Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The age of solar is upon us? We have to stop deluding ourselves

It amazes me how baseless many articles are about energy matters. Most of them focus on the costs of energy, as if that is a measure of feasibility. If you have been reading this blog you know I disagree with this notion. Mathematical feasibility is the only arbiter of whether something is possible or not.

Why do I criticize these articles? Because they are deluding a lot of people... These articles do not paint a realistic picture and make people expect that we actually can save the world on renewables only. Wind Turbines and Solar Panels enjoy a great following of people who like them and rightfully so, during operation there aren't any carbon emissions. However many people don't get the full picture, there's no insight into how these means of energy capture come to be, the amount of maintenance and service, the scale of decommissioning, etc. etc. etc.

Now the reality is this : Anthropogenic Climate Change is real...
  • Water is diminishing all over the world
    • Irrigation capacities - diminishing
    • Desertification - increasing
    • Crop failure - increasing
    • Wildfires - increasing
    • Dying trees and vegetation - increasing
    • Hydrological cycle (i.e. the atmospheric water engine i.e. water vapour, rain, snow, etc.) - diminishing
  • Due to the growing uncertainties of the water and food availability we will see this
    • Increased unrest i.e. Arabic Springs, Civil Wars (Syria & Iraq & The Ukraine)
    • Failing nation states
    • Increased crime - people going after water and food, and monetizing them on the black market.
    • Great corporations having trouble supplying goods - first big indicators...

These are all just the tip of the iceberg, as if the food and water crises themselves aren't pressing enough we also have to contend with :

  • Sea-level rise
  • Ocean Acidification
And eventually

  • Mass extinctions.

This is the context that roams around in my head, why would I be critical of renewable energy? Because it isn't a solution to our problems... We are diverting our attention from real and possible solutions to issues that will never be sufficient in any way shape or form.

Today I will do another "green bash" routine. Not because I like it, but because it is necessary. If we as a species want to survive on this beautiful planet of ours, we need to start using our brains. We need to start asking questions, we need to start building models in our heads and start making sense of them, see if we can make them reality or not.

And that's precisely what articles like this do not do. I'll leave all the economic hogwash for what it is, but am going to respond to this :

At the moment, wind can be cheaper than PV. But its cost is falling much more slowly than PV. If current trends continue, PV will cut below wind within three years and the difference will then continue to widen.

Falter now, and only fossil fuels will benefit

Or perhaps not. The foolish policy changes of the UK government may be mirrored around the world. It is the sheer volume of PV being installed that is crashing the price of solar. We need this hell-for-leather growth to continue for a few more years, supported where necessary by tax and regulatory support.

Although PV is almost certainly cheaper than any other technology in the Middle East, much of the Indian subcontinent, parts of Africa and Latin America, large rich countries need to play their part in keeping global demand for panels surging.

If a few more countries act precipitately like the UK, which during the first quarter of this year was probably accounting for 20% of global panel sales but now almost zero, then the rate of PV price decline will inevitably tail off.

This is in nobody's interest - except the fossil fuel companies.

Continuing on the course we're on increase or decrease PV installation is either way playing into the hands of the fossil fuel companies. There's something you clearly do not understand. We consume about 650 quadrillion BTu of energy each year. We use 21.000 TWh of electricity each year. Electricity use is about 10% of the sum total energy use.

Of all the energy generation less than 5% is non-fossil... We always tend to focus on electricity but omit : cars, planes, ships, trains, trucks, mining, agriculture, food production, manufacturing, etc. etc. etc.

So basically we're throwing spit balls at an elephant at this moment. Adding 1 TWH a pop per utility scale PV plant doesn't solve our issues.

Now down to the nitty gritty, the real feasibility issues. Suppose we can eliminate 10.000 TWh worth of Coal-Fired Energy generation by supplanting all these coal-fired power plants with PV. Utility scale is in this case the golden standard.

Currently the Topaz PV plant is the biggest PV plant in the world, and has a track record that we can count on, we can expect it to produce about 1 TWh annually. It is rated at 500 Megawatt, it utilizes 9 million CdTe PV Panels (CdTe stands for Cadmium Tellurium). Now Cadmium and Tellurium themselves pose some problems because sourcing them is quite hard, there's a limited supply. But I'm going to focus on Copper, Aluminium, Steel and Concrete.

I use this as my go-to document, I am constantly searching for newer ones, so if you have any (also for wind & nuclear) I would love to have them!!!

Life cycle assessment of utility-scale CDTE PV Balance of systems
There's some interesting numbers in here that we can use to derive some conclusions. I'll reiterate...

I wonder what the concrete footprint of the Topaz 550MW / 9 million PV panels energy plant is : 300.000 cubic yards of concrete are required to create a base for 9 million PV panels. 551.000 metric tons of concrete.

Non zinc coated steel, zinc coated steel, aluminum, copper, concrete and wood.

The PV panels are .72m2 there are 9 million of them : so there's 6.480.000 m2 of panels.

  • 405.000 Kg non zinc coated steel
  • 869.616 Kg aluminum for mounting
  • 242.352 Kg aluminum for cabling
  • 5.701.104 Kg Copper for cabling

Now those are some impressive figures, we'll go and multiply it with 10.000 now because that's the number of utility scale PV plants we need to supplant coal-fired energy generation. I mean that's what we're trying to do right?

Panels : / 90 Billion CdTe panels
Concrete : 5.510.000.000 T / 5.5 Billion Metric Tons
Non Zinc Coated Steel : KG / 4 Billion KG
Aluminium for Mounting : 8.696.160.000 KG / 8.7 Billion KG
Aluminium for Cabling : 2.423.520.000 KG / 2.4 Billion KG
Copper for Cabling : KG / 57 Billion KG

Now we're adding 50GW's worth of PV capacity each year and this figure is rising. Suppose this 50GW's consists of 125 Watt panels on average, we'll be pumping out 400.000.000 (400 million) panels each year. By this reckoning it would take us 225 years to complete the 10.000 TWh required to supplant coal-fired power plants... By that time we would have already run out of coal twice...
This is taking it through from a 10.000 TWh problem. Our problem isn't 10, it isn't 20 or 30.000 TWh. It is 850 Quadrillion BTu which in a one for one conversion is 250.000 TWh...

And I omit intermittency, backup generation, etc. which compounds the problem even more, forcing us to go into an almost infinite regress of materials lost and effort wasted.

Something to chew on during the night.

There are numerous other issues to address, the availability of tellurium, the toxicity of Cadmium-Chloride. These calculations can also be done in terms of wind-turbines, I'm still seeking for documents telling me the exact figures required per MW of wind turbine generation. I dare to predict that wind turbines will be even more concrete and steel intensive than PV. And finally I would like to make a comparison, adding Generation III AP-1000 reactors, Generation IV MSR & Pebble Bed designs and possibly something like ITER.

Why? Because we finally have to rid ourselves from the notion that PV and Wind are going to be the cornerstone of a sustainable civilization of people on Earth.

And the really harsh conclusion of this article is that yes, you are right... The fossil fuel companies are winning... But not because we are setting incentives for PV panels on a decline, but because we've been hoodwinked into believing that a technology like PV would be able to do it in the first place, and the massive hysteria that ensues. Millions of people are now voicing their concerns about Anthropogenic Climate Change and BELIEVE that renewable energy sources like PV can make a difference, but PV can't make a difference and there's a substantial mathematical basis to make such a claim.

Providing non-evidence to hoodwink people into believing that renewables will be able to "defeat" fossil fuels is not only fooling them, it is also fooling yourself.

To name an age "anything" it should dominate... Solar is never going to dominate electricity capture and therefore one cannot speak about "the age of solar" is upon us, nor will it ever be.

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