NOTE: Make sure you read the first three posts (in order!) before tackling the rest, or it could be confusing: Post 1 is Designing the future, Post 2 is Setting up the problem, and Post 3 is Estimating basic requirements.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Why not blow away Peak Oil?

RobTzu called me in to an interesting thread on LATOC discussing challenges to the notion that we can't save the world from energy decline after Peak Oil. In the thread, we calculated the required cost to replace the current world power usage fully with wind energy. Here was my contribution:

Well, my good calculator went missing at work a few months back, but I'll give it a try anyway :)

Actually, I get slightly different numbers, but your methods are essentially sound:

387.21*10^15 BTU = 4.09*10^20 J = 4.09*10^17 kJ
(reference #4 has an error: it cites 1054 for BTU -> kJ when it should be 1055 for BTU -> J)

For world power consumption for one year:
4.09*10^17 kJ /[(365.25 d)*(24 h/d)*(3600 s/h)] = 1.3*10^10 kW
(I'm not sure what number you used for the total time in the denominator -- perhaps I've made an incorrect assumption here on what you wanted to calculate)

Number of solar arrays = (1.3*10^10 kW)/(20 kW) = 6.5*10^8

Cost = (6.5*10^8)*$6000 = $3.9*10^12 ($3.9 Trillion)
However, I see a problem with using reference 2 for the price: it says that units from 2 kW to 20 kW start at $6000 -- so I think the lower number is for the 2 kW unit. We can either find a different source or use the 2 kW for $6000 (still low, I think), which gives us:
Cost = $39 Trillion

One more factor we're missing: In the first line of your post, Rob, it says that wind turbine power is really half the equivalent coal power effectiveness over the course of a year. So, multiply by 2:
Cost = $78 Trillion

Although this is significantly smaller than the numbers you calculated, the main point is still the same: It is incredibly difficult and expensive to replace the entire world electrical grid with wind energy. Even though the number I calculated is near world GDP, it would take at least a decade to scale up production to produce the required number of wind generators. This is if we commit all our economic resources to the project, including food (as Rob pointed out). And, this still doesn't account for what is required to meet current growth in demand.

Solutions for saving the entire world from living with reduced energy is not possible, even with massive conservation, and even if we develop commercial fusion tomorrow. That said, we can save a lot of people from hardship by a massive redirection of efforts if we start now. However, this won't happen anytime soon -- and the longer we wait, the less we can achive. For now, we need to focus on who each of us can protect with our given resources, and design accordingly.


At 7:58 PM, Blogger DJEB said...

I know I've said essentially the same thing before, but solving one technology-induced problem with another technological "solution" is just going to lead us faster along the path towards more systemic environmental problems.

If we can find a replacement energy system, what will we do with all that energy? Continue to create deserts with a destructive monoculture food production system? Continue to replace forests with either deserts or replace them with inferior tree plantations? Will be continue to deplete the oceans? Kill off species, including the most important ones: life soil flora and fauna?

Mankind has a long histoy of digging itself deeper and deeper in trouble with technological "solutions." Faced with this prospect of what would lead to a devastating crash, I welcome peak oil with open arms. The alternative world created by "solving" the energy crisis would be much worse.

At 11:32 AM, Anonymous rich said...

An observation relating to this issue....

I was working outside of Buffalo when the unseasonably large snowstorm hit a few weeks back. We were working near some wind turbines, and when the power went out / grid went down, the turbines were turned off for at least 4 days, even though we had grid power directly underneath them. I'm sure the folks in N Buffalo who had no power for a week were wishing those things were spinning, but I think the operators cut them out until they got everything fixed....lost a lot of power that way.

At 6:46 AM, Blogger PeakEngineer said...

I don't think that a technological solution will necessarily lead us back down the path of disaster. As I've expressed before, I don't expect any technology to even approach replacing our current energy use; a fact which will retard our ability to be destructive.

Discussion communities like this one are becoming more common and many people are quickly coming to the realization that we're critically wounding the biosphere. Since it is those people that are most likely to find sustainable energy alternatives, there is hope that that energy will be wielded responsibly. Humanity may have a long history of spiralling into disaster with technology, but we have never faced a series of crises as serious as the current ones. I believe we can live with comfortable amounts of energy without simultaneously further devastating the planet.

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