Posts Tagged ‘Scientific American’


Alarmism at Scientific American (again)

February 24, 2015

Scientific American is such an embarrassment.  It’s sad, because I used to like that magazine.

Once again they are shills for the global warming alarmists, scaring people with wildly exaggerated claims about sea level rise.  This time Colin Sullivan writes that the sea level at New York City could increase by six feet by 2100.

Heat waves and floods caused by climate change could mean disaster for the Big Apple’s five boroughs by the end of the century, with sea levels now predicted by a new report to climb by as much as 6 feet by 2100.

Really?  6 feet by 2100????

First, lets start with a minor point.  Real scientists and science writers usually don’t use “feet,” they use meters.  So why does Scientific American use “feet?”  My guess is that it is some linear combination of the following two reasons: the Scientific America audience isn’t really scientifically literate these days, and “6 feet” sounds like more than “2 meters” (even though it is actually slightly less).

Now, lets get to the major point.  Any responsible journalist writing about sea level rise in at New York City would present the historical data.  There are nearly 150 years of sea level rise data available for The Battery (at the southern tip of Manhattan) from NOAA


Do you notice that the sea level rise is less than 3 mm/year?  Can you detect an acceleration over the past 150 years?  The sea level at the Battery will go up about 22 cm by 2100 at the present rate.  To go up 6 feet (1.83 meters) by 2100 it would have to look something like this…

Battery sea level rise extended 4

There is a part of me that wants to heap invective on Colin Sullivan and Scientific American, but I realize that while that may make me feel better, it will not help the situation.  So I will simply ask them, “Why don’t you show the actual historic data?”  It seems like a no-brainer, and anything less is journalistic malpractice.

Deniers and Alarmists

People like me have been branded with the “denier” epithet.  Why this particular word?  We are called “deniers” an ugly attempt to link us with Holocaust deniers.  It is an inaccurate and unfair moniker.

But we tend to call those at the other end of the spectrum “alarmists.”  Is that an unfair accusation?  I don’t think so, and this Scientific American article demonstrates why.  They pretend to be an objective source, but leave out the most pertinent data.  I can only think of two possible reasons for this: they are just stupid, or they want to cause a state of alarm.  I may be charitable in assigning the second motive.  “Alarmist” is an accurate and fair epithet for them.


Comparing the Interstate Highway System to Scientific American’s “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030”

November 14, 2009

091111 November 09 SA cover 2In the November, 2009 issue of Scientific American, Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi propose a plan to supply the world’s energy needs entirely by solar, wind and water sources by 2030. They conclude that the cost would be $100 trillion. My calculations show the cost to be more like $200 trillion.

This post dissects their comparison between the construction of the Interstate Highway System and their Energy system.


Interstate Highway System (2009 dollars):  $0.453 trillion
Jacobson’s and Delucchi’s Energy system (2009 dollars): $200 trillion

Jacobson and Delucchi say…

“Our plan calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations. The numbers are large, but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle; society has achieved massive transformations before… In 1956 the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.”

The Interstate Highway System is “largest public works program in history.” The concept was first approved by congress in 1944. But it was more than a decade until President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The plan evolved to building 42,500 miles of “super-highway” by 1975.  40,000 miles were completed by 1980.

The expected cost in 1958 was $41 billion. By 1995 the total construction cost amounted to $329 billion (in 1996 dollars). This translates into $58.5 billion 1957 dollars. That is not too far off from the original estimate.  Converting the $329 billion 1996 dollars to 2009 dollars gives $453 billion.

So if Jacobson’s and Delucchi’s estimate for the cost of their energy system is correct, then their energy plan would cost over 200 times as much ($100 trillion / $453 billion) as the Interstate Highway System to which they like to compare it.

If my calculations for the cost of their energy system are correct, then it would cost more than 400 times as much ($200 trillion / $453 billion) as the Interstate Highway System! And since they propose building their system in just 20 years, then it would be like building 20 interstate highway systems (which took about 30 years to build) every single year for twenty years.

Required surface area

Interstate Highway System – paved area: 3,500 km2
Jacobson’s and Delucchi’s Energy system (solar portion only): 500,000 km2

Composite interstate highway imageAnother interesting comparison is the amount of land required. The image at the left (click to enlarge) shows a spot check of interstate highway widths using Google Earth.  A liberal estimate of the average paved width of the Interstate Highway System is about 150 feet (about 45 meters, or 0.045 kilometers).  So, roughly speaking, the 47,000 mile (76,000 kilometer) Interstate Highway System paved over about 3,500 square kilometers ( 0.045 kilometers X 76,000 kilometers).

The area covered by solar panels in the Scientific American plan would be on the order of 500,000 square kilometers, or 150 times larger than the Interstate Highway System. (See calculated land required for Concentrated Solar, PV power plants, and rooftop solar, here)

Let’s rip up the Interstate Highway System and build a new one.

Jacobson and Delucchi claim that the expense of their energy system “is not money handed out by governments or consumers. It is an investment that is paid back through the sale of electricity and energy.” This is a soothing argument that overlooks an obvious fact: We already have a power energy system that pays for itself “through the sale of electricity and energy.”   

This is like pointing out that an Interstate Highway System would have great benefits for us, and then suggesting that we could reap those benefits by tearing down the system we have now and then rebuilding it.

It’s almost like swallowing poison so you can reap the benefits of good health after you recover.


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.