The Dream of a World Without Oil

The New York Times devoted most of the front page of its Sunday Review section to a story promoting the green dream of "Life After Oil and Gas." The story cites an article by Stanford engineers published in the journal Energy Policy, titled "Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power." According to the lead author, Mark Z. Jacobsen, "It's absolutely not true that we need natural gas, coal or oil -- we think it's a myth." The authors "suggest producing all new energy with WWS [wind, water and solar] by 2030 and replacing the pre-existing energy by 2050. Barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic."

Jacobsen provides a shopping list that details what will be required to move to a post-carbon future:

3,800,000 5 MW wind turbines. After decades of subsidies for wind power, the worldwide total of wind turbines stands at 200,000. The goal of 3.8 million is astoundingly unrealistic, and 5 MW is a big daddy of a wind turbine; GE makes three sizes: 1.5 MW, 2.5 MW and 4.1 MW. I was fortunate enough to visit Aruba recently and drove past the wind farm in Arikok National Park. The turbine blades were 45 meters long and produced 3 MW. A second small wind farm on Aruba has met with fierce local resistance. Already these monstrosities have blighted the landscapes of Spain, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere. Adding millions of turbines will have a devastating effect on our rural landscapes, and the industrial-scale slaughter of birds and bats might lead to a real silent spring.

49,000 300 MW concentrated solar plants (CSP). According to Wikipedia:

CSP is being widely commercialized and the CSP market has seen about 740 MW of generating capacity added between 2007 and the end of 2010. More than half of this (about 478 MW) was installed during 2010, bringing the global total to 1095 MW. Spain added 400 MW in 2010, taking the global lead with a total of 632 MW.

A global total of 1095 MW and Jacobsen is calling for 14.7 million MW? And good luck building transmission lines from sunny places through the backyards of environmentalists.

40,000 300 MW solar PV power plants. Wikipedia lists 82 solar PV plants worldwide larger than 30 MW. The largest is 250 MW and all but ten are less than 100 MW. Several larger plants -- as in two or three -- are under construction. 40,000 new plants?

1.7 billion 3 kW rooftop PV systems. Solar PV panels are getting cheaper, down to $6/watt in 2011, according to a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study, or $18,000 for 3 kW. Northern Tool is selling 920 watt panels for $3500, or $11,400 for 3000 watts. At this price, 1.7 billion PV systems would cost $19.4 trillion. I wonder if we can get free shipping with Amazon Prime?

5350 100 MW geothermal power plants. The worldwide geothermal capacity in 2010 was 10,700 MW. We therefore need to multiply by a factor of 50 to reach this goal.

270 new 1300 MW hydroelectric power plants. Wikipedia lists 26 dams under construction that will come on line in the next decade, totaling 110,671 MW, compared the 351,000 MW needed. Hydroelectric therefore could feasibly play a major role in the future. Of the 26 projects, however, 15 are in China and 4 in Brazil. In the U.S.? Zero. Because of protests by environmentalists, we tear down dams here rather than build them.

720,000 0.75 MW wave devices. According to Jacobsen, current power delivered by wave energy converters as electricity is 0.000002terawatts. This technology may be promising but it is still being developed and has encountered numerous technical difficulties. Most of the current wave energy converters are in the .150 to .250 MW (150 to 250 watt) range and most wave farms have a capacity in the neighborhood of 20 MW. The 540,000 MW needed here, like everything on the list, is a massive undertaking compared to existing capacity. But if it saves us from carbon pollution, it's worth it!

490,000 1 MW tidal turbines. You'd think with all the world's tidal currents flowing by, we would have figured out this technology by now, but it remains largely undeveloped. FDR proposed damming up Passamaquoddy Bay near his summer home on Campobello to harness the tides, and a study was commissioned in 1924, and again in 1961. The world's first tidal stream power station opened in 2007, in Strangford Loch, Northern Ireland. It has a capacity of 1.2 MW. Only 489,998.8 MW to go! A close friend who's a marine biologist on the Bay of Fundy and a card-carrying environmentalist hates the idea, believing it will disrupt marine life. Of course that doesn't stop the Sierra Club from supporting wind turbines -- "bat-chomping bird-slicing Eco-crucifixes," as James Delingpole calls them.

Jacobsen's article provides a thorough assessment of the future of WWS. Unfortunately, rather than buttress his argument, his figures undermine the conclusion that we don't need fossil fuels.