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Green New Deal III - How to transit from fossil energy to renewables?

In Part I, I showed how most people have little understanding of the complex issues of global power transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and may jump to false and dangerous conclusions colored green by ignorance.  In Part II, I demonstrated that if humans continue to outdo rabbits in procreation, no energy transition strategy will ever succeed and the entire planet will become a miserable, Mordor-like dump with most nature extinct.

Here I will sketch the gargantuan scale of nonrenewable resources necessary to make the "Green New Deal" plausible.  Some of these resources are already depleted or miners cannot produce them fast enough to keep you happy.  Thus, you will not be pleased with what you read, but I am not alone. And by the depleted resources I mean not only the rich ores, easy oil and natural gas, but also the tropical and boreal forests, tundra, the Midwestern soil disappearing fast into the Gulf of Mexico in exchange for the "renewable" (not!) corn ethanol, and so on.

If you live in a developed country and want to think that your soon greener life will continue unchanged, you may as well stop reading now. OK, so I have managed to lose most of you, the precocious readers, who want to be entertained and pumped up with hopeful memes. I don't deal hope, but I do facts. Hope is a convenient way of giving up free will and action in exchange for someone deciding what your life will be. If you want to shoot hope into your veins, please read this malevolent and deceitful, but otherwise incoherent babble in the New York Times. That cunning babbler tries to push all of your pleasure, greed and security buttons in the right order. Enjoy!

I had to break writing this blog for a few days. Today, as I was playing in a sandbox with my sweetest two-year-old grandson, I pondered what his possible futures might be. So I decided to insert a brief comment that illustrates the urgency of discarding current poly-deceptions. From an extensive correspondence with my friends, I picked up two fragments I want to share with you. Dave H. sent us the recent paper, "Climate Catastrophe and Stanley Milgram’s Electric Shock “Obedience” Experiments: An Uncanny Analogy" by Nestar Russell and Annette Bolton, whose tone pretty much echos our group's exchanges and my thinking. Please read the abstract to this paper that reads like a critical analysis of "1984" crossed with congressional testimonies that unveil our willing participation in Gaiacide. The paper abstract starts like this:
Awareness of impending climate catastrophe has greatly increased over the last 30 years. Increasing awareness, however, has not translated into decreasing but instead increasing greenhouse gas emissions. This paper aims to shed new light on this perplexing and ultimately destructive positive correlation. It does so by applying a new interpretation of Milgram’s Obedience to Authority “electric shock” experiments to the problem of climate catastrophe. This paper reveals that both the Obedience Studies and climate catastrophe share a crucial common denominator: both involve powerful figures utilising manipulative techniques of bureaucratic organisation to push and pull the functionary helpers below them into contributing to preconceived goal achievement. In both cases, for the functionary helpers to achieve the goals of the powerful, all must agree to contribute to the infliction of harm on a powerless group. ... 

That powerless group are our children and grandchildren. I mention your loved ones, because in the developed world almost no one really cares for the poor people of color, starving children, child soldiers, child sex slaves, etc., some banging at our collective door.

The authors also explain the kind of tough hope we need:
...We suspect that humankind’s greatest hope of averting longer-term environmental collapse is that a major, unavoidable, and ultimately staggering ecological disaster soon strikes at the heart of the developed world. This disastrous although largely non-catastrophic event would need to induce a level of terror intense enough to convey to all that our harmful actions really do end in destructive consequences, thus sending the message that we can no longer act with impunity. Only then would there likely be rather sudden and sufficient motivation within the most powerful of circles to introduce something similar to Gardiner’s [...] “global constitutional convention focused on future generations.”
But I digressed. So what exactly do we want to achieve? Let's say that we want to replace the use of coal and oil everywhere with clean renewable electricity that will power everything these two dirty fossil fuels have been powering to date. According to Figure 3 in Part II of this blog, we are thriving to replace 11.1 TW of the continuous (24/7) power generation from coal and oil and eliminate their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, before we start building those Very Large Scale solar photovoltaic arrays (VLS-PV) and giant wind farms, with their dedicated transmission lines and the behemoth DC/AC converter and transformer stations, we need to check if this wholesale replacement is possible. After all, the Green New Deal is about prevention of GHG emissions and removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

First, let me use the classification of the global economy proposed by Lew Blank, an undergraduate student in Dr. Hagens' honors freshmen class "Reality 101," offered at the University of Minnesota.  In his blog, Lew divided the global economy into four parts, each emitting roughly 1/4 of the total GHG emissions:

  • Sector one: Can be powered by electricity at a substantial cost: 25% of global GHG emissions - the subject of this blog,
  • Sector two: Could be powered by electricity, but with great difficulties: 22% of global emissions,
  • Sector three: Cannot be powered by electricity anytime soon:  25% of global emissions, and
  • Sector four: Can never be powered by electricity: 28% of global emissions.
I'll tell you more about sectors 2-4 in part IV of this blog.  I will also leave electricity generation by wind for later.  Photovoltaics, my calculations show, offer a more plausible means of replacing fossil fuels worldwide, but a combination of solar and wind power will be deployed.

The purpose of this part is to replace the 11.1 TW of primary power from coal and oil with photovoltaics, assuming that magical new technologies will arise and scale to replace with 100% electric analogs the existing cement plants, metal smelters, steel making, copper, aluminaaluminum, zinc making, rare earth metal production, lithium production, internal combustion automobiles, manufacturing of monocrystalline silicon PV modules, and so on.  Later I will repeat the same exercise for wind turbines.

Figure 1. My ground solar array in Austin, TX, has nominal peak power Wp =  8.23 kW, and has had six years of history with power measurements every second or so.  Its horizontal area is 41 square meters.  Averaged over 24 hours, this array has delivered 27 We/square meter  = 0.108 MWe/acre. It  has had the average continuous power efficiency of  0.13 We/Wp, and electricity yield of 1154 kWh per year per kWp.  The symbol "We" means watts of electricity.

Figure 2. In the first round of diversification away from oil, Saudi Arabia wants to install 16 GWp of VLS-PV arrays like this one. As of the writing of this blog, the Saudi plan is mostly on the drawing boards of consultants with different levels of competence. Not shown here is the ubiquitous dust that adheres to the panel surfaces, significantly deteriorating their performance. The starry-eyed promoters of PV in the West, do not seem to grasp how difficult it is to keep the panel surfaces clean when dust is everywhere and water nowhere. Here is someone, who told the gullible Forbes he was a former Berkeley faculty colleague of mine, spouting off on this subject.

Figure 3. Electricity yield of solar arrays, large and small, around the world.  Prior to the year 2000, the UN data were fantastically unrealistic.  Up to 1997, the International Energy Agency (IEA)  estimates were pretty close to the upper limit of yield, presented by the peak of the green curve for a sparkling clean VLS-PV array in the Middle East, washed with desalinated seawater.  Once the washing slowed down, dust settled in, and extreme heat took a toll on the PV modules designed to German, not the hot desert specs.  My Austin's array six-year average yield is the dashed black line.  The magenta line depicts the global average yield of 1100 kWe/year/kWp I picked for my calculations. Note that a regularly washed experimental solar array at KAUST has a low yield despite an almost perfect insolation in Saudi Arabia.  The reason is the same: the ubiquitous dust that each day consists of different nano- and micro-particles that stick to the panels. Now go back to the proclamations of the Sahara desert powering humanity effortlessly since there are so few rain clouds there. Right. 

The easiest to convert Sector 1 is mostly electricity generation, and here the main goal of the Green New Deal is to upscale my solar array in Figure 1 to something very big, like the VLS-PV array in Figure 2. Initially, these arrays will replace the air-polluting coal-fired power plants like the one in Figure 4, located close to where I live.  Austin is relatively sunny, the year-around insolation here is 200 W per square meter, and my array is far more productive than those in, say, Germany, see Figure 3. This array makes my household a small net exporter of electricity. But, as I argued in Part II, the 1:1 replacement of coal with sun is a silly and naive idea, like the early thinking about energiewende (energy transition) in Germany.  And, no, contrary to what der Spiegel has said, our prickly disillusionment is not a failure of the energiewende, but rather our own inability to grasp the enormity of change and the necessity of power cutbacks this German Green New Deal has exposed to the confused, angry public. Please read carefully the caption of Figure 4 and decide for yourself.

So, my green friends, are you going to cut your consumption of electricity and everything else by a factor of 2 to 5?  Since all industrial activities will be electricity-driven, you will also curtail consumption of everything you take for granted today. You will have to, ready or not, as I already have at a large expense and inconvenience. And positively no flying! (OK, so we will not electrify airplanes.)

Figure 4. We want to replace everywhere in the world the coal fired power plants  like this one, the 3,663 MWe W.A. Parish power plant near Houston, TX, on 4,650 acres. This plant devours some 30,000 tons of coal per day (three coal trains with 100 cars, each car carrying 100 tons of coal). It develops power density of  0.79 MWe/acre. To replace this power plant with a solar PV array that would give the same average power, would require a dedicated surface area of 34,000 acres  or 137 square kilometers.  It would make a rectangle 13.7 km long and 10 km wide, plus access roads, transformers, etc. In round numbers, this area would then be 21 km long and 20 km wide, equivalent to the area of Mumbai, with 12 million inhabitants. But on a sunny spring day at noon, our hypothetical array would develop 25,600 MWe, and something would have to be done with this temporary but vast excess of power. For example, when the sun is up, our array could produce hydrogen that would be burned at night.  This production would have to be a closed cycle: what hydrogen is produced by water splitting during the day would be burned back to water during the night.

Key Calculation of Global Conversion From Oil and Coal (OC) to Photovoltaics (PV)
We require 1:1 replacement of continuous 11.1 TW from OC with average power from PV. For the VLS-PV arrays, the embodied energy is  42 MJ/Wp  (Louwen et al., 2016). In other words, the heat released by burning ~1 kg of gasoline installs 1 watt of peak power of a VLS-PV array. That's a big energy expense! Globally, we shall dedicate to this transition ~1/3 of annual production of petroleum liquids (30 million barrels of oil per day (Mbopd)) and/or ~1/3 of annual production of coal (2 billion tons of coal per year).

An average VLS-PV array yields 1100 kWh/yr/kWp, and has efficiency of 1/8 = 0.12. This VLS array runs at the equivalent of peak power for 24/8 = 3 hours a day.  Therefore, for 1 W of peak power we need on average 8 W from VLS PV arrays.  Thus, to replace  11.1 TW of power from OC, we need to install 8 x 11.1= 89 TWp (1 Terawatt = one million MW of peak power) from VLS-PV arrays, or 5 times than entire primary power supply for the world. This means that on a sunny day near noon there will exist vast excesses of electrical power in different parts of the world. This power could be used to generate hydrogen and/or run other important industrial processes in a batch mode (for a couple of hours on a sunny day), but this would be very complicated.

To achieve this replacement, we need to invest 3700 EJ  (exajoules or one trillion mega joules) of oil and coal energy = 37% of proven oil reserves or 12% of proven coal reserves in 2017, according to BP. Devoting 30 Mbopd to replace OC with average solar power would take 58 years, but we do not have that much oil to spare each year for almost six decades. Devoting 2 billion tons/year of coal to carry out this conversion would take 64 years, with no coal to spare.

Conclusions So Far
  •  I just told you about photovoltaics eliminating magically 75% of global GHG emissions from Sectors 1-3 of the global economy,  while
  •  Humanity faces existential threats: climate warming, overpopulation, rampant pollution, and decline of all high-quality resources, and while
  • Almost all world governments are pushing continuation of business as usual, albeit by greener means, whatever that means.
  • Unless it is widely replicated, commendable individual behavior has almost zero effect on the resource-wasting societies.
  • A sufficiently fast 1:1 replacement of oil and coal power with photovoltaics is impossible; wind turbines are even less probable (the problems with wind will be explained later).
  • Therefore, we must reverse population growth and consume much less of everything.
  •  Wise sovereign government  and UN policies are needed around the world to prevent us from committing suicide as a species, but who with whom and how?
While at it, I have also tacitly postulated that
  • No one can violate the laws of Nature.
  • In contrast to the human economy, our planet doesn't do growth and wastes nothing.
  • Much of the exponential economic growth is pure fiction, which creates clouds of electrons that flow through computers masquerading as money.  These electrons further concentrate wealth and do real physical harm to the Earth by generating tidal waves of capital that wash away the still functioning ecosystems.
  • We need to change the current narrative and (re)train K-12 and older students in energy, ecology and climate change literacy; my generation is already a lost cause.
  • We must lessen our environmental impacts by creating cycles where none exist.
  • Massive and diverse recycling schemes must be implemented (of, e.g., water, plastics, metals, building materials, greenhouse gases, all packaging...
  • The cyclic Green Economy can grow only through the subsidies from and at the vast expense of fossil fuels and other resources, whose use will shrink with time.
P.S. (6/23/2019) First, congratulations, you have read through this rather dense blog with which I struggled for a few weeks. In the end, I have concluded that I must give you a few technical details behind my thinking. After all, this story is about fixing our only home, this beautiful, ravaged by us Earth. I published this blog on the very day the unimaginative, boorish Republicans moved again against controlling the American-made destruction of the planet.  They say that it is all about jobs.  Jobs for our children, grandchildren? Are you kidding me? And so it goes...

P.S.P.S. (06/24/2019)  I stand corrected, electrical planes will be apparently possible, for 6-9 people at a time and over a short distance.  The good news is that the carbon fiber plane will be so light that it could glide down to safety after ejecting the failed battery which comprises most of its weight. As my Spanish friend, Pedro Prieto observes:
"[The plane's weight is] 14,000 pounds, to carry 1,000 pounds of 7 passengers; the two pilots are considered deadweight; about 8% useful load vs deadweight. It is not bad, if we compare this ratio with the Tesla X 100D AWD, with 6,600 pounds to carry 200 pounds of passengers (1.2 persons per vehicle on average), which gives a 3% useful load vs deadweight. However, in the early Neolithic, a donkey (500 pounds), could carry two persons (300 pounds) with the ratio of useful load to deadweight of 60% . [We are ] progressing in speed and range and regressing in efficiency..."


  1. Breaking it into sectors 1-4 and your conclusions about PV eliminating 75% of GHG emissions reminds me of the pie chart on the efficiency of the internal combustion engine in a car, (~25% work/~75% heat & friction losses). If it was easy to gain another 25% we would have done it by now, but also that gaining elsewhere on the pie can negatively affect the work you are already doing. Same goes for all the extra GHG to be emitted fabricating large scale renewables on a global scale.

  2. Yes, and the sad truth is that getting rid of the GHG emissions beyond the first 25% will be immensely difficult and initially cause even more emissions. We must not forget that down-powering the developed countries and population shrinkage in the developing countries must occur at more less the same time for most of what I have said in this post to make sense.

  3. Dear Mr Patzek,

    Did you watch the new Michael Moore documentary Planet of the Humans?

    Of course it has a cherry picking slant, and here is a refutation of some of the angles:

    If you got to watch it, did it make for a pleasant evening's viewing? (Assuming that you watched it in the evening that is.)

    Thank you.

    1. Dear Koji,
      No, I have not seen this documentary yet, my students did and were not overly impressed, describing the documentary as somewhat sloppy and one-sided. My colleague, Rex W., who is the most honest environmentalist I know, just wrote this:

      "The idea of the film — the "100% renewable” meme has been delusional regarding resource limits, the costs and challenges of any energy transformation, energy type and quality, the failure of renewable energy additions to reduce fossil energy use, the fossil fuel demand by the “renewable" supply chain, and so forth — appears to me completely valid.

      This has already been said in greater detail by Vaclav Smil, other colleagues, and by many on this list. Those who say “the film is full of mistakes” need to (1) take the time to describe those mistakes; and (2) show how these alleged mistakes invalidate those main points of the film.

      The film likely exaggerates and spins certain points, for example implying financial impropriety by Mr. McKibben, regarding the “green funds.” It is fair enough to point out any such exaggerations, but not at all fair to write the whole thing off as “crap” and “full of mistakes,” with out being specific. "

      Before I see this documentary, I'll stick with Rex's judgement.


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