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CaliforniaPower
click on the image above to access the full-size PDF

California has enacted an ambitious carbon reduction policy to bring emissions down to 40% below 1990 levels by the year 2030. We decided to take a look at what the land use impact of energy has been on California in the past, and what a real shift to a 100% renewable energy infrastructure might look like.

The information graphic is the latest in our series that explores the land use impact of renewable energy in a post-carbon world. Starting in 2009 with the Surface Area Required to Power the World with Solar, we have been making the case that the renewable energy transition, while a huge undertaking, is not any more ambitious in scale than previous human endeavors, and that the footprint on our environment can be designed to be in harmony with nature and provide a unique benefit to human culture.

In this graphic, we show a diversified mix of renewable energy technologies and the impact in terms of land area in direct proportion to consumption by county (you can quickly see that Los Angeles County is the biggest consumer). Much of the infrastructure can be located within our cities—on rooftops and through creative and community-owned applications in public spaces. The rest could easily be located in the places that have already been disturbed by oil and gas extraction—the dark dots on the map.

By enlisting these fossil fuel land areas in the fight against climate change, we can keep the CO2 the ground while we clean up the sky.

oil-well-landuseThis is what all of the 227,278 dark dots on the map look like up close (near Bakersfield, CA)

In the course of our research, we came across the MIT study, The Future of Solar Energy, which also includes a section that studies land use comparisons. We were fascinated to learn that across the entire US, the land area required to satisfy 100% of U.S. 2050 energy demand with PV would be no larger than the surface area that has already been “disturbed by surface mining for coal.” Some other comparisons from the study:

The land area required to supply 100% of projected U.S. electricity demand in 2050 with PV installations is roughly half the area of cropland currently devoted to growing corn for ethanol production, an important consideration given the neutral or negative energy payback of corn ethanol and other complications associated with this fuel source. That same land area&emdash;i.e., 33,000 km2 to supply 100% of U.S. electricity demand with PV&emdash;is less than the land area occupied by major roads. The currently existing rooftop area within the United States provides enough surface area to supply roughly 60% of the nation’s projected 2050 electricity needs with PV

MIT-Future-of-Solar-Energy
Diagram from The Future of Solar Energy, Chapter 6: PV Scaling and Materials Use

California is acting on a plan (read more about the Governor’s Climate Change Pillars: 2030 Greenhouse Gas Reduction Goals) that should set the standard for the entire country. By reaching 50% renewable electricity production, reducing petroleum use in transportation by 50%, and increasing energy use efficiency, these 2030 goals can provide the momentum for a 100% renewable energy economy by 2050.

Recognizing the unprecedented global threat of human induced climate change, we do not have the luxury of acting any less vigorously than California on a global scale, and in fact, that may not even be fast enough. Don’t ask how much it will cost because that is the wrong question. What will be the cost to the children born in 2016 if we do not act now? The technology exists to begin today, and the economic stimulus effect of a WPA-scale regenerative infrastructure project for the 21st century will bestow positive benefits for generations.

Let’s get to work!

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Thanks again to thejamjar Dubai for hosting the exhibit last month! Below is the information graphic that was on display during the show. Click on any of the images to download the PDF file.

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The image above will take you to a high resolution graphic that spans 800,000 years. Each year is represented by one small square. Each row equals one millenium.

Time flows from the upper left to the lower right (similarly to how you are reading this text). Have fun exploring the details by zooming in and panning around. the lower right hand corner button will take you to a full screen version.

The piece is meant to provide a context for the age of fossil fuels, to illustrate the great advancements that their consumption has brought us, and to question our ability to move beyond them in a post-fossil fuel age that is rapidly approaching.

This is an expanded version of the smaller 25,000 year graphic that is available as a PDF download in the sidebar of this blog.

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SolarVSCoal
click on the image for a larger version.

Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is a form of surface mining that involves the removal of a summit or ridge. Acres of wilderness habitat is deforested and the wood burned. Explosives are then used to blast away the overburden (soil and rock) to expose the coal seams that lie beneath. An average of 3 million pounds of explosives are detonated in West Virginia every day.

More than 500 mountaintops have been destroyed so far. The air pollution from surface mining activities has led to elevated levels of adult hospitalizations for chronic pulmonary disorders and hypertension; higher rates of mortality; lung cancer; and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease for individuals living in mining areas.
In addition, 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried by mining refuse. Valley fill (VF) destroys natural habitats and pollutes watersheds with high levels of selenium and other toxic compounds.

The small blue square (516 square kilometers) on the above map represents the surface area of mountaintop that has been removed in southern West Virginia as of 2010. The same area is also represented on the map in the exact locations of the MTR mining sites.

The small yellow square (312 square kilometers) represents the land surface area that would be required to generate 124.8 terrawatt-hours of electricity each year. This is the same amount of electrical power that is generated by the 63.4 million short tons of coal that is mined from the exploded tops of West Virginia mountains each year.

This large blue square represents 1.4 million acres of Appalachian forest that has been disturbed or cleared as a consequence of mountaintop removal mining practices according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

This larger yellow square represents the land surface area that would be required to generate 1,850 terrawatt-hours of electricity each year. This is the total amount of electrical power that is generated by the more than one billion short tons of coal that is burned in the United States each year in coal-fired electrical power plants. MTR coal amounts to less than 5% of the total US coal production.

The side effect of all this coal combustion for electrical power is that 2.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide, 7.6 million tons of nitrogen oxide, and 7.5 million tons of sulfur dioxide are dumped into the earth’s atmosphere each year, along with other harmful gases and chemicals.

The solar panel installations that would be required to replace all West Virginia MTR coal would cost approximately $180 billion to construct.

If West Virginia decided to produce the panels in-state, it would provide more than 10,000 new jobs—about the same number that have been lost since 1990 in the US mining sector (MTR techniques extract 2.5 times the amount of coal per worker as compared with mining techniques that are more sensitive to the environment).


Mud River, West Virgina. (Graphic from www.ilovemountains.org)

More information can be found at:

http://ilovemountains.org/
http://earth.google.com/outreach/cs_app_voices.html
http://www.seesouthernforests.org/news/mountaintop-removal-cuts-through-southern-forests
http://www.eia.gov/cneaf/coal/weekly/weekly_html/wcpweek.html
http://www.eia.gov/coal/data.cfm, http://www.eia.gov/cneaf/coal/quarterly/html/t1p01p1.xls
http://www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/prog/energy/coal/electricity_conversion.html
http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/MountaintopRemoval/
http://www.epa.gov/region3/mtntop/eis2005.htm

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[Updated on June 4, 2015 to give a better number for solar production capacity per m2 area]

solar vs tar sandclick on the image to view larger

This graphic shows how much surface area would be required to replace all of the BTUs of energy that can be extracted annually from the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, Canada. The process of mining the bitumen-rich sand is severely and irreversibly damaging to the environment. The surface mining operations (the more economically viable method) require the removal of 20 feet of “overburden” (the industry term for the delicate ecosystem of boreal forest and muskeg) and the further removal of potentially 100 feet of subsoil, parts of which contain the tar sands.

aerial view of mineMore information about Athabasca tar sands and the environmental effects of the mining can be read here (use the zoom feature on the photos), and here, and some really amazing aerial photographs of the destruction (by Louis Helbig) can be seen here.

The amount of effort that it takes to literally scrape away 100 feet of earth over thousands of acres makes this the most ambitious earth moving project in human history. And that doesn’t even begin to take into consideration the separation of the sulfur content and other refinement processes, the management of massive fluid impoundment areas, and the logistics of shipping, piping and transportation. It makes us wonder if all of that human energy went into the production of concentrated solar power plants, how many could we bring on line in ten years?

aerial view of minePhoto on the left is undisturbed Boreal forest. The photo on the right is taken from National Geographic.

aerial view of mineThere is one thing yet missing from this comparison though. If what we are talking about here is a direct comparison between synthetic crude oil and solar generated electricity, then we need to look at one of the primary end uses of these forms of energy: transportation.

We shouldn’t really compare BTU for BTU between these two sources of transportation fuel because the end-use efficiencies differ so much. In other words, you can get a lot further on every BTU of energy in an electric car than you can on each BTU of energy in a car with an internal combustion engine. In fact, you can get four times as far! A look at the Nissan Leaf shows that is uses 0.34KWh of energy for every mile that it travels. This is equivalent to 1,160 BTUs. The average fuel economy of cars in America is 19.8 miles per gallon. Let’s be generous and use a figure of 25 miles per gallon. That is the same as saying that the car uses 0.04 gallons every mile (1/25), which is equivalent to 4,564 BTUs. So you can reduce the surface area required by 1/4 (the darker yellow on the graphic) and you will have a more accurate comparison for replacing transportation fuels.

Given that the tar sands tailings ponds (storage of toxic byproduct water) alone already cover 150 square kilometers, it makes the comparison very enlightening that with not that much more area we could accomplish the same result with no emissions and with an eternally renewable energy source. Perhaps we should start by placing solar panels over the tailing ponds?

The solar power required to replace all of the BTUs of energy contained within the tar sands is significant. There is a lot of energy buried under those forests. But just because the energy is there doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to dig it up. Especially when there are other options that are clearly available to us. They may be more challenging to accomplish and they may require public investment, but doing the right thing should make the effort worthwhile. Otherwise we have decided that it is OK to destroy tens of thousands of kilometers of forest and habitat, and at the same time add hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 into an atmosphere that is already way past its limit. It is up to us to conserve energy and to create it sustainably. We’ve designed and built more than one 100MW solar power plant before. We can do it if we have the will.

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solar vs shaleclick on the image to view larger

The latest in our information graphic series is a study of how much surface area would be required to replace all of the BTUs of energy that can possibly be extracted from the Marcellus shale formation in the United States. The drilling activity has been very controversial due to the large amount of water consumed and the detrimental effects on the environment, most notably water aquifers and watersheds, created from the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) methods that are required to make Marcellus shale gas extraction a viable prospect.

aerial view of wellMore information about Marcellus shale and the environmental effects of fracking can be read here, here, and here.

A blowout two days ago at a well in Canton, Pennsylvania spilled thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water into a nearby stream. Events like this occur many times each year.

A map of sites with Department of Environmental Protection violations shows that safety oversights are extremely common. Even in wells that meet regulations there is often significant leeching of hydraulic fracturing fluids into the ground by nature of the process.

aerial view of well4-6 million gallons of water and 15-22 thousand gallons of chemicals (here’s a PDF list) are injected into the ground during a typical fracking treatment (the process opens up cracks in the rock formations to allow the gas to escape). About 40-50% of this fluid is pumped back to the surface, containing the original chemicals and also with heavy metals, radioactive solids, arsenic, barium, and brine that is brought up from the rock. On the surface, it is held in fluid impoundment areas and then carried to treatment facilities by truck or injected back into the earth. The fluid that is re-injected can contaminate groundwater, and if it is instead hauled off-site, wastewater treatment facilities typically are unable to remove salts and other dissolved solids in brines.

aerial view of wellOne of the reasons often used to make the case for the expanded extraction of difficult to reach natural gas deposits is that natural gas is cleaner burning than coal or petroleum. A recent study from Cornell University shows that, in fact, the extraction of gas from sources like the Marcellus shale can lead to even greater amounts of greenhouse gas emissions than normally occur from the mining and use of coal.

The graphic at the top creates a comparison between the energy (measured in BTUs) that can be extracted from the Marcellus shale formation gas deposits and how much surface area of solar installations would be required to equal the same amount of energy generation capacity.

aerial view of wellInterestingly, the area that is required to be cleared for drilling and piping operations is nearly equal to the area required for the same amount of solar energy generation capacity. We have assumed that 20 acres of land is disturbed per well. We have also assumed that each well can produce 0.005 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of gas over its lifetime of 35 years. This will require 10,000 wells working for 35 years to exhaust the 50 TCF of gas that it has been estimated can be extracted with present technology. 10,000 wells would produce 1.4 TCF per year (current production rate is 0.2 TCF per year), which is equivalent to 435,400,000,000 kilowatt-hours. It is this number that was used to estimate the surface area required, approximating 400 KWh per square meter per year.


Jonah field in the Rockies

Here is an interesting assessment from Business Insider of the potential exaggeration of Marcellus shale gas reserves and their potential for useful and profitable extraction. The article points the the fact that most companies can only be profitable at $7.00/MCF wellhead price. At current wellhead prices (about $4.50 per MCF) the potential net sale of all extractable gas (50 TCF) is $225 billion.

aerial view of wellBut the cost of extraction is not cheap. It can cost $6.5 million to get a well to the point of sustained production. With a lifetime production capacity of about 4,400,000 MCF, each well stands to net $20 million but that is over the entire lifetime of the well, which could be 30-40 years. The operational costs of keeping the well in production over that time eat into that $13.5 million potential profit. So, along with wellhead price, the assumptions of what the falloff rates are become key to the equation.

During the first year (immediately after hydraulic fracturing) a typical well could bring up 1,000MCF-1,500MCF per day. But the very next year, that will fall by more than half and it will fall each year over the next ten to a point at which it will be producing less than 100MCF per day, and only 50MCF after 20 years. When a well falls below 50MCF per day, it can barely offset the cost of the compression energy required to extract the gas. Re-fracking could potentially squeeze some more out, but at what cost?

Given all of the potential downside risks to this type of energy production, it just doesn’t seem to make sense, certainly in the long term. But companies often enter into such speculation bubbles because they can make money off of investors and friendly legislative policies over the course of a decade and get out before the industry collapses. In order for a market to function properly and make good macro-decisions, it needs to be aware of all of the facts: realistic proved reserves and externalized costs to infrastructure and the environment.

Complete list of sources for this graphic:
http://geology.com/usgs/marcellus-shale/
http://geology.com/articles/marcellus-shale.shtml
http://waytogoto.com/wiki/index.php/Range_Resources
http://www.eia.doe.gov/oog/info/ngw/ngupdate.asp
http://www.eia.doe.gov/dnav/ng/ng_pri_sum_a_EPG0_FWA_DMcf_m.htm
http://www.eia.doe.gov/dnav/ng/ng_cons_sum_dcu_nus_a.htm
http://www.marcellus-shale.us/
http://marcellusdrilling.com/
http://www.dep.state.pa.us/
http://shale.typepad.com/marcellusshale/operated-wells/
http://marcellusearthfirst.rocus.org/?q=node/3
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcellus_Formation
http://www.bizjournals.com/buffalo/stories/2008/02/11/story2.html?b=1202706000%255E1587557
http://www.businessinsider.com/marcellus-shale-disappointment-2010-10

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Energy and resource conservation is good no matter how it is achieved. Most people use far more energy and water in their daily lives than they need to. Replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs or LEDs, buying energy star appliances, and turning off lights when you’re not using them are all good things to do and to teach about.

But with so much emphasis on consumer awareness programs in the GCC for energy and water efficiency (all very well intentioned and good), it may be wise to remember that there is one very easy way that conservation can be accomplished: price structure.

energy cost vs emissions

There is a very strongly rooted history of low energy prices for the people of the Gulf states. And the fundamental reasoning behind the subsidies is very well-intentioned and quite populist: the petroleum is a natural resource gifted to the people and therefore all the people should benefit from it. A news article from 1977 points to this very clearly:

“‘Oil is a social service in the Gulf countries.’ said a foreign oil company executive. ‘Economics don’t come into it. Their philosophy is: How can we charge for it when it is coming out of the ground?'”
– Associated Press, July 20, 1977

But the same article also points out that there have always been times when talks of ending subsidies were quite serious (purely for economic reasons, not because of environmental concerns).

“Dubai has announced it is dropping its subsidy for electricity, which cost the state $25 million last year and would hve gone up to $35 million this year.” [$90 million/$125 million in 2010 dollars]
– Associated Press, July 20, 1977

It should be pointed out that there are two ways to ensure that people benefit from the natural resources of their lands. One way (the subsidies way) is to not charge very much for the refined product or the electricity it produces at the point of consumer purchase. Another way is to charge a “fair” price for the product and then use the money to invest back into a well-designed and sustainable infrastructure that will be there for the benefit of generations to come.

In other words, what is the benefit of a polluted environment that is depleted of all of its resources? When one is interested in all of the people benefiting from the resources of the land, why is that benefit restricted to the generations of people who are now living rather than to all generations?

If we are really serious about reducing use, there is really only one way to do it. Raise prices. The prices should be raised not only to account for the real costs of extraction, refinement, and distribution, but they must also reflect the “externalized costs” that fossil fuel combustion has on the environment and on human health. This goes for all the countries of the world because there is not one that has yet taken into consideration the real cost of the consumption of fossil fuels.

It is good news that the Emirates are seriously considering strong reductions in subsidies. Hopefully this is a step in the direction of complete eradication of them for the sake of the environment and the future. Some very good recent articles on the topic can be read here, here, here and here.

Graph XLS file
Sources for the graph:
http://mdgs.un.org/unsd/mdg/Data.aspx
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gasoline_and_diesel_usage_and_pricing
http://www.portfolio.com/interactive-features/2008/08/Gas-Prices-Around-the-World
http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/oog/info/gdu/gasdiesel.asp
http://www.dewa.gov.ae/community/conservation/ydc/slabtariff.aspx
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electricity_pricing
http://www.energy.eu/#domestic

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The above image is a comparison of concentrated solar power with the recently awarded nuclear power contract for the UAE. Admittedly, there are far more variables at play than are shown in this simplified graphic. But it is interesting to see that with existing technology, the possibility does exist to convert 100% of the UAE’s energy production over to solar power which would take up the area of the larger dark square. Of course the CSP would not be all in one location but spread out to many smaller installations. The price tag to make the switch would be approximately $30,000 per capita (1.8 million residents) for construction at $4,200 per KW capacity. Amortized over 60 years, that’s $500 per person per year. It would be a permanent solution that is sustainable for hundreds of years with proper maintenance. More oil and gas could be exported rather than combusted for electricity, the skies would be clearer, and there would be no concern about spent nuclear fuel or risks of fallout.

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click on image for larger size. Click here to download a full resolution pdf
What the graphic shows clearly is that planting trees to offset emissions is far from a viable solution. Projects that offset carbon emissions are certainly beneficial and should be applauded. Every step in the right direction is a good one and we should all be supporting these efforts on a personal and corporate level. However, no amount of reforestation or avoided deforestation will have an effect on the overall situation. The numbers that I used are based on United Nations statistics and are located here. You’ll notice interestingly they do not include carbon emissions from deforestation but only from human fossil fuel combustion. For each country, the number of tons per year was used in the following equation to arrive at the square km area for that country:

Country’s Annual Carbon Emissions in Tons x 100 trees per ton x 8 square meters per tree x 10[-6] conversion = area in square kilometers

The figure of 100 trees to offset each ton of carbon emissions is the most critical and yet most uncertain of the variables. The complicating factors can be understood by seeing this and this and this just to pick a few. My reasoning is that I have seen figures that range from 40-80 trees per ton per year and I’ve seen suggestions that each tree can absorb 1 ton of carbon over its lifetime. It depends greatly on the species and the latitude in which they are planted (trees nearer the equator are more efficient at carbon uptake on average). Assuming that the trees are planted as large saplings, they will take time to reach their full potential, so for the purposes of this overview, an average of 100 trees per ton per year seemed like a good average.
It is interesting to compare this graphic with the similar graphic of the surface area required to fuel the world with solar power.
As the world prepares for Copenhagen on December 7th, we should all get it clear in our heads that the magnitude of the problem is such that we can not hope for easy solutions. What is required is a massive and centralized effort if we are to meet the 2°C maximum target. This article in Science Daily is a good read.

The study also shows that, if all conservatively estimated available fossil fuels were to be burnt, two to three times more CO2 than allowed for the 2°C target would be emitted. This only takes into account the fuels which are already known and which are economically viable to extract. The fossil fuels will therefore not run out before the maximum CO2 emission calculated by scientists is reached. If we continue to use them, this must take place in combination with effective technologies which capture the CO2 and extract it from the atmosphere.

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click to enlarge

We now have a poster size version of this infographic showing the era of fossil fuels as compared with the long and awesome human history. It shows how the carbon fuel era is only a very brief interlude, and makes evident that the choices that we make today will have an impact on what happens on the other side of what is really an exception to the ongoing state of affairs. Click here, or on the thumbnails to the right to download.

If you download the poster for your use, we ask that you please donate some small token amount by clicking the donate button on the right sidebar. Your donation will go toward the prize money that we are currently raising for the design competition.

Thanks!

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click for larger image
download high resolution PDF

Note in 2015: this post is from 2009. Some of the links below may be broken. The IEA has updated estimates since 2009, but the overall trends are the same. We hope that with the implementation of demand-side efficiency measures worldwide, long-range estimates will prove to be overestimated.

According to the US Department of Energy (Energy Information Administration), the world consumption of energy in all of its forms (barrels of petroleum, cubic meters of natural gas, watts of hydro power, etc.) is projected to reach 678 quadrillion Btu (or 715 exajoules) by 2030 – a 44% increase over 2008 levels (levels for 1980 were 283 quadrillion Btu and we stand at around 500 quadrillion Btu today in 2009).

I wonder what surface area would be required and what type of infrastructural investment would be required to supply that amount of power by using only solar panels. To create fuel that can be used in vehicles and equipment I am assuming that some of the electricity generated would be used to create hydrogen. We should all start wondering about these things since we will have really no other choice* by the turn of the next century.

So to find this out we start with the big number 678,000,000,000,000,000 Btu.

Converting this to KW•h [1 Btu = .0002931 kW•h (kilowatt hours)] makes 198,721,800,000,000 kW•h (199,721 TW•h). This is for an entire year. As a comparison, the average household uses approximately 18,000 kW•h per year (1/11 billion of the total world usage).

We can figure a capacity of .2KW per SM of land (an efficiency of 20% of the 1000 watts that strikes the surface in each SM of land).

So now we know the capacity of each square meter and what our goal is. We have our capacity in KW so in order to figure out how much area we’ll need, we have to multiply it by the number of hours that we can expect each of those square meters of photovoltaic panel to be outputting the .2KW capacity (kilowatts x hours = kW•h).

Using 70% as the average sunshine days per year (large parts of the world like upper Africa and the Arabian peninsula see 90-95% – so this number is more than fair), we can say that there will be 250 sun days per year at 8 hours of daylight on average. That’s 2,000 hours per year of direct sunlight.

Therefore, we can multiply each square meter by 2,000 to arrive at a yearly kW•h capacity per square meter of 400 kW•h.

Dividing the global yearly demand by 400 kW•h per square meter (198,721,800,000,000 / 400) and we arrive at 496,804,500,000 square meters or 496,805 square kilometers (191,817 square miles) as the area required to power the world with solar panels. This is roughly equal to the area of Spain. At first that sounds like a lot and it is. But we should put this in perspective.

If divided into 5,000 super-site installations around the world (average of 25 per country), it would measure less than 10km a side for each. The UAE has plans to construct 1,500MW of capacity by 2020 which will require a space of 3 km per side. If the UAE constructed the other 7 km per side of that area, it would be able to power itself as a nation completely with solar energy. The USA would require a much larger area and approximately 1,000 of these super-sites.

According to the United Nations 170,000 square kilometers of forest is destroyed each year. If we constructed solar farms at the same rate, we would be finished in 3 years.

There are 1.2 million square kilometers of farmland in China. This is 2 1/2 times the area of solar farm required to power the world in 2030.

Compare it to the Saharan Desert:

The Saharan Desert is 9,064,958 square kilometers, or 18 times the total required area to fuel the world.

By another measure, “the unpopulated area of the Sahara desert is over 9 million km², which if covered with solar panels would provide 630 terawatts total power. The Earth’s current energy consumption rate is around 13.5 TW at any given moment (including oil, gas, coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric).” This measure arrives at a multiplier of 46 times the area needed and shows that my numbers are very conservative.

Compare it to highways:

At a density ratio of 800km per 1000 square kilometers and a total length of 75,440km, the overall area of the US interstate highway system (constructed entirely between 1956 and 1991 – 35 years) is 94,000 square kilometers, or 20% of the overall required area for the world. The US also consumes about 20% of the world’s energy. (if the efficiency of conversion from solar to electricity was 100%, the area of USA highway would be equal to exactly that required to run the world). Indeed if every nation were to embark on a state program of the scale of the US highway system we could be finished with the required infrastructure in 20-40 years.

Compare it to golf courses:

The typical golf course covers about a square kilometer. We have 40,000 of them around the world being meticulously maintained. If the same could be said for solar farms we would be almost 10% of the way there.

Also remember that we are working here with a worst case scenario based on projections for the year 2030 that assume a lot about growth. What could we do to lower the overall Btu load? And what other sources of clean energy could contribute to lower the area needed for solar panels?

Wave:

World wave energy potential = 2,100,000,000,000 KW•h (2,100 TW•h) or 1% of the required load.

Wind:

A 5 MW turbine can be expected to produce 17 GWh per year (they are 40% effective from their peak rated capacity – 5 MW x 365 x 24 = 43.8 GWh). Therefore, it would require 11,748,294 of the 5 MW capacity turbines to create the same yearly output. There are 500 million cars in the world so it’s not like that’s an unattainable goal from a manufacturing standpoint. And each 5 MW turbine is a 30 year lifespan money making machine for whoever buys it. The same can not be said for my car. But if we can build 90,000 Cape Wind size installations, we would be there on wind alone. Based on that installation, each turbine requires 1/2 square mile of area for offshore sites. This would require 5.85 million square kilometers for 2030 world energy needs.

Here is a graphic for wind based on the notes above. The area in the North Sea is taken directly from the OMA proposal by Rem Koolhaas the pdf of which can be seen here.


click for larger image

Existing Hydroelectric:

I say existing hydroelectric because it would be damaging to the environment to construct more dams on rivers. It is difficult to design new large-scale hydro without having a deleterious effect on the ecosystems of the watersheds that are fed by the existing river (wel-planned run-of-the-river projects could be an exception).

As of 2004, hydroelectric power accounted for 6% of the energy production in the world. A conversion of this percentage into energy capacity makes 28 quadrillion Btu (492 quadrillion Btu x 6%). As a percentage of 2030 levels and accounting, this would be more like 4% and accounting for a hopeful decommissioning of existing dams, let’s assume 2%.

So these other sources together have the potential to reduce the area required by 5% – 25% based on the amount of wind power we tap into. Solar panels are really going to have to do the vast majority of the work but a sustainable solution is going to require a great mix of solutions that are diversified as much as possible.

The technologies are improving and the efficiencies are getting greater. We must make it our goal to by the end of this century construct the area required by at the same time reducing our demand and by starting the necessary infrastructure projects today everywhere around the world. Otherwise the consequences are unthinkable.

*As for nuclear power, it currently produces 2.5% of the world’s energy or 10 quadrillion Btu per year. In 2008, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) predicted that nuclear power capacity could double by 2030, though that would not be enough to increase nuclear’s share of electricity generation. As for the non-renewable resource of uranium, according to the nuclear industry’s own estimation:

Current usage is about 65,000 tU/yr. Thus the world’s present measured resources of uranium (5.5 Mt) in the cost category somewhat below present spot prices and used only in conventional reactors, are enough to last for over 80 years.

80 years does not equal sustainable. And this is only assuming current use rates (the 5% of world energy needs).

An average plant puts out 3 cubic meters of spent fuel each year. Assuming 1000 plants operating around the world (there are 500 today), that would makes 3,000 cubic meters per year. Over those 80 years this would create a volume of 240,000 cubic meters or a cube of 60 meters on each side (bigger than the Pantheon and roughly equivalent to the volume of the Gol Gumbaz Mausoleum. What do we do with that amount of dangerous radioactive material that has a half life of 2 million years?

Update 1: some comments being posted here:
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Update 2: Many comments have to do with the distribution of energy. I reiterate that I am in favor of a maximizing of diversity of clean energy technologies and of points of generation. For example, if we use the figure of 6 billion people in the world, and if over the course of each person’s lifetime they would be responsible for creating a panel to use their equal share of the worldwide demand (never mind the non-equal distribution) then we would each be in for a 9m x 9m square, or something that gives off 33,000 kW•h per year. With a typical home roof installation that assumes 15 kW capacity. Obviously this extreme localization is also not ideal — what is needed is a plan that captures the best balance of centralized/localized and best mix of renewable and clean resources.

Update 3: SES technology would bring down the solar area required to 315,000 square kilometers (based on the 629 kW•h per square meter listed on the site sourced as from Southern California Edison and Sandia National Laboratories). This is a 40% reduction just on efficiency of the capturing device. The technology will continue to get better and better…

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