How hard could this be?

John Patrick Ryan
5 min readDec 3, 2019

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How hard, and how expensive will it be to convert most, nearly all, of the world’s energy consumption from fossil fuels to non-fossil forms? Here are a few, fresh anecdotes to show that, just perhaps, this should not be as complex, difficult or expensive as critics project. And therein lies the problem.

Example one: converting ferries

Washington State is moving (slowly) toward converting its ferries from burning heavy diesel oil to all-electric and hybrids. From coverage: The conversions will lower fuel and maintenance costs by more than $14 million annually …and … The overhaul and hybrid conversion is projected to cost $35 million per vessel, but could go as high as $45 million.

So, even before considering the significant immediate environmental and long-term climate consequences of burning oil, this looks like a decent investment. Yes: spend $40M. But lower costs by $14M/year. Three-year payback. It’s a deal. (And: the environmental consequences are significant — The ferries making the Seattle-to-Bainbridge Island run, for example, use about 5,000 gallons of diesel daily to make 10 round-trip crossings, and the net fuel consumption is about 4.7 million gallons of diesel a year.)

Example two: the area required for solar energy

A rather right-wing acquaintance attacked implementing nation-scale solar implementations because, he estimated, “it would take 251.1 million square miles of solar panel to generate the 13,978 Mtoe consumed annually, and earth’s total surface area is only 196.9 million square miles.” (Mtoe? Million tons of oil equivalent. One of four or so metrics for large-scale energy consumption. Another is the tera-watt-hour. 1 Mtoe = 11.6 TWh). Anyway, if he’s right, we’re in big trouble.

He’s badly wrong.

Solar panels at utility scale produce 425kwh / square meter / year. So the area covered by solar panels required to supply the entire world’s energy appetite would be approximately 386,000 square kilometers: 149,000 square miles.

Or, just for the USA, Elon Musk has publicly asserted it would take an area of 10,000 square kilometers to replace the entire electrical power generation of the USA.

  • 10,000 km2 x 0.24 GW/km2 x 21% = 500 GW
  • Which is more than current US electricity consumption of 425 GW.
  • Scaling that to the entire energy consumption of the USA (about 40% of all US energy foes to primary electricity generation) and we have a need for about 25,000 square kilometers, perhaps 30,000 sq km.

These sound like a lot — and it is. It’s also not that big. The area to supply all of earth’s current energy needs is 1/1000 of earth’s land area. It’s the size of Germany. Or 1/20th of the Sahara desert.

And this is to convert ALL of earth’s energy to solar. And while we must get past fossil fuels, getting to 80% clean energy requires 119,000 square miles. The 80% mark leaves as a problem to solve later, for places like remote arctic regions, or things like planes. 119,000 square miles is still a lot of area, but as we enumerate the challenge, we learn how to conquer it.

And fossil fuel systems themselves use area. Per Prof. Debra Davidson of the University of Alberta, the U.S. has 2.4 million miles of pipelines for oil and gas. With a 30 meter right of way that’s 44,640 sq miles. It’s possible this over-estimates the land area used with pipelines, because multiple pipelines can use a single right of way. But then: there are also 150 oil refineries in the USA at 250 acres (or more) apiece, plus the landing docks, plus consideration of the oil refineries abroad that ship refined oil to the USA, plus the oil pads and water ponds and roads for fracking and …

One can quite quickly calculate that, yes, solar and wind systems do use area. They use rather less area than fossil fuels.

Example three. The economics of electric vehicles

A recent article in the MIT Technology Review published the sad news that Electric Vehicles would not any time soon be cost effective replacements for vehicles using internal combustion engines. “EVs may never reach the same sticker price so long as they rely on lithium-ion batteries”. At the core of the MIT researchers’ hypothesis is the projection, in MIT’s “Insights into Future Mobility” study, that projects that Li-ion battery costs will likely fall only to $124 per kilowatt-hour by 2030.

Bad news, if true. And McKinsey’s cost analysis from earlier in 2019 supports the idea that $100 per kwh is important for raw cost parity with internal combustion engine cars, a metric it notes might be met by 2025. And, again, cost parity is defined without considering external costs — nasty diesel fumes, greenhouse gases, etc.

Meanwhile, Germany’s Volkswagen (yes, the same company responsible for fraudulent fudging of diesel emissions data) announced that it had already reached the $100 per kwh cost point: the VW announcement preceded the MIT report by a few weeks. Cynics will note that the sponsors of the MIT group that wrote the EV report include several oil companies, including Aramco and Exxon.

To recap on this one: MIT group says it’ll take more than a decade for EVs to reach cost parity. If VW is to be believed, the fundamental challenge to cost parity just got nailed. Innovation, it’s a thing.

These examples give us several lessons.

  • There are many instances where converting from fossil-fuel to renewable energy forms makes easy business sense, even without any consideration of climate disruption or even the immediate environmental consequences of diesel fumes, etc.
  • And the scale of conversion is huge — but doable. The business logic and the raw mathematics of conversion needs to be understood. And, as industries and investors start to accelerate the process of moving away from fossil fuels, mis-information will be even more rife.
  • Innovation is the lifeblood of humanity. Find a bigger problem; expect bigger, and more exciting solutions.
  • The final lesson is that this “doability” is precisely why it’s hard. The entrenched forces of fossil fuel companies and petrostate governments already know that converting from fossil fuels to renewable, clean forms is achievable, and in many cases affordable, profitable and easy, and it’s inevitable: they just don’t want it to happen.

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Links cited:

https://news.usa.siemens.biz/press-release/siemens-usa/siemens-selected-washington-state-ferries-control-and-hybrid-conversion

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John Patrick Ryan

Tech executive and strategy consultant. Writing and thinking about long term global economic trends. Strategy in cases where the science remains uncertain.