The work of French artist Fabien Mrelle
The IPCC has proposed cutting emissions by 50% in the next ten years and eliminating them by 2050. As the following graph shows, this will require a dramatic reversal of an 80-year trend of increasing emissions.
This article will focus only on the first part of the proposal – reducing emissions by 50% by 2030. Since the generation of energy by fossil fuels causes emissions, this will require reducing the amount of energy produced by fossil fuels by 50%.
Administrative Note: See the end of the article for a list of abbreviations used.
With nuclear power sidelined, the plan is to replace fossil fuels with renewables. Renewables now make up 17% of global energy consumption, however most of this comes from biofuels and hydroelectric power.
Our World in Data
Neither biofuels nor hydroelectric is expected to grow much – biofuels because of their competition for arable land and hydroelectric because of the limited locations where it can be installed and because of environmental issues. This leaves growth to wind and solar.
After 20 years of steadily increasing growth, wind and solar still only represent 10% of renewables, which means a meagre 1.7% of global energy production. In order to increase this to 50% in the next ten years, we’ll need to increase the rate of deployment by a factor of 20. Is this possible? Let’s do the math.
- Energy Required:
Per the EIA’s forecast, global energy consumption in 2030 is expected to be 206,616 TWh. Fossil fuels will account for 152,415 TWh, which is the energy we want to convert.
The wasted energy in producing electricity with fossil fuels is 58,556 TWh. This waste does not occur with renewables, so we can subtract it when calculating the required renewable energy.
Additional energy savings will be realized when converting non-electric applications to renewable energy. These include:
- Transportation: In 2030, 35,199 TWh are forecast for use by the Transportation Sector. Moving to electric vehicles will improve efficiency by 66% (assuming they are charged by renewable energy). The energy savings is 23,333 TWh.
- Liquids: In 2030, 25,775 TWh are forecast to be used for non-electric purposes. Most of this is used in the Industrial Sector as feed stock to make tires, adhesives, lubricants, fertilizers, and many other products. Renewables cannot offer a substitute for this.
- Coal: In 2030, 19,665 TWh are forecast to be used for non-electric purposes. Coal has an energy efficiency of 33%. Converting to renewables will create a 66% energy savings. This comes out to 12,979 TWh.
Recap of Energy Savings:
|Energy from Fossil Fuels||152,415 TWh|
|Less Energy Savings:|
|· Energy Wasted in Generating Electricity||58,556 TWh|
|· Energy Savings from Converting Non-Electric Applications to Electricity|
|o Transportation||23,231 TWh|
|o Coal||12,979 TWh|
|o Natural Gas||3,082 TWh|
|Total Energy Savings||97,848 TWh|
|Net Annual Renewable Energy Required||54,567 TWh|
|Fifty Percent of Net Annual Renewable Energy Required||27,284 TWh|
To achieve a 50% reduction in the use of fossil fuels by 2030, we will have to generate another 27,284 TWh of renewable energy.
- Renewable Generating Infrastructure Required:
To calculate how many facilities we will need, we divide the energy that we must produce by the annual amount of energy that can be produced by a wind turbine or a solar farm.
- A 2MW wind turbine operating at 35% efficiency can produce 6 GWh of electricity per year.
- A 2MW solar farm operating at 15% efficiency can produce 2.6 GWh of electricity per year.
To simplify the scenario, we’ll use a 50/50 mix of wind turbines and solar farms. Each will produce one half of the 27,284 TWh, or 13,642 TWh from each. The calculations:
|(13,642 x 1012) watt-hours / (6 x 109 watt-hours per wind turbine) = 2,274 x 103 wind turbines = 2.2 million|
|(13,642 x 1012) watt-hours / (2.6 x 109 watt-hours per wind turbine) = 5,247 x 103 wind turbines = 5.2 million|
- Required Daily Build Rate:
January 1, 2020 has come and gone, so we no longer have a full ten years for this project. Let’s say that we start on July 1, 2020. That gives us 3,466 days of work if we work every day. Required daily build rates:
|Wind Turbines: 635||Solar Farms: 1,500|
- The Cost:
Wind turbines cost $2 million each and solar farms $1 million each. Total cost: $9.6 trillion.
Wind turbines last 20 years and solar farms about 30. We’ll have to begin replacing the wind turbines starting in 2040 and the solar farms in 2050; then again in 2060 and 2080 and so on indefinitely.
- Energy Storage:
We will need a global energy storage capacity to provide power when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. We’ll assume that we’ll need to store 25% of the energy produced. The energy storage and depletion process is a daily one, so we need to store 25% of the daily energy output. At 13,642 TWh per year, the daily output is 37.4 TWh per day. Twenty-five percent of this is 9.4 TWh.
The largest energy storage facility in the world is the one built by Tesla at the Hornsdale Power Reserve in Australia. It can store 129 MWh of energy. For calculation purposes, we’ll assume that the facilities we build will have the same capacity. To determine the number of facilities we need, we divide the energy that must be stored by 129 MWh.
|(9.4 x 1012 watt-hours) / (129 x 106 watt-hours per facility) = (.07 x 106) = 70,000 facilities|
So we will need to build 70,000 storage facilities. With 3,466 days to do the job, we’ll need to build 20 per day, and with current technology, batteries will have to be replaced every 15 years. The cost of the Hornsdale facility was $61 million. At that rate, 70,000 facilities will cost $4.3 trillion.
- The Grid:
In 2030, global annual delivered electricity forecast is 29,154 TWh. Fifty-eight percent of this (16,909 TWh) will come from fossil fuels. The 27,284 TWh of new renewable energy will first be used to replace electricity from fossil fuels because no user infrastructure changes will be required. This leaves 10,375 TWh to apply to a total of 54,534 TWh of non-electric applications (after conversion energy savings) or 19% of the total. This represents a 35% expansion of the grid. This will require the addition of local distribution lines, capacitors, and drops. The remote location of many of the wind turbines and solar farms will require a broad expansion of high voltage transmission lines and substations.
The grid will also have to be modernized with an automated and sophisticated load-balancing system. With energy storage playing a large role, any excess energy must be automatically shunted to areas where it is needed, or sent to storage, and then automatically retrieved from storage when supply falls short of demand. Neighboring networks must be integrated so that energy can be automatically exchanged between grids when one grid has an energy surplus and another has a deficit it cannot meet on its own.
- User Infrastructure:
The conversion of non-electric applications to electricity will require major infrastructure changes by end-users.
- Residential and Commercial: Convert all end-users from oil or natural gas heat to electrical heat.
- Industrial: Convert all non-electric processes to electricity.
- Transportation: Replace all vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine (estimated at about 3 billion by 2050) to electricity and build a global network of charging stations. The conversion of commercial aviation and commercial shipping must await the development of new technologies with lighter weight batteries or capacitors which have much greater energy density.
- Recap of Tasks:
- Build 635 wind turbines per day for 9.5 years for a total of 2.2 million installations. Cost: $4.4 trillion.
- Build 1,500 solar farms per day for 9.5 years for a total of 5.2 million installations. Cost: $5.2 trillion.
- Build 20 energy storage units per day for 9.5 years for a total of 70,000 installations. Cost: $4.3 trillion.
- Expand the global electrical grid by 35% and modernize it.
- Modify 19% of non-electric end-user infrastructure to change to electricity.
This is only to get to a 50% reduction in fossil fuels. To eliminate them, the project needs to be repeated, with two major changes: The remaining 81% of end-user infrastructure will have to be converted to electricity, and the grid will have to be expanded by another 70% along with the required modernization.
This is not feasible. We cannot build the required facilities at the required rate, and we cannot continue to build them indefinitely as they reach the end of their productive life. Technological improvements, especially in batteries, will make the task easier, but the magnitude is too great for these improvements to have much of an effect in the near term. The project is about as realistic as balancing an elephant on your back. This tells us that we are living on an energy budget that cannot be sustained, and that the only realistic solution to our problem is to reduce our energy consumption. This means reducing the human population on the planet through family planning and reducing our per capita energy use.
The median per capita annual energy use is 5,000 kWh. If the world population was one billion, at 5,000 kWh per person per year, the annual energy budget would be 5,000 TWh. Using wind and solar, this would require 800,000 2 MW wind turbines and 2 million 2 MW solar farms. Or 625 1 GW nuclear plants.
Here is a quote from the book “Materialism and a Critique of Energy” that eloquently makes the point that the problem is not production but consumption:
“Keeping existing systems of production and distribution, to say nothing of their growth, will doom the planet to a host of ecocidal developments, from rising sea levels and ocean acidification to desertification in some places and more intensely concentrated rainfall in others. Against such catastrophic tapestries, pundits spread solace with the techno-future vision of a world that could be different than the one currently soaked in hydrocarbons. Yet these proponents of technologically smoothed energy transition miss the forest for the trees. They think the problem can be solved with engineering, but the solution is not more power; instead it is how to overcome the deep roots of capitalism’s ever-growing energy dependence.”
Or, as The Guardian succinctly put it in a recent article: “Ending climate change requires the end of capitalism.”
Oswald Spengler in “The Decline of the West” pointed to the root of the problem in the “Faustian soul” – an upward reaching for nothing less than the infinite and a willingness to pay any price to achieve it. The end of such an ethos is always tragic. But the world has not grasped this truth – that we can’t solve the problem with technology, we can only solve it by changing what we want. It is not nature that we need to fix, it is ourselves. The best we can do is to continue to try persuade leaders to change course, and to prepare for a calamitous future.
EIA: The US Energy Information Administration
TWh: Terawatt-hours = trillions of watt-hours
GWh: Gigawatt-hours = billions of watt-hours
MWh: Megawatt-hours = millions of watt-hours
kWh: Kilowatt-hours = thousands of watt-hours
MW: Megawatts = millions of watts
GW: Gigawatts = billions of watts