Scientific American’s “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030:” the Cost

November 13, 2009

091111 November 09 SA coverThe cover story of the November issue of Scientific American, A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030,” by Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi  promises a path to a “sustainable future” for the whole world in just 20 years. They define “sustainable” as a world where all energy sources are derived from water, wind and solar. Nuclear need not apply.

The article had a few words about the cost, but much was left out.  Jacobson and Delucchi conclude that their grand plan will cost about $100 trillion dollars.  I found this ridiculously large sum to be too low!  My rough calculations yields a cost of $200 trillion!

This post is an attempt to fill in a few blanks.

I will accept the authors’ mix of energy sources, apply some capacity factor estimates for each source, throw in an estimate of the land required for some sources, and estimate the installation cost per Watt for each source. Since all of these numbers are debatable, I provide references for most of them. But some of the numbers are simply my estimates. Also, I consider only installation costs.  I do not consider the additional costs of operation and maintainance, which may considerable.

Another point, the authors say that the US Energy Information Administration projects the world power requirement for 2030 would be 16.9 TW to accomodate population increase and rising living standards. By my reading, the Energy Information Administration’s estimate is actually 22.6 TW by 203013.  Nevertheless, Jacobson and Delucchi base their plan on only 11.5 TW, with an assumption that a power system based entirely on electrification would be much more efficient.  I will go along with their estimate of 11.5 TW for the sake of argument.

Here are my numbers

(click on image to get larger view)…

Total energy cost calculation


The numbers that I have placed in the blue columns are open to debate, but I am fairly confident of the capacity factors.  The capacity factor for concentrated solar power, with energy storage, such as molten salt, can vary depending on interpretation.  If energy is drawn from storage at night, then the capacity factor could be argued to be higher.  On the other hand, it would result in greater collection area, collection equipment and expense.   Note that using my estimates for capacity factors, the “total real power” works out to 12.03 TW, close to Jacobson’s and Delucchi’s 11.5 TW.

PV installation costThe dollars per installed watt is where I would expect the greatest argument.  For example, Jacobson and Delucchi call for 1.7 billion 3000 watt rooftop PV systems.  That is residential size, on the order of 300 square feet.  You can find offers for residential systems at much lower rates than $8 per watt installed.  But this is because of rebates and incentives.  Rebates and incentives only work when a small fraction of the population takes advantage of them.  If every residence must install a photovoltaic system, there is no way to pass the cost on to your neighbors.  Click on the chart on the left, from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory: of all the states listed, only one comes in at under $8 per installed watt for systems under 10 kilowatts, and half of the remaining come in at over $9.

Turbine transaction priceWouldn’t prices fall as technology advances?  Not necessarily.  Look at the cost to install wind facilities – it has been increasing since the early 2000s. A large part of the installed price for wind is the cost of the wind turbine itself.  Click on this graph showing the price of wind turbines per kilowatt capacity.  This increasing trend will likely continue if demand is artificially pushed up by a grandiose plan to install millions more wind turbines beyond what are called for by the free-market.

Expect to see the same effect for photovoltaic prices.  While the cost of photovoltaic power has been slowly falling, the demand (as a fraction of the total energy market) has been miniscule.  Jacobson and Delucchi call for 17 TW of photovoltaic power (5 TW from rooftop PV and 12 TW from PV power plants) by 2030.  Compare that to the what is already installed in Europe, the world’s biggest marked for PV: 0.0095 TW.  Achieving Jacobson’s and Delucchi’s desired level would require an orders or magnitude demand increase.  This is likely to lead to higher prices, not lower.  For my calculations I am staying with today’s costs for photovoltaics.

Some perspective

We have started using the word “trillion” when talking about government expenditures.  Soon we may become numb to that word, as we have already become numb to “million” and “billion.”  My estimate for the cost of Jacobson’s and Delucchi’s system comes out to about $210 trillion.  So how much is $210 trillion dollars?

It is approximately 100 times the $2.157 trillion of the total United States government receipts of 2009 (see documentation from the Government Printing Office) . 

It is about 15 times the GDP of the United States.

$210 trillion dollars is about 11 times the yearly revenue of all the national government budgets in the world!  You can confirm this by adding all the entries in the revenue column in the Wikipedia “Government Budget by Country.”

What about just the United States?

Jacobson and Delucchi calculate that with their system the US energy demand with be 1.8 TW 2030.  Keep in mind that the demand today is already 2.8 TW.  If we accept their estimate of 1.8 TW, then that  is about 16% of their estimated world demand of 11.5 TW for 2030.  So roughly speaking, the US share of the cost would be 16% of $210 trillion, or about $34 trillion.  That is 16 times the total United States government receipts of 2009. 

Doesn’t seem to likely to work, does it?

I know that Jacobson and Delucchi don’t like nukes.  But the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor price of under $2 per installed watt sure sounds attractive to me now.  Just a thought.

Update 11/14/2009

Jacobson and Delucchi compared their scheme to the building of the interstate highway system.  See here for are realistic comparison.


1) Capacity factor of wind power realized values vs. estimates, Nicolas Boccard, Energy Policy 37(2009)2679–2688
2)  http://www.oceanrenewable.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/power-and-energy-from-the-ocean-waves-and-tides.pdf
3)  Fridleifsson,, Ingvar B.,  et. al.,  The possible role and contribution of geothermal energy to the mitigation of climate change. (get copy here)
4)  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroelectricity
5)  Tracking the Sun II, page 19 , Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, http://eetd.lbl.gov/ea/emp/reports/lbnl-2674e.pdf
6)  Projecting the Impact of State Portfolio Standards on Solar installations, California Energy commission, http://www.cleanenergystates.org/library/ca/CEC_wiser_solar_estimates_0205.pdf
7)  David MacKay – “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” http://www.withouthotair.com/download.html
8).  64MW/400acres = 40MW/km2 http://www.chiefengineer.org/content/content_display.cfm/seqnumber_content/3070.htm
9)  http://www.windustry.org/how-much-do-wind-turbines-cost
10)  I have chosen a low cost because most hydroelectric has already been developed.
11) 280 MW for $1 billion, http://www.tucsoncitizen.com/ss/related/77596
12) Based on my personal experience as a Scientist working on photovoltaics for 14 years at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.  This number varies according to insolaton, latitude, temperature, etc.
13)  The EIA predicts a need for 678 quadrillion (6.78 x 1017) BTUs of yearly world energy use by 2030.  One BTU is the same as 2.9307 x 10-4  kiloWatt hours.   So, (6.78 x 1017 BTU) x (2.9307 x 10-4  kWhr / BTU) = 1.98 x 1014 kWhr.    One year is 8.76 x 103 hours.  So the required world power would be given by:  (1.98 x 1014 kWhr) / (8.76 x 103 hr) = 2.26 x 1010 kW = 22.6  TW.

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  1. I wonder if you have a typo in the total energy cost table. The column labelled “TWh/y” seems to contain numbers that are too small.
    Also, I am wondering whether you have assumed that the power per unit land area of wind farms, 2MW per km2, is an _average_ power figure, or a _peak capacity_ figure? Just to be clear, in my book, it’s an average power figure.
    How about taking the total spend required and expressing it per person per year, by dividing by 1 billion people (the rough number of people who will pay) and 20 years? Thanks!
    All the best! David
    ps – not a big deal, but
    I have since updated my estimate for wind in the UK from 2 W/m2 to 2.5 W/m2.

    • Dear David MacKay.

      I am delighted to have you comment on the blog.

      Your book, “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” is a first rate piece of work and highly readable. I recommend it to everyone concerned about our energy future.

      You are correct about the column labeled “TWhr/yr.” I was off by a factor of 1000. Luckily it did not affect subsequent calculations. It has now been fixed – Thanks.

      Your suggestion about dividing by a billion people and twenty years is a very good one. I have done this sobering calculation many times. The answer, of course, is $10,000 per person per year for twenty years.

      Best Regards,
      Tom Moriarty
      Climate Sanity

  2. Note also that the area required to be turned into wind wastelands is equivalent to 3100 x 3100 km, 1900 x 1900 miles, or roughly the entire land area of the US including Alaska, or all of continental Europe.

    Oh goody. GE will be soooo pleased…

    • Dear Craig Goodrich,

      Thank you for your comment.

      However, I calculated the land required for wind improperly. See my comment below with an explanation. I over-estimated by about a factor of 5.

      This error does not change my estimated cost.

      Best Regards,
      Climate Sanity

  3. We need to adapt. Take a look at this article The Great Transition: http://www.scribd.com/doc/21656220/The-Great-Transition-Navigating-Social-Economic-Ecological-Change-in-Turbulent-Times

  4. Ummmm…seriously, the UK alone uses 1TW PER DAY! The USA currently uses 11TW per day! It would take covering 1/2 the UK with wind turbines to provide all their power (ignoring the erratic output) and it would take…340 thousand 4MW wind turbines to power the US. These would take 68 million tons of steel total and approximately 340 million cubic yards of concrete.

    Going with solar-thermal (a much more cost effective solar) it would take an area about 1/2 the size of north carolina…once you factor in the mirror spacing, the fact that some places would need much larger installations due to winter having less sun, etc.

    If I was going to try to go with alternatives RIGHT NOW I’d say it would be far better to use solar-thermal and simply use conventional fuels as backup. Solar-thermal already has a heat to electricity conversion so its not too much more to burn coal (if you want to go with cheap fuel) and natural gas backup would be virtually free on install and lower carbon (not that I care) but would cost more in the long run. Either way, you cut emissions by 50% or more (again…not that I care about CO2)

  5. Most worthwhile contribution. A sound case in my opinion. My only critical suggestion would be to turn on your spell checker!

    You have provided solid support for my opinion, which is that we should go nuclear unless a significant scientific breakthrough occurs.

    • Dear Brian Morrow,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I admit to being a poor speller – especially when typing fast.

      I always use the WordPress spell checker. But I have found it to be rather strange. It tends to flag word fragments instead of words. Frequently, it will flag “th” within words as being misspelled. It misses some words and has flagged others that are spelled correctly.

      Often, I will copy my text into “MS Word” and run the spell checker there. But copying and pasting the text back into the blog editor is a hassle.

      Your criticism is well-taken. I will try to be more careful.

      More importantly, as a scientist who has spent 14 years working on photovoltaics, I agree with your conclusion about nuclear energy.

      Best Regards

  6. Dear readers,

    I have revised the “Power density (W/km2) for wind turbines. The numbers I chose for solar and wind were like comparing apples to oranges. In the solar case I chose a number that spplied to the “installed power,” but for wind I chose a number that applied to the “total real power” (i.e. “average power”). This was misleading and confusing. I appologize for the mistake.

    I have now upped the power density for wind to apply to the installed power. The old (misleading) value was 2,000,000 W/km2. The new value is 10,000,000 W/km2. This changes the “land required (km2)” for wind from 9,500,000 km2 to 1,900,000 km2. A considerable difference.

    However, this mistake has no impact on the calculated installation cost of $28.5 trillion for wind.

    Thanks again to David McKay for pointing this out.

    Best Regards,

  7. Any plans that do not include nuclear fission power plants are not realistic, and are doomed to fail.

  8. [...] Sanity « Scientific American’s “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030:” the Cost More thoughts on Scientific American’s “A Path to Sustainable Energy [...]

  9. [...] Sanity « Scientific American’s “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030:” the Cost Comparing the Interstate Highway System to Scientific American’s “A Path to [...]

  10. Dear Mr Moriarty,

    I first came across your blog when you wrote about “walling in” Boston to keep the the AGW-created high water from flooding the city. Through the use of the long period available for the wall work you could show that this really is not a big deal. If I remember correctly each inhabitant in Boston should every second month or so, do his national duty and wheelbarrow some stone and gravel to the wall.

    You end your paper above by saying something positive about nuclear power. Let me with my Swedish background say what that might cost, utilising your “simple” way of calculating.

    We have 50 % nuclear and 50 % water power. (Together with France we are the good boys from a CO2-perspective.)

    My calculation: Finland is just now investing in a big reactor. Sweden would need 10 such reactors for our entire need for electricity. The Finnish reactor cost 7 billion US dollars. Ten reactors would then cost 70 billion. United States is 30 times bigger than Sweden. This means that the States, to have a Swedish level of electricity per capita, needs to build 10 x 30 = 300 Finnish reactors, costing in all 2.100 billion dollar. This can be compared with you annual GDP of (aprox.) 15.000 billion. During an (unrealistic) short investment period of 20 years (and with no increase in GDP assumed) the US would then need to invest less than one percent of its GDP to get an almost total change of its energy system. In the process becoming a big France/Sweden. Not that frightening!

    Even if we Swedes live happily at our present level of consumption of electricity, US citizens might have bigger needs. And on top of that a necessary (if drawn out) good by to fossile fuels will mean a more central place for electricity than at present. Let us then double the role of electricity. But we are still in the bracket of one to two percentage points of a stable GDP. What are we so agitated about?

    Finally: We need more of your “back of the envelope calculations” for the really big questions.

  11. Evaluation of “Sustainable Energy” by the year 2030-S.A. November 2009: utilizing the “Convergence Mehod”:

    1)A total of nine statements,symbols: sentences and data will be evaluated by utilizing the “summation of six divided by Symbolic Linear Regression to convergence (copyright pending).”

    2)The essential statements and data will be assessed, which are identified in the Selected Comments:Given.

    3)The Set of Symbols, identified by N, will be processed into the Percentage (truth) column.

    Page Percentage N,Set of Given
    % – “truth” Symbols
    58 zero 3 Wind, water,solar provide
    100% worlds energy:0%
    58 100 4 confidence that such a
    possible: 100%
    59 75 4 Key Concepts: 75%
    60-61 50 3 Renewable Power Available
    Needed Installation: 50%
    62 25 6 Possible Material
    Shortages: 25%
    63 50 2 California Case Study: 50%
    (100% elect.not possible)
    63 75 3 Smart Mix for Reliab:75%
    64 50 6 Cost to Generate Power in
    2020:50% (given values)
    65 50 2 Political Will
    (“aggressive policies”
    are not the answer:50%)
    %(mean) = 52.777778, sigma(s.d.) = 27.498597
    (Six-decimal place is essential for the convergence method)
    the correlation between mean and sigma,standard deviation, comes to a = 78.056959 & b = -25.056959

    The summation(S)6/SLR to convergence follows:
    33>-24>23>-13>20>-12> S27 >-26>15> S16
    48>-20>11>-37>17>-15> S4 >-21>26> S9
    All four S are in harmony therfore the value comes to 100%, now we look at -sigma:
    the correlation between mean and -sigma:
    a = 133.054153, b = -80.276375:
    33>-18>13>-20>13>-20> S1 >23>-10> S14
    48>-11>19>-8>26>-10> S64>-20 >13>-20> S-27
    Two in harmony and two contradict: the value comes to 50%: the complete evaluation follows:
    %(effective) = 52.777778 x (1 + .5)= 79.2
    With this case percent effective approaches the value of mean plus one standard deviation:
    %(mean) + sigma = 80.3
    The Conclusion: Evaluation of “Sustainable Energy” utilizing the three defined power sources, wind-water-solar, WWS, is a valid proposal and attainable.
    1)A Sustainable Energy, WWS, “pilot state” should be proposed before a “world” commitment takes place. The “Show and Tell State” will have no fossil fuel back up.
    2)A thorough study must be conducted, utilizing super computers, to determine if our weather patterns will change with all that energy removed from the wind.
    I sent a paper to the Scientific America Administrator Avonelle Wing, 5-23-09, which describes how symbols may be evaluated by established set boundaries. The symbol analysis is verified by factual science data reflecting the accuracy of the method. The method, S6/SLR to Convergence, reflects on the prediction accuracy when extended to verbalization analysis and other science data, which are all symbols, as shown above.

    • Dear Fidel Orona,


      Best Regards

  12. 200 Trillion is a gross underestimate; it completely ignores maintenance and repair for one thing. I mean, how much water will it take to wash a half-million square kilometers of solar panels each week? How much energy to pump it? The panels themselves need to be replaced every eight years; that’s a lot of factories, resouce extraction and transportation.

    I seriously doubt if this energy mix could produce enough power to maintain itself, much less provide power to anything else.

    It’s a worthless fantasy…

  13. I don’t mean to be a conspiracy theorist, but “Scientific” “American” is neither. Or rather it is about 80% Scientific and 20% American. If I am not mistaken it is owned by Bertelsmann; nothing wrong with that, right? Please bear with me.

    There is more than just evidence that the whole AGW, as we know it today, was invented in Germany, in 1985 (http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/secret-history-climate-alarmism) and has been funded by the EU (which is another 80% shop) since 1990 (http://www.hoover.org/publications/policy-review/article/43291).

    And while in the US it appears that AGW and Green Energy are bizarre creations of leftists, Al Gore and …GE, if you look at who has been sponsoring all major Green blogs and sites up unitl Copenhagen, it was “Siemens”; since replaced by Areva, and European Utilities. Al Gore is a salesman and GE a local partner.

    A casual review of who-is-who and who-is-doing-what in the Green Business world shows you a bizarre German connection: http://greenfraud.blogspot.com/2011/03/not-so-random-walk-through-various.html and http://greenfraud.blogspot.com/2011/03/german-green-business-plan.html. Sounds far fetched? Try something called Desertec, a major German-led Green expansion in North Africa. You can look-up the Desertec site, but I believe http://www.ecofascism.com/article22.html is an excellent description. The best plan since Rommel.

    And I am coming to Scientific American of which I was a fan since the late 70′s. Bertelsmann and Holtzbrinck have had a massive influence on conditioning would-be “educated” opinion in the US. Please see http://www.trans-int.com/wordpress/?tag=bertelsmann. I humbly agree 100% with the implications made herein. “Scientific” “American” is neither when it comes to Green Energy. It is acting as the not so subtle marketing agent for Back Home.

    You may also look for a correlation between infrastructure contracts awarded to Siemens and the Clinton Administration. Coincidence? Perhaps. The love of the (R)Governor of Kalifornia for cap-and-trade may also be a coincidence. A global carbon tax is key for the German Green Plan to succeed.

    Please accept my apologies for such a long comment with so many links…

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