Wind and Solar Can't Save Climate

September 30, 2013

Climate scientists can warn about carbon dioxide emissions and their effect on the atmosphere and global temperatures, but politicians cannot ignore the basic physics and math of the world's $5 trillion-a-year appetite for energy, says Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Bryce says to keep four numbers in mind: 32, 1, 30 and 1/2. These are the numbers that explain why any transition away from our existing energy systems will be protracted and costly.

  • First, 32: That's the percentage growth in carbon dioxide emissions that has occurred globally since 2002. In the past decade, these emissions have increased by about 8.4 billion tons. And nearly all of that has happened in the developing world. In the United States, meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions were 8 percent lower in 2012 than they were in 2002, largely due to a surge in shale gas production, which has reduced coal use.
  • Now to the second number: 1. That's the power density of wind in watts per square meter. Wind energy's paltry power density means that enormous tracts of land must be set aside to make it viable.
  • Now let's turn to the third number: 30. This represents the massive scale of global energy use, which is about 250 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, or the output of about 30 Saudi Arabias. Of that 30 Saudi Arabias of daily energy consumption, we get 10 from oil, nine from coal, seven from natural gas, two from hydro and 1 1/2 from nuclear.
  • That remaining 1/2 -- the final number -- represents the amount of energy the world gets from all renewable sources, not counting hydropower. Put another way, the world gets about 50 times as much energy from all other sources -- coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear and hydropower -- as it does from wind, solar, geothermal and biomass.

If policymakers are committed to reducing global carbon dioxide emissions, then they will have to get serious about promoting sources of electricity production that can compete with coal on price. Those sources must be scalable, meaning they can be deployed all over the world fairly rapidly, produce fewer carbon emissions than coal, and not take up too much land.

Fortunately, we already have those energy sources. They are natural gas and nuclear.

Source: Robert Bryce, "Four Numbers Say Wind and Solar Can't Save Climate," Bloomberg, September 20, 2013.

 

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