Archive for the ‘Scientific American’ Category


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
3)  Fridleifsson,, Ingvar B.,  et. al.,  The possible role and contribution of geothermal energy to the mitigation of climate change. (get copy here)
5)  Tracking the Sun II, page 19 , Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory,
6)  Projecting the Impact of State Portfolio Standards on Solar installations, California Energy commission,
7)  David MacKay – “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air”
8).  64MW/400acres = 40MW/km2
10)  I have chosen a low cost because most hydroelectric has already been developed.
11) 280 MW for $1 billion,
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.


Obama just plain wrong about North Dakota floods.

March 29, 2009

Scientific American continues to embarrass itself with its online reporting of President Obama’s insights concerning flooding of the Red River in North Dakota.  They report “President Obama says potentially historic flood levels in North Dakota are a clear example of why steps need to be taken to stop global warming….” and quote the President as saying in his usual articulate way:

“If you look at the flooding that’s going on right now in North Dakota and you say to yourself, ‘If you see an increase of two degrees, what does that do, in terms of the situation there?'”

Scientific American has made it pretty clear in the past where their scientific political leanings are, but this may be a new low, even for them.  It is sad to see this once great magazine so severely dumbed down in the last few years.  In their haste to continue to cash in on the global warming hysteria they forgot to decided not to include a few salient facts. 

 Take a look at this very nice poster, “A History of Flooding in the Red River Basin,” from the USGS.  Click on the image to enlarge it (the enlarged image is about 5 MB).  Read the box along the right side of the poster.

A History of Flooding in the Red River Basin by the USGS

"A History of Flooding in the Red River Basin" by the USGS

The box is titled “Factors contributing to flooding in the Red River Basin” and it lists “Landform Factors” and “Weather Factors.”  I have reproduced the list below with the text from the poster in brown and the evidence, in black, supporting each factor in the case of the current flooding.

Factors contributing to flooding in the Red River Basin

Landform factors:

  • A relatively shallow and meandering river channel…  This is essentially an unchanging fact of life and is no different this year than other years.
  • A gentle slope (averaging 0.5 to 1.5 feet per mile) that inhibits channel flow and encourages overland flooding or water “ponding” (especially on even, saturated ground) in the basin.  The slope of the ground is unchanged from year to year.  But the ground was saturated by heavy rains all through the fall.  Look at the monthly weather summaries from the North Dakota State Climate Office (NDSCO) for September, October, November and December.  Look at the National Weather Service Reports for Grand Forks for September, October  and November of 2008. 
  • The northerly direction of flow-flow in the Red River travels from south (upstream) to north (downstream). The direction of flow becomes a critical factor in the spring when the southern (upstream) part of the Red River has thawed and the northern (downstream) part of the channel is still frozen. As water moves north toward the still frozen river channel, ice jams and substantial backwater flow and flooding can occur.  This is exactly what happened all along the Red River.  It also has happened along other rivers in North Dakota.  Along the Missouri River in Bismarck explosives were used to break flood causing ice jams.

Weather factors:

  • Above-normal amounts of precipitation in the fall of the year that produce high levels of soil moisture, particularly in flat surface areas, in the basin. Again, look at the monthly weather summeries from the North Dakota State Climate office for September, October, November and December.
  • Freezing of saturated ground in late fall or early winter, before significant snowfall occurs, that produces a hard, deep frost that limits infiltration of runoff during snowmelt. Starting in December temperatures have been very low in North Dakota.  The North Dakota State Climate Office (NDSCO) reported for December that “The average monthly temperatures were below normal across the State. The departure from normal temperature ranged from -10 in the north central to -6 in the south central part of the State.  Mohall, Bottineau, Huffland, Harvey, Crosby and Karlsruhe all saw temperatures in the -30s.  For January the NDSCO  reported “extreme arctic cold temperatures. The National Weather Service (NWS) recorded a record -44°F on January 15th at Bismarck.”
  • Above-normal winter snowfall in the basin. The December report of the NDSCO said “Fargo, Grand Forks, and Bismarck received record December snowfall.”  For January they said “Heavy snow fell across the State during the first half of January setting National Weather Service (NWS) daily precipitation records at Williston, Bismarck, Fargo, and Grand Forks…The monthly total percent of normal precipitation was 150% to 300% of normal in the northwest, central, and parts of the south central regions.”  Just as bad or worse for February according to the NDSCO; “All areas across the State had above normal precipitation. The East half of the state had primarily between 150% and 300% of normal precipitation. The West half of the state had between 150% to 500% plus, percent of normal precipitation.”
  • Above-normal precipitation during snowmelt.  This was irrelevant because of the huge amount of rain in the spring and snowfall during the previous three months
  • Above normal temperatures during snow melt.  The flooding started when daily high temperatures went from a much below average regime to a much above average regime around March 12th, as shown in this graph.

The Red River finally crested at about 40.8 feet, slightly higher than the previous record of 40.1 feet in 1897.  I think that even Barack Obama and Scientific American would agree that the 1897 flood was not due to global warming.  So where is it between 40.1 feet and 40.8 feet that global warming becomes obviously responsible? 

Remember the old Mark Twain saying, “Everybody is talking about the weather, but nobody is doing anything about it?”  That was back in the good old days.  I wouldn’t mind so much if the president were just talking about the weather, because then we could just chalk it up to a political hack.  But I’m afraid he is going to actually try to do something about it, like getting people panicked about global warming, and then using the issue to socialize the economy of the country.

As for Scientific American, they have no excuse.  It was totally irresponsible of them to be completely credulous when Obama linked this flood to global warming.  The conditions that lead to flooding in North Dakota have been known for years, as evidenced by the USGS poster.  The folks at Scietific American could have done their homework and figured it out just as easily as I did.


“Warmer Oceans, Stronger Hurricanes,” Trenberth, Scientific American, July 2007

October 1, 2007

Hyperbole comes in many forms. This article in Scientific American came with a full page artist’s rendering of a “future hurricane.” I have shown a very small (to avoid copyright lawyers) copy of the picture below, with a blow up of one section. The caption for the picture in the magazine says “Future hurricanes could be more severe thanks to global warming.” The blow up shows a giant hurricane bearing down on the Caribbean and the East coast of the United States

Figure 1. The small picture at the left is a miniature version of the 8 inch by 11 inch full page artist’s rendering of a “future hurricane” form page 44 of the July 2007 Scientific American. The right side shows a blow up of part of the picture.

The very first paragraph of the article reminds the reader of the 2005 hurricane season and, of course, Katrina. So, I use a pair of pictures below to compare Katrina to the imagined “future hurricane.” The first is a satellite image of Katrina shortly before it made landfall near New Orleans. The second is a detail of the Scientific American picture. Note that the sizes of the images have been adjusted to give the same scale.

Figure 2. Detail of Scientific American picture of “future hurricane” with same scale as image of Hurricane Katrina in figure 3,below.

Figures 3. Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina just hours before making landfall at New Orleans. This image is on the same scale at the artist rendering of a “future hurricane” in figure 2, above.

Figure 4. Juxtaposition of the Scientific American “future hurricane” and the very real Katrina from the satellite image. I have removed land masses from both pictures. Both pictures are on the same scale, as in figures 2 & 3.

Scientific American’s “future hurricane” is bigger than the continent of North America. It is so big that it stretches from northern Brazil to southern Canada. It is as large as the North Atlantic Ocean. This is clearly extreme visual hyperbole, but it is also a metaphor for much of the global warming debate, where preposterous exaggerations and extrapolations abound.

Those who are convinced that we are headed for a future of giant hurricanes due to increased CO2 might consider the following journal articles to mitigate the effects of the seemingly endless fear mongering so common in the global warming debate:

1. In Low Atlantic hurricane activity in the 1970s and1980s compared to the past 270 years, Nyberg, et. al., point out that “reliable observations of hurricane activity in the North Atlantic only cover the past few decades.” It is not possible to say, based on this short set of data, if the variation that has been seen during these few decades is greater than should be expected over longer time scales. However, they developed a proxy for both sea surface temperature and vertical wind shear covering 270 years. (Vertical wind shear is inversely related to hurricane formation). The result shows that “the average frequency of major hurricanes decreased gradually from the 1760s until the early 1990s, reaching anomalously low values during the 1970s and 1980s.” It seems clear that the upswing in hurricane activity seen from the beginning of the satellite era to the present is largely a consequence of the beginning of the satellite era being at the low point of hurricane activity for the last 270 years.

2. The article in Nature, Intense hurricane activity over the past 5,000 years controlled by El Nin˜o and the West African monsoon,” by Donnelly and Woodruff of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts echos the concern that “the instrumental record is too short and unreliable to reveal trends in intense tropical cyclone activity.” To overcome these limitations they used sediment deposits in coastal lagoons of the Caribbean to gauge hurricane activity on the century and millennial time scales over a 5000 year period. They found the frequency of intense hurricanes varied widely on these time scales during the past 5,000 years and that the frequency appears to be governed by the El Nin˜o/Southern Oscillation and the strength of the West African monsoon.” Additionally, ” sea surface temperatures as high as at present are not necessary to support intervals of frequent intense hurricanes.”

3. The short instrumental record of hurricane activity was a motivation for Miller, et. al. in their 2006 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper, “Tree-ring isotope records of tropical cyclone activity.” As trees grow, the oxygen isotope ratios of the water at that place and time are locked into their rings. It is also known that the precipitation of tropical cyclones and hurricanes have oxygen isotope ratios that are greatly different that more common causes of precipitation. Miller, et. al., examined long leaf pines (pinus pulustris) in Georgia because they have shallow roots and a distinct early season growth and late season growth in their rings. these combine to give a precise temporal fix on isotope ratio variation. Their study covered 1770 to 1990. Their analysis of the tree ring oxygen isotope data shows very close agreement with the instrumental data for the southeastern United States after 1940, verifying the efficacy of their method for earlier times. The overall results indicate “systematic, decadal- to multidecadal-scale variations” in the isotope ratios, and consequently variations in the number of hurricanes. Hurricane activity appears to have peaked in the 1770s, 1800s to 1820s, 1840s and 1850s, 1865 to 1880, and the 1940s to 1950s. The quietest decades are the 1780s through 1790s, and the 1970s. The 1970s saw the beginning of satellite tracking of hurricanes. The fact that there has been an upswing in hurricanes in the satellite record is much less alarming when you consider that the 1970s was one of the least active decades (at least for the southeastern United States) in over 200 years.

Kevin E. Trenberth, “Warmer Oceans, Stronger Hurricanes,” Scientific American, July 2007, p44-51. (Get copy here.)

Johan Nyberg, et. al., “Low Atlantic hurricane activity in the 1970s and 1980s compared to the past 270 years,” Science, Vol 447, 2007. (Get copy here.)

Jeffrey P. Donnelly & Jonathan D. Woodruff, “Intense hurricane activity over the past 5,000 years controlled by El Nin˜o and the West African monsoon,” Nature, Vol 447, 24 May 2007 (Get copy here.)

Dana L. Miller, et. al., “Tree-ring isotope records of tropical cyclone activity,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS, Vol. 103, no. 39, September 26, 2006 (Get copy here.)