Friday, 14 June 2013

Powering the world with clean power: Pipeline or pipe dream?

Sitting on this for some time now: Part I and Part II of articles in the Energy Policy journal, which put the case for the world to be powered by Wind, Water and Solar by 2030.  (An earlier version appeared in the Scientific American)
Delucchi and Jacobson argue that, while ambitious, the targets are technically feasible, and what's more we've done similarly large-scale transitions in the past: the WWII change from automotive to aircraft manufacture; the building of the US national highway system in the 1950s.
It would certainly be nice to believe that this is doable.  It would clear the air and once and for all put paid to all the arguments over CO2 in the air.
Technically they make the case: using today's technology, we could be carbon-free by 2030. So it's an issue of political will.  And there's the rub.  If something is put forward that makes clear just how huge the job is, indeed overwhelming almost, then -- unlike WWII when the enemy was clear -- it's unlikely to happen when the enemy, CO2, is still debated.  Around half of all people believe that it has nothing to do with global warming.
Here's a few examples of the scale of the task, just looking at Wind:
Delucchi and Jacobson call for 3.8 million 5MW Wind turbines.  First thing is that most wind turbines today are around 2-3 MW. Still, let's accept the 5MW.  That means 19 Million MW of installed wind power.  Today we have around 280,000 MW of installed wind power capacity.  That's asking us to build 68 times the number we have installed today. Or five times the current installed capacity each year for the next 13 years.
And then there's the land needed for that: anywhere from 50 to 150 square kilometres of land for each 1,000 MW.  That means the land needed for the 19 Million MW is 19,000 x 50 (or 150) = 950,000 to 2.85 million square kilometres.  That's an area between the size of Nigeria and the size of India -- or up to bigger than Europe and the UK combined -- which mankind is being asked to set aside for wind turbines. Given the grief caused by windmills today even for the global-warming-accepting Left -- not always simply NIMBY -- how can we expect that the globe will find the will to set aside such a vast area of land? (I'm aware of the pro-argument that the land between turbines can be used for farming, but that's far from a proven or clear-cut case).
In short, their case may be technically feasible, but politically and practically virtually impossible. I don't see how we can get away from adding nuclear to the mix.  Nuclear power stations are about the same cost as the equivalent wind power capacity (when you factor in the availability of wind, which is at most 30% of the time vs 92% for nuclear), and uses much less land (between 0.6% and 8% of the land).
A comparison:
Comparisons of Nuclear, Wind and Solar
Per 1GW
Nuclear Wind  Solar^
Cost $USM 6,400 6,700 21,000
Cost/MW $ $6.40 $6.70 $21.00
Area Sq Km 2.5* 100.0** 148.0

Selected Sources:
A path to sustainable energy by 2030
Nuclear power by the numbers
How much do wind turbines cost?
Wind power by country
Area occupied by Nuclear, Wind and Solar plants
Comparison of Nuclear Power Plants with Solar Tower Power

*   Average of 1 to 4 sq km
** Average of 50 to 150 sq km