Personal Energy Cubes

In this post, we’ll put a physical, comprehendible scale on the amount of energy typical Americans have used in their lifetimes. No judgment: just the numbers.

The task is to estimate our personal energy volume, so that we can mentally picture cubic tanks or bins corresponding to all the oil, coal, natural gas, etc. we have used in our lives—perhaps plunked down in our backyards to bring the idea home. Go ahead and try to guess/picture how big each cube is.
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A Nation-Sized Battery

As we look to transition away from fossil fuels, solar and wind are attractive options. Key factors making them compelling are: the inexhaustibility of the source with use (i.e., renewable); their low carbon footprint; and the independence that small-scale distribution can foster (I’ll never put a nuclear plant on my roof, even if it would make me the coolest physicist ever!).

lovely future of solar, wind, and honking-big battery

With full-scale solar in the desert southwest, and wind in the plains states, we're going to need a big battery (items not to scale!).

But solar and wind suffer a serious problem in that they are not always available. There are windless days, there are sunless nights, and worst of all, there are windless nights. Obviously, this calls for energy storage, allowing us to collect the energy when we can, and use it when we want.

Small-scale off-grid solar and wind installations have been doing this for a long time, typically using lead-acid batteries as the storage medium. I myself have four golf-cart batteries in my garage storing the energy from eight 130 W solar panels, and use these to power the majority of my electricity consumption at home.

It’s worth pausing to appreciate this fact. Compare this scheme to the dream source of fusion. Why do people go ga-ga over fusion? Because there is enough deuterium in water (sea water is fine) to provide a seemingly inexhaustible source of energy, and there are no atmospheric emissions in the process. Meanwhile, solar provides a source that will last longer (billions of years), produces even less pollution (no radioactive contamination of containment vessel), and is here today! It’s even affordable enough and low-tech enough to be on my roof and in my garage! People—we have arrived!

Storage works on the small scale, as many stand-aloners can attest. How would it scale up? Can it? Continue reading

Galactic-Scale Energy

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Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have seen an impressive and sustained growth in the scale of energy consumption by human civilization. Plotting data from the Energy Information Agency on U.S. energy use since 1650 (1635-1945, 1949-2009, including wood, biomass, fossil fuels, hydro, nuclear, etc.) shows a remarkably steady growth trajectory, characterized by an annual growth rate of 2.9% (see figure). It is important to understand the future trajectory of energy growth because governments and organizations everywhere make assumptions based on the expectation that the growth trend will continue as it has for centuries—and a look at the figure suggests that this is a perfectly reasonable assumption.  (See this update for nuances.)

U.S. total energy 1650-present (logarithmic)

Total U.S. Energy consumption in all forms since 1650. The vertical scale is logarithmic, so that an exponential curve resulting from a constant growth rate appears as a straight line. The red line corresponds to an annual growth rate of 2.9%. Data source: EIA.

Growth has become such a mainstay of our existence that we take its continuation as a given. Growth brings many positive benefits, such as cars, television, air travel, and iGadgets. Quality of life improves, health care improves, and, aside from a proliferation of passwords to remember, life tends to become more convenient over time. Growth also brings with it a promise of the future, giving reason to invest in future development in anticipation of a return on the investment. Growth is then the basis for interest rates, loans, and the finance industry.

Because growth has been with us for “countless” generations—meaning that everyone we ever met or our grandparents ever met has experienced it—growth is central to our narrative of who we are and what we do. We therefore have a difficult time imagining a different trajectory.

This post provides a striking example of the impossibility of continued growth at current rates—even within familiar timescales. For a matter of convenience, we lower the energy growth rate from 2.9% to 2.3% per year so that we see a factor of ten increase every 100 years. We start the clock today, with a global rate of energy use of 12 terawatts (meaning that the average world citizen has a 2,000 W share of the total pie). We will begin with semi-practical assessments, and then in stages let our imaginations run wild—even then finding that we hit limits sooner than we might think. I will admit from the start that the assumptions underlying this analysis are deeply flawed. But that becomes the whole point, in the end.

A Race to the Galaxy

I have always been impressed by the fact that as much solar energy reaches Earth in one hour as we consume in a year. What hope such a statement brings! But let’s not get carried away—yet.

Only 70% of the incident sunlight enters the Earth’s energy budget—the rest immediately bounces off of clouds and atmosphere and land without being absorbed. Also, being land creatures, we might consider confining our solar panels to land, occupying 28% of the total globe. Finally, we note that solar photovoltaics and solar thermal plants tend to operate around 15% efficiency. Let’s assume 20% for this calculation. The net effect is about 7,000 TW, about 600 times our current use. Lots of headroom, yes? Continue reading