More on the Energy Cliff

18 01 2013

Years ago, when I was cutting my teeth on Peak Oil and Peak Everything over at the EnergyResources pedroYahoo group, I met (as you do online these days) a most interesting chap from Spain.  His name is Pedro Prieto.  He is an expert on Spanish renewable energy production, and below is an email Pedro sent me four years ago and which I have just rediscovered….. Oh, and I wish my Spanish was a fraction as good as his English! I’ve left it un-edited, and if you can read with a Spanish accent, it’s improved considerably!


Ken Zweibel, James Mason and Vasilis Fthenakis have recently wrote an article about solar energy in Scientific American. They claim that by 2050, the US could get some 100% of its electricity needs, by installing a combination of 2.9 TW PV fed into the grid, 7.5 TW to cumulate energy with compressed air; 2.3 TW in concentrated solar plants; 1.3 TW of distributed solar plants and just to fill the gap, some 1 TW of wind fields. This ‘just’ is ten times more than today is installed in all the world, just to satisfy a small, collateral portion of the electricity needs in 2050 of the US.

If we succeed in growing at 27% cumulative per year, and we reach, as the report of Science & Technology says, the 3 TW of wind installed power landmark by 2020, this will represent the production of, let us say and maximizing sizes and minimizing costs, some 1,500,000 times 2 MW wind generators in the period. Considering each generator has 150 tons of steel; that every ton of steel requires at least 1.5 tons of coal to be produced; between 500 and 1,000 tons of concrete in the foundations; 30 tons of glass fibre and some 5 tons of copper; the “clean” wind industry will demand from now to 2020 (12 years) 225 million tons of steel, some 350 million tons of coke coal; 45 million tons of glass fibre; some 7.5 million tons of copper and some 1 billion tons of concrete. I am not counting the energy spent in building up factories; transporting the huge wind generators, most of the time at big distances, using heavy weight cranes or huge crane ships when offshore; opening pathways to the generally inaccessible places where the wind blows regularly (in mountain passes, plateau’s edges, etc.) It is neither included the steel to make long evacuating lines (in Spain, a small country with a dense electric network) generally 10 to 25 km of evacuating high tension line, per each 150 MW wind field average), or the copper or aluminium wires used in the power lines; the additional power stations required, etc. Nor it is included the maintenance or the infrastructure needed to stabilize an intermitent source of energy.

This installation of some 1.5 million generators of 2 MW each, from now -2008- till 2020, will require, for your information and order of magnitude, some 2 times the present world annual production of steel; about 30 times the present glass fibre world production and almost the annual concrete world production. I strongly recommend to read the article “Coal Can’t Fill World’s Burning Appetite With Supplies Short, Price Rise Surpasses Oil and U.S. Exporters Profit” By Steven Mufson and Blaine Harden. Washington Post Staff Writers of last Thursday, March 20, 2008; It exemplifies very well how the industry is struggling to get coal and steel and the effect of prices of coal and oil on them. Who says this is a `green’ or non polluting industry? I would ask the people to keep in mind that these are NON RENEWABLE SYSTEMS, able to capture some renewable energies. These systems have a short life cycle, specially when in offshore, or in dusty places, subject to heavy corrosion or grinding of their mechanical parts. They have to be maintained very much and are heavily underpinned in the fossil fuel society (helicopters for maintenance, huge and heavy cranes and ships, long and heavy trucks, maintenance of compacted gravel roads in mountains, the gravel in itself, metallic piece parts, lubricants, high level (hence highly consumerist) people in maintenance tasks with fossil consuming SUVS going everywhere, etc. etc.

All the above assumption of 3 TW of installed wind power by 2020, to generate some 1.5 TW times 2,000 hours/year nominal (if these fields are available for the new parks; in Spain, for instance, they could hardly find onshore fields and from now onwards with this load factor); that is, to generate 3,000 TWh; that is a 15% of today present world electricity consumption. (Not primary energy; just electricity. Not in 2020: today).

When going to global figures and potential increase of wind energy worldwide to cope with the ever growing electricity (or primary) energy needs, I think it is time to make wind energy prospects top down, rather than we make them now as usual: bottom up. I am amazed that supercomputers are not used to simulate these huge dreams of wind installations. An anemometer in Tarifa, close to the Gibraltar Strait gives 2,500 nominal hours a year. Another anemometer offshore in the Cadiz Gulf, some 100 miles of distance from Gibraltar, gives some 2,500 nominal hours. If I put 1 GW in Tarifa and 1 GW in the Cadiz Gulf, perhaps both of them will run at 2,500 hours/year. But what if I put 100, or 500 GW in both places? Is the wind obliged to go the same usual path, if friction reaches certain levels, or could perhaps divert to the natural lowest effort path, leaving the magnificent parks idle or with 1,000 hours/year? When trying to get conclusions from wind maximum capacity, one should remember that all winds at all altitudes in the globe represent some 70 times the present human energy consumption. This is apparently too much, enough for us all. But from that we could hardly capture a small fraction (with a huge use of non renewable and polluting materials) of the energy of wind flows of up to 150 m. over the surface and those in offshore relatively close to the mainland. That a big portion of these winds are at speeds that wind parks could not profit form them (over 80-100 km/h or lower than 5 to 9 km./h). Then, we could perhaps note that these are going to be just a drop of relief in the ocean of the insatiable human consumption. Not to consider the effect of being able to change some wind traditional patterns, when reaching certain values of friction/interception.

All the World wind installed park from the beginning up to 2007 (93,212 MW) produces 5 times less electricity than JUST the increase of electricity consumption worldwide between 2005 and 2006 (765 TWh) and represented just 0.8 of the world electricity consumed.

The increase of the electric consumption worldwide (some 4% annual) goes 25 times faster than the production of the installed capacity in 2007. The industrial kart goes 25 times faster than the ecologic horses. And ecologists still pretend to win that unbalanced and crazy Ben Hur race, without saying a word of the insatiable energy consumption increase that the Caesar Roman model is imposing into the arena of this unbelievable circus!! Sorry if I have poured on optimistic and enthusiastic people a cold jug of water. The above are available worldwide data. I just wanted to put the article in the context and in front of the challenges we are going to face.

Pedro from Madrid P.S. I have not said a word about birds, or about the financial possibilities and sensible timings for these megaprojects in 180 of the 195 countries I see in the UN list.