The One Viable Solution To Climate Change?

An article so bad it unites mt and WUWT, albeit for slightly differing reasons. The article by Steve Denning (who?), uncritically channelling a Manhattan Institute report, sees solar, wind and nooks as unviable, and concludes, in mt's rather accurate paraphrase, "Let's get the smart people to come up with something nobody's ever thought of that doesn't have drawbacks!" which has echoes of John McCarthy's solutions.

The article starts with
we are near the theoretical limits of what is possible from efficiency improvements in existing hydrocarbon technology or from wind, and solar energy and battery storage... [and] Hydrocarbons collectively supply 84% of the world’s energy. wind, solar, and batteries provide about 2% of the world’s energy and 3% of America’s.
The second part is meant to show you how piffling renewables are; the first presumably is to convince you that renewables can't grow much more.

But these are both non-arguments. They're direct from the MI report, and I suspect our author hasn't managed to think his way around them, so I will do it for you, in the unlikely event that you can't.

Theoretical limits

The argument that we're close to the limits on efficiency, and are therefore stymied, is silly because that's not where the increase in wind or solar will come from: it will come from more deployment. Which people consistently underestimate. I could write more words, but really his error is that simple.

Nooks: public unease

His killer argument against nooks is public unease. There is truth in this, but to quote the quoteable but not entirely accurate EW at WUWT: Has anyone else noticed how weak green excuses for not embracing nuclear power are? I mean, on one hand greens tell us the world will end in 12 years or by 2050 or whatever, yet in the same breath they tell us nuclear power is too dangerous because there might be a few meltdowns. How could the risk of a few meltdowns possibly be worse than the end of the world? And of course in some places - e..g. France - this unease seems to be overcome. I once thought we would be obliged to overcome this, now I'm doubtful: solar will probably take over instead.

Proportion of supply

Their 2% value isn't really an argument, just a note about the present. And a somewhat deceptive one; this says that renewables (mostly hydro) account for more than 20% of global electricity. It does tell you something about the maturity of wind+solar though: if it is currently a small proportion, we're not well used to integrating large proportions of it into supply. Though the UK survived well enough recently.


While I'm here, this report from the IEA says that "modern" bioenergy is bigger than hydropower, which is bigger than wind+solar combined. I find that somewhat surprising.


I haven't bored you with rowing for a bit, and didn't have any other pic to hand. Town bumps is next week, we've been tapering and doing a few short starts; I tried pointing the riggercam onboard as an experiment. Yes, two could sharpen his catches a little.


Can planting trees save our climate? - RealClimate by Stefan


PaulS said...

While I'm here, this report from the IEA says that "modern" bioenergy is bigger than hydropower, which is bigger than wind+solar combined. I find that somewhat surprising.

Just in the UK, the Drax power plant switching from coal to biomass is a big part of the recent move towards zero coal consumption and alone is apparently responsible for producing 15% of the UK's renewable energy.

David B. Benson said...

Whatever the IEA is, this report is to be ignored.

Tom said...

The International Energy Agency is frequently ignored. 'Modern' bioenergy is a bit of a fraud.

Back in 2010, the world consumed 523 quads. 52 came from renewable energy. 50 of those 52 renewable quads came from hydropower.

Solar and wind 'only' provide 2% of energy in the U.S. In quotes because I'm in the middle of re-reading The Singularity Is Near by Kurzweil.

It was 0.1% 7 years ago. You know, one, two, four, eight and all that.

Andy Mitchell said...

Renewables have far more potential yet. Every home could be fitted with smart storage heaters that topped themselves up when energy is in excess supply (and at a discount).

Andrew said...

Andy Mitchell - you mean 'Economy 7'...

Phil said...

"McCarthy showed every sign of thinking for himself. He would occasionally choose an unexpected side on a particular matter, and he could even be convinced to back down given compelling evidence. These days, those almost count as lost skills!" (your reference)

Which isn't close to the same as the magical thinking in "The One Viable Solution To Climate Change"

I'm not sure why you connect the two.

William M. Connolley said...

> I'm not sure why you connect the two

You missed "JMC was a technological optimist. At times this could become indistinguishable from a belief in magic."

There was one particular discussion which I think I said that to him. But now I look I can only find myself saying it to Timmy in the context of Lomborg.

Phil said...

Yes, JMC was optimistic, sometimes beyond what was reasonable.

Yet I don't see that as the same as TOVSTCC. I don't see any signs of independent thinking.

William M. Connolley said...

Oh, there's no similarity to the message of despair of the article. The similarity is that the article's proposal for a fix is essentially magic; and sometimes JMC's optimism couldn't be distinguished from "there will be a magic technofix".

Though to be fair that's not far off my current view of Solar.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Say what? You think solar sounds like magic?

I'm almost sure that it is a demonstrated technology. And that there is plenty of suitable terrain to install it.

William M. Connolley said...

I think that my belief that it will solve all our problems sounds like magic.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

But isn't the real question whether or not it can supply a substantial fraction of our energy requirements? Or is that also magical thinking? It sure doesn't look like it to me.

For a fraction of we spend on fossil fuel development yearly, we could deploy an awful lot of solar in American, Australian, East Asian and North African deserts. Storage presents challenges, but solutions are known. Transporting electrical energy is much simpler than transporting oil and coal.

William M. Connolley said...

If you spend money, you can buy solar panels (you'd get more if Trump hasn't put tariffs on Chinese panels, of course, or are those gone now?). But those panels will cost fossil fuels to make, at least at first. So I'd be interested to see an analysis of how fast you get away from spending more FF. How long does a solar panel take to pay back it's own manufacturing costs, in fuel?

Hank Roberts said...


CapitalistImperialistPig said...

According to this: https://solarcraft.com/solar-energy-myths-facts/, energy payback is less than 4 years, useful lifetime, 29 years.

So my personal solar panels have reached energy payback. I don't know when they will reach economic payback, but getting a check from my energy company is worth more than the cash.

More efficient manufacturing and deployment can likely improve those numbers.


"How long does a solar panel take to pay back it's own manufacturing costs, in fuel?

A couple of years, says Sanford:



The Nth physics mistake in the Manhattan Institute report is:

" The physics boundary for silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells, the Shockley-Queisser Limit, is a maximum conversion of 34% of photons into electrons; the best commercial PV technology today exceeds 26%."

Because that theoretical limit does not prevent technologists from stacking several efficient thin film photovoltaics with wider band gaps than silicon on top of single silicon PV layers, pushing the practical limit past 40%, to rival the thermodynamic efficiency of most thermal plants.

This has already been deomstrated using both II-V c ampounds and perovskites.

Andy Mitchell said...

"You mean economy 7". Kinda, but better than that: solar panels don't work so well at midnight.

Andy Mitchell said...

Off topic but I find it fascinating: The Guardian is carrying an article on how Boris is bad because he says Islam held back the Muslim world. I thought that's normal for religions: Galileo might want to post something on the topic, Mike Pence would say hurrah for religion.

William M. Connolley said...

> https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es3038824

Very interesting. Would be lovely to see it updated, since it says "Results suggest that the industry was a net consumer of electricity as recently as 2010. However, there is a >50% that in 2012 the PV industry is a net electricity provider and will “pay back” the electrical energy required for its early growth before 2020" and we're now in 2019.

> https://solarcraft.com/solar-energy-myths-facts/, energy payback is less than 4 years, useful lifetime, 29 years

Consistent with the other, but I wonder if they're focussing on just the panels. For example, I got some panels on my roof. But to properly account for their energy cost, I need to account for not just the panels themselves but also the people turning up to install them, etc.

Tom said...

Regarding trend growth in solar, Ray Kurzweil has published his estimate and if he is as correct on that as he has been on other matters, it will be all solar, only solar, solar everywhere in a couple of decades.

So far, growth is tracking his predictions: https://fortune.com/2016/04/16/ray-kurzweil-solar-will-dominate-energy-within-12-years/

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

...a net consumer of electricity as recently as 2010

Which is not unexpected when production is growing very rapidly. If you produce twice as many panels this year as last, it will be a while before the payoff comes. That's equally true for fossil fuel extraction of course.


Antireflection coated silicon PV's present one of the few surfaces darker than black asphalt.

While solar panels march towards manufacturing energy breakeven, they take an unfortunate bite out of efforts to cool down urban heat islands with brighter roofs & roads

It's not yet a big deal, but mandating them could amount to a black roof renaissance .

EliRabett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
EliRabett said...

He never bought Eli lunch after the Bunny punched one of his balloons.


In any case, a particularly interesting number for solar is that HOURLY over 70,000 solar panels are coming off the production line.


One of the problems in discussing climate change and energy systems is that the numbers are so large that they boggle, for example, we lift a cubic mile of oil each year.

JamieB said...

"Hydrocarbons collectively supply 84% of the world’s energy."

It's so tedious that this has to be continually pointed out but it's still worth pointing out (although I'm sure the readers of this blog are already aware):

That's primary energy so somewhere between half and two thirds of that hydrocarbon energy is rejected as heat and does no useful work whatsoever.

But it makes the challenge look much more difficult than it is (and it's already quite a challenge).

NZ Willy said...

Nuclear power is the obvious answer -- it's been developed to where waste output is negligible and chance of meltdown is zero. The critical question isn't what to do but why the obvious answer is ignored by the climate activists.

Old_salt said...

It is dangerous to talk about energy contributions when some of the contributors are still in the exponential growth phase. Wind and solar contributed 2.5% of total US energy in 2018.

Furthermore, in terms of electricity the comparison is apples to oranges. Wind and solar are measures of energy supplied to the grid, while coal and oil are measured as energy supplied to the powerplant. 60% of that energy is wasted as heat.