Beware the False Promise of Low-Density Energy Machines

Commentary - Taking stock of the limits of solar and wind in the energy transition

The energy transition has been getting so much press that a hypothetical visitor from Mars could be forgiven for believing it will be completed “by next Tuesday.” Some universities and organizations are dropping any mention of petroleum in the interest of appearing forward-looking.

We see this as timely folly based on a lack of historical perspective.

History shows that energy transitions are lengthy and complicated. They never follow a prescribed path; they wander down dead-ends and evolve with pragmatic solutions unforeseen today. In the 1800s, we were running out of whales. In the 1950s, atomic power was going to make “electricity too cheap to meter.” Daniel Yergin’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Why the Energy Transition Will Be So Complicated,” echoes the conclusions of Vaclav Smil in his book, “Energy Transitions.” Their message dovetails with Scott Tinker’s nuanced message: energy transitions are a perpetual and complex continuum across human history and societies.

It took 100 years after Drake’s well for oil to replace coal as the planet’s primary fuel, but today’s global coal consumption is three times what it was in 1960. But still today, two billion people use the Stone-Age practice of cooking inside with dung and wood. This practice leads to 2.5 million deaths a year, according to the World Health Organization. To Stone-Age people, an “energy transition” would be a backpacking-like petroleum-fueled stove. It would also mean a longer life and less deforestation.

The energy transition for first-world countries will be an all-of-the-above strategy, irrespective of aspirational messages. Natural gas, nuclear and petroleum will be critical energy sources, and the European Union’s recent decision to include nuclear and natural gas in its taxonomy of sustainable investments reinforces this view.

Low-Density Energy Machines

The sun and wind are eternal. Machines that harvest their energy are not. Low-density energy machines have intrinsic physics problems that cannot be engineered out:

Image Caption

Figure 1. A Vestas V 100 is 425-feet tall when a blade is at the top of the arch. Its concrete and rebar pad extends 10-20 feet below ground. The Statue of Liberty stands just over 300 feet. The metal statue weighs 150 tons. A very big, 2000 HP Marcellus drilling rig is 145-feet tall. The drilling rig moves off after two months and is replaced by a well-head “Christmas tree” for the next 30 years of the field’s life. A wind turbine remains for 20 years.

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The energy transition has been getting so much press that a hypothetical visitor from Mars could be forgiven for believing it will be completed “by next Tuesday.” Some universities and organizations are dropping any mention of petroleum in the interest of appearing forward-looking.

We see this as timely folly based on a lack of historical perspective.

History shows that energy transitions are lengthy and complicated. They never follow a prescribed path; they wander down dead-ends and evolve with pragmatic solutions unforeseen today. In the 1800s, we were running out of whales. In the 1950s, atomic power was going to make “electricity too cheap to meter.” Daniel Yergin’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Why the Energy Transition Will Be So Complicated,” echoes the conclusions of Vaclav Smil in his book, “Energy Transitions.” Their message dovetails with Scott Tinker’s nuanced message: energy transitions are a perpetual and complex continuum across human history and societies.

It took 100 years after Drake’s well for oil to replace coal as the planet’s primary fuel, but today’s global coal consumption is three times what it was in 1960. But still today, two billion people use the Stone-Age practice of cooking inside with dung and wood. This practice leads to 2.5 million deaths a year, according to the World Health Organization. To Stone-Age people, an “energy transition” would be a backpacking-like petroleum-fueled stove. It would also mean a longer life and less deforestation.

The energy transition for first-world countries will be an all-of-the-above strategy, irrespective of aspirational messages. Natural gas, nuclear and petroleum will be critical energy sources, and the European Union’s recent decision to include nuclear and natural gas in its taxonomy of sustainable investments reinforces this view.

Low-Density Energy Machines

The sun and wind are eternal. Machines that harvest their energy are not. Low-density energy machines have intrinsic physics problems that cannot be engineered out:

  • Low-density energy source
  • Massive requirements of materials
  • Intermittent power once built
  • Large surface footprint
  • Environmental impact

As Tinker wrote in his op-ed, “We must go honest to go ‘green,’” for The Hill last year, “So why not just switch from dirty coal and oil to clean and renewable solar and wind? Two reasons: They are not renewable, and they are not clean.”

Scaling up LDEM

Rooftop solar panels charging an electric vehicle are wonderful. But that’s not the same as powering the U.S. electric grid. The Roserock solar power plant in the Chihuahua Desert of Pecos County, Texas, covers 1,300 acres and produces 362 gigawatt-hours per year, the energy equivalent of 220,000 barrels of oil per year. It cost $273 million. Solar panels last 20 years.

To replace the nation’s “non-green” electricity, the United States would need 9,400 Roserocks to electrify the grid, covering more than 14 million acres. The cost would be $2.5 trillion. Most states do not have a desert.

A 2-megawatt wind turbine can produce the equivalent of 13 barrels of oil per day at optimal conditions. Per the International Energy Agency, wind turbines last 20-25 years and lose 1.6-percent capacity per year year. To replace the nation’s “non-green” electricity, the United States would need about 650,000 2-megawatt wind turbines spaced across 78 million acres. Wind turbines cost about $1.3 million per megawatt, and the total cost for installation would be at least $1.6 trillion. These costs are before Americans plug-in 270 million electric vehicles.

Material for LDEM

Wind turbines are enormous structures (see figure 1). A typical turbine has 253 tons of iron, steel, copper and fiberglass (figure 2). Its base adds 500-1000 tons. Its materials cannot be “downloaded from the web.” Utility-scale electrification with LDEM would require billions of tons of ore to be mined, milled, smelted and forged. On a normalized basis, solar panels need more material than wind turbines (figure 3).

The environmental impact of mining makes it repugnant to some. Lithium is critical for EV batteries and the “energy transition,” yet environmentalists oppose the Thacker Pass lithium mine. Outsourcing U.S. mining, smelting and forging LDEM to third-world countries is irrelevant to global CO2 emissions.

Princeton University Net Zero America Study

The numbers for scaling up LDEM to electrify the grid are consistent with Princeton University’s Net Zero America study. Their outstanding, 18-author study shows five models to de-carbonize the United States by 2050. Models vary by energy type (but sadly, they omit geothermal energy) and show enormous areas for solar and wind.

We present two land-use end-members from their study: Case No. 1 is 100-percent wind and solar with no hydrocarbons. Case No. 2 is 44-percent power from solar and wind and 50 percent from nuclear and natural gas power plants. The current footprint of solar and wind is small (figure 4).

In Case No. 1, 17 million additional acres are required for solar and 250 million acres for wind (figure 5). Today there are 70 thousand wind turbines. Assuming 2-megawatt turbines and Bloomberg’s criteria for spacing at 1 megawatt capacity per 60 acres (American Clean Power Association spacing), the area implies 2 million wind turbines. They would require 330 million tons of steel alone. U.S. annual steel production is 90 million tons. Princeton concludes that the power lines would need a 5.1-fold increase. We cannot even guess the amount of steel, copper and aluminum for five times more power lines.

In Case No. 2 (figure 6), 3.5 million additional acres are required for solar and 59 million acres for wind. Nuclear and natural gas power plants would be sited on retired power plants. This case requires building 250 one-gigawatt nuclear power plants and adding 490 thousand wind turbines.

Cost

Princeton’s lead researcher, Eric Larson, estimates the cost to be “at least $2.5 trillion in additional capital beyond business-as-usual investments must be deployed by 2030 alone.”

The bulk of the buildout occurs after 2030. An analysis of a study in the journal Nature shows that reducing emissions by 80 percent in the United States will cost $1.7 trillion per year until 2050. Whatever the costs, funds would need to come from public investment. U.S. debt is now 120-percent of GDP, the highest since World War II. Raising the debt ceiling is a seemingly semi-annual congressional sparring match.

Path Forward

Case No. 1 appears impractical because of the massive materials, power lines, mining and opposition from environmental groups and local stakeholders (to be addressed in the second article).

“There is now serious and growing public opposition to wind energy,” Larson admits.

Case No. 2 is appealing and practical because of nuclear power’s high energy density, less land used and less material. The arguments for more nuclear power were stated in two excellent EXPLORER articles in 2021. But an extensive buildout in nuclear is less probable near term because of current public aversion to nuclear power.

Taken together, the “energy transition” will be a significant but community-limited buildout in wind and solar along with a strong shift to natural gas and, eventually, nuclear power – just as Europe finally realized. Natural gas will continue to displace coal. Carbon capture projects will be maxed out.

Discussion of energy and environmental solutions can produce passions and, sadly, censorship. Time magazine named Michael Shellenberger a “Hero of the Environment” in 2008. Yet when Shellenberger stated, “wind and solar require 300 to 400 times more land than nuclear or natural gas … Facebook censored me and denied me the right to appeal their verdict.”

“But now researchers at Princeton University and Bloomberg News have admitted I was right,” he added.

Solutions are never black and white. Instead, we see a coming vengeance on a pragmatic gray, or as Tinker often calls it, “the radical middle.”

Comments (4)

There will never be an energy transisiton
unless it is by dictatorial mandate. Which would mean going back to the dark ages for the masses while the dictators live out lavish high density energy lifestyle. Ultimately resulting in a revolution. This is a good article that speaks the truth of low density energy. One cannot break the laws of physics. Never in mankind have we gone backwards in regards of energy density (although we have gone backwards in our political thinking). Now the AAPG needs to write more articles about the wonder of hydrocarbons and how the oilman has given rise to such a wonderful modern society we have today. Start promoting the OIL INDUSTRY and the miracle that is the hydrocarbon molecule.
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3/26/2022 3:48:56 PM
The fantasy of energy transition
Very timely article. The energy transition enthusiasts need to have a peek into the greenroom of the transition play. Thank you very much.
3/25/2022 12:48:35 AM
Energy Transition
This article briefly mentions the Canadian environmental scientist Vaclav Smil. Professor Smil has a new book out titled 'How the World Really Works' and I highly recommend it (after reading the first 75 pages). I have read several of Smil's previous books and this new release is a sort of executive summary of much of his earlier efforts. Bottom line....people do not understand how dependent we are on oil and natural gas to provide both energy and material feedstocks for our industrial civilization. He also emphasizes that it will take decades to make a transition to 'green' renewable energy and that in many cases the technologies don't currently exist to successfully make that transition (massive battery storage for electricity and CCUS are two that come to mind). Net zero at 2050 is a pipe dream that is not going to happen. Get a copy of Smil's book; it is well worth your time (not yet available in the US....I purchase my hardcopy thru a bookstore in the UK).
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3/15/2022 6:20:57 PM
Truth in Energy Transition
Thank you for writing the truth about wind and solar. The age of natural gas will be the transition to a nuclear energy future.
3/1/2022 3:36:11 PM

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