January 17, 2022/
CO2 Coalition, two of whom then provided me with links to their own work on closely-related subjects.highlighted the work of Ken Gregory, who has attempted to quantify the costs of fully electrifying the U.S. energy system using as sources only wind, solar, and batteries. My post got circulated among my excellent colleagues in the
The two pieces are:
(1) “How Many km2 of Solar Panels in Spain and how much battery backup would it take to power Germany,” by Lars Schernikau and William Smith, posted January 30, 2021 (revised April 23, 2021) at SSRN; and (
2) “On the Ability of Wind and Solar Electric Generation to Power Modern Civilization,” by Wallace Manheimer, published October 7, 2021 in the Journal of Energy Research and Reviews.
Both pieces consider various cost and engineering issues involved in trying to develop a fully solar/battery or wind/solar/battery system to power a modern economy; and both quickly conclude for many reasons that such a project is completely infeasible and will surely fail. And yet the U.S. and Europe are both marching forward to implement such plans, without any detailed feasibility studies or cost estimates, let alone even a small scale demonstration project to show that this can work.
Schernikau and Smith consider a case of trying to power just Germany using solar power generated in Spain (Spain having the best conditions in Europe for generating power from the sun). The conclusion:
It appears that solar’s low energy density, high raw material input and low energy-Return-On-energy-Invested (eROeI) as well as large storage requirements make today’s solar technology an environmentally and economically unviable choice to replace conventional power at large scale.
S&S mainly focus on the incredible material requirements that would need to be met for this solar/battery project. First, as to the solar panels:
To match Germany’s electricity demand (or over 15% of EU’s electricity demand) solely from solar photovoltaic panels located in Spain, about 7% of Spain would have to be covered with solar panels (~35.000 km2). . . . To keep the Solar Park functioning just for Germany, PV panels would need to be replaced every 15 years, translating to an annual silicon requirement for the panels reaching close to 10% of current global production capacity (~135% for one-time setup). The silver requirement for modern PV panels powering Germany would translate to 30% of the annual global silver production (~450% for one-time setup). For the EU, essentially the entire annual global silicon production and 3x the annual global silver production would be required for replacement only.
And then there is the question of the battery storage requirement. S&S do not do an hour-by-hour spreadsheet like Gregory to come up with the storage requirement, but rather assume a need for 14 days’ worth of storage based on the possibility of 14 consecutive cloudy days in Spain. (The hour-by-hour analysis done by Gregory and by Roger Andrews would suggest that due to seasonality of solar generation, 30 days of storage would be more realistic.). But even with the 14 day assumption, S&S get these startling results:
To produce sufficient storage capacity from batteries using today’s leading technology would require the full output of 900 Tesla Gigafactories working at full capacity for one year, not counting the replacement of batteries every 20 years. . . . A 14-day battery storage solution for Germany would exceed the 2020 global battery production by a factor of 4 to 5x. To produce the required batteries for Germany alone (or over 15% of EU’s electricity demand) would require mining, transportation and processing of 0,4-0,8 billion tons of raw materials every year (7 to 13 billion tons for one-time setup), and 6x more for Europe. . . . The 2020 global production of lithium, graphite anodes, cobalt or nickel would not nearly suffice by a multiple factor to produce the batteries for Germany alone.
Manheimer’s piece is more general in its discussion of the problems of intermittency and storage, but then focuses particularly on the problem of disposing of the vast wind and solar facilities at the ends of their useful lives:
Let us first consider solar panels. These panels last about 25 years, so the 250,000 tons we have to recycle this year is just a trickle compared to the deluge coming at us in 2050, when we will have had a total of 78 million tons to dispose of. These are not appropriate for landfills, as they contain hazardous and poison materials such as lead and cadmium, which can leech into the soil. However, recycling is expensive. The cost of the recycled materials is considerably more than the cost of the raw materials.
For wind turbines, the blades and the towers pose separate problems:
Since the blades are fiber glass and last only about 10 years, we have had considerable experience here. These blades are gigantic, and are very costly to ship and dispose of. . . . The difficulty of disposing of the blades pales in comparison with disposing of the towers, which last ~25 years. . . . [T]he Washington Times estimates that a [realistic] cost estimate is $500,000 [per turbine].
Go ahead and look through the plans being put forth today by the likes of California, New York, Germany or the UK, and see how they address any of these issues. The answer is, they don’t.