can raise world CO2 emissions relates to affordability. Consumers cannot afford high-priced electricity without their standards of living dropping. Governments may be pressured to change their overall electricity mix to include more very low-cost energy sources, such as lignite (a very low grade of coal), in their electricity mix to keep the  overall price in an affordable range. This seems to be at least part of the problem behind Germany’s difficulties with renewables.

If there is any savings at all in CO2 emissions, it would seem to be from inexpensive intermittent renewables–ones that don’t really need subsidies. If renewables need a subsidy or feed in tariff, a red danger light should be flashing. Somewhere the process is  using a lot of fossil fuels in its production.

2. Wind and Solar PV do not fix our oil problem.

Wind and solar PV both are used to make electricity. Our big problem is with oil. Oil and electricity are used for different things. For example, electricity won’t run today’s cars, and it won’t run tractors, or construction equipment, or aircraft. So even if we have more electricity, it doesn’t fix our oil problem.

Wind and solar PV have been billed as solutions to our CO2 problem. Unfortunately, as we just saw in (1) above, it doesn’t really  do this either. The combination of (1) and (2) leaves wind and solar PV with relatively few purposes.

I should mention that there is one small niche where intermittent renewables can substitute for oil. While oil is not generally burned to produce electricity, it is used for this purpose on some islands because of its convenience. These island communities do little manufacturing because their high cost of electricity makes them not competitive in the world market. On these islands,  intermittent renewables can be used to reduce the amount of oil used for electricity production, without driving up the cost of electricity, since electric costs are already very high.

3. The high cost of wind and solar PV doubles our energy problems, rather than solving them.

The big issue with oil is its high cost of production. We extracted the easy-to-extract oil first, and now we are getting to the more-difficult to extract oil. Adding high priced electricity to our fuel mix means we have price problems with both oil and electricity, instead of only one of the two. Consumers’ wages don’t rise to pay for these high-priced fuels, so disposable income is adversely impacted by both. The two high-priced fuels also combine to make exported goods even less competitive in the world marketplace.

4. Even if wind is “renewable,” it isn’t necessarily long lived.

Manufacturers of wind turbines claim lives of 20 to 25 years. This compares to life spans of 40 years or more for coal, gas, and nuclear. One recent study suggests that because of degraded performance, it may not be economic to operate wind turbines for more than 12 to 15 years.

If we are expecting substantial changes in the years ahead, there are also issues with whether necessary repairs will really be available. Wind turbines are especially repair prone. These repairs can’t be made by just anyone, using local materials. They need the specialized world supply chain that we have today. Offshore wind turbines sometimes need helicopters for repairs. If oil is a problem, such repairs may not be available.

5. Wind and solar PV don’t ramp up quickly.

After many years of trying to ramp up wind and solar PV, in 2012, wind amounted to a bit under 1% of world energy supply. Solar amounted to even less than that–about 0.2% of world energy supply. It would take huge effort to ramp up production to even 5% of the world’s energy supply.

6. Wind and solar PV create serious pollution problems. 

Both wind turbines and solar PV use rare earth minerals, mostly from China, in their manufacture. Mining and processing these rare earths generates a tremendous amount of “hazardous and radioactive byproducts.” In the part of China where rare earth minerals are mined, soil and water are saturated with toxic substances, making farming impossible.

If we were to try to increase wind and solar by a factor of 10 (so that they together amount to 12% of world energy supply, instead of 1.2%) we would need huge amounts of rare earth minerals and other polluting minerals, such as  gallium arsenide, copper-indium-gallium-diselenide, and cadmium-telluride, used in making thin-film photovoltaics. We could not expect China to take on all of this pollution itself. Instead, the rest of the world would need to produce these toxic materials as well. Presumably, many countries would require stringent pollution controls to do this extraction. These pollution controls would likely require greater use of fossil fuel energy. While pollution problems might be kept in check, the greater use of fossil fuels would likely raise both CO2 emissions and the prices of the wind and solar PV.

There are many other pollution issues. China is a major center for renewables production, using coal as it primary fuel. Silicon-based solar cells require heating silica rock to high temperatures in 3000 F ovens, something that which can be done cheaply with coal. Wind is known for its noise pollution issues and for killing birds. Solar panels on the desert floor interfere with the local ecosystem.

A major reason why wind and solar PV are considered clean is because it is hard to measure their true pollution costs, whether CO2 or other types. Electric cars have some of the same issues, because they also use rare earth minerals and have heavy up-front costs.

7. There is a danger that wind and solar PV will make the electric grid less long-lived, rather than more long-lived. This tends to happen because current laws overcompensate owners of intermittent renewables relative to the value they provide to the grid. 

One point of confusion is what wind and solar PV really replace. Do they replace electricity, or do they replace the fuel that makes electricity? There is a huge difference, in terms of when an intermittent renewable achieves “grid-parity” in costs. Fuel costs are typically only a small share of retail electricity costs, so reaching grid parity is extremely difficult if intermittent renewables only replace fuel costs. In the US fuel costs average about 3 cents per kWh. For residential users, the retail price averages about 12 cents per kWh, or four times as much as the fuel cost.

What we are interested in is the value of intermittent electricity to the companies that make and sell electricity–utilities or similar companies. In my view, the typical value of intermittent electricity is the value of the fuel the intermittent electricity replaces–in other words, the cost of coal, natural gas, or uranium replaced. This is the case because using intermittent electricity doesn’t generally reduce any costs for an electric utility, other than its fuel costs. It still needs to provide backup power around the clock to customers with solar panels. Because of the variability in production, it still needs pretty much the same capacity as in the past, and it needs the same staffing for each of the units, even though some of them might be operating for a smaller percentage of time.

The value of the intermittent electricity to the utility may be greater or less than the first estimate of the fuel savings. In some instances, particularly if there is a lot of solar PV in a part of the world where maximum energy use is during the summer, peak capacity needs may be reduced a bit. This would be a savings above fuel costs. Offsetting such savings would be increased costs for new transmission lines to try to even out spikes in electricity production and to bring wind from sources where it is strongest to locations where its energy is truly needed.

The problem that occurs is the fact that most plans reimburse users of wind and solar PV at a far higher rate than the cost of the fuel they replace. Often “net metering’ is used, so the user is in effect given credit for the full retail price of electricity for the electricity generated by solar panels. This higher reimbursements leaves a revenue shortfall for the companies involved in producing electricity for the grid. The danger is that some companies will go bankrupt, or will leave the system, endangering the ability of the electric grid to provide a stable electric supply for consumers. This is a potentially much more dangerous problem than any benefit that intermittent renewables provide.

Also, funding for the additional electric transmission lines is likely to become a problem, because neither the electricity companies nor governments have sufficient revenue to fund them. The reason the electric companies cannot afford them should be clear–they are being asked to subsidize the costs through overly high reimbursement of the value of the intermittent renewables. I discuss the reason for the government lack of funds in (8), below.

8. Adding more wind and solar PV tends to make government finances less sound, rather than more sound.

Around the world, extraction of inexpensive oil and gas has historically strengthened the finances of governments. This happens because governments have been able to tax the oil and gas companies heavily, and use the tax revenue to fund government programs.

Unfortunately, the addition of wind and solar tends to act in precisely the opposite direction. In some cases, the reduction in governments revenue comes directly through subsidies for wind and solar. In other instances, the reduction in government revenue is more indirect. If the high price of intermittent electricity causes a country to become less competitive in the world market, this indirectly reduces government tax revenue because it leads to fewer people having jobs, and thus less taxable income. Even if the issue is “only” a reduction in discretionary income of consumers, this still cuts back on the ability of governments to raise taxes.

9. My analysis indicates that the bottleneck we are reaching is not simply oil. Instead, a major problem is inadequate investment capital and too much debt.  Ramping up wind and solar PV tends to make those problems worse, not better.

As I described in my post Why EIA, IEA, and Randers’ 2052 Energy Forecasts are Wrong, we are reaching an investment capital and debt bottleneck, because of the higher extraction costs of oil. Adding intermittent renewables, in which huge costs are paid out in advance, adds to this problem. Because of this, ramping up intermittent renewables tends to make collapse come sooner, rather than later, to the countries trying to ramp up these energy sources.

10. Wind and Solar PV come nowhere near fulfilling the promises made for them.  

Trying to substitute expensive energy for cheap is like trying to make water run uphill. It is virtually impossible to make such a system work. It makes everyone from governments to businesses to citizens poorer in the process. Promises that are made regarding future payments for electricity often need to be reneged on. 

If there really were benefits from the program–other than making government officials look like they are doing something–it might make sense to expand the programs. As it is, it is hard to see much benefit to expanding intermittent renewables. Even if we wanted to, there would be no way we could expand intermittent renewables to cover our entire electricity program–they are just too expensive, too polluting, and don’t provide the liquid fuels we need.


While many people would like us to believe that wind and solar PV will solve all of our problems, the more a person looks at the question, the clearer it becomes that wind and solar PV added to the electric grid are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

If capital is one of the limits we are up against, we need to spend that capital as wisely as possible.  Because solar PV is relatively long-lived, it is possible it may be a tiny part of the path ahead, but not as part of the electric grid. Individual citizens may want to buy a panel or two, as a way of providing some electricity, if we should have problems with electricity at a later date. But there is no reason the government should subsidize these purchases.

We might better off spending our capital in more productive ways–for example, figuring out what path we will follow in the very near future, if we find we are reaching a financial bottle neck brought on the high cost of oil extraction. Do we need to be doing more in the direction of local agriculture, with seeds chosen for each area? Should we even be thinking about buying up farmland and resettling potential workers to different areas? Are there ways we can make soil more productive for the long term?

The primary reason for intermittent renewables was supposedly to reduce CO2 emissions to prevent climate change. If we seem to be reaching Limits to Growth in the near term, the amount of carbon burned will be far lower than the climate models assume–even the “peak oil” model for future CO2. So perhaps from that point of view, our inability to make intermittent renewables work doesn’t really matter. We are already reaching the goal the intermittent renewables were trying to reach, in another, not very fortunate, way.

We are now faced with the task of trying to figure out what we can do, in the world Nature gives us. The previous plan didn’t work. Perhaps we need to find a Plan B that will put us in a better position.

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Jan 23, 2014

I would love to hear your possible solutions instead of just ranting about problems.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jan 23, 2014

Personally, I think that low penetration solar and wind in the most ideal locations can add some value as prices decline further (partly due to more efficient use of fossil inputs), but I fully agree with you that they offer no miracle solution, especially not within the timeframes dictated by climate science. The ongoing wind and solar technology-forcing is blowing a bubble that can be popped by any of the financial factors that you regularly write about. 

Fortunately, I think that skeptisism about wind and solar along the points you raise here is spreading quite rapidly even at this early stage where they still contribute only 1% to world energy. It might be that public opinion turns before the bubble grows sufficiently large to really pose a global hazard. 

Meanwhile we need to keep looking for solutions both in the hard and soft sciences. We can do a lot with efficiency, nuclear and CCS, but ultimately we will probably need some major behavioural change as well. Luckily, we as individuals have some influence over whether this will be forced upon us by the next global financial crisis or whether we proactively adapt by intelligent lifestyle design. 

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jan 23, 2014

I’ll quickly agree with your basic theme, and try offer encouragement on your farm question.

I was different from most punk kids; I liked learning from the past. And the past liked teaching me. Learning takes time, which TV couch potatoes don’t have.

“Gentrification” has followed me all my life. When suburbs became tacky wastelands, I “discoverd” the tattered, old, urban core. When the urban core became snobby, I discoverd some beloved rural roots. Now snobs are hanging around rural areas with great ideas how to raise taxes.

I hope some new, open minded, eager, young learners show up in rural areas fast. There is so much to learn in exactly the areas you mention, Gail.

Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on Jan 24, 2014

Another thing that will limit wind and solar PV is lack of the necessary minerals to make them.  One of the readers on posted a link to ajournal article, talking about mineral availabiility, and how it affects scalabiltiy.

Carbon Capture and Storage is a dead end for many reasons.  For example, would you live over Co2 injected in the ground, knowing that if it escaped, it would form a low-lying cloud that cuould smother you? As an insurer, would you write insurance on such an operation?


Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on Jan 24, 2014

Thanks! I have receive nice comments from several researchers working on the subject.

Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on Jan 24, 2014

The number one solution is very small families. Stop at one child, or have none at all.

We need to scale back to what nature can provide. Unfortunately, even with efficiency and scaling back usage, we really need to reduce population to match available resources. This is not a solution people like to hear, though.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jan 24, 2014

Thanks for the article. Yes, the material scaling issue is also an important factor. You might be interested in one of the first articles I wrote for TEC where I also included this issue in a long list of reasons why the scaling of wind & solar will become increasingly difficult as more capacity is brought online. 

About CCS, there will of course be risks and large scale experience will naturally first be acquired in sparsely populated regions. In the end, the resistance to CO2 storage will be similar to the resistance to nuclear waste, but, if climate science is correct, the public will eventually be left with little choice other than to give up this resistance (both to CCS and nuclear) in exchange for affordable and practical energy from fully dispatchable sources. 

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jan 24, 2014

Josh, a fair question to which I would like to offer a different perspective.

Minnesota pioneers lived in sod houses that were warm in winter and cool in summer. The modern skyscraper and other modern architecture assumes huge energy input. In hippie days, modern underground housing was seriously considered.

Prairie pioneers also planted trees. Hard to believe now, but Minneapolis originally had no trees. Remarkable parks story in Minnesota. Trees do many things (shade and fuel and birds), but the obvious seems lost in today’s debate.

Regarding Gail’s farm research, we’ve learned the hard way that raised beds (warm dry soil) using artificial black dirt (biochar) vastly exceeds our needs. Unfortunately, the deer like it, too. And deer will not eat field corn. And wolves eat deer.

Yet another forgotten “technology” is the hay loft. Loose hay was stored above the animals, ready for feeding, but also heat. Calves (etc.) were born warm and dry and healthy. Many generations prospered this way. It might sound simplistic, but it worked. Simple isn’t always stupid.

The environment and economy are in a bad situation now, agreed. But we always haven’t been here. We have some very good options besides the specific windmills/solar panels now being pushed.

Thomas Garven's picture
Thomas Garven on Jan 24, 2014

 Dear Gail:

For years I have been a fan of your writings.  They are normally filled with lots of logic, reasoning and recommended pathways for our future or lack thereof, LOL.  This posting however seems to fall short and if I had to guess; was very difficult for you to author since you seem to be outside your comfort zone.

After reading your posting I was tempted to respond with specific “buts” and then changed my mind because we both know what needs to be done.  Instead here is my ten [10] listing.   

1. We need leadership that understands the limitations of oil,

2. We need technology that is cost effective regardless of what it is,

3. We need understanding by the population of the realities of planetary growth,

4. We need a level playing field to equalize some of the have and have not’s,

5. We need a tax structures that doesn’t try to pick or promote favorites,

6. We need social adjustments based on awareness of our ills,

7. We need a renewed spirit of the value of nature,

8. We need to have a reality check for women who want more than two children,

9. We need to re-purpose advertising to value what we need and not what we want to sell, and;  

10 We need to stop wasting 60% of all of the BTU’s of heat energy we create.

These are my top ten in no specific order or priority.  They aren’t even the most important just a bunch of random thoughts as I write this posting.  They certainly don’t address many of the topics you have written about over the years that we need to address.

If I were to pick just one item from my listing it would be number ten [10] to focus on.  Did you know that ‘fossil fueled’ power plants like coal, natural gas peaking and nuclear power plants wastes at least 60% of every BTU of heat energy they create?  Yup that is true.  It is like going to the grocery store, buying $100 worth of groceries and when you get home you throw away $60 worth.  Only some of our newest combined cycle natural gas plants achieve about 50% efficiency.           

Most people never talk about the limitations of physics when it comes to things like wasting 60% of every BTU of heat energy we create and where that waste heat goes.  A Google search for “waste heat” will reveal some studies showing how our weather patterns are being effected up to 1,000 miles from our large population centers.  To date, it seems to me that we have been basically ignoring this waste heat by just dumping it into our lakes, streams and oceans.  As a long term strategy that seems really lame to me.  And when we build another 200 or so Small Modular Reactors which seems to be our current plan of action supported by our government what will happen to all of that waste heat?  And lets not even start talking about the spent fuel.  I worked in the nuclear power industry for 20+ years.         

Of course most people never look at things like this 60% waste of BTU’s or the dumping of waste heat into our environment.  But if we did we might be considering something in addition to a “carbon tax”.  We might call it a “Waste BTU Tax” or a tax on “Waste Heat”.  

My engineering specialty before retiring was Quality Engineering.  That engineering discipline taught me that when it comes to the determination of the root cause of problems there can be many contributing factors.  Certainly wasted energy and waste heat should be on a list of contributing factors.  So should political and for profit motivation and government intervention be on that list.  And certainly things like changes in our society as you have so eloquently pointed out many times.    

So how about wind and solar, yup they are intermittent.  You are also correct that wind turbines aren’t very efficient and may not last 20-30 years without lots of maintenance.  Of course a two unit nuclear power station has a permanent staff of about 600 workers to just keep it running for that 40-60 year period and that is certainly not free.  It might also be true that in 10 years a new wind turbine design might have an efficiency rating of 40% so who really cares if what we have now becomes too expensive to maintain as long as they are do not create negative capital.  And while our current batch of 15% efficient solar panels might look expensive today, in 10 years they could be 40% efficient and cost $.25/watt.   

As a closing thought.  I looked through the topics of todays newsletter and a few items seemed to be somewhat related to my posting.       

+  7 Things IRENA Is Doing To Advance Renewable Energy 

+  8,000+ Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV Sales In 3 Months 

+  Arctic Sea Ice Freefall is Mirror Image of Carbon Dioxide Ascent

+  Atomic-scale catalysts may produce cheap hydrogen

It seems to me we are making some progress.  The question in my mind is still; is the transition happening fast enough to save our planet? 

Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on Jan 24, 2014

Thanks for the link. I see that in many ways you think like I do. Capital investment is likely to be a huge problem for scaling up both.

With respect to CCS, I expect that the costs you have in your article are way too low. They may be the (hoped-for) cost for adaptation of a plant to capture CO2 from their emission. But the actual cost will be a lo more than that. It will include pipeline to a suitable depository, and the energy required to transport this huge mount of CO2 (which is much larger than the Carbon from which it is created)  to its final resting place. And of course, on an ongoing basis, we have the larger amount of natural gas or coal that must be burned, and the fact that not 100% of these CO2 emissions are captured.

The one thing that brings the whole system down is that fact that wages don’t rise as fact as energy costs rise. In fact, when oil prices are high, my analysis indicates that wages actually flatten, rather than rise. If wages don’t rise enough, discretionary income falls. We see recession and job loss as energy prices rise. (Surprise!) This relationship makes the system fall apart. 

The issue that we are running into now is that prices for energy products are not rising high enough.  I am sure you saw Shell’s recent profit announcement, and Statoil’s announcment that they are cutting back on Exploraton and Development, becasue of high costs and not enough revenue. Without a way of getting wages up, it is hard to see a way that the ecnomy can truly support high energy costs, even if they are needed because energy production is becoming more expensive. This is a diminishing returns issue.


Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on Jan 24, 2014

I don not have a problem with off-grid solar power. It is on-grid that is the problem.

Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on Jan 24, 2014

Norway is certainly in an unusual position with respect to its electricity supply. With the abundant hydroelectric, it probably does make sense to encourage plug-in electric vehicles. 

I don’t see Norway making a rush to Solar PV. It has a little wind, but I understand it makes quite a bit of money in its role of being able to use its hyrdro to provide electricity storage for wind. So it really is in a very different position, to profit from others mis-steps. 


Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jan 24, 2014

I agree with you that oil prices cannot rise much more from current levels. This could lead to oil companies cutting back on exploration as costs continue rising, eventually leading to a supply crunch and another global recession. However, oil is still a highly profitable business and it will be quite some time before such a supply crunch takes place. 

In the meantime, necessity will drive innovation to get more value per unit of oil consumed (both through efficiency and cutting wasteful consumption) and economic fundamentals will shift growth from oil intensive developed nations to coal intensive developing nations. I expect that these forces can maintain global growth under plateauing oil production for quite some time. 

When it comes to coal, however, I think society can still afford substantially higher prices. A doubling of the coal price will hike electricity costs by about $30/MWh – a very small amount when considering electricity price variations around the world. CCS will increase the price of coal-fired electricity by roughly this amount and I think society will definitely be able to pay this price. This case is even stronger for CCS applied to industrial applications.

Regarding the transport and storage costs, these are generally much smaller than capture costs and will initially be negative as large CCS projects are set up the vacinity of suitable locations for EOR. See this paper for example that shows that both the US and China can store about 0.4 Gton of CO2 annually at a negative price. This is about 6% of these countries’ emissions and will be an excellent starting point for large scale CCS once we get a reliable CO2 price in place. 

EOR can also help somewhat with the oil supply crunch. As shown towards the end of this article, the IEA sees about 200 billion barrels of oil recoverable through CO2-EOR at costs between $20 and $70 per barrel. 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jan 25, 2014

Scaling back is good, but we can’t just conserve till the last drop. Humanity in depletion mode will probably be more detrimental to the biosphere than excess CO2.

A world with less energy is a world at war.

Therefore, the obvious path to take is the development of the source that is intrinsically less expensive, providing base load power and that is fossil free. It needs to be a passively safe molten fuels reactor design produced in a factory setting. But I’m not sure if it shall be a fast reactor or a thermal reactor. Fast reactors make more start up fuel. But the molten salt thermal reactors require less start up fuel.

Thomas Garven's picture
Thomas Garven on Jan 26, 2014
Jim Baird said:

“Tom let’s talk about the spent nuclear fuel”.

Do we have to, LOL.  We can’t even decide as a country [U.S that is] if we are going to reprocess it or bury it.  I just hate to see us waste 95% of anything.

Instead lets talk about Ocean Termal Energy Conversion [OTEC].  What is the latest news in that area?

p.s. Really liked the heat pipe graphic.  Another wonderful bit of technology with no moving parts that can work unattended for generations.  

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Jan 29, 2014

“Intermittent renewables–wind and solar photovoltaic panels–have been hailed as an answer to all our energy problems. Certainly, politicians need something to provide hope, especially in countries that are obviously losing their supply of oil, such as the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the more I look into the situation, the less intermittent renewables have to offer.”

Gail, obviously this article of yours is one more example of how dis-information from the vested interests can spread. You are blaming ‘intermittent’ renewable energy sources for the problems that currently are widespread. That is far far away from being fair.

Being intermittent does not mean useless. It has been proven for example that solar and wind have provided energy surplus when the grid had to deliver extra energy, thus saving on fossil fuels.

The intermittent problem can be addressed very well with some basic techniques, and on the other hand efficiency is going to help lower demand while economic growth is still possible.

For example take house heating. Heating of a house can be done with a heat pump that extracts heat from the air either outside – when it needs to be warm inside – or inside – when it needs to be fresh inside. Together with some solar panels to drive the compressors, this system is virtually independant from the grid.

Lighting is another example. Replacing your lights at home by LED lights can lower your energy use considerably. That much, that if you put some solar panels on your roof, install some batteries, you can harvest enough energy to light the house during the night. Again, a small system virtually independant from the grid.

Water heating. Just buy a solar water heater for up on your roof. This thing will pay for itself in just a couple of years. When the sun is there the water heats up and within two days the water is hotter than comes out of your conventional water boiler.

Insulation. The houses of today lack insulation. In combination with a heat pump, houses that are insulated can be close to what is called passive house or zero energy house, but best of all the living comfort is much better than using fossil energy fuels to heat up a house. It’s here where we’re wasting enormous amounts of energy – cooling and heating our houses – which is not necessary.

And I could go on and on.

It’s all about attitude and perseverance, wanting to change your life-style; lower your carbon footprint.

You seem to have lost faith completely, and that makes me sad.

I hope you may see the light again some day, and reckognize it is not fair to blame clean energy as the cause of the trouble with energy these days. Because clean energy has the future.

The problem I see that it is more that too much disinformation is trying to make us unsure, so that we don’t know anymore. Obviously you have been a victim of that negative thinking.

So please get your head straight, read up on what you’ve written, and try to make something more positive out of the mess we’re in and help the human race understand that the way we’re doing things is just plain wrong.


Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jan 29, 2014

I like the idea of figuring out the least expensive unlimited source, however, the development of the renewables is a definite plus for humanity, in order to learn how to build the automated machinerey necessary to do industrial work and store electricty for cheap.

#1, EROEI is at least a factor of ten for PV and more for all other renewables except, of course, for biofuels. If 1/10th of a fossil store was used for say, PV, fully 7x that amount could be used for power. The 8th for rebuilding itself and the 9th for doubling, necessary for exponential growth (up to about 500,000 sq miles or so). Another tenth needs to be considered just for indirect gasoline inputs (until autonomous battery powered mining equipment and cars becomes mainstream).

#2, Wind and solar can eventually fix the oil problem IF the same type of machine automation required to make them (cheap) is used to make batteries.

#3, The high costs of wind and solar needs to be reduced by machine automation, otherwise they are indeed, a detriment to overall future prosperity.

#4, Solar and wind need to be made to last longer, however, they already have an EROEI of at least 10. As long as most of it is machine automated and recycled, there is no problem.

#5, The renewables actually have scaled up by about 30% or more over each of many years! Of couse, these were subsidized (but so is everything else). As they get more wide spread, less subsidy, and finally NO subsidy is mandatory. Even at just 20% growth, they would power “everything” in just a few decades!

#6, Wind and solar OBVIOUSLY create LESS pollution problems than fossil fuels. Was this just a fill in statement to “get to 10”? Laugh Out Loud. Did you also say radioactive? LOL (again). Thorium is a very slightly radioactive “by product” with a half live longer than TWICE the entire age of the solar system (it’s not going to hurt you at all unless you grind it up and breath it). BTY, we need thorium if we choose to use the MSR instead of the IFR (for clean baseload power in place of uranium). Surely, the little bit of pollution (which can be contained or neutralized) will be orders of magnitude LESS detrimental to the environment than fossil fueled depletion into an over heated biosphere!

#7, The grid IS a real concern. but it is highly unlikely that decentralized sources can even affect grid economics because houses are (for the most part) NOT good power sources relative to centralized systems because they have tree shadows, other building shadows, do not employ tracking, etc. We need to pay investment into grid bolstering, anyway (to prepare for electric cars). The grid is what needs to be subsidized, just as the railroad and the freeways!

#8, The renewables, although having positive EROEI, do take much longer to recoup ROI since they are so diffuse and intermittent. We just need to make sure that only a certain amount of subsidy is allowed because we need to subsidize the start of closed cycle nuclear, and a stronger grid, as well. However, the more solar and wind, the less fission products need to be stored for ~300 years. Also, solar and wind promotes a more healthy “use less” lifestyle which we can all agree is not detrimental IF we have a suitable fossil fuels replacement strategy (otherwise, just prolonging fossil fueled depletions).

#9, Ramping up any diffuse and intermittent source needs to be done via machine automation (as with batteries), otherwise it is NOT possible for them to power a sizable fraction of a planetary civilization. It is, however, possible if the parts were made cheap enough to justify the expense of mega install jobs. This would also pave the way for autonomous machinery digg’n deep below for all necessary elements (which we have PLENTY of). If cars can drive themselves, machine can do the more important things (google google cars).

#10, We must be willing to extrapolate historic growth rates and put a objective definition to “fullfilling promises”. I am let down by present day renewable energy input, however, I realize that (with machine automation) today is just an inkling of what could be. Let’s not cut the growth because, eventually, fossil fuels WILL cost more than even these intermittent and diffuse sources!

I must add an 11th disadvantage of wind and solar. Although somewhat possible, it will be highly unlikely to power 10 billion people at a decent standard with them and storage (such as pumped hydro). If we did not yet invent the nuclear option, we would HAVE to resort to severe limitation in our industrial processes (and even at home).

Thankfully, we may use the renewables up to “max grid” (so as not to have to afford storage) and then use the UNLIMITED potential of cheaper than coal closed cycle nuclear IF the Malthusian doomsayers, greedy enviro’s and other sources of non intrinsic expenses will just go away!


Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jan 29, 2014

I like your ideas about wind and solar but I don’t understand the promoting of a btu tax. Don’t we already have too many non intrinsic costs jeopardizing our future? From an engineering pov, as of the amount of thermal wastes required for say, the closed nuclear cycle (which will “waste” at least 50 percent) for powering ten billion at a decent standard (about five times today’s total energy usage). Now compare to the average global solar insulation. I think that would be absolutely nill. Excess CO2 and depletion is a far more pressing concern (and I still have doubts about an excess CO2 tax).

The total amount of nuclear wastes required to power ten billion for 50 years would be less than 100,000 tons. Yes, only that very trivial amount of heavy metal can power a planetary civilization for that long!

These fission products only have to be isolated for 1/1000th the time as conventional nuclear wastes(which is mostly unburned). Thus, there is NO reason for fossil fueled depletion into an over heated biosphere (especially since we can also learn to automate the production of the renewables and batteries)…

Thomas Garven's picture
Thomas Garven on Jan 30, 2014

 Hi Robert:

Don’t have a lot of time tonight to respond so will make it short, sorry.  I look at waste heat from power plants as about as bad as CO2.   However, I am not a climate scientist and have no idea if this is true or not.  But I do have this gut feeling that Global Warming is far more complex than currently defined and here are just a few things I think are contributing to the problem.  


Waste Heat,

Leaking Methane,

Refrigerant gases,

Burning of fossil fuels,

Population growth, and;

Excess consumption to name just a few factors.

Some of these or all may be part of the problem.  What I do know is that 200  new nuclear reactors is not going to solve every factor.  

We currently have about 100 +/- operating nuclear power plants in the U.S. and maybe about 500-700 coal and natural gas plants all pumping out GW of waste heat.  It is my hope that someone decides that all new power plants be an integrated design.  I use the term integrated to mean more than ONE product as a result of the heat source used. For example, for nuclear power plants near the oceans, they should also be designed to use the waste heat to desalinate water to improve their overall efficiency.  As you stated as we approach 10 billion people on this planet building new 35% efficient nuclear power plants just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me.  It also probably doesn’t make a whole lot of financial sense to a utility executive either, LOL. 

So will we be building more nuclear plants in the future, maybe and maybe not.  But we are going to need to find ways to:

1. Manage costs,

2. Build integrated facilities to ensure nuclear is competitive,

3. Determine up front what reactor design the U.S. will be using for the next 50 years,

4. Decide what we are going to do with the spent fuel, and;

5. Consider placing the reactors underground away from natural hazards and people.

Excellent posting Robert. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jan 30, 2014

Nope, for a given amount of power generation, CO2 is about two orders of magnitude worse than waste heat.  The portion of the sun’s power which hits the Earth is enormously more than what humans use, so small changes in solar absortion make a big difference, especially changes that persist as long as CO2 stays in the atmosphere.

Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on Jan 30, 2014

Thanks for the link to the article about CO2 storage costs. The first thing a person notices is the statement,

CO2 capture and compression costs were intentionally excluded.” These costs are huge! They involve burning much more coal than would otherwise be needed, and then using expensive technology to try to capture most of it. This CO2 must be compressed, to fit into pipelines. This is why people expect CCS to be very costly.

 A second issue is that this type of study adds up the costs this researcher can think of, and offsets it by benefits that might be available, on a small scale, but not necessarily a large scale. Costs do not include such things as liability insurance, in the case that the CO2 would escape and kill large numbers of people. Costs do not include paying people to use the area under their homes for storage. (In the US, people own the mineral rights to property.)

It is an interesting theoretical calculation of a little piece of the total cost–but not a whole lot more than that.




Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on Jan 30, 2014

When the entire system adjustmenst are included, the EROEI of Wind and Solar is far less than 10. Pedro Prieto and Charles Hall recently published a study of Spain’s EROEI, coming to an estimate of 2.5 EROEI that I refer to in the post. 

After I published the post, Graham Palmer wrote to me saying that he came to conclusions that are broadly similar to mine in his new book (published by Springer, as part of their Brief’s in Energy series, under Charles Hall’s direction) called Energy in Australia. He looks at experience in Australia, particularly with respect to solar.



Thomas Garven's picture
Thomas Garven on Jan 30, 2014

Thank you Nathan.  


Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jan 30, 2014

Definitely, must develop the safest with spent fuel that is completely burned. Today’s light water reactor only burns a small percent because xenon is created as a fission product and cracks the solid fuel. It and other fission products also absorbs the neutrons making it harder to fission the origional fuel.

In a molten fuels mix, this can be eliminated thus one ton can power a city for a year, which more than makes up for the lousy efficiency of the steam cycle. I believe that the wastes can be vitrified in glass as a 1 to 5 ratio and have found out that (just) fission products decay back down to normal levels in about 300 years. The rest of it should be burned, as the closed cycle can burn the wastes from today;s reactors as well. I’m not sure which is best, the fast or the thermal reactors, though, as proponents list these advantages to both (such as LFTR which is a thermal and PRISM which is a fast reactor). I do know that more development was put into the fast reactors but that LFTR makes very much less plutonium.

Thanks for writing back and hopefully, this nuclear thing can be replaced by fusion in just fifty years.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jan 31, 2014

I believe you are quite mistaken, Nathan.

All energy we create on Earth eventually becomes “waste heat.” Heat on the ground raises the temperature. It escapes into the vacuum of space as blackbody radiation..

The role CO2 and other materials play interacting with solar and other source photons is highly specific. The science of spectroscopy relies on specific and narrow interaction bands. The type of interaction varies widely. And the energy of excited states can be released quite differently. In the simplest case, a simple gas like CO2 has a small number of narrow absorbtion band modes that are well known.

The insolation visible spectrum is also different than the blackbody infrared radiating surface. So for a “greenhouse effect” only the Earth’s temperature matters.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jan 31, 2014

If there is more infrared absorbing material in the air, there will be higher temps, just as if there was none at all, the Earth would be frozen. But just as important to us, once fossil fuels deplete, we’ll have to deal with far worst than just natural weather extremes!

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jan 31, 2014

Thanks. I was refering from an older NREL page and from many of the pro renewables viewpoints. And apologies for my being somewhat hasty in my conclusions. I do believe that it is possible but highly unlikely that humanity has the old fashioned determination to make renewables (and nuclear) work for cheap.

Keith Henson's picture
Keith Henson on Jan 31, 2014

“What is this world coming to?”

It’s running out of cheap energy.  Happened before when we ran out of wood to burn.

It’s a design to cost problem, and there are probably several solutions, LENR might solve the problem, though I don’t trust something so poorly understood.  Molten fluoride reactors might work.  If you build 15,000 of them, regular nucular fission will work.

StratoSolar with the new kink of gravity storage might work.  It doesn’t break any physics laws or engineering rules and might eventually get cheap enough to make synthetic fuel, in the 1-2 cents per kWh.

My personal preference is power satellites lifted to orbit with a combination of hydrogen combustion till you run out of air and laser heated hydrogen to LEO, then laser heated hydrogen again to get out to GEO where you scrap the second stages and use the material for building power satellites.  GEO is in sunlight 99% of the time.  If this method will get the cost down to the target of $100/kg and we grow the capacity 20 times, then in a bit over two decades we could have enough cheap solar power from space to replace all the fossil fuel we now use.

Oh, and the energy payback time is under two months.  Only way to do better is to build them with a space elevator.

Problems: the smaller one is that it cost ~$60 B to set up, though about a third of a billion has already been committed to the longest lead item.  A larger one is the widespread rejection of anything that looks like it will get the human race out of the jam.

Additionally, to evaluate the project you need to understand reusable rockets, microwave and visible optics, orbital mechanics, thermodynamics, chemistry and economics.  That’s not all, but it’s a good start.

Does anyone want to see a full article on the topic here?

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 1, 2014

I figure it would take close to a million square miles of terrestrial solar (and storage) to power a totally developed planetary civilization. And the report figures that the weight should be reduced by a factor of 100 to make it spaced based. And the capacity factor of like 4x would reduce that to like 400x less material.

Still, that’s a lot of material to be “lasering” to space, especially if the lasers are pointing back down towards Earth with just a little rocketplane as an interceptor.

Perhaps it would be easier to do the solar sail approach and use commercial heavy lift launce costs of say, about ten times less than what NASA (used to charge). These materials should be in the range of like millions of times lighter. Still, some heavy duty components would be required, even though the force of the light itself could be used as tension between giant parabolic mirrors and reciever held together by strings?

However, if the weight of all the rockets and of the project itself doubled that of the weight of the fission products (and the five times that for the vitrifying in glass) from the closed cycle, it might be easier to just do that LFTR or PRISM thing on the global scale. Somewhere, here, I said it would take less than 100,000 tons (of heavy metal and resulting fission products) to power a fully developed humanity for fifty years. I was wrong, it’s more like one million tons because humanity must consume an average of 30,000 tons of thorium or uranium per year over that half century in order to power 10 billion at modern standards.

It is almost incomprehensible for me to realize that, just about 7,000 tons would displace ALL the excess billions of tons of CO2 produced today!

I think we should try to do both!

Edit: It would be cool to be able to figure the ratio between photon force against the sail’s orbit to actual concentrated solar power (what are the losses due to solar “drag”).

Keith Henson's picture
Keith Henson on Feb 1, 2014

Unfortunately solar sails are not useful to get off the planet and can’t be used less than below something like 1000 km orbit.  Air drag brings them down because it’s more than light pressure.

Keith Henson's picture
Keith Henson on Feb 1, 2014

David, that’s one way.  But do you really *want* to live that way?

The earth intercepts less than one part in a billion of what the sun puts out.

It’s raining soup, grab a bucket!

Actually, tell the engineers to solve the problem. There is room for power satellites in GEO that would supply more than ten times the total current energy use for the planet. All it takes is a few dollars a person investement to get the cost of putting power plants out there down to where energy from space makes economic sense.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 1, 2014

Definitely for the space based race capable of deploying unfolding components way above the Earth’s air.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Feb 3, 2014

And having bought solar panels, what next? I’ll be interested in how you use/deploy your own solar panels.

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Feb 4, 2014

Of course there’s a bit more needed to get your own solar system running, but this is the kind of spirit this planet needs right now. I fully agree, stop talking, start doing and so lower your own carbon footprint and this way the vested interests will have no other choice than to adapt or crumble away.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Feb 8, 2014

I don’t think I could afford it on my wages.


I live in North Dakota where we are suffering under the Tyrany of the Polar Vortex, yet in the summer the Temp canclimb into the lower to mid 90’s.

I have central heating/airconditioning, an electric range, electric hot water, a washer/dryer, dishwasher, refrigerator, up to six computers and two TV’s. Not to mention we live inside a city.

Do you really think solar PV’s would work for my family?

Gail Tverberg's picture
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