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Will Renewable Energy Ever Meet All Our Energy Needs?

samzenpus posted about a year and a half ago | from the doom-and-gloom dept.

Earth 626

Lasrick writes "Dawn Stover has another great piece detailing why renewable energy will never provide us with all our energy needs. She deconstructs the unrealistic World Wildlife Fund report (co-written by several solar companies) that claims renewables will be able to provide 100% of the energy needs of several countries by 2050. From the article: 'When renewable energy experts get together, they tend to rhapsodize about the possibilities, believing that this will somehow inspire others to make their visions come true. But ambitious plans to power entire countries on solar energy (or wind or nuclear power, for that matter) don't have a snowball's chance in Australia. Such schemes are doomed to fail, and not because of the economic "reality" or the political "reality" -- however daunting those may be. They are doomed because of the physical reality: It's simply not physically possible for the world's human population to continue growing in numbers, affluence, and energy consumption without trashing the planet.'"

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626 comments

The obvious answer (0)

aurispector (530273) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744567)

is to kill all the people.

Re:The obvious answer (1)

houstonbofh (602064) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744667)

That is eventually the only answer things like this ever come up with. It is mainly because no one looks at the law of diminishing returns... And we get more demand, price goes and and people figure out a way to cut it... Works every time.

Re:The obvious answer (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744939)

The question is, which is fundamentally the more powerful principle: Physics or economics?

Re:The obvious answer (4, Insightful)

camperdave (969942) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745009)

Any economic model that is not in line with the laws of physics is flawed. No matter how much you pretend otherwise, there is only so much gold in Fort Knox.

Re:The obvious answer (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744675)

Well, that's what Agenda 21 is all about; creating a sustainable world by the end of this century and that will, according to the Agenda, limit the world population to about 500 million (although some want to revise that number to 100 million) and create a system of negative population credits to encourage countries to eliminate their surplus population.

You'd better hope you ave some skills that the new world order can use otherwise you'll be culled with about 97% of the population on the planet.

Now, if we do cull the population down to 500 or 100 million then there will be no problem using windmills and such to provide what power the population needs especially when we're packed into 400 sq ft per person apartments in human population reserves.

Re:The obvious answer (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744951)

Well, that's what Agenda 21 is all about

Funny, that's what capitalism is all about too. If you can't get money you can't consume, so you might as well go crawl in a ditch and die once automation takes over what you used to do.

Renewable Energy vs Waste of Energy (4, Interesting)

Taco Cowboy (5327) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744679)

Renewable Energy can NEVER satisfy 100% of the total energy requirement to run the current human civilization.

However, if we deconstruct the way we use energy we would find that up to 80% of the energy we are using ended up in waste heat.

No matter it's in the industrial setting or electricity generation or even the fluorescent light bulbs that we are using right now, waste heat is generated.

If, and only if, we can get our technology to improve to the level that waste heat is minimized to, let's say 10% or less, then, we will see that we do not need that much energy input anymore.

This has a ripple effect ... The less energy we need, the less load on the electricity grid and the less need to construct power plant ... and so on ...

Re:Renewable Energy vs Waste of Energy (5, Insightful)

Brucelet (1857158) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744747)

Without looking any deeper into your numbers, do you see nothing difficult about achieving a more than fourfold increase from 20% to 90% efficiency?

Re:Renewable Energy vs Waste of Energy (5, Funny)

Beardo the Bearded (321478) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744861)

Shh, he's on a roll.

Re:Renewable Energy vs Waste of Energy (2)

pixelpusher220 (529617) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744797)

More energy hits the earth in solar energy in about 8 minutes than the entire world uses in an entire year.

And that's just one source. When every manmade surface is producing electricity, we'll have more than enough to go around for literally centuries.

Re:Renewable Energy vs Waste of Energy (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42745013)

Solar energy is a great alternative energy source but the current technology for photovoltaic cells include too many rare earth elements that make them expensive and limit the amount of them that can be made. If you can make solar cells out of cheaper, more abundant materials then solar becomes more likely. Or, you go back to old fashioned boiler plate tech using mirrors to concentrate the light to generate heat to create steam or melt salt. Steam can drive a turbine directly or molten salt can be used as an intermediate storage so that steam can be generated through times when the sun isn't available.

Re:Renewable Energy vs Waste of Energy (2)

Taco Cowboy (5327) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745163)

Solar energy is a great alternative energy source but the current technology for photovoltaic cells include too many rare earth elements that make them expensive and limit the amount of them that can be made.

Consider the amount of energy used to dig out the soil/rock that contains those rare earth minerals from the earth, the energy used to transport all the soil to the processing plant, the energy used to extract those rare earth minerals from the soil inside the processing plant, the energy used to dispose the waste materials, the energy to transport the refined mineral earth elements to yet another plant to be made into components that can be used on the PV modules, and so on ...

If we factor in all the energy that had been used manufacture the PV modules, it's not that "cost effective" energy wise to employ PV modules to generate "renewable energy".

Re:Renewable Energy vs Waste of Energy (2, Interesting)

turbidostato (878842) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744855)

"Renewable Energy can NEVER satisfy 100% of the total energy requirement to run the current human civilization."

In other news, renewable energy has ALWAYS satisfied 100% of the total energy requirement to run the human civilization up to date.

Yes: all that oil comes from Sun.

Re:Renewable Energy vs Waste of Energy (1)

camperdave (969942) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745037)

Can you run that by me a little more slowly. The nuclear power plant down the road is having a shift change, and the plant whistle interrupted you.

Re:Renewable Energy vs Waste of Energy (1)

rahvin112 (446269) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745081)

All that nuclear material was created from a supernova. Everything on this planet is made from star dust.

Re:Renewable Energy vs Waste of Energy (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744895)

I can't tell if this is a woosh moment, but here goes: all energy goes into heat. 100%. What you want to say is that technology will make it possible to make more of the energy do something useful while turning into heat, which is already something that a lot of work is going into.

The claim that renewable energy can NEVER satisfy 100% is plain silly. It wouldn't be practical now, that's true, but if you had enough energy storage and enough solar you could power everything several times over like that. There is enough energy hitting the earth from the sun, it's "just" a matter of the economics of capturing that energy. A dyson sphere should do the trick as well (you said NEVER), unless you are really suggesting that the entire energy output of the sun is not enough to power our current human civilization?

Re:Renewable Energy vs Waste of Energy (1)

Taco Cowboy (5327) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745015)

but here goes: all energy goes into heat. 100%.

That goes without saying.

But if you read what I wrote, you will see that word waste in front of the word heat.
 
For example, let us look at this link: http://www.asme.org/kb/news---articles/articles/automotive/using-waste-engine-heat-in-automobile-engines [asme.org]

Currently, up to 65% of the heat energy produced in internal combustion engines, whether gasoline or diesel, is wasted.

And this link: http://www.ehow.com/facts_5854602_heat-vs_-incandescent-light-bulbs.html [ehow.com]

... about 30 percent of the energy powering a fluorescent light is wasted in heat

... and this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waste_heat#Power_generation [wikipedia.org]

The electrical efficiency of thermal power plants is defined as the ratio between the input and output energy. It is typically only 30%

There are a lot more similar figures that you can obtained from the Net.

Re:The obvious answer (2)

alen (225700) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744733)

It has been a long time since we had a world war

They used to occur on a regular basis until ww2 put an end to the cycle

Re:The obvious answer (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744949)

War is coming. It's in the air. I give it 5 years before a major war starts.

Re:The obvious answer (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744977)

It's generally considered that the WW1 and WW2 are really the same conflict in two phases. World wars usually come about every 100 years or so. Before the WW1/WW2 conflict the previous world war was the Napoleonic series around 1800. We're due for another biggie sometime in the next 30 years. I think it will be quite soon.

Re:The obvious answer (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744893)

is to kill all the people.

Let's start with you.

Re:The obvious answer (1)

flyneye (84093) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744961)

Nah, the silly cynical tit didn't take into account; falling prices, increasing production, new tech to come, new manufacturing methods or anything that might've supported a position outside her tiny little mind.
She could've lived a century ago and slammed rollouts of coal fired generators producing electricity in rural areas.
Just another attention whore failing to make any REAL impact with her degree.
Nothing to see here, just a troll with a blog. Big Whoop!

Snowballs chance in Australia? (2)

Moggyboy (949119) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744593)

Err... you do know that Australia has alpine areas right? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Alps [wikipedia.org]

Re:Snowballs chance in Australia? (1)

Nefarious Wheel (628136) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744711)

Err... you do know that Australia has alpine areas right?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Alps [wikipedia.org]

I'd think "a schooner's chance in a pub" might be more appropriate. Or perhaps "A Starbucks' chance in Melbourne" as a metaphor for poor survival choices.

Re:Snowballs chance in Australia? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744835)

LOL yeah, you really should have checked that on Snopes first...

Re:Snowballs chance in Australia? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42745091)

I'm guessing the author was referring to the recent hellish temperatures in Australia, Mr. Pedant.

I'll repay your helpful wikipedia page with one of my own: 2012-13 Australian bushfire season [wikipedia.org]

"Needs"? (5, Insightful)

DoofusOfDeath (636671) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744601)

Until you define "needs", the question is pretty meaningless.

Re:"Needs"? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744829)

That's easy. Need = more than whatever you got. At least that's how it is for a lot of people, and that is the problem. So even if we could be totally green by 2050, that wouldn't be enough by 2051.

Worst Headline Ever (1)

foma84 (2079302) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744915)

Also, Insightful parent.

No. (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744609)

...next thread...

Re:No. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744743)

To expand on that: Never. No one energy will ever meet "all" of our energy needs. Theres a reason why we still use wind and hydro energy despite centuries/millenia.

Re:No. (2)

turbidostato (878842) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744887)

"No one energy will ever meet "all" of our energy needs. Theres a reason why we still use wind and hydro energy despite centuries/millenia."

Oil comes from Sun
Aeolic comes from Sun
Hydro comes from Sun
Thermal comes from Sun
Solar -obviously, comes from Sun

Only energy that doesn't come from Sun is nuclear.

Re:No. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744989)

To be fair, the nuclear isotopes also came from one star or another.

Re:No. (1)

budgenator (254554) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744997)

Well actually any element heavier the Iron is from supernova remnants, so even that is solar, just not our Sol.

Re:No. (2)

kesuki (321456) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745021)

geothermal energy comes from thermonuclear thorium reactions in the molten layers of the earth. thorium comes from supernovas thorium reactions come form the sun. so yes all energy comes from the sun, or more correctly the suns that existed before ours was formed.

Re:No. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42745069)

Only energy that doesn't come from Sun is nuclear.

Nuclear just comes from other suns, rather than ours.

Re:No. (0)

camperdave (969942) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745159)

Oil is stored energy. It is not sustainable, because we use it far faster than it gets replenished.
Aeolic only works when the wind is strong enough. That doesn't always happen.
Hydro is also stored energy. Chances are it too is being used faster than it is being replenished.
Thermal energy comes from the molten core of the planet, which is molten because of radioactive thermal decay, not solar energy.
Solar only works during the day.

The only reliable energy sources are the ones that *don't* rely on the Sun.

Re:No. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42745169)

That's true. Nuclear doesn't come from our sun but it did come from another star that blew up creating the elements heavier than iron. So, in a round about way, even the nuclear option is powered by a star.

Re:No. (1)

gandhi_2 (1108023) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745173)

In that case, all energy comes from nuclear.

The ultimate off-shore nuclear power source.

Of course it will... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744611)

We have no choice. At least until the perpetual motion machine is perfected.

Re:Of course it will... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744745)

We don't need perpetual motion. Switching to thorium for our base energy needs to hold us over until we can safely harness more energy from the sun using platforms in space (leading to the Dyson sphere.) will keep us going for quite a while.

Ha HA HA. It's hard to write this without laughing since I know that the bulk of humanity is too afraid of nuclear and space based power collection to actually implement it. It's more likely we'll cull the population by releasing some engineered "ebola-pox" before we'll switch to a safer form of nuclear energy like thorium.

D Stover is not convincing (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744621)

his article is sort of an IQ test: if you agree with him, you fail
for instance
quote "Take solar power.... In only one hour, the sun delivers as much energy to Earth's surface as humanity consumes in a year....astrophysicist Tom Murphy calculates that, even with an annual energy growth rate of only 2.3 percent, a civilization powered by solar energy would have to cover every square inch of Earth's land area with 100-percent-efficient solar panels within a few hundred years. "

I mean, do I really have to go thru all of hte problems with this one statement ?

Re:D Stover is not convincing (4, Informative)

Vireo (190514) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745103)

Tom Murphy from the superb blog Do The Math [ucsd.edu] does indeed go through all of the problems with that statement and many others, carefully analyzing about all energy sources and energy storage scheme that comes to mind. A very recommended read.

Re:D Stover is not convincing (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42745209)

No, this is still silly. The article and this Slashdot title is Flamebait. The argument is that 2.3% energy growth is not sustainable. The fact that solar was used as an example is only to try to convince people who don't know how to think critically that solar is the problem. Energy demand is the problem, but one would hope we could still replace current energy demands with solar, and also minimize the demand for energy.

Tom Murphy even said that, if you bothered to read his post in detail.

"the obvious answer is to kill all the people." (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744627)

Riiiiiiiight. You are volunteering to start off the population reduction by destroying yourself first???

Re:"the obvious answer is to kill all the people." (1)

houstonbofh (602064) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744697)

It does make you winder... Why do the greens lobby so hard against SUVs when they would get more bang for the buck lobbying for assisted suicide.

Experts? (5, Insightful)

phantomfive (622387) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744645)

'When renewable energy experts get together, they tend to rhapsodize about the possibilities, believing that this will somehow inspire others to make their visions come true.

Those aren't experts.

So let's focus on affluence... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744649)

Why can't we just grow in affluence, and try not to grow in numbers or energy consumption?

Or is that where the political and economic "reality" arrives?

Re:So let's focus on affluence... (1)

Qzukk (229616) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744971)

Why can't we just grow in affluence, and try not to grow in numbers or energy consumption?

Nothing screams "affluence" like stretch Hummers.

LIght on facts for a "detailing" piece (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744655)

Switching to renewable energy sources will be a snap once it becomes more attractive economically.
We can start by holding traditional energy sources to their externalized costs. You'd think twice about putting gas in your car if it's real costs (pollution) were added as a surcharge. Or, at least you'd think twice about buying that gigantic truck "for hauling" that you really only intent to drive to work in every day.

Solar panels on every rooftop? Why the fuck not? China's already well on their way to doing that. They're not stupid. They know their demand for petrol will drive the cost way way up. (Funny how they're trying to corner the solar panel market at the same time)

"Baseload" Power versus the rest (4, Interesting)

peon_a-z,A-Z,0-9$_+! (2743031) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744671)

The summary cites solar, wind, and nuclear as not being able to power cities. This is due to the fact that cities need power when they need it, and can't wait for the power to be there intermittandly. Therefore, viable options fall under the designation "baseload" power (power that you can have whenever - and in most cases wherever), and the summary's mention of solar and wind are rightly not grouped in this category.

Incorrectly, however, the summary mentions nuclear, which is in fact a primary form of baseload power along with coal, gas, or hydro. Nuclear could, can, will, and does power entire cities, in fact, Chicago is roughly over 90% powered by Nuclear energy (rough statistic - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_power_stations_in_Illinois [wikipedia.org] ).

Re:"Baseload" Power versus the rest (4, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744767)

I lived off grid for 2 years, then had to move back into the city... It's pretty easy, you use batteries for things like lights, and you use high-draw devices when the sun is out and giving you power. No sun, no washing machine. If you change your routine a little, you can fit into renewable energy just fine.

Re:"Baseload" Power versus the rest (2, Interesting)

camperdave (969942) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745197)

"Sorry boss. I've got to rush home right now. The Sun's out and I've got a load of laundry to do."

Re:"Baseload" Power versus the rest (2)

Pinky's Brain (1158667) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744865)

Nuclear can supply base load, but base load is not this :

"power that you can have whenever - and in most cases wherever"

Base load is the predictable part of the load ... if you want power whenever, you need the peak load power plants (which are not nuclear).

It would if States would quit banning it (1)

EmagGeek (574360) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744681)

When I lived in Pennsylvania, I heated my home and my hot water with a furnace that used renewable biofuel. Those furnaces were recently banned in the state because they reduced revenue for gas and oil companies.

Now I live in a State that still allows residential use of renewable biofuel, and it is readily available and quickly replenished. Our energy bills are near zero, and we grow our own fuel on our estate. Fortunately there is not a big natural gas or coal industry here like there is in Pennsylvania, so hopefully we have nothing to fear from political influence from the big-fossil companies.

Re:It would if States would quit banning it (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744715)

>> we grow our own fuel on our estate.

Bring 'round the Deere, Jeeves.

Re:It would if States would quit banning it (1)

Pinky's Brain (1158667) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745105)

The state didn't ban shit ... the counties did. Personally I think it wasn't so much gas and oil companies, but your ex-neighbours being sick and tired of the pollution ... not helped by the inevitable assholes who throw garbage in them.

That's the problem with the libertarian ideal, people are assholes ... so it only works when your neighbours are really fucking far away. Which I imagine is the primary reason why you have less problems with your current state, lower population density.

Seriously wtf (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744683)

From TFA:

Even with an annual energy growth rate of only 2.3 percent, a civilization powered by solar energy would have to cover every square inch of Earth's land area with 100-percent-efficient solar panels within a few hundred years.

Well no shit. At an annual growth rate of 2.3 percent, we'll have a population measured in trillions on the planet in a few hundred years. If that's your metric, are you thinking that maybe we'll have enough unsustainable sources of energy to last us? Am I really supposed to be so fucking stupid that I can't see how bonkers the basic premise of this whole piece of drivel within a few seconds of starting to read it?

Re:Seriously wtf (1)

smg5266 (2440940) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745055)

Tom Murphy's point is that our constant growth rate is unsustainable, and when the growth stops, the economy crashes.

Obviously (4, Insightful)

countach (534280) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744691)

It should be obvious to anyone that you can't grow society forever without hitting some limit. Whether the limit is energy, or something else is rather moot. Talk about using all the energy in the galaxy is rather overboard.

So... at some point we have to stop growth. But there is no will anywhere to do so. Only when we run hard into the limits will growth stop, and then by necessity. So, all this talk about how we must change is itself just "visionary" fluff. There isn't going to be much actionary. We can't even agree on emissions to make much progress on that. He is asking for a lot more, and thus it is a lot less likely to happen.

Yes (5, Insightful)

cabraverde (648652) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744701)

Yes. Fast forward far enough and we're either extinct or running off renewables. Non-renewables are temporary, pretty much by definition. Stupid question.

Re:Yes (1)

loufoque (1400831) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745083)

Or we're simply getting energy from outside Earth.

Without hot air (1)

henryteighth (2488844) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744717)

http://www.withouthotair.com/ [withouthotair.com] Great book which performs a detailed analysis and discussion about energy usage (written by a Physics Prof who is also chief scientific advisor to the UK Government's Dept of Energy), freely available for download as a PDF (Off-topic: he's also the author of a brilliant textbook on Information Theory, also available as a free PDF [cam.ac.uk] )

It will have to (1)

Nyder (754090) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744771)

seeing as the "wasteful" sources are going to run out sooner or later.

Yes, if you can renew your Uranium from space (0)

roman_mir (125474) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744773)

Will Renewable Energy Ever Meet All Our Energy Needs?

- not if by 'renewable' you mean wind, solar and such. Yes if you realise on cosmic scales Uranium is just as renewable as wind power.

*SOME* Countries will be able to go 100% Renewable (1)

Irate Engineer (2814313) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744777)

The title of the summary "Will Renewable Energy Ever Meet All Our Energy Needs?" needs a definition of the group associated with "Our". Some countries with good local wind, hydro, geothermal, and solar resources and with stable population and industry might very well be able to balance energy consumption with renewable energy sources. Hilly countries near the equator, ideally with shorelines with sea breezes have great potential to close their energy loops. Frigid, flat countries near the poles - unless you're sitting on a geothermal hotspot, that probably isn't going to work out. If "Our" refers to "The whole of humankind", the answer to the question in the title is "Hell, no".

Millions of generators = Jobs for our kids (2)

Lije Baley (88936) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744783)

I will be amazed if in 20 years any more than 50% of all these fiddly little generators are still maintained and working. Just look at what's left of the old wind farms in CA and HI. It would be nice if they kept them up though, to give my boy something to do when the new armies of H1B's finally take the entire tech industry back home with them.

Misleading article (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744821)

This article is a good example of why I don't trust so many scientists any more, let alone the BAS. I did the maths too about 5 years back; came up with similar numbers. So far so good. But the interpretation here is perverse to the point of insanity; a modern fission-wind synthesis seems quite capable of powering civilisation in the short (200+ year) run. To be fair, the article doesn't deny that, but just says it won't be enough in the very long run with exponential demand growth. But what would? This article makes impossible demands of a strawman.

Incidentally, knowing a bit about the rare metal market and geology too, I might add that the attached reactor vessel argument is also misleading to the point of mendacity.

Not that I like the WWF either, but the more I read these people the less I believe them. Too many mendacious mistakes.

It depends... (5, Insightful)

TrumpetPower! (190615) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744831)

...on how you look at the problem.

Cover every roof in the United States with photovoltaics at today's efficiency levels and you'll generate roughly as much energy as the entire civilization consumes. And lots of places in the world have roofs other than just the United States....

But, though there's no problem with resource availability, there are two huge practical concerns. First, such a project would be massively expensive. Second, it generates electricity, which is not readily useable for transportation with today's infrastructure.

Neither of those problems are insurmountable. Though solar photovoltaics aren't cheap, they're not as expensive as many petrochemical alternatives being seriously considered, such as tar sands. That is, we might not be able to afford widespread PV adoption, true...but, if we can't afford it, we won't be able to afford anything else when the existing wells run dry.

(As a side note, we're already scraping the bottom of the oil barrel. Remember Deepwater Horizon? Imagine you're standing on the shore of the Colorado River in the middle of the Grand Canyon. A mile above you is the rim; that's how far below the ocean surface the wellhead was. Several miles above the rim is an airliner flying past. That's how far through solid rock the well was bored before it reached the oil deposits. That's how desperate we already are today for oil...loooooong gone are the days when you had to be careful in Texas with a pickaxe lest you start a gusher. Yes, we've got lots of oil left -- about half as much as the planet's total original reserves, in fact. But -- duh! -- we went for the easy-to-get-to, high-quality half first, and what's left increasingly fits the definition of, "dregs.")

The problem with transportation fuels is more pressing. At the very least, with enough input energy, you can extract CO2 from the atmosphere and turn it into fuel (via the Fischer-Tropsch process, for example) that you can put back into a tank to burn it again, so we have alternatives. The catch, of course, is that it takes a lot of excess energy to do so, and so won't be cheap.

TL/DR: Yes, we can run our society on solar power. No, it won't be cheap. No, we won't have any better alternatives. Yes, that means we're facing some tough times in the not-too-distant future.

Cheers,

b&

P.S. Even worse than the looming transportation fuel shortage is the looming petroleum-based fertilizer shortage. That double whammy is going to result in lots of people starving to death. b&

Re:It depends... (1)

buddyglass (925859) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745033)

Don't have exact numbers, I was led to believe that, as the price of oil increases, it would become cost-effective to extract large amounts of oil from currently known locations that are simply not cost-effective to extract at today's prices.

Re:It depends... (2)

Telvin_3d (855514) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745185)

You are saying the same thing. Think about what "become cost-effective to extract large amounts of oil from currently known locations that are simply not cost-effective to extract at today's prices" really means. It means that the cost of oil has become so high that even silly sources are profitable. The kind where you spend 19 barrels of oil worth of energy to extract 20 barrels of oil. We are rapidly approaching the really crappy end of that bell curve.

So if the cost of oil keeps going up, at some point it exceeds the costs of the alternatives. And if the price of oil goes high enough even 'expensive' alternatives become reasonable.

Souther Australia (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744839)

I think it gets fairly cold in the far southern end of Australia.

Renewable energy by themselves? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744845)

No. Renewable energy, plus oil, plus natural gas, plus efficiency improvements? Yes! Efficiency is the most overlooked and most important aspect to implementing renewable energy. It's not feasible to make a hydrogen powered engine for a modern car. Cut the weight of the car by using carbon fiber, and then alternative energy sources become more feasible. The Empire State Building saved millions by investing in efficiency.

http://www.ted.com/talks/amory_lovins_a_50_year_plan_for_energy.html

Google "Amory Lovins" for more.

Efficiency (1)

bmacs27 (1314285) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744847)

Right... because our needs could never be met with less energy because... you know... things only become less efficient.

Re:Efficiency (1)

loufoque (1400831) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745121)

We always want to do more, not do less.

both get it wrong (1)

terec (2797475) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744853)

It's correct that we can't meet our growing energy demands with renewables. But to limit energy supply is also a dumb idea.

People really should stop worrying so much about it. We can meet our energy demand for the foreseeable future with nuclear, and nobody can tell what the world is going to be like 50-100 years from now anyway.

Deep Ocean Currents "Work" (1)

BoRegardless (721219) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744871)

The technology is doable with current technology and works in reliable constant deep ocean streams which don't affect anything on land and darn near nothing in the ocean.

Timeframe : (3, Funny)

jxander (2605655) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744897)

On a long enough timeline, all energy is renewable.

Once the next comet hits and wipes out humanity, it'll only be another couple million years until our graveyards turn into the next oil deposits.

Re:Timeframe : (1)

loufoque (1400831) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745045)

Actually, no energy is renewable.
The Sun has a finite amount of energy.

Author is on crack, and can't do math. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42744901)

"Nuclear fuels themselves are transmuted, denying future generations unforeseen applications of these metals. This problem is not unique to fission. Nuclear fusion transmutes lithium, a relatively scarce element used in every laptop computer and mobile phone. "

They are arguing that nuclear is bad because it transmutes the elements in its structure, making it unavailable for future generations.

This is so utterly farcically ridiculous that it beggars belief.
They claim that metals used in reactor can't be widespread - based on crustal abundances.
Which is quite, quite nonsensical, as what you care about is extractable reserves.

No (1)

cffrost (885375) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744911)

Re:No (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42745053)

Nice way to cite an article that doesn't say what you claim it does. The answer to the headline question is, by definition, "yes".

Lead balloon argument (5, Insightful)

goodmanj (234846) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744927)

This is a classic case of weighting down an opponent's thesis with extra assumptions, and then using those assumptions to shoot it down.

The basic question is, "is it possible to meet the world's current energy needs using renewables?"
The question the author is answering is, "is it possible to to meet the world's energy needs using renewables, assuming continued exponential growth forever?"

The answer to the second question is obviously "no", unless you're an economist. But the author only attacks the "exponential growth forever" idea, and says nothing about the first question, which is far more interesting.

Re:Lead balloon argument (1)

jythie (914043) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745011)

*nods* yeah, the assumption at exponential growth is mandatory really seems to have gotten embedded in the economist culture, even though the models really do not support it. Exponential growth is only necessary if, well, you want exponential growth. The arguments in its favor tend to be rather cyclical and reduce to 'people will always want more, and the social circles we are part of depend on the idea that anything other then bigger numbers is personal failure'.

Re:Lead balloon argument (1)

LordLucless (582312) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745183)

The question the author is answering is, "is it possible to to meet the world's energy needs using renewables, assuming continued exponential growth forever?"

Especially considering that many Western countries are hovering just around the replacement level in terms of population. All evidence shows that after the standard of living reaches a certain point, birthrates drop off substantially. Places like India are experiencing massive population booms because they're in that sweet spot where technology and infrastructure has developed to the point where life expectancy has sky-rocketed, but haven't become so prosperous yet as to drop the birth-rate down to compensate.

My country (Australia) is having the opposite problem - with fewer people in successive generations, there's not going to be enough of a tax base to support the greater number of people (proportionately) consuming government resources without contributing much in taxation (retirees).

Current usage with current capabilities? No. (2, Interesting)

eepok (545733) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744957)

No. The current status of renewable energy (geothermal, hydroelectric, wind, solar, etc.) can in no way support our current consumption habits.

Can a more widely implemented renewable energy/less-polluting energy infrastructure support a society that uses less energy? Likely. Or some of us are going to have to die to make room for the bigger consumers lest we all die.

The plan?

(1) Assume all fossil-fuel-burning energy plants will shut down in 50 years.
(2) Begin plans to install the most regionally appropriate renewable energy power plants to support those areas.
(3) Calculate the energy shortfalls and make plans to supplement with the most reasonable nuclear options (insert arguments about recycling waste, using thorium, etc.)
(4) Select a demo site, implement, learn, discuss, implement better.

This word 'need'. (1)

jythie (914043) | about a year and a half ago | (#42744983)

I do not think it means what she thinks it means. Her argument seems to come down to people will use all the energy they can and thus renewable will never work by simple virtue of other methods existing.

No. (1)

loufoque (1400831) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745001)

No, of course not. You may move on now.

Stein's Law (2)

linuxwrangler (582055) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745005)

"If something cannot go on forever, it will stop," -Herbert Stein

The absurd comment about ...with an annual energy growth rate of only 2.3%... reminds me of the population growth people a couple decades back who claimed that if the population keeps growing at this rate, by blah-blah-blah date the population of earth will be expanding at the speed of light.

Conclusion, population will not continue to grow at that rate, energy growth will not continue perpetually at 2.3%.

Of course we may want to influence *how* things stop. Stopping a car by applying the breaks is generally preferred over accelerating full-speed into a cliff.

"Will Renewable Energy Meet All Energy Needs?" (1)

John Hasler (414242) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745017)

No, because there really is no such thing as "renewable energy". There also really is no such thing as "sustainability".

The world is a dissipative system. Stasis is impossible. Get used to it.

Says the Nuclear Power Folks (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42745041)

The article criticizes solar power companies for writing something pro-solar. But it's written by nuclear power companies.

It will... (3, Insightful)

AmazingRuss (555076) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745043)

...just as soon as all the non-renewable resources are gone.

Oil is a finite resource (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42745049)

Renewable energy has to meet our needs, because there is a finite amount of oil available for us to use. At some point the only option left will be renewable energy. Not in our lifetimes, but not that far off either.

Furthermore, as sources run dry we will have to resort to more destructive and invasive means to retrieve the oil that is left. We are already having quite a heated debate over the impact of fracking, with proponents claiming it is completely safe and landowners of fracked property disagreeing with that viewpoint.

Fox News just had an segment suggesting America should "give up" on the global warming crisis, that we should continue to pollute because the problem of clean energy is unsolvable and the future is hopeless. Articles like these back that notion up, suggesting that all the alternatives can't work so there's no point in trying.

I'd like to think science, namely the science behind renewable energy, will mean humanity doesn't have to give up on anything.

Renewable energy is hardly perfect, frankly it sucks. But it's all we have once we bleed the Earth dry of oil.

Of course it will! (1)

kwerle (39371) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745073)

Eventually, everything else will run out.

And then the 'renewable' sources will run out.

You just have to take the long term view. Really long term.

These have impact on environment also (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42745075)

Say for example, you use the solar power, then same solar power that heat the land is lost. That change the climate also.

Wind power is not without harm also. you paid in one way or the other.

Yes, but it'll take a while (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42745093)

Renewable energy will meet all our energy needs when non-renewables run out.

Renewables aka Unreliables (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42745099)

Renewables: they simply will not be able to provide enough power to satisfy demand at any single point in time regardless of how we deploy them or how much we economise on energy use. This is without even considering the need for *reliable* and *stable* electricity 24/7. I tend to call the "renewables" UNRELIABLES due to their inherent inability to reliably produce stable electricity in sufficient quantities to maintain economic output. Please note how I omitted "growth" in that sentence.

I agree that hydrocarbons should be phased out sooner rather than later. But I for one appreciate modern comforts such as air conditioning and slashdot. Without electricity we would not have these things. I also know what it is like to be without them, having served in the British army in the deserts of Iraq and the foothills of Afghanistan in their respective extremes of climate. This world is *not* pleasant, but with electricity we can make it rather more tolerable.
But we the human race do have the technology and knowledge to make as much electricity as we need without needlessly dumping waste products such as ash, CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere that we all share and depend on, as we do with our current hydrocarbon based economy.

As far as I can tell, the only way to power our world is with a mix of Nuclear fission, hydro and *some* geothermal (I say some simply due to my relative lack of knowledge on this technology.) as well as energy economisation. Wind turbines and solar panels? Fantasy and a load of guff simply due to their inherent unreliability which in order to over come would cause a huge drop in their already poor efficiency.

PS please read this blog. It is not mine, the man behind, it in my eyes seems to make sense.
http://atomicinsights.com/

TFA is silly but hey, let's go there for a moment. (5, Insightful)

conspirator23 (207097) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745125)

A more accurate synopsis of her argument is this:

"Since population growth and per capita economic growth are dependent on ever-increasing energy consumption, it is physically impossible for renewable energy to provide an indefenite supply of unlimited energy. Therefore, demand reduction is the only really-long-term answer."

While I actually agree with this position, it's freaking worthless. First off, the author's argument and the WWF paper are speaking to entirely different time scales. It's functionally equivalent to saying we shouldn't waste time advocating the use of seat belts because they don't protect pedestrians. Scope matters!

The second and larger issue here is that her counter-argument is just as reality-deprived as she claims the WWF paper to be. In her conlcusion, she states simply, "To which I say: Why don't we just not do it?" i.e. why don't we exert self-control as a species and stop growing. Stop adding to total population. Stop increasing per capita consumption. It simply doesn't matter how true that is on paper. I find it amusing that she name checks the Do the Math [ucsd.edu] blog which has been linked on Slashdot previously. The blog is compelling and well-written. It also avoids the flippant suggestion that converting to a zero-energy-growth global society will somehow be as obvious as a Nike commercial. The "reality check" is that the reckoning over energy consumption will be painful. Death and violence are in the cards long before equilibrium is reached. Human beings have the capacity to plan for the future and execute on those plans, but the number of years forward we are motivated to act upon have finite congnitive limits. The climate change issue is a recent-but-not-exclusive example of these limitations at work.

There is of course an amusing logical fallacy in her argument as a whole. If we are to ever reach the equilibrium she seeks, whether that is by design or through painful reaction, that equilibrium would have to be completely fueled by renewable resources, since we must eventually run out of the non-renewable ones. Doh!

Still, I'm glad this got posted to Slashdot. Undeneath her specific arguments there is a clear undercurrent. "Physicists are smarter than all the rest of you because we deal with real stuff so all of you can suck it." That kind of attitude definitely belongs here.

France (1)

photonyx (2507666) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745171)

FTFY: Dawn Stover has another great piece of FUD.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_in_France [wikipedia.org]
and http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf40.html [world-nuclear.org] :
  1. France derives over 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy. This is due to a long-standing policy based on energy security.
  2. France is the world's largest net exporter of electricity due to its very low cost of generation, and gains over EUR 3 billion per year from this.

Now get off my lawn.

I wouldn't have had that cheeseburger... (1)

ZombieRoboNinja (905329) | about a year and a half ago | (#42745213)

...if I knew it would cause this energy crisis!

So the point of the article is that it'd be very hard to scale up current renewable technologies (including nuclear) to cover all our energy needs, because of limited supplies of rare metals, etc. A fair enough point.

But then it dips into the more philosophical argument that if we keep expending 2.3% more energy every year we'll eventually run out of sunlight. But assuming a constant geometric increase in energy expenditures seems ridiculous. Especially when coupled with the concluding paragraph's assertion that the best solution is to eat less meat and drive less. Problem solved!

Here's the thing: human behavior is determined by economic realities. I live half an hour from work instead of within biking distance because houses are unaffordable in the downtown area - so I drive to work. I (probably) drink orange juice flown across the country from Florida instead of from here in California because global capitalism (and the incentives corporations have coerced from our government) make it "cheaper" to ship over some pre-pulped Florida's Best than to set up a factory here. If I can't afford to pay $80 for a shirt, I'll have to buy a new one in a few months because it's "cheaper" to have kids sew it together in Indonesia out of crappy materials and sell it at the Gap than it is for someone to make it here, out of quality materials by adult workers making at least minimum wage. So I get trapped in a cycle of wasting tons of crappy worn clothes and the fuel it takes to ship around the materials for NEW crappy clothes to replace them.

The "good" news: since we're at or near Peak Oil, the stuff's only going to get more expensive, so it'll gradually become less economically feasible to ship oranges across the country, or figs from Peru, or whatever. And at some point it'll be worth the cash for me to move closer to my work (or ride the smelly dangerous unreliable bus) rather than pay $20 a gallon to commute. And they won't save enough money underpaying Indonesian children to make it worth shipping fabric back and forth across the globe.

So overall, we're GOING to expend less non-renewable energy eventually, but we're all such short-sighted assholes it probably won't be until oil scarcity forces us to. So building renewables isn't just an eco-hippie priority; it's also about not screwing ourselves over in a decade or two when the Chinese are running on 50% solar (or whatever) and we're stuck paying through the nose to keep our gas cars and coal-burning power plants running.

If we want to help the environment in the meantime, why the heck wouldn't we invest in renewables AND in consumption-reducing infrastructure? Change around the Farm Bill and international trade agreements and all the other laws that corporations have paid for to make it easier for them to profit on the backs of poor people in other countries while making us fatter and more wasteful. (People eat more meat than they used to because it didn't USED to be cheaper to buy a double cheeseburger than fish or a head of lettuce.) Build some damn train tracks and buy some new buses so public transit is actually a viable option outside of Manhattan. And yes, stop building coal and oil power plants, if for no other reason than because they'll cost more than they're worth long before they're due to be retired. Give more tax credits for solar panels and insulation and double-pane windows. Tell people to properly inflate their tires.

But don't pretend that simply NOT building more power plants is a viable option. What does that do, exactly? Jacks up the price of electricity and gas, which the corporations and farms that use most of that electricity and gas will pay for with another tax writeoff, and which will further screw the growing lower class in the First World by making us pay an even higher portion of our income to keep our houses heated and our lights on.

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