#118: Good idea, bad idea


Whilst there seems no limit to the new and valuable insights that can come from looking at the economy through the lens of surplus energy, there are limits to the time and resources than can be applied to following up these leads.

This is making selection of subjects an increasingly tricky task. The preceding analysis of the American economy is a case in point. Data exists to apply the same treatment to the United Kingdom, and can be obtained for the Euro Area. But these are not being pursued, because the critical point has, it is hoped, been made. Essentially, ‘growth’, being geared towards residually-priced services which we can sell only to each other, is adding very little real value to the Western economies in return for the trashing of their balance sheets.

Some time ago, it was recognised that the topics of renewable energy and electric vehicles (EVs) needed to be discussed here. The following assessment condenses a great deal of analysis into a format that, it is hoped, will explain, succinctly, why conclusions on these issues are starkly different.

In short, whilst the case for maximising renewables seems irrefutable, the logic supposedly backing conversion to EVs is hopelessly flawed. We need to start by looking at why renewable energy is such a good idea, before turning to why EVs are such a bad one.

An existential imperative

The case for maximising the development of renewables (such as solar and wind power) is wholly compelling. Failure to do this would condemn the world economy to stagnation in the near-term, with prosperity deteriorating steadily in the developed world whilst making little progress in the emerging economies. In the longer term, continued reliance on fossil fuels would be a recipe for economic disaster.

This conclusion is dictated by an appreciation of two critical issues. The first is the umbilical linkage between energy access and economic output. The second is the accelerating rate at which the costs of energy access are rising across the fossil fuel mix that continues to deliver the vast majority of the global energy slate.

Put at its simplest, investing in solar and wind power is imperative, and is one of the most important issues that society needs to address. It ranks in importance alongside tackling climate change, and raising living standards in emerging economies.

Renewables are vital because they offer the only plausible way of escaping the economic trap posed by the rising energy costs of fossil fuels. We’re not about to “run out of” oil, gas or coal, but the value that these energy sources contribute to prosperity is already coming under severe pressure.

The ECoE trap

What really matters to prosperity isn’t how much energy we can access, but how much energy is consumed in the process of accessing it. This is measured here as ECoE (the energy cost of energy).

Some figures will illustrate the nature of this trap. For starters, the ECoE of the existing energy mix is rising exponentially, because it remains biased overwhelmingly towards oil, gas and coal. Over the fourteen years between 2002 and 2016, the estimated trend ECoE of fossil fuels rose from 4.4% to 8.4%, but this increase is just a mild foretaste of what’s to come – over the next fourteen years, fossil fuel ECoEs are set to rise to over 13%.

This represents a huge qualitative as well as quantitative change. In recent years, rising ECoEs have rendered economic growth all but impossible in the developed world, leading to the use of credit and monetary adventurism to fake an expansion in prosperity that is no longer possible. Even in the emerging economies, sustaining growth in the face of increasing ECoEs has required a growing recourse to debt.

Put very simply, when higher ECoEs collide with growth imperatives, ‘something has to give’ – and that ‘something’ is futurity, where we are destroying pension capability as well as racking-up ever larger amounts of debt.

Meanwhile, the environmental downside of rising ECoEs is that, to maintain net quantities of energy at any given level, we have to keep increasing the gross quantities that we access. As we have seen, this upwards trend is already more than sufficient to cancel out efforts to use energy more efficiently.

Looking ahead, further rises in ECoEs aren’t just going to act as a road-block to growth, but, in the developed world at least, are going to put growth into reverse. Credit and monetary exercises in denial are creating an enormous bubble, and it’s likely that supply constraints in energy will burst this one, just as the surge in oil prices (from $20/b to a peak of $147/b) was the real trigger for the previous crash. After the burst, reality will begin to dawn on anyone who believed in a ‘recovery’ based on cheap debt, cheap money, and residually-priced ‘activity’ that inflates recorded GDP whilst very little real value to economic output.

The energy equation

To see what rising ECoEs mean, it’s necessary to compare total (gross) energy consumption with surplus (net-of-ECoE) amounts. The split here is that the ECoE component of gross energy pays for energy access, whilst the net-of-ECoE surplus pays for everything else.

Between 2002 and 2016, the gross amount of fossil fuel energy accessed increased by 35%, from 8.4 bn tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) to 11.4 bn toe. Adjusted for the 17% rise in the world population over the same period, this equated to growth of 15% in the gross quantity of fossil fuels consumed per person.

But the increase in the ECoEs over that same fourteen-year period translated a 35% increase in gross supply into a rise of only 29% at the net-of-ECoE level. That difference may not seem huge, but it’s already had a big impact in per capita terms. Whereas gross fossil fuel consumption per person increased by 15% over that period, net fossil fuel energy use grew by only 10%.

Perhaps most tellingly of all, fossil fuel supply per person has already peaked (in 2013).

Looking ahead, the exponential upwards trend in fossil fuel ECoEs is poised to cripple surplus energy access, but for two main reasons, not one. Obviously, rising ECoEs are undermining the net (surplus) energy available from any given gross quantity.

Less obviously, energy availability at the gross level is likely to be depressed as well, because higher ECoEs simultaneously undercut the viability of production whilst increasing the cost to the consumer. In petroleum, we are already reaching a situation where any price high enough for producers is too high for consumers. A recent report by the China University of Petroleum forecast an imminent switch from oil to coal consumption in China, citing deteriorating EROEIs (energy returns on energy invested) as a key factor. This issue won’t be confined to China – and neither will it be confined to oil.

Quantifying the trap

Here are some illustrative numbers for what is likely to happen over the next fourteen years. First, gross supplies of fossil fuels, which increased by 35% between 2002 and 2016, are unlikely to rise at all looking out to 2030.

Gas availability is likely to increase further, but not by enough to offset a probable decrease in supplies of oil. Output from low-cost ‘legacy’ fields is declining at between 7% and 8% annually. New discoveries, required to offset this decline, are at record lows, whilst a combination of price and cost pressures continues to restrict development. By 2030, meanwhile, shale production will be well past its peak. Energy from coal is likely to diminish slightly, not least because the energy content per tonne mined is continuing to deteriorate.

In per capita terms, the implications of these trends are stark. Comparing 2030 with 2016, gross access to fossil fuels per person is projected to have declined by 14%. Higher ECOEs, of course, will exacerbate this problem at the net level – fossil energy per person, available for all purposes other than energy supply, is likely to be 19% lower by 2030 than it was in 2016.

Two final statistics are necessary to put this into context. First, fossil fuels continue to account for 86% of primary energy supply – hardly changed at all over two decades, from 87% in 1996 – whilst renewables still deliver only 3.2% of the total. (The remaining 11% comes from nuclear and hydroelectricity).

Second, 97% of all transport continues to be fuelled by petroleum, with the only significant exception (electrified rail) delivered, overwhelmingly, by gas- and coal-fired generation, not renewables.

Electricity – a yawning gap

Even without large-scale adoption of EVs, demand for electricity is growing more rapidly than our use of primary energy. Between 2002 and 2016, when total energy consumption increased by 37%, electricity use rose by 52%, with the result that we now consume 28% of all energy as electricity, compared with 25% in 2002, and only 22% back in 1996. Perhaps more tellingly, the proportion of all coal, gas and oil supply used for power generation has risen from 26% to 36% over that same period.

Looking ahead – and ignoring, for now, EVs – demand for electricity is rising at about 2.5% annually, well ahead of the rates at which either population numbers or total energy consumption are increasing. By 2030, we are likely to need 35,000 terawatt hours (TWH), an increase of 41% compared with 2016 (24,800 TWH).

The critical question is where that extra 10,200 TWH is going to come from. Between them, nuclear and hydro may contribute 19% of the required increment, though that might be a hard target to hit. About 45% of the increase in demand might be met by renewables, with output likely to rise from 1,854 TWH in 2016 to 4,600 TWH in 2030.

That still leaves us needing to source 3,700 TWH, or 36% of the required increase, from fossil fuels. These projections would mean that renewables would contribute 18% of electricity (and 10% of all primary energy) by 2030, compared with 7% of electricity (and 3% of all energy) in 2016.

Of course, there are some who believe that renewables output can grow a lot more rapidly than the 3.5-fold increase projected here. In support of this, some cite annual rates of growth, which, for all renewables, was 14.4% in 2016.

But this rate of growth is already slackening – from 19.7% in 2011, and 17.7% in 2013 – for the simple and obvious mathematical reason that rates of growth from an extremely low base are neither indicative nor sustainable. In 2011, renewables output increased by 148 TWH on a base of just 752 TWH. In 2016, the increase was a lot bigger (234 TWH), but so was the base number (1,621 TWH). By 2020, we are likely to be adding renewables output at rates of over 300 TWH annually, a number that is projected to increase to 475 TWH by 2030. These equate to projected annual rates of growth of 11% in 2020 and 8% in 2030.

A more fundamental reason for caution about the rate at which renewables output can grow is that these technologies are derivatives of fossil fuels. Building wind turbines and solar panels requires the use of materials which can be accessed only by courtesy of existing fuel sources, most importantly oil. Everything from humble steel and copper to many of the more sophisticated components relies on fossil fuel energy, all the way from extraction and processing to manufacture and delivery.

This consideration reinforces the case for developing renewables as rapidly as possible, because we need to use our dwindling legacy resources of net energy to create the alternative sources of the future. But it also adds to the bottlenecks likely to be encountered in the development process.

A further twist here is that, to the extent that they are derivatives of a fossil fuel set whose ECoEs are rising, there is likely to be upwards pressure on the ECoEs of renewables themselves. Thanks to two main factors – early-stage technical improvement (“low hanging fruit”), and economies of scale – we have become accustomed to declining unit costs in the development of renewables. Costs are likely to continue to fall, but at a decelerating rate, as the scope for ‘easy’ technical improvement diminishes, economies of scale benefits reach plateau, and the ECoE of inputs rises.

Finally, on this score, we need to note that, by 2030, renewables supply would need to multiply, not by the 3.5x projected here, but by 5.5x, just to keep the fossil fuel requirement for power generation constant at current levels. Delivering enough additional power from renewables to start reducing hydrocarbon-based generation looks extraordinarily difficult – and that’s even before we start adding to electricity demand by switching to EVs.

EV – the wrong road

As we have seen, realistic assessment of the outlook for expansion in renewables supply suggests that growing demand for electricity is likely to require increases, not decreases, in the amount of fossil fuels needed for power generation. If we add EVs into the mix, the increase in the need for oil, gas and coal for electricity supply escalates dramatically.

Many in government and industry seem to think that society can make a complete transition of road transport from internal combustion (IC) power to EV by 2040. The assumption made here is that, for this target to be met, switchover will need to have reached 66% by 2030. If we remain a long way short of two-thirds conversion by then, the target date of 2040 is unlikely to be met, requiring a rethink of the objective.

Accomplishing 66% conversion to EV by 2030 would reduce annual petroleum consumption by 1,670bn toe over that period. But the corresponding increase in electricity demand would be 7,350 TWH. Now, instead of requiring additional generating capacity of 10,160 TWH (+41%) by 2030 just to meet growing baseline demand, we would need to find extra capacity totalling 17,500 TWH (+71%).

The base case (ex-EV) used here already includes maximised development of renewables, so conversion to EV isn’t going to create additional incentives (or capital) for a purpose that is already imperative. Therefore, of the greatly-increased increment required by EV conversion, renewables are likely to supply only 26%, with a further 11% coming from nuclear and hydro. All the rest – 63%, or 11,060 TWH – would have to come from fossil fuels.

EVs and renewables – a false linkage

At this point, we need to note a number of mistaken assumptions which are sometimes made in creating a false relationship between EVs and renewables.

First, and as we have noted, EVs are not an essential driver for investment in renewables – this investment will (and must) happen anyway, even if EVs prove a blind alley.

Second, expansionary investment in renewables is not going to make EVs an appropriate strategy. Just like nuclear in an earlier era, renewables are not going to supply energy in such abundance that it will be “too cheap to meter”. We are going to need every KWH of renewable output just to keep up with growth in the baseload (non-EV) need for electricity.

Third, and unlike renewables, EVs are not going to make a positive contribution, let alone a major one, to stemming climate change. The fossil fuel currently burned in IC-powered transport will simply be displaced from vehicle engines to power stations. Battery technologies raise their own pollution and emissions issues, and some of today’s ultra-optimistic expectations for the life efficiency of batteries are already starting to look somewhat questionable.

Wisdom and folly

If it is accepted that EVs are as bad an idea as renewables are a good one, an inescapable conclusion has to be that EVs are likely to divert both effort and capital in ways that are wasteful. This risk would intensify were governments to allow themselves to be talked into subsidising EVs.

If the case for EVs is so flimsy (and, at the least, is so very far from proven) the question which remains is this – why are industry and government so determined to push ahead with conversion?

Beyond the human fascination with the new, the shiny and the technological, the reasons why we are likely to invest huge sums of our scarce energy-legacy capital into pursuing the chimaera of EVs are simple enough.

First, leadership in government and business still fails to recognise the challenge posed by the mounting cost pressures jeopardising the energy (and hence) economic future.

Second, EVs are a form of denial over the really pressing need, which is to readdress and redesign patterns of travel and habitation that are being rendered unsustainable by energy pressures.

Before the Second World War, and despite the efforts of Henry Ford in America and Volkswagen in Germany, cars were a luxury item, affordable only by the wealthy, and often more expensive to purchase than a house. Since 1945, we have pushed ahead, from the target of one car per household to something pretty close to one car per person. Efforts to tackle the energy, pollution and congestion consequences of the proliferation of car ownership have been half-hearted at best.

Whole patterns of work and habitation have been shaped by mass vehicle ownership, in much the same way that living and employment structures were transformed by railways in the Victorian era. The norm has become suburban and exurban sprawl, rather than the greater housing densities of earlier times. If we were ever forced to put the spread of car ownership into reverse, we would – quite apart from selling the idea to the public – have to redesign working practices and the structure of habitation.

These are issues that, for wholly understandable reasons, the public, government and industry have been extremely unwilling to confront. But the logic of rising ECoEs, climate change and a faltering energy-based economy is that we will have to face these challenges, whether we want to or not.

This implies that the push for all-out conversion to EVs is an exercise in denial, along much the same lines as the economic denial implicit in debt proliferation, pensions destruction and monetary adventurism.

We may not – yet, anyway – need to adopt a ‘one car per household’ strategy along the lines of China’s “one child” policy. But, at the very least, we need to be rethinking housing and transport patterns, and investing in incremental automotive technologies.

Leaner-burning engines, tighter (and strongly-enforced) emissions restrictions, hybrids, the increased use of engineering plastics and the imposition of a limit of, perhaps, 1.5 litres on engine sizes might be a better idea than building a new generation of heavyweight vehicles designed to harness an abundance of electricity which simply isn’t going to happen.



151 thoughts on “#118: Good idea, bad idea

  1. Dr. Tim,

    Excellent as always; I have sent a link to the investment team at Rathbone Greenbank in Bristol, as I think they need to talk to you!


  2. Hi Tim another very interesting informative post. What are your thoughts on hydrogen production for transport?

  3. Hello. Thank you for an interesting analysis. In the paragraph below can you please explain why a shift to EV means net increase in energy use. Is it a one-off cost of transitioning overall infrastructure to EV so a temporary pinch during period or is it an ongoing cost as EV is more energy intensive? I am sure there is no double counting going on (eg assuming ICO cars runs simultaneous with EV). Thank you

    “Accomplishing 66% conversion to EV by 2030 would reduce annual petroleum consumption by 1,670bn toe over that period. But the corresponding increase in electricity demand would be 7,350 TWH. Now, instead of requiring additional generating capacity of 10,160 TWH (+41%) by 2030 just to meet growing baseline demand, we would need to find extra capacity totalling 17,500 TWH (+71%).”

    • The figures I cite shouldn’t show any increase in overall energy consumption through EV conversion.

      On my projections, and without conversion to EV, oil demand for road transport in 2030 would be 2,522 bn tonnes.

      Conversion reduces that to 857bn t, a saving of 1,664 bn t.

      The corresponding increase in demand for electricity through EVs would be 7,355 TWH. That equates to 1,664 bn tonnes of oil-equivalent, i.e. the same number.

      So, instead of needing to add 10,158 TWH (+41%) baseline ex-EV, we’d need to add 17,513 TWH (+71%). The difference is the same as the oil saving, i.e. 7,355 TWH.

  4. “Renewables are vital because they offer the only plausible way of escaping the economic trap posed by the rising energy costs of fossil fuels. We’re not about to “run out of” oil, gas or coal, but the value that these energy sources contribute to prosperity is already coming under severe pressure.”

    Ok, but taking the intermittent nature of renewables into consideration, and the very costly production of renewables, in that case renewables have en eroie of less than one, or as you prefer to describe the numbers: an ECoE of more 100 %.
    I am waiting for your next calculations where you actually use your own – an very, very correct – ‘principle’ that money is just a proxy for energy. That means that you have to include ALL costs in connection with renewables.
    I am afraid I have to bother you and maybe alle other readers with a real existing example. My calculations are by no means totally correct but they give a good indication of wind’s efficiency based on simple logic:

    Anholt Vindmølle park (2013) – wind farm – has a capacity of 400 MW. Optimistically that means that the actual average production will be 200 MWh, i.e. a yearly output of 1,75 million MWh. Lifetime 25 years, total output 44 million MWh. The wind farm cost a little more than 10 billion DKK and – plus maintenance, operation, and interests in its function time – let’s say 2 billion more. How many industrial MWh could you have bought for these 12 billion DKK instead of investing in the wind park? With an European (approx.) price of 0,5 DKK per kwh you could have bought 24 million MWh. An ECoE of 55 % (energy balance 1,8) – and the very costly integration of intermittent power into the net untold.

    Dear Tim Morgan,

    I humbly ask you to use your own theories on this theme too. Please, don’t forget the money!

    • I’ll have to get back to you on this, but it might help you to know that, according to my figures, ultilisation rates for wind power in Denmark were 28.4% in 2016.

      That’s a lot lower than your assumed 50%, though better than the world average, which was 23.4%.

  5. Hi apologies – I didn’t word my post about hydrogen very well. I was wondering – taking into account the cost of hydrogen production (electricity needed) and building a distribution grid –
    cars – fuel cells etc – if it would work out better than the all costs associated with EV

    • Basically, hydrogen in this application is an alternative form of battery. As far as I can see, it has no merits vs batteries. You’d have to build out infrastructure, and you’d be adding volume to vehicles whilst saving weight.

      There are also safety issues. I’m not an expert on hydrogen, but I understand that the vehicle has to be earthed to the pump during fill-up. As I see it, hydrogen – the great hope not that long ago – has been superseded.

  6. Tim we have the technology to build very economical internal combustion engines – we just need to get away from the idea that top speed and acceleration are important.

    • Indeed so – that’s what I was getting at with some of my comments towards the end of the article. (I drive a very hi-tech, lightweight car myself, so I’m a real convert).

      If we can make cars cleaner and more efficient – which, I think, also has to mean smaller – we can buy time in which to address issues of housing, travel patterns and car dependency before we are forced into a response by energy constraints.

      EV may become a costly distraction from these real issues.

    • Donald,
      You are perfectly correct on both counts !
      The technology part is easy, the next bit ( getting people out of their SUV’s ) is the hard bit !
      Our society dictates that people are defined by what kind of car that they drive.
      I for example am a ‘Nobody’, because I do not drive or even own a car. However, to most people their car is a definition of their status in society. A car is just so much more than a mode of transport because of the Image that it projects.
      Ultimatley government need to regulate this. We also need to get the car industry on board. Try getting the German government to curb Daimler or VAG !
      The german car lobby is very powerful, jobs are at stake, exports are at stake etc.
      So you can see the denial everywhere, and despite the logic in what you say, it’s not going to happen. ( until physics enforces it ).

    • Hi thanks for reply – well advertising has made everyone feel that they are inadequate unless their car can do under 8 secs 0 – 62. SUV’s are there as a ‘must have’ to protect their children and show off on the school run.

      I have a Golf MK7 1.4 petrol. On long runs keeping to between 60 – 65 mph I have achieved up to 58 mpg. Trying to keep to 70 on a busy motorway is very difficult and just results in stop start – stop start.

      I don’t care about acceleration or status. You’re right eventually physics/ price of energy will force people to downgrade to smaller more economic cars.

    • I’d say somebody would have to have a pretty fragile self-image to base their sense of self-worth on what car they own. In times past, owning a big car might have reflected wealth – now, though, it’s just as likely to reflect big debts.

    • Yes many cars are on these hugely expensive finance schemes which could all collapse if the price of oil continues to rise and makes the larger vehicles far less attractive

    • I agree entirely Dr.Tim, but unfortunately our society is full of people with such low self esteem and fragile egos, and they do need their car to project their image. As far as SUV’s go, I seem to notice that a great many of them are driven by women. Is this a sign of women asserting themselves in society, or am I reading this wrongly ?
      As with so many other things in life, the Laws of Physics will prevail eventually, but I do not hold out much chance of people willingly giving up their unecessarily big cars.
      As you suggest, many cars are still unpaid for and have been bought by taking on debt. I have been reading articles recently about how over 25% of car loans in the USA are under water, and new buyers are just rolling over their debt to buy new. A default on these loans many of which are “sub-prime”, will have serious repercussions for the wider economy !

    • Car finance is an interesting area, not least because so many people now use contract payments rather than buying outright. This has boosted sales, of course, but is another contributor to debt escalation.

      The rental sector is interesting, too. A lot of rental companies seem to have increased their fleets at the same time that individuals were using credit to buy new cars. Rental companies typically turn over their fleets at regular three-year intervals, as do many private buyers. So we appear to have been witnessing a surge in used cars coming onto the market. This depresses residual values for rental firms and private credit-purchasers, adding extra problems to car finance.

      It’s interesting to note quite how many car ads now headline the monthly cost rather than the buying prices of vehicles.

  7. Hi Tim – the article has much the same conclusions I’ve arrived at. (Latest summary here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DpfsqjQbP0) Question: what is the source for this quote about Energy cost of Energy: “Over the fourteen years between 2002 and 2016, the estimated trend ECoE of fossil fuels rose from 4.4% to 8.4%, but this increase is just a mild foretaste of what’s to come – over the next fourteen years, fossil fuel ECoEs are set to rise to over 13%.”
    thanks -keep up the good work

    • Hi Nate

      Thank you, I’m already an admirer of what you do, and will look at this.

      The ECoEs used here my own estimates. They’ve been constructed across a range of estimates for fuel types and dates. I put a huge amount of effort into these, and, whilst I’d never dream of claiming pinpoint accuracy, I think they’re pretty good for the overview, economics purposes for which they are used.

      Aggregates are published here – all primary energy, all fossil fuels and all renewables – but I don’t disclose individual fuel readings.

      The reason for this is simple. If I’m right about this, we’re already getting a much better handle on the economy than ‘conventional’, money-based economics. Frankly, I don’t think conventional economics had much of a clue pre-2008, and I think they’re even more off the pace now than they were back then.

      That suggests that the ‘big battalions’ will need to build something similar, and I’m not about to hand them the methodology to do so!

  8. Have you considered the intermittency of renewables and their impact on electricity price? Experience shows that as the share of renewables increases, the grid is forced to maintain standby fossil fuel capacity to balance loads. This results in higher electricity prices for users. The experience of Germany is a case in point. This is a primary reason why bloggers like Gail Tverberg do not see renewables as a viable solution.

  9. There was an interesting “cradle-to-gate” analysis of greenhouse gas emissions of battery electric compared with internal combustion engine vehicles in China. I have seen a summary at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306261917305433#aep-article-footnote-id1

    The paper was by Qinyu Qiao, Fuquan Zhao, Zongwei Liu, Shuhua Jiang & Han Hao
    & their highlights include the following –

    – Greenhouse gas emissions of battery electric vehicles are 50% higher than internal combustion engine vehicles.

    – Traction battery production causes about 20% greenhouse gas emissions increase.

    . . . so it seems we use more energy to create more emissions. This sounds like progress but not improvement. Again!

  10. As soon as ‘renewables’ grow above 15% of energy delivery on the grid, the grid becomes unstable. Germany reached this point and their energy cost undermines their ability to compete with lower cost nations. Indeed Ravinathan.

    Renewables is an option, but not sufficient to maintain the current system. Net energy coming from renewables is way too low for current GIW. So the financial system will disintegrate. And with that, the possibility to establish a smooth transition.

    Renewables are great, with 500 million people. Lets hope some engineers are part of them.

  11. Solar, Dr Tim, in Britain – you’re having a larf. Britain is one of the least sunniest countries in Europe.

    A financially important factor for a solar farm, is its load factor, that is, the ratio of its average electrical output to its peak capacity. Capacity is expensive, so to get a good return on investment a high load factor is needed. Solar farms in the UK have load factors of roughly 11%.

    Let’s look at how much electrical energy we would have to store to make it through a typical night, one winter’s night, five dull winter days, and an entire winter. Let us assume that the output of the panels each day of each month is proportional to the solar insolation in the south of the UK, that the average output of all the panels, year-round, is 40GW, that perfectly efficient storage is available, and that the UK electrical demand is a constant 40GW. The cumulative excess from the panels between March 31st and September 30th, and the cumulative deficit from September 30th to March 31st, are both equal to 2,356 hours × 40GW (roughly 100 days of average demand).

    The following table presents the storage required in terms of pumped-hydro storage, using the “Dinorwig” (10GWh) facility as a national unit of energy storage.

    Period energy UK area Dinorwigs
    (GWh) (km2)
    one typical night 420 51 42
    one winter night 800 98 80
    five dull winter days 6000 732 600
    summer/winter balancing 96,000 12,000 9,600

    The well known Dinorwig power station was constructed between 1974 and 1984 for £425 million. That suggests current CAPEX would be between £1 and £3 billion. So 9,600 Dinorwigs would cost somewhere between £10,000 billion and £30,000 billion.

    I think we can agree with David MacKay’s parting words that anyone who thinks we can run a modern national electrical supply system on renewables is delusional (and especially so for solar in the UK).

    • I have solar panels on my house here in UK. Over about four months in mid summer they supply plenty of electricity. Far more than I need. Although it is produced during the day and I need the electricity mostly in the evening. Storage such as Tesla batteries would make the whole system completely uneconomic.

      During the four months of mid winter they supply very little energy. If I could store the summer’s excess electricity for the winter it would just about balance out. But I can’t and never will be able to. And I have ignored my major energy use which is gas for heating – in the winter. Changing to everyone to electric heating would greatly increase the required electricity production.

      There is wind power and the idea that there will always be enough wind somewhere in Europe to power those countries that are becalmed. The problem with this is that each country – or at least each region – would need to have enough wind turbines to power the whole of Europe – wow! And I have read that this is not true anyway. There are periods when there is no wind for days at a time across the whole of Europe. For renewable energy, storage is a major problem.

      Unless we keep a complete backup power system on standby (quite expensive!), I cannot see any alternative to nuclear power for baseload electricity.

    • Hello Trevor. Just to put some numbers on your suspicion that battery storage would be uneconomic, let’s look at a domestic scale installation. Assume an annual household electricity consumption of 3,650 kWh. That is an average 10 kWh per day. To allow seasonal balancing a battery sized to store 100 days average consumption is required. So that is 1,000 kWh.

      The Tesla Powerwall 2 has a capacity of 13 kWh and costs $5,500. So that means 80 battery packs would be needed at a cost of $440,000. What would be the life of the installation? 20 years? Borrowing the money to buy the batteries at 5% interest would result in annual interest charges of $22,000, plus capital repayment.

      Not just uneconomic but unaffordable for most people.

  12. Tim

    Probably one of the best posts yet. Tons of meat not much wheat. Very clear and comprehensive.

    Really very little to add. Rather have a beer at the pub over it.

  13. Was it Yogi Berra who said: it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future, so let’s have a look at Germany today. .

    Peak winter demand in Germany is 80GW. So let’s say average yearly demand is 60GW. In the year 2017 Germany had 52GW of onshore wind capacity (with an annual load factor of 15.13%), 6GW of offshore wind (34.82% load factor – most of the fleet is less than 3 years old) and 42GW of solar (10.82% load factor).

    So the total capacity of renewables is 100GW, some 25% more than the peak winter demand. Three-quarters of it installed in the last decade. Surely you might think this colossal investment in unreliables has had a major impact on CO2 emissions? Not so unfortunately. German CO2 emissions are virtually unchanged over the decade. http://bit.ly/2DVB4Xn

    Energiewende has cost Germany about a trillion euros and the poor old electricity consumer faces just about the highest electricity prices in Europe, for what?

    • Oldscouser,
      Germany lives in denial.
      We have a very strong Green lobby, as we seen with the decision to step out of nuclear. We also have a very strong Car lobby, Daimler / BMW / VAG you know the rest. These guys in Germany are bigger Petrol Heads than Jeremy Clarkson in Top Gear. The car industry provides many jobs which are good for exports, so they have strong political clout. Germany also uses a lot of Braunkohle, poor quality Coal open cast mined, but a big employer and the Unions are not going to let this be closed any time soon.
      This is all at odds with the clean modern feminist vegitarian organic utopia that many Germans believe that they live in. Sure we have invested heavily in renewables as you and others have pointed out, but we all know that energy in the amounts that we need it to run our present day societies, comes from Coal and Oil !
      Transportation and heating are big consumers of energy, so if we want to cut our CO2 footprint we all need to drive smaller cars, and we all need to drive much less. Public transport must play an bigger role- admittedly we do have good railways in Germany, much more efficient than the UK !
      But on the roads we all need to start driving Isetta’s ( Bubble cars ) or dare I mention Reliant Robin’s ? . . . and we also need to drive much less.
      I can understand the rational behind environmentalism and I support it, but the German green party cannot reconcile the fact that the Living standards and the current population levels in Germany and Europe can only be sustained by massive inputs of energy delivered by dirty sources.

  14. Thank you for another excellent analysis with clear and wise thinking.

    I agree with the spirit of your conclusions although I wonder about the feasibility of your key conclusion that we must substitute fossil with renewable energy.

    Here and elsewhere you have presented data that shows increasing ECoE for fossil energy is a serious threat to business as usual. I do not see equivalent data to justify solar and wind.

    My expectation is that solar and wind ECoE will be worse than fossil energy because of, as you point out, their deep dependence on fossil energy, and because they have inherently lower densities and higher storage costs.

    We should also view renewables as a flow rather than a stock, that must be replaced every 25 or so years with materials that require fossil energy. What is the wisdom of spending all of our precious remaining surplus energy capital on a solution that will work for only 50 years at best?

    So while we must transition off fossil energy, moving to solar and wind could actually worsen our predicament.

    I hope you can look into the full life cycle ECoE of solar and wind in a future post.

  15. Tim … sorry but I need to pull out my shotgun…

    Replacement of oil by alternative sources

    While oil has many other important uses (lubrication, plastics, roadways, roofing) this section considers only its use as an energy source. The CMO is a powerful means of understanding the difficulty of replacing oil energy by other sources. SRI International chemist Ripudaman Malhotra, working with Crane and colleague Ed Kinderman, used it to describe the looming energy crisis in sobering terms.[13] Malhotra illustrates the problem of producing one CMO energy that we currently derive from oil each year from five different alternative sources. Installing capacity to produce 1 CMO per year requires long and significant development.

    Allowing fifty years to develop the requisite capacity, 1 CMO of energy per year could be produced by any one of these developments:

    4 Three Gorges Dams,[14] developed each year for 50 years, or
    52 nuclear power plants,[15] developed each year for 50 years, or
    104 coal-fired power plants,[16] developed each year for 50 years, or
    32,850 wind turbines,[17][18] developed each year for 50 years, or
    91,250,000 rooftop solar photovoltaic panels[19] developed each year for 50 years

    The world consumes approximately 3 CMO annually from all sources. The table [10] shows the small contribution from alternative energies in 2006.


  16. “To provide most of our power through renewables would take hundreds of times the amount of rare earth metals that we are mining today,” according to Thomas Graedel at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. So renewable energy resources like windmills and solar PV can not ever replace fossil fuels, there’s not enough of many essential minerals to scale this technology up. http://energyskeptic.com/2014/high-tech-cannot-last-rare-earth-metals/

  17. Renewable energy ‘simply won’t work’: Top Google engineers

    Two highly qualified Google engineers who have spent years studying and trying to improve renewable energy technology have stated quite bluntly that whatever the future holds, it is not a renewables-powered civilisation: such a thing is impossible.

    Both men are Stanford PhDs, Ross Koningstein having trained in aerospace engineering and David Fork in applied physics. These aren’t guys who fiddle about with websites or data analytics or “technology” of that sort: they are real engineers who understand difficult maths and physics, and top-bracket even among that distinguished company.

    Even if one were to electrify all of transport, industry, heating and so on, so much renewable generation and balancing/storage equipment would be needed to power it that astronomical new requirements for steel, concrete, copper, glass, carbon fibre, neodymium, shipping and haulage etc etc would appear.

    All these things are made using mammoth amounts of energy: far from achieving massive energy savings, which most plans for a renewables future rely on implicitly, we would wind up needing far more energy, which would mean even more vast renewables farms – and even more materials and energy to make and maintain them and so on. The scale of the building would be like nothing ever attempted by the human race.

    In reality, well before any such stage was reached, energy would become horrifyingly expensive – which means that everything would become horrifyingly expensive (even the present well-under-one-per-cent renewables level in the UK has pushed up utility bills very considerably).


    • We should replace the term ‘renewable’ by ‘laughable’.

      Bitcoin is the new gold. Same shit, different language.

  18. In conclusion — I can understand that nobody wants to just give up …. that people want to keep on trying to find the holy grail…

    But if it exists — it is NOT solar and wind generated energy.

    We have spent trillions on this …. and are getting nowhere… in fact continuing down this path will lead to ruin ….. because if you dump too much ‘renewable’ intermittent energy into the grid…

    You take down BAU:

    How about this for a suggestion — for those who refuse to give up.

    Recognize that solar and wind are a dead end…. and spend the money on some other Hail Mary pass technologies and see if they can kick the can a few more years….

    But remember this — we are not running out of oil – we will NEVER run out of oil — we will run out of oil that is cheap to produce…

    We are also running out of cheap to produce resources across the board – and that is pound the sh it out of BAU….

    Even if we find more cheap to produce energy — that will only exacerbate the problems we have with other depleting resources..

    The only answer is to enjoy life to fullest now. There is no future.

    Of that I am 100% certain

    • The big question, it seems to me, is whether the human species can adapt. We all know the fate of species which fail to adapt.

      It’s perfectly possible to envision a future that is sustainable. It’s much harder to see human societies agreeing to the changes which get us there. Some would argue that we have a good track record for adapting, when we have to.

    • Sorry Tim… but there is no adapting to the end of fossil fuels.

      This is almost certainly an extinction event.

      A surreal thought … but this is an inescapable conclusion.

  19. Dr. Morgan
    Congratulations on another good article.

    One of the scary things to we 21st century residents of the OPEC countries is the loss of mobility. But see this article about a recently discovered, very large Mayan city:

    The Mayans had neither fossil fuels nor horses. I’m not sure about the Mayans, but the Inca in Peru built special roads for runners who carried news or government orders from place to place (similar to the Pony Express, but using humans).

    Note the provisions for urban agriculture.

    Maybe we are letting our fears get ahead of the possibilities.

    Don Stewart

    • I agree. We do seem to obsess about mobility, and are a bit like the film cowboy who “saddled up and rode off in every direction at once”.

    • Have you seen the funny Islam comedy sketch?
      Worth posting ,I’m sure the Muslims will be falling about laughing.

  20. ‘I don’t care about acceleration or status’

    I agree with your point that too many people now wish to parade an image of wealth…often by paying for it ‘on tick’.

    Not quite accurate to say you don’t care about’ acceleration or status’ when your car is a newsish premium car and has about 140 hp!.
    Not caring about these things means I drive a Renault Megane diesel that cost a few hundred pounds, has £30 road tax and I do my own maintenance. It averages 60mpg easily and the fuel cost is probably less than the depreciation of your Golf. We have a lot of fat to cut before this nation gets back to reality. ..

    • Hi actually my car has 122 bhp but the first thing I checked before I bought it was its fuel economy. It is now 5 years old and I intend to keep it until it becomes uneconomical to repair. It can almost match your car for economy and is far less polluting.

      Your car is an old diesel which is killing people – what cost can you put on that?

  21. Hi Mr Donald, 122 bhp is 10 more than a Mk2 Golf Gti had. We are so spoiled people think they are ‘slumming it’ if they have to drive anything that isn’t a nearly new 4wd. Not a personal remark addressed at you just an observation of modern british society.
    I’m afraid you have fallen for the hype. A direct injection petrol engine like you have will produce far more quantities of ultra fine particles pm10 than older tech engines. Your car is still ‘killing people’ to use your terminology. The trade of for more economy is more ultra fine particles that propagate to the lungs.
    Then there is the problem of complexity – how soon before your car is written of because the garage charges more than the car is worth to replace a failed mechanical or electrical part ..probably running up a huge bill trying to diagnose the problem

    My car is a 2008 diesel so is euro 4 compliant and is fitted with a catalytic converter and particle filter. These work very well the tailpipe is clean and soot free. The problem arises when these sorts of vehicles are driven aggressively. Then they operate outside of the limits limits imposed by the woefully inadequate EU drive cycles so the emissions are almost completely unregulated. A properly driven diesel is very clean.

    I bought my vehicle as a panel damaged cat D right of..fitted a new wing headlamp bumper it’s good as new . It was uneconomical to repair because a snobby spoilt society doesn’t value an ‘old car’ and garage labour rates are very high. The market for such vehicles is very strong in eastern Europe – they seem to have the sense not to have jumped on the buy today pay another day merrry go round….

  22. Tim,

    Your recent work brings to mind that of three others.

    Firstly Richard Douthwaite and his work on Growth, secondly and more importantly that of the Transition Towns Movement and the idea of an ‘energy descent action plan’ the one for Totnes is here


    Irrespective of what perspective you come from, the idea of consuming less energy, not only through efficiency measures but through ways of living that are less energy intensive.

    Finally of course there is Chris Smaje’s work on the Peasants Republic of Wessex at


    Basically returning to The Land, on small farms – see also of course The Land Magazine (Treeware I am afraid) dtails at


    Whatever you think of the idea of living ‘The Good Life’ it seems to me that if we want to try and keep our civilisation running a major energy conservation/descent plan, promoted not for ‘green’ reasons but as a ‘national security’ which I am sure you will appreciate coupled with the offer of resettlement on the land for those that want it – and I am sure that many do would be a step in the right direction.

    • These are good ideas, even if (for example) population densities make some of them impractical beyond the small-scale.

      The problem that I keep coming up against is simply this. The public are accustomed to the consumerist society, and private car ownership. Industry, finance and government are designed around this economic system. I just don’t see how anyone can persuade any of the above to change.

  23. Hi guys, what do you think of these quotes from elsewhere (Peak Oil Barrel) regarding Dr. Morgan’s article here:

    Quote 1:
    “The article’s criticism of EV’s is based on two assumptions which I think are false.

    The first is a continuation of a linear growth based economic model whereby we extract resources, use them to make mass market products with previously designed expiration dates and then discard those products without reusing the materials and components from which they are made.

    The second is the idea that we as societies will continue to promote the idea of individual ownership of vehicles.

    If we adopt a circular economic model within which we design reusablility of all components from the get go into all products, we eliminate the unsustainability implicit in the first flawed assumption.

    If we then also start thinking of personal transportation as an as needed service, provided by fleets of autonomous vehicles then the increased efficiency of EVs starts making a lot more sense.

    BTW, cars as we know them today are not good examples of uses for EVs if we follow the same model of ownership that we have today for ICE vehicles. Let’s not forget that EV simply means electric vehicle. That would include electric buses, trucks, trains, bicycles as well as some individual passenger cars.

    So let’s not throw out the EV with the bath water, just because we can’t yet visualize a completely different paradigm and economic model. EVs are fine, it’s the people’s mindset that needs major changing.

    Re-thinking Progress: The Circular Economy – YouTube
    YouTube‎ · ‎Ellen MacArthur Foundation”

    ~ Fred Magyar

    Quote 2:

    “Great article, if you like false premises supported by false assumptions to come to erroneous conclusions.
    As has been discussed in the past on this blog, the energy used to produce liquid fuel such as gasoline is about 40% of the energy that it contains for use. Those discussions, supported by references, showed that just energy of production (refining and distribution included) would be more than enough to run the average EV a typical 12,500 miles per year. Considering that every EV saves over 6000 gallons of fuel over it’s life time, that is 6000 gallons that did not have to be produced or could be used for other purposes. That is now “extra” energy in the system that was not there before.
    So EV’s produce a surplus of energy due to their high efficiency and lack of need for fuel production energy and materials. Wind power and PV will develop much faster than the EV so there will be no lack of power to run EV’s.
    Actually I am going to have to amend those earlier calculations, since some new EV’s are now down to 0.2 kWh per mile average versus the original 0.3. But I don’t see a problem.

    BTW, an EV can run in it’s own solar footprint. The high efficiency PV panel area needed to produce the power used by an EV running a typical 34 miles per day is about the same area as the horizontal plane area of the vehicle.

    One million EV’s on the road saves over 6 billion gallons of fuel having to be produced, transported, refined, transported and distributed. It would take 22.5 million EV’s on the road to save a year’s worth of US gasoline use over their 15 year lifetime, if the average fuel use rate was 30 mpg. Plus all that coal, natural gas, electricity and oil products energy that go into production, refining and distribution of gasoline (or diesel) can be produced by clean PV and wind power directly, since that is the only energy needed to run the electric vehicles.

    So even without all those great ideas that Fred promotes about circular economy and recycle/reusability, the EV is a clear energy winner over fossil fuel.” ~ GoneFishing


    • Thanks.

      The first quote says, I think, that things would be a lot better if we (a) gave up on consumerism, and (b) stopped obsessing about private car ownership. I agree, entirely, but I can’t see how we persuade the public about this, or overcome the vested interests involved with both.

      I simply disagree with the second quote.

    • Really?

      Let’s follow that through — people decide not to shop … not to travel … not to eat in restaurants… not to buy new cars

      Where does that lead?

      Very obviously to total economic collapse. Because that would result in the loss of millions of jobs in those industries… those people would have no means to consume… more jobs lost… and then the financial system would collapse as these out of work people defaulted on their debts…

      Tim — is the kitchen getting too hot for you? These comments are making no sense

    • Oh my where do I start?

      First of all EV isn’t a apple to apple replacement. EV needs a primary power source.

      It is incredibly sad how ignorant people are on the reality of trying to convert the present fossil fuel based system with renewables. Frankly it’s sheer lunacy.

      In the last 14 years we have only reduced our use of fossil fuels by about 5% with wind and solar. We haven’t even started any meaningful change in transportation. If that rate was sustained it would take 300years to reach grid utopia. Another 600 years to replace all energy systems. That’s without replacement at 30year intervals.

      Only fools without basic math skills believe this. People like Janet Yellen and Ben Bernake.

    • JT

      That’s exactly how I feel about this – frustration at apparent ignorance of the blindingly obvious.

      Which still leaves me wondering – why are governments and industry so gung-ho about this?

    • Thanks for the link. Basically, the calculations are showing PV as an energy sink, not a net energy source. In SEE terms, that means an EcoE of greater than 100%. My own view is that PV can be positive, but will remain comparatively high cost, not least because it’s derivative of fossil fuels, so influenced (increasingly over time, as PV expands) by the source ECoEs of fossil.

    • Thanks. I’m listening to it now, and still waiting to hear how much electricity is required, where it’s going to come from, and what the emissions profile of this additional capacity is likely to be…..

      More broadly, the (combined) EV and renewables story is a lot of wishful thinking, but seems to have been adopted by the powers that be, who want to drive it through virtually irrespective of the logic. What I don’t know is why they’re so committed to this.

  24. All a question here. How much energy and materials might be saved of we were able to switch to maintaining our current goods – cars – phones television and only replacing them when further repairs have become uneconomical.

    My television – Samsung – is now 7 years old. My car 5 – my stereo is 8 – my phone 2 (I don’t need or want an upgrade) My ipod 7 – my PC 51/2 (This is going to get a new hard drive shortly)

    Of course there would be unemployment but we will maybe be forced to follow the route of Cuba and their marvellous 50’s vehicles in the future.

    • If people did not replace their stuff… millions of jobs would be lost… which would cause a deflationary death spiral

  25. Probably the most ridiculous request I’ve ever read.


  26. Tim, thanks for another good article. I’m interested in your idea of an imposition of a limit on engine size of perhaps 1.5 litres. For the same reasons of seeking energy conservation, should government mandate the maximum temperature that a thermostat can be set to, or the maximum volume of a fridge freezer? What is the optimum amount of authority we wish to give to governments?

    For cars, are not fuel duty and VAT, representing 70% of the cost of vehicle fuel already good enough incentives, whilst preserving free choice, to choose efficient engines? Society is adequately compensated through this tax if a consumer chooses to use a larger engine than strictly necessary.

    • These are good points, and normally I’m opposed to government meddling. If there were any better way of tackling the issue, I’d be all for it.

      The basic contention here is that, globally, we face two major challenges. The first is that energy is getting costlier (meaning the quantity of energy accessed, less the energy used up in accessing it). As far as fossil fuels are concerned, this access cost is rising exponentially. Renewables, though imperative, aren’t likely to fix this, only mitigate it. The second issue is climate change (and the related subject of the harmful effects of polution).

      Faced with this, do we bury our heads in the sand? By this, I mean ignoring these challenges, and driving ever-larger numbers of ever-larger vehicles, for which, arguably, we no longer have enough space on our roads, or parking space. To an extent, residency patterns reflect this, as we’ve moved away from the urban concentrations of the past, spreading into suburbia and exurbia in ways related to cars.

      So we can carry on like this until things grind to a halt – oil, in particular, becomes ever more expensive, whilst the climate issue (and pollution) worsen.

      Alternatively, we can start a redesign now. We would plan ahead for greater housing density, shorter distances, fewer cars and greater use of public transport.

      We’re going to look a bit idiotic if we run out of affordable energy because a fixation with cars (including SUVs) has squandered it.

      We could do more with taxation (though that tends to hit the poorest hardest), or we could change public attitudes (as, famously, was accomplished over drink-driving). But, if these measures aren’t tried, or don’t work, what alternatives do we have?

      Realistically, all that remains is to wait for scarcity of affordable oil to drive a lot of cars off the road. EVs, which simply consume the same amount of energy differently, are no solution.

    • ‘We’re going to look a bit idiotic if we run out of affordable energy because a fixation with cars (including SUVs) has squandered it’ Exactly what the car lobby doesn’t want if you’ve read my link above.

  27. Dr. Morgan
    ‘We are going to look a bit idiotic’
    Just taking that phrase out of context, because it applies to so many contexts. For example, cramming more people into a smaller footprint seems to be a popular solution to the mobility problem. But it makes the food and water problem worse. The Mayan village just discovered in the jungle probably was designed so that every home had significant ability to grow food and to capture and store rain-water. Edo Japan was certainly designed that way for 85 percent of the population. The urban areas such as Edo (Tokyo) did have municipal water and storm sewers, and a lot of food was brought in by foot from the immediate countryside, and human waste was taken back by foot to the countryside. But the Samurai households in Edo typically had a large kitchen garden. I like to look at Edo because:
    *They did have wheels (unlike the Maya)
    *The did not have fossil fuels (like the Maya)
    *They had sustainable forestry (unlike Europe)
    *Public health was good (unlike London and Paris)

    IF we don’t look at these fundamentals, ‘we are going to look a bit idiotic’ because we have shot ourselves in the foot and wasted our diminishing energy resources.

    Don Stewart

  28. Dr. Morgan
    Once concrete illustration of the problem caused by failure to anticipate.

    Water was brought to Edo entirely by gravity. Waste was closely regulated and basically kept out of water. Crowding more people together without consideration of gravity flow makes those problems insurmountable if energy systems fail.

    I used to live in a swamp in New Jersey. The public sewage system relied on pumping the sewage up over a mountain for treatment and discharge into a river. During one of the Hurricanes, the electricity system failed and, guess what, the sewage system failed. The place I live now has a gravity fed sewage system. But the small system has been sold to a larger operator who has some large electric pumps doing whatever he needs to do with his other systems. The town just south of me is considering a ‘pumped system’ to replace a gravity fed system which would require some money to upgrade. I will guarantee you that the ‘upgrade vs. pumping’ decision will take no account whatsoever of the prospects for the electrical system failing.

    Don Stewart

  29. Report from the front lines

    This communal farm in Virginia ‘gets it’ in terms of the false promise of renewables. You will see how they are managing to reduce their use of electricity and fuel enormously, as compared to the average American.

    Unfortunately, prophets are usually stoned to death.

    Don Stewart

    • Hi I watched the documentary on ice/refrigeration/air conditioning the other day ‘How We Got To Now’. Clearly this group is doing without ice and anyway it needs to be transported and stored correctly. Before a way was found of transporting ice people everywhere used to swelter.

  30. One of the hardest technical jobs the grid and power station operators face is that at any given instant the power generated must exactly match the power demanded. There is simply no energy storage in the grid itself.

    So, because the grid cannot store energy, and power must match demand at all times, this means that some power stations are at all times ‘throttled back’ from what they could produce. Indeed some are throttled back so far that they are generating nothing at all, a condition known as spinning reserve. Such power stations are ready to take up the load at short notice, but are essentially burning fuel, doing nothing. And this brings us to the important concept of ‘dispatch’, a term that is used to describe the processes involved in adjusting generator output to match demand.

    Which brings us to the issue of intermittency. Intermittency is, quite simply, the fluctuating availability of an energy source. All power generating technologies suffers from it. Things break and need mending. Supplies of fuel can get interrupted. Routine maintenance can shut down a plant for weeks.

    But, when considering the intermittency of renewable energy – that is wind, solar, tidal and wave power, the intermittency is characterised by being persistent and of short duration. Of all the aspects of renewable energy, none has a greater impact than the question of intermittency and how it relates to load factor and dispatchable power.

    One way of obtaining dispatchable power from renewable energy plants is to build so many that we can achieve dispatch simply by throwing the surplus electricity away. Since we know that the worst case for solar is zero output when its dark, clearly that strategy won’t work for solar. No matter how many solar panels we install they will still produce nothing at night. In the case of wind the worst case is about 1% of the average, so all we need to do is simply build 100 times as many windmills as the demand.

    Or build large amounts of energy storage units to provide dispatchable power.

    Or we can do what we (and Germany) do now, and use dispatchable conventional power sources to make up the difference. And that realistically is all anyone can do to match intermittent renewable energy to variable demand – fill the gaps with dispatchable power stations running on stored energy fuel sources – coal, gas or uranium and the stored renewables of hydroelectricity, geothermal and biofuels.

    In 2016 total German electricity production was 542.1 TWh, which implies an average demand of 61.9GW. Peak demand in the winter is 80GW. The German electricity supply industry has an installed capacity of 200GW, of which 100GW is solar and wind (non-dispatchable) and 100GW is dispatchable power (coal, nuclear, gas, hydro and biomass). So Germany has 120GW of excess of generating capacity above peak demand, i.e. some 150% of peak demand. And they continue to install more wind capacity year on year.

    For comparison the CEGB had a planning margin of 28% above forecast peak demand.

    • There is way too much to discuss here but it’s vital to understand how the grid works and how frequency is regulated. The inertia of the big turbines are what allow the renewable garbage to be absorbed into the system.

      Strangely in retrospect there had been only one way to build an electrical grid and we hit it the first time. What were the odds.

      You can’t create a stable grid with intermittent supply. Good luck have fun trying.

    • oldscouser: Your post seems pretty accurate to me. However, it reminds me of the aphorism, “you can’t solve demand side problems with supply side solutions.” Since it’s pretty much a given that we do not have enough resources to keep a grid going as we have become used to (supply), the use is going to change (demand), one way or another.

      What fundamental need is there to ‘burn’ huge quantities of electricity 24:7:365? The basics for a comfortable life, including refrigeration, summer cooling, light at night, etc. can all be done without the huge generating capacity and power grid infrastructure we currently have.

  31. Those who know something about David Holmgren
    Look for the picture of David in the White Leisure Suit

    This is for the occasion of the launch of David’s new book RetroSuburbia. The book is not yet published, but the thrust, as I understand it, is that turning detached houses with reasonable lot sizes into centers of production rather than simply consumption is the way forward. As I see it, such a thrust is diametrically opposed to those who think everyone should be living in dense high-rises.

    I don’t believe any of us are clairvoyant enough to absolutely dictate one choice over the other, but my money is on the ‘dwelling as a center of production’.

    At any rate, my wife looked carefully at the picture and noticed that David’s fingernails are clean and his hair is neatly combed. So check out the picture and be amazed.

    Don Stewart

    • I think your vision is everybody/many growing most/some of their food themselves.

      Tim’s is living mostly like today but more energy economic.

      This results in somewhat different conclusions, dense walkable towns vs no need to walk anywhere because you have everything at home.

      Anyway, we have the homes we have today, it is lower hanging fruit moving the workplaces and stores.

  32. The reason that there is the need to power the present grid and not become a more efficient self reliant society is that the present economic model would collapse. Business and industry require 24/7 power to be profitable. People require 24/7 power to be profitable on a personal level. Basically it’s a trap. Having access to the level of power we have had has created efficiencies of scale that have consumed any stores of value, whether economic or commodity based, so we don’t have the ability to make a coarse correction.

    The world today in a sense is living hand to mouth. Everything is being delivered just in time allowing the system to function. In a way the entire globalized world is very much like a power grid. Things are produced and consumed at precisely the same rate. Any imbalance ripples through the economy like dirty power on the lines. Since there is no real store of value money stands in as a relative store. But money is fundamentally secured by energy. It’s interesting to examine the correlation of money growth and energy growth. They are locked together and when they’re not a bubble is building.


    Probably the best way to sum up the problem is with an illustration. It’s like flying a plane. A plane only has a finite amount of fuel. At takeoff everything seems wonderful plenty of power and speed and ironically at that moment is the worst fuel efficiency because of the full load of fuel. As the flight continues you reach maximum altitude and speed however it becomes apparent that your running out of fuel. So you slow it down to just above stall speed. The last thing you can do is change the attitude and pitch the plane down to maintain air speed. Eventually you crash and ironically it’s at the moment of maximum efficiency.

    Why not just land the plane? Simply put our economic system never had a destination. The journey was the destination. If there had been a destination different decisions would have been made in the 70s with the first peak energy crisis.

    With that in mind how do you comfort the passengers? Another movie free drinks. You could explain the reliability and safety features of the plane. Since most have no idea about aerodynamics or even how to identify the horizon they will ride blissfully along sipping their MaiTai.

    Who is the pilot and who are the attendants? Well it’s for each to decide. But here’s a clue.

    1 John 5:19

  33. HD2

    I guess it depends on ones macro view. To fail a test would imply that we had the required knowledge to make the correct choice.

    So we get into the meaning of free will. Is it the freedom to determine a right or wrong direction. Or is it the freedom to choose a right or wrong direction.

    Without the information needed can we really say it is ever a choice? But to say we have the ability to determine right or wrong has the exact same barrier.

    You may find this link useful.


    A very important take away is the value of information and what results from the absence of it. The most important thing is to know what you don’t know and never break that barrier.

    Click to access Son.Kornell.InPress.pdf

    So if there has been a test it has been the issue of whether man given his limitations can successfully govern himself. This has been the universal issue that required sufficient time to settle.

    Can man determine right and wrong successfully? Good or bad?

    Essentially was that not the issue raised in the garden of eden with the tree of the knowledge of good and bad? The result of self determination was death. So we are simply witnessing the working through of that basic challenge.

    Jer 10:23

  34. There are some attention-grabbing points in time on this article however I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There’s some validity but I will take maintain opinion till I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as properly

    • Thank you. It’s long, but very watchable, and I recommend everyone makes time for it.

      I’d never heard of him, but he’s quite brilliant.

    • Thanks, that’s good. Robert Newman serves up the kind of intelligent humour that’s exactly my kind of thing, right back to Tom Lehrer, the kind of thing that Andy Hamilton does so well, as did the late, great Alan Coren.

  35. Is relying on renewables sensible?

    Germany (and northern Europe in general is having a bit of a cold snap

    In the early evening electricity demand in Germany was 81.5GW. Not to worry, the Germans have installed 100GW of wind and solar energy. Except that the 42GW of solar pv was producing nothing and the 58GW of wind energy was producing 3.5GW.

    So it is conventional power stations that are keeping the Germans warm.

  36. Tim – I sent a link to this excellent post to my MP requesting that he read it with an open mind. I’ve just had a letter back today on the usual ‘House Of Commons’ headed letter paper saying he’s asked the Secretary of State for Transport to have a look into it and respond.

    Now I know that Chris Grayling is not held in very high regard by some so whether I’ll get a decent response is uncertain. However I will let you know if I receive more than just a generic reply.

    • Thanks Donald

      When Tullett published my “Perfect Storm” report, a concerned member asked a question in the Lords about energy costs and surplus, but nothing came of it. Let’s hope for better this time.

      I don’t know much about Chris Grayling, but I think he’s pretty knowlegeable.

  37. Just so you know, there are two things I’m working on now.

    One is a succinct (but hopefully comprehensive) summary of SEE. The plan is to make this a downloadable PDF.

    The other is on the role of the state, which is likely to touch on ownership. We all too often hear, either that the state should do almost everything, or that government should do almost nothing. These extreme views are inane, so I think it’ll be interesting to discuss what role the state ought to have in a balanced system.

    • Tim as you say that could be 19% less fossil energy available per person by 2030. Well I drive carefully and get around 46 mpg on mixed journeys and over 56 on long trips (petrol). Now I would like to think – and this would of course have to include the reduction in energy used for the production of the vehicle (a mix of fossil – nuclear – renewables etc) – that economy could be increased for all vehicles so that their mpg would compensate for the reduction in fuel available.

      Mazda are leading the way with their new engine which they claim will be 30% more efficient


      Following this cars could be produced which have modest acceleration and a limited top speed depending on country.

      Boy racers – of all ages – could enjoy unrestricted cars from days past on a race tracks.

      Anyway as fuel prices go up you’ll automatically see drivers driving more economically – reducing their journeys and migrating to smaller cars with Auto Trader and Motorpoint full of SUV’s that nobody wants.

    • Property relations are not considered enough when we try to find solutions to our systemic problems. The inequity resulting from the current global corporatist/capitalist political economy is well studied (e.g., Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”), but the causal relationships with sustainability and risk of collapse not so much. If you haven’t read it, I recommend in this regard: http://archive.wphna.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/14-03-19-Inequality-Resources-Collapse.pdf
      For an exploration of the inherent imperialism in Western modernity, there’s this obliquely relevant classic: https://www.routledge.com/Imperial-Eyes-Travel-Writing-and-Transculturation-2nd-Edition/Pratt/p/book/9780415438179

    • Donald

      I agree with you, but that’s only a stop-gap – deterioration in fossil fuel (and especially oil) supply per capita is likely to continue after 2030. Competition from China, India and others will exacerbate the decline for Western consumers.

      That’s why I think we need fundamental redesign. The ideal might be urban regeneration, making cities really pleasant places to live and work, resulting in denser habitation, shorter and fewer journeys, more public transport and fewer cars. Suburbia, commuting and mass car ownership are the products of abundant oil. Trying to replicate this using EVs is something that might have appealed to King Canute.

    • Ravinathan and Tim. The paper by M Dittmar paints a pretty frightening scenario. If it turns out to be accurate Western european economies will collapse as we simply haven’t got time to adjust our way of life.

      Here in the Uk it puts all the current political squabbling into context – and to paraphrase a quote from the Airplane character McCroskey – ‘Looks like we chose the wrong time to leave the EU.

  38. Tim

    I also enjoy intelligent humor but it’s hard to find. And frankly nonexistent on this side of the pond. Ignorance is strength here. Living in the NY metro and having friends who work the trading floor and others who established hedge funds I became completely disillusioned by their overall ignorance. So the only conclusion I could make was the system is not a product of collective intelligence but must be of a nature that can optimize ignorance. By division and compartmentalization the core never comprehends the collective activity. Because of multiple business associations I was able to confirm that ignorance is strength.

    But it’s impossible for a system to grow to the extent we are witnessing without some kind of direction.

    One of the most interesting things I’ve seen is the Falkland Islands war. When it was fought I remember thinking why? Who cares about a couple of islands off Argentina. Particularly to Britain who is so far away. Then low and behold in the last decade oil and gas resources have been found there. At the time of the war no one knew. I challenge anyone to explain that.

    The Anglo American World power runs on energy. So who chose them and why? They simply don’t know what they’re doing but it’s working.

    I’ve always wondered how you were able to publish Perfect Storm. It is completely the wrong message for Capital Economy.

    • The Falklands War was strange, likened to “two bald men fighting over a comb”, with the US Secretary of State saying that trying to negotiate was like “stalling between two fools”. This said, the principle was self-determination, which, for me, justified opposing invasion by a dictatorship – and the defeat in the South Atlantic discredited the juntas, paving the way to democracy for Argentina after decades of military rule.

      With Perfect Storm, I had really terrific support from management.

    • Tim – “…not likely to happen until about 2018-20” – can you remember your reasoning at that time?

      Maybe the best chart is “peak surplus oil”.
      Compared to a peak oil chart (Gaussian shaped curve), it peaks earlier and depletes more quickly (i.e. skews to the left), due to increasing EcoE.

      “Peak shale oil” is a nonsense term. Peak oil is intrinsically peak conventional oil.
      If there is something remotely peak shale, it was over years ago.

    • As I recall, I worked through best estimate production profiles and new sources of production, and things vectored in on 2018. It meant we didn’t have anything imperative for publication, but did set a frame of thinking.

      The promised synopsis of SEE, which I’m putting together now, is likely to include charts for surplus as well as gross energy access, on both aggregate and per capita bases.

      Though “peak oil” – which we’ll only recognise in retrospect – includes all liquids production, I agree with the general sense that, with shales now carrying the burden of sustaining output, we are already into – er – scraping the barrel.

    • Thanks for this link, an interesting paper (and I’d like to see part I, on the supply outlook).

      For me, what’s really crucial is the surplus energy available from oil, i.e. gross volume less ECoE. But, clearly, absolute volume matters too. I remember being asked by colleagues, about 15 years ago, whether oil supplies would ever peak. My answer was along the lines of “yes, but don’t worry about it, as it’s not likely to happen until about 2018-20”.

    • Personally, I always focus on ECoE rather than peak. The latter always get the stock response ‘there is plenty of oil’ from the people I’ve called “cornucopians”. Theirs is the right answer to the wrong question – the right question is: how much energy value can be supplied each year from oil?

      It does seem that conventional oil supply peaked in about 2005, and now we’re looking at a combined peak including unconventionals, which looks pretty imminent now. For that one, t’s getting on for 20 years since my “2018-20” prediction, but I’m happy to stick with it.

      What’s going to be interesting will be (a) efforts at continued denial, and (b) how long it takes for the financial system to recognise and respond to the event.

    • Hi Tim by financial system’s response I take it this includes the collapse of share – property prices and some banks too?

    • Part 1 – https://arxiv.org/pdf/1601.07716.pdf

      “The results are chilling.”

      Yes, Yes they were….. PS We knew this before we wasted blood and treasure in Afghanistan/Iraq.

      “By 2020 it may be clear to almost everyone that the current oil-based way of life in the developed and developing countries has begun a terminal decline.

      Whenever that terminal decline begins, one can only hope that people around the globe will be able to learn, quickly, how to live with less and less oil every year, and how to avoid war and other forms of violence, as we travel the path to a future with less and less oil.

      In order to conclude this article on a more positive note, let us hope that the end of the oil era, and indeed the end of the fossil-fuel era, will lead not only to reduced CO2 emissions and less Global Warming than would otherwise have been seen, but to new, locally-oriented, more conscious and more ethical ways of life. Let us hope that each of us can become committed to leaving the worst aspects of the 20th century in history’s dustbin.”

    • My thoughts on this are that with Trump in power he will just grab what he can under his ‘America first policy’

  39. Japan will generate an extra 120-150GW ( I think the rough conversion would be 1000 TWh.. but let me know if I am wrong) by 2030 from Solar alone. I believe 8% of the electricity production came from solar in 2017 from virtually zero in 2012.
    Surely it would not be impossible for the US and Canada (which has even better conditions for solar than Hokkaido) to generate 10x that amount of solar power by 2030
    Doesn’t that fill the gap you mention?

    • Japan generated 49.5 TWH in 2016, up from 36.6 TWH in 2015. Total electricity use in Japan in 2016 was 999.6 TWH, compared with 4,351 TWH in the US, and 6,143 TWH in China.

      Japan’s actual solar output is just over 10% of installed capacity, so for every 1 KWH of extra power, close to 10KWH of capacity has to be added. That’s expensive, and one recent paper, linked by a reader in this discussion, suggested that PV isn’t even energy-positive. (I think it is positive, by the way, but only very modestly).

      Note, too, that Japanese consumption is falling – as befits an economy that has been described as “a bug in search of a windshield” – which makes building up solar’s share easier. Chinese consumption grew by 5.4% in 2016, and growth averaged 8.8% in the preceding decade.

      So China needs an additional 330 TWH (or more) each year, about six times what Japan generates – and that’s just the annual increment, not the total.

    • I should, perhaps, clarify on Japan. The BoJ is buying so many JGBs (with newly-created QE money) that it now owns about half of all JGBs in issue. The private sector is a net seller of JGBs, and BoJ purchasing, using QE, effectively funds both the deficit and maturing bonds.

      In other words, they’re monetising the debt. That’s something that would scare me witless if I was Japanese.

      Of course, they’re trying to turn deflation into inflation, but they should “be careful what you wish for”. I’ve described Abenomics as “a financial kamikaze”.

  40. On your previous post. I was looking at the numbers and had a minor quibble.
    You said US GDP increased from 13.9tr to 18.6tr and debt increased by 11.1tr (31%). Calculating the numbers that suggests debt went from 35.1tr to 46.2tr. In 2016 dollars that is 41.1tr, an increase of only 5.1tr. That implies it took 2.2 $ of debt to generate $1 of GDP and debt to GDP actually decreased slightly over the period (from 252% to 246%) unless the 11.1tr is a real number.

    • Here are the figures – all are stated in constant 2016 $trn.

      End 2006: 35.5
      End 2016: 46.6 (+11.07)
      2006: 16.3
      2016: 18.6 (+2.34)

      I hope this clarifies?

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