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July 28th 2016 print

Peter O'Brien

Blinded By The Sun

The solar-powered plane that recently concluded its much delayed and long overdue round-the-world flight was predictably touted as further 'proof' that green energy has come of age. The real-world appraisal is dour: a PR stunt to obscure the fact that 'alternative technologies' are going nowhere

solar planeJust the other day, we were told history was made when the aircraft Solar Impulse 2 landed in Abu Dhabi after what was described as the first round-the-world flight by a solar powered plane.  The epic journey commenced in March, 2015, and since that time the plane had spent a total of 23 days in the air. This was an achievement for which the aviation world waited a long time, quite literally, to applaud — both in the short and much longer-term.

On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright conducted what is generally credited as  the first sustained powered flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft, covering 39 metres. By 1905, the Wrights were able to cover  24 miles in 39 minutes 23 seconds. By 1916 the aeroplane had been matched the synchronised machine gun and become a potent instrument of war.  A bare 65 years after the short hop at kitty Hawk, NASA put a man on the moon. The rapid progress was fuelled primarily by human imagination, wonderful new commercial opportunities and, of course, by two world wars.  It was an extraordinarily rapid pace of development.

In 1925, John Logie Baird demonstrated his first prototype of a modern television set.  His breakthrough, of course, relied on earlier technologies, the most important of which was the cathode ray tube first demonstrated in 1907.  In 1928, the world’s first television station WGY commenced operation in Schenectady in upstate New York.

In 1932 the BBC commenced regular programming.  TV broadcasts in London were on the air an average of four hours daily from 1936 to 1939. There were 12,000 to 15,000 receivers. Some sets in restaurants or bars might have 100 viewers for sport events.  Broadcasts were suspended during the war and resumed in 1946.  By the 1960s TV had become a ubiquitous part of modern life and by now its quality has improved exponentially.

A third example of technological advancement and commerce began in 1946, when ENIAC, the world’s first electronic general purpose computer was unveiled.  It weighed 27 tons, occupied 167 square metres of space, used 150kw of electricity.  Its construction cost almost US$7 million in today’s money, not least for its five million hand-soldered joints!  It could multiply two 10 digit numbers in .0028 seconds.  ENIAC was, of course, based on vacuum tubes and crystal diodes, which imposed a serious physical limitation on future progress.  This impediment was overcome in 1955 with the development of the first fully transistorized computer, the Harwell Cadet, at the UK Atomic Energy Research Establishment.  The development if the integrated circuit in 1958 then opened the way to the rapid development of the microcomputer.  The world went from ENIAC to Apple Mac in just 38 years!  And the pace of technological advance in computing since then has been astronomical.

See where I’m going with this? Now consider other technologies, ones we are constantly told are on the very edge of becoming commercially viable.

As early as 1887, Professor James Blyth of Glasgow built a ten-metre wind-power generator which he used to provide electricity to his holiday cottage.  At about the same time, James Brush in Cleveland, Ohio, built a larger wind generator which he used to power his laboratory.  It consisted of a 17-metre rotor mounted on an 18-metre tower.  It was rated at 12kw. Photovoltaic power generation was first demonstrated in 1839 but was quickly abandoned as a practical method for generating electricity. It did not really rear its head again until 1941, when Russell Ohl invented the solar cell. Still, it remained a niche technology until the mid 1970s, when governments started to worry about peak oil.

Let’s be generous and say that serious development of the two main renewable-energy technologies commenced in the 1980s.  So how far have they advanced in 35 years? A green website called Conserve Energy Future tells us that in 2012, $25 billion was invested worldwide in wind power. Bloomberg News tells us that in the ten years between 2004 and 2014, a total of US$2.3 trillion was invested in renewables, and that, as of 2016, they still produce a meret 4% or thereabouts of the world’s energy consumption.

We are constantly being bombarded with feel-good stories about wind and solar power generation and, indeed, billions of dollars have been expended worldwide on these boondoggles. This has produced little in the way of practical, base-load power, it has certainly spawned an endless supply of studies telling us how good renewables will be for the economy. This alleged benefit is said to be over and above those technologies’ CO2-curbing potential.

Trouble is, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) tells us that, in 2010, renewables made up only 20% of global electricity production, of which 16% was from hydroelectricity.  Wind power contributed 1.4% and solar less than 1%. The EIA predicts that the share of non-hydro renewables will increase to 9% by 2040.  They also tell us that coal will still be the largest contributor (30%) along with natural gas (25%) contributing 55% and nuclear 20%. The total share of renewables will have increased to only 25%.

Let me re-iterate.  By 2040, wind and solar will still only be contributing 9% of global electricity production.  If renewables are such a great economic opportunity, why such modest growth over a period of 25 years?

Oh, and by the way, that 30% share for coal in 2040 represents, in absolute terms, an increase in usage of 50%. Based on our experience with the successful technologies described above, if wind and solar are ever going to be a viable alternative to fossil fuels, don’t you think we should have seen some evidence of it by now? Wind power, in particular, has been around for 130 years and its fundamental design has hardly changed at all in that time.

Aviation, television and computing all have a couple of things in common.

First, their technological development was a logarithmic curve — that is, the giant leaps were made early in the maturation lifecycle and their further development predicated upon some new, breakthrough technology, such as the transistor, the jet engine etc. We have not seen that pace of improvement in either wind or solar.

Second, they were financed by redirecting a percentage of profits into R&D, private venture capital and, yes, government investment.  But in relation to government investment, it is important to make the distinction that this was government as consumer – particularly in the defence realm – not government as venture capitalist. Where are the venture capitalists for wind and solar?  The canny investors just clamouring to get on board the new renewables revolution?

History, physics and common sense all tell us wind and solar will never be competitive with fossil fuels.  The undeniable limiting factor is that fossil fuel energy is concentrated and available whenever required, while wind and solar are spread across the globe and are unvaryingly intermittent.

But getting back to the Solar Impulse 2,  Pilot Bertrand Piccard is reported in the Guardian to have said, “I hope people will understand that it is not just a first in the history of aviation, but also a first in the history of energy.” As The Guardian further explains, “The aim of the Solar Impulse adventure was not to develop solar-powered planes for widespread use, but to show the capabilities of renewable energy.”

So, not really about aviation at all, just a PR exercise. The project cost an estimated 170 million Euros to achieve something that has been commonplace for many decades – and, by the way, to achieve it very messily, as the plane required conventionally powered aircraft to shuttle its handlers and tech meisters about the globe, as Quadrant contributor Tony Thomas explained in a recent Spectator essay.

I wonder how much sponsorship I could get for my idea.  My plan is to demonstrate the effectiveness of wind power by building some wind generators powered by huge rubber bands to provide reliable wind to an opposing bank of wind turbines.  Of course, I’ll need someone to periodically rewind the rubber bands – some useful idiot with nothing better to do for the next 18 months.

“Hello,  Bertrand?  Is that you?”

Comments [6]

  1. Egil says:

    Currently and for another century or three, gas/coal/oil/nuclear/thorium/hydro power will see us through.
    But as resources dwindle, as they for obvious reasons will, extracting them will be harder to do and increasingly expensive.
    So the cost/benefit factor may well work in favour of improved solar/wind energy down the track.
    The various innovations described in this article took, in most cases, many decades to develop and refine.
    These new ideas/concepts were routinely ridiculed as unrealistic/stupid/too costly and not even needed by “clever” detractors.
    As things evolved same detractors ended up looking less than clever.
    So writing off renewable energy and their potential for improved efficiency at less cost should not happen, IMHO,
    until fusion or some other colossal and revolutionary new energy form has been developed to certain usefulness.

  2. Ian MacDougall says:

    We are constantly being bombarded with feel-good stories about wind and solar power generation and, indeed, billions of dollars have been expended worldwide on these boondoggles. This has produced little in the way of practical, base-load power, it has certainly spawned an endless supply of studies telling us how good renewables will be for the economy. This alleged benefit is said to be over and above those technologies’ CO2-curbing potential.

    Drive a bit in the Australian countryside west of the Great Divide and you will see windmill after abandoned windmill. All the old iconic bush brands are represented: Southern Cross, Comet, Yellowtail…. rusting and creaking away, their days of pumping water over.
    The problem with the traditional design is cost of maintenance, and the fact that in many cases they can be replaced with solar-powered submersible bore pumps that require near-zero in the way of attention. So canny windmill manufacturers like WD Moore & Co are branching out into solar.

    One of the great aspects of photovoltaic (PV) solar cells is the decentralisation of power generation they make possible. The sun shines pretty-well uniformly in Australia. So rather than pay around $20,000 or whatever per pole to have mains electricity brought to the well head, cockies Australia-wide are opting for solar. The same PV technology allows people to have electricity for other purposes wherever they want it.

    Peter O’Brien’s dump on solar and wind rests on the proposition that breakthrough innovation in these fields is over. I think that is a bit hasty. Egil (above) is on the money, IMHO.

    http://www.wdmoore.com.au/

  3. whitelaughter says:

    While I am all for solar (if only because of its usefulness in near space) we need to accept that it isn’t a cure all, and that it comes with its own problems. Frex having wildlife flashfried by a solar facility is a problem we need to learn from: http://www.citylab.com/tech/2016/07/watch-insects-and-a-bird-get-vaporized-in-a-huge-solar-facility/493352/?utm_source=SFFB

  4. Rob Ellison says:

    There are a couple of unfortunate facts Peter overlooks. The first is that greenhouse gases cause changes in the radiative properties of the atmosphere and in the ecology of both terrestrial and aquatic systems. You may argue that carbon dioxide is good – and many do – but in chaotic systems that is clearly an argument from ignorance. The second is that fossil fuel supplies are limited – oil supplies have quite likely peaked, shale gas has a supply life of decades and after that rapid decline and coal reserves are sufficient for some 60 years at best.

    The short term remedy for both historic and current emissions is restoration of soils and ecosystems. Reclaiming deserts, replanting forest and restoring agricultural soils. Restoring soil carbon stores increases agronomic productivity and enhances global food security. Increasing the soil organic content enhances water holding capacity and creates a more drought tolerant agriculture – with less downstream flooding. There is a critical level of soil carbon that is essential to maximising the effectiveness of water and nutrient inputs. Global food security, especially for countries with fragile soils and harsh climate such as in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, cannot be achieved without improving soil quality through an increase in soil organic content.

    Beyond that the future is technological. The singularity occurs on January 26th 2025 when an automated IKEA factory becomes self-aware and commences converting all global resources to flat pack furniture. If this doesn’t happen – endless innovation on information technology and cybernetics will accelerate and continue to push the limits of what it is to be human and to challenge the adaptability of social structures. New movements, fads, music, designer drugs, cat videos and dance moves will sweep the planet like Mexican waves in the zeitgeist. Materials will be stronger and lighter. Life will be cluttered with holographic TV’s, waterless washing machines, ultrasonic blenders, quantum computers, hover cars and artificially intelligent phones. Annoying phones that cry when you don’t charge them – taking on that role from cars that beep when you don’t put a seat belt on. Space capable flying cars will have seat belts that lock and tension without any intervention of your part. All this will use vastly more energy and materials this century as populations grow and wealth increases.

    The energy mix will be from a variety of sources as it is now. Including solar – especially as the price continues to decline sharply along with that of battery technologies. I’d suggest the base is probably nuclear – https://watertechbyrie.com/2016/06/18/safe-cheap-and-abundant-energy-back-to-the-nuclear-energy-future-2/ – but whatever technology the future brings it will be decided by the market and entail rapid transitions.

  5. PKJ says:

    Average speed around 4k/h? Could walk around the world faster.