In order to fix global warming, there are two general approaches we need to take:
- stopping future greenhouse gas emissions and
- removing existing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, down to a stable level (around 350ppm)
Currently, the highest contributors to global warming are the greenhouse gases Carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4)—both significantly added to Earth’s atmosphere as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution and resultant changes in our lifestyles. As the main cause of global warming is the usage of fossil fuels, this post will show what it takes to replace all our energy sources with clean energy and how to do it quickly enough, in order to avoid terrible consequences that can, in some predictions, lead to the extinction of the human race.
First, we need to find what is the current World total energy consumption and then calculate projected energy consumption for the point when we could reach 450ppm of equivalent CO2—what some have marked as the ‘point of no return’, although it is quite possible that that point can be way bellow 450ppm.
As sources of energy usage data vary significantly between Wiki, BP (British Petroleum) and EIA (Energy Information Administration) with marginal differences of almost 10%, this calculation will consider the most pessimistic numbers and continue with that assumption.
So, by taking the EIA official publication, we can see that, for the year 2011, total world energy consumption was equal to 540.5 Quadrillion BTU, which is equivalent to 158,412.79 TWh of energy. By taking EIA estimates and by extrapolating numbers for other years, we will end up with an estimated number for year 2027, which is 202,542.45 TWh, and 210,346.79 TWh of energy for the year 2030.
As we are already seeing the melting of permafrost in the polar circles of Alaska and Siberia, we have to consider that acceleration processes have already begun and that linear models that predict 18 years until we reach 450ppm (also known as point of no return) are too optimistic.
As shown earlier in the following:
We will take the accelerating model that predicts 13 years until we reach the point of no return. In order to pessimistically optimize our calculation, we will consider that we have only 10 years to switch to clean energy while meeting energy requirements predicted for the year 2030 — or 210,346.79 TWh of clean energy.
The goal is to calculate what it would take to decrease future global CO2 emissions to zero in 10 years by switching to 100% clean energy sources. Additionally, by using techniques to sequester existing CO2 and methane from the atmosphere, we could extend the time necessary for a permanent fix, avoiding cataclysmic events with occasional relatively big “bumps in the road”.
From the IEA data, we can see that CO2 emission has flattened in the last 3 years (2014, 2015, 2016) to 32.3 billion metric tons of CO2, which can signify a turning point. This flattening can be attributed to the oceans’ increased sequestering ability but also some countries’ aggressive approaches toward clean energy sources while taking offline coal plants. We will include all those numbers in our calculation.
So, the task is this: generate 210,346.79 TWh yearly from clean energy sources in 10 years.
What is the current clean energy potential?
It is important to note that renewable energy does not always mean clean energy, as well as the fact that non-renewable energy can be CO2-free but still pollute. For instance, bio mass, wood pellet, bio gas are renewable energy sources but they still emits CO2, and, while nuclear is CO2-free, it still pollutes the environment in other ways.
Therefore, 100% clean energy sources are solar (not using those that use NF3 [Nitrogen trifluoride] and similar that are extremely dangerous greenhouse gases), wind, hydroelectric, tidal and geothermal.
What is controversial is usage of landfill methane, as burning methane converts it to less dangerous CO2.
Existing nuclear facilities will be taken into account, as they won’t go anywhere in the next 10 years, and they will continue combating CO2 emission.
Currently, PV solar is already on an exponential curve. Last year, the world added 75 GW, making the total installed 303 GW. With an average of 2,000 sunny hours a year will yield approximately 606 TWh of energy. (World Energy Resources | 2016 — pg. 5, 30, 36)
Nuclear was responsible for 2450 TWh/y (in 2015).
Hydro power supplied 10,000 TWh/y worldwide.
Geothermal added a combined 150 TWh/y for heat and power, and wind amounted for 950 TWh/y in 2015.
Total yield for clean energy sources is therefore 14,156 TWh/y, or around 10% for the year 2010, according Wikipedia, but, as we want to calculate the projected amount for year 2027, that is only 6.72% of the potential we need.
In order to simplify the calculation, only one type of energy source (solar) will be considered; further, we will calculate how much money and space we need to build all this, in order to achieve our goal just in 10 years. (*consider that other sources like wind, geothermal, and hydro have a similar price per W of energy)
So, there is (210,346.79 TWh - 14156 TWh/y) ~ 196191 Twh of energy we need to supply.
First, we will assume that our solar PV panel will be exposed to the sun for 2000 hours a year on average. In some countries, like the UK, that number is lower—around 1500 hours, on average—but, in many African countries—like Egypt—that number is significantly higher, reaching above 3500 hours a year.
That means the total installed solar power requirement is 98.1 TW (196191Twh/2000h).
Considering that currently there is only 0.3 TW of solar installed, this makes it a quite significant task.
Is it doable, and how much space, money, effort and personal sacrifice would that require?
If we take an example from SunPower’s x21 345w panel, which will produce on average 300 W, taking its dimensions 1559 mm x 1046 mm = 1.630714 m2 means that the panel will produce 184 W per square meter.
That means we would need 533,243,478,000 m2 (98.1TW/184W) or 533244 km2, which is approximately the area of Spain (505,992km2 [195,365 mi2])
By placing those solar power plants in deserts around the world, this area could be reduced significantly. Also, it is worth mentioning that Spain has an above-average number (>2600) of sunny hours per year so, if we would literally place an entire facility there, it would additionally reduce the necessary area. This is just hypothetical; in real-world conditions, probable locations would be residential, commercial rooftops, and fields and deserts for solar farms.
Just for an example, in a large part of the Sahara Desert, the number of sunny hours is between 3600 and 4000 per year. The Sahara on its own, without considering other deserts around world has an area of 9.2 million km2. If we would build everything there, considering 3800 sunny hours per year, we would need only 280,593 km2 (red circle down on image). Therefore, the otherwise uninhabitable Sahara has more than 32 times the space required to satisfy all energy needs of the entire planet with existing 20% efficient PV solar panels.
Bear in mind this calculation is for all energy we use: transport, heating, electricity, cooling...
How much would it cost to build such an installation?
There are two type of prices: residential, available for small installations, which is usually between $2.87 and $3.85, so we will take $3.36/watt. That price should include everything (Module, Labour, Permitting & Interconnection, Taxes, Inverter, Design & Engineering...). The commercial price, especially for large power plants, is significantly lower &mdahs; around $1.75/watt and it is estimated that price will drope bellow $1 by year 2020.
Again, for the price, consider that this calculation uses a pessimistic approach, taking higher prices and numbers.
Price-wise, we will take the approach that 50% of energy will be paid at commercial rates, and 50% will be residential investments.
- Residential: 49,050,000,000,000 W * $3.36 = $164.81 trillion US
- Commercial: 49,050,000,000,000 W * $1.75 = $85.84 trillion US
Therefore, the total price tag to replace all energy sources with clean energy is $250.65 trillion US
Keeping in mind that the entire world’s GDP in 2014 was around $78.5 trillion, the question is, “Is it doable?”
It is important to stress that the investment $250.65 trillion should be spread over a period of 10 years. Although money will be invested during those 10 crucial years, by using credit money, it is possible to spread that amount over a longer period of time by borrowing from the future.
What is the way to spread the burden, and how much does each person on the planet need to pay?
In calculation, we have included only those who work and have income, which is 4.841 billion people. A majority of the “lifting” will need to be pulled by the higher-earning population proportional to their earnings.
It is obvious that a majority of people (3.545 billion) won’t contribute significantly in this entire endeavour, as their combined wealth does not exceed $6.1 trillion USD. Generally speaking, it is easier for high-income earners to give up a significant percent of earnings than for a poor person to give up a very small monthly amount, as that could jeopardise that person’s or his family member’s survival. Some people may complain that just 1.3 billion people need to do all “heavy lifting”, but we have to remember that those same 1.3 billion are the reason why global warming exists, as the lifestyles of people above the poverty line have significantly higher carbon footprints.
Also, it is necessary to emphasise that wealth is not the same as income. While income (wages, royalties and dividends) can be considered as live money, ready for investment, wealth (except savings) is often locked in other investments (real estates, shares, IP, businesses ...) and, although its value can be calculated, it is not easy to free that investment on a global level.
So, the above table calculation says:
This is equivalent to giving up 2-4 days of gross earnings a month for the next 10 years. Now, this can appear like a quite significant amount as, for the higher-income earners in the UK, for instance, that would mean as much as 17 months of net earnings over 10 years.
Personally, I like the image of fasting (no food, electricity... etc.) for just one day each week for 10 years.
Is that a lot? Well, many religions have practices of much longer fasting periods for different purposes (health, spiritual gain, building character, strengthening the will, etc.); therefore, from that perspective, it is not a huge thing.
On the other hand, energy “sacrifice” is not really a sacrifice—it is an investment!
People investing in energy will get the value back in time, by being off-grid and not paying for lighting, cooling or heating, or the fuel for their cars. Basically, this investment will pay off after some time, and it will even start bringing income to the practitioners.
There are many variables, but investing your 1-year gross earning into clean energy systems is the most important thing you can do to prevent disastrous global warming effects. If you are looking for ways to do something significant about climate change, this is the way to go, and I am afraid to say it is not optional, it is a minimum each working person has to do.
There isn’t much time left, and there is no more time to wait for the government or investors to change their habits or mood. You, as a buyer, have to take matters into your hands and decide. As you can see the numbers, task is huge --- and there is not much room left for waiting for miracles to happen—no time for second-guessing.
If you want to live, and if you have a family, start planning how to use your savings or monthly instalments to install clean energy systems that will be proportional to your earnings.
For a residential example, a person that earns $50,000 a year should start planning a solar system ($50000/$3.85) of 13KW or more. In a family where 3 members earn a combined gross amount of $150K a year, they should start planning 39 KW systems. They could do it in several phases, benefiting from expected price decreases, but, eventually, overall installation should correspond to one year’s gross earnings. In commercial cases, start planning double of that—an 80KW system.
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Although many people are not aware the situation is pretty dire. There is still hope, but only if we act now.
Think, how much money would you give up, if your life is endangered—for instance, from an unexpected illness, or you find yourself staring down the barrel of a gun?
Probably, you would give all you have to save your life. Global warming is different: we cannot see imminent danger, and it can be prevented only if we act years before the worst happens. If the worst things start happening, that would mean an end for the human race, as, at that point, there is nothing we can do to prevent it.
Ups and downs (savings and obstacles)
There are many things that can decrease the overall price tag and get us there faster, but I would still take a pessimistic number and try to invest at the mentioned level as, regardless of how many positive sides there are, we have to consider the other ugly side.
Many people do not have houses on which to install solar panels, or they do not own properties where they could put wind turbines. But, either way, that should not be a huge problem, as there are many ways people could organise or just use other people’s properties to install solar systems. Additionally, although owning your solar installation is the best option, the simple way to go around this problem would be to buy company stocks of large commercial solar farms.
Also, we have to weigh in climate change deniers and fossil fuel companies. Those account for more than 40% of population of the USA. Although they can be reluctant to do it because of global warming, maybe they could be persuaded to do it because of monetary gains.
Those who are aware of climate change are not willing to invest significant amounts of money; regardless of how much they earn, clean energy is not on their list of priorities. Regardless of the dangers, people would rather spend money on daily pleasures than invest their earnings; if they cannot see imminent monetary return it is very hard to convince people to invest.
A significant obstacle can also be the scale of the work that has to be carried out. Although 250 trillion over 10 years seems like a very profitable business, it can pose a huge challenge to satisfy the demand of such magnitude and later on continue with renewing infrastructure after the solar farm expiry date (lifespan).
On the positive side, the area/money required in the case of solar depends on the number sunny hours during the year, and, for wind, the number of windy days and its power. If installations are built in deserts and sunny (in case of wind windy) areas, the total area could be reduced up to 40%.
On top of that, by switching to electric cars, better grids, and using batteries to balance the power network, we could save up to 42% as the Stanford calculation is showing . Currently, more than 60% of total energy is rejected (running power plants on idle, grid loses, efficiency of combustion engines [less than 20% that means that for every 10 gallons of fuel, we throw away 8 gallons] etc.). With more efficient ways of using, transporting, and generating energy, we could utilise a significant portion of what is currently rejected and therefore reduce overall energy needs.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — "Estimated U.S. energy consumption in 2016"
Speaking of waste, it is good to mention that 33% of all food is wasted. As the agriculture industry is a big consumer of energy, especially cattle raised for meat and dairy products (which on top of all bad things emit methane). Reducing waste or meat consumption would also make massive energy savings and also reduce methane generated as result of waste food ending in landfills or created as product of cattle burps.
Battery storage will have a huge role in saving “rejected” energy, preventing power plants from running on standby. Even better, as the number of electric cars starts growing, while they are parked, they can be utilised by the grid to charge over cheap hours and return energy into the network during higher demand peaks. The more electric cars there are, the less home battery storage we would need.
In time, the price will go down as an effect of huge demand. Currently, a majority of the panel price is the cost of the silicon cells (more than 60%). If we could find ways to make them cheaper, the overall price of the systems will drop significantly. Also, production of wind turbines is becoming historically cheaper, and it is likely that, with mass production, this trend will continue.
Effects of inflation (unfortunately, wages have not followed inflation since the mid-70s) and Universal Basic Income can increase the amount of money in circulation and allow people to invest more.
New technologies are arriving in the form of new types of solar panels that will be sprayable, printable, and very cheap. Graphene (Carbon wonder material) and perovskite are showing huge promise.
Nevertheless, we cannot wait for those new technologies to arrive. It is necessary that we start immediately, if we want to succeed, as, even if new technology arrives in a few years, we won’t be able to deliver on such a large scale in a very short time.
Usage of self-driving cars could utilise our cars better and therefore could reduce the number of cars on our roads by 10 times—from 1.1 billion to 110 million cars—which would even more reduce transport energy usage.
It is important to stress that money invested in clean energy is not lost! It is invested and it will pay back eventually, through electricity usage, heating, even charging electric cars, or selling electricity to other people in the grid / people who have electric cars. Also, it is possible to envisage selling electricity to commercial buyers, such as public transport like buses or rail networks, trucks, or other types of industrial production lines and facilities.
Additionally, if all fossil fuel subsidies would be transferred to clean energy, that would mean $50 trillion USD over 10 years, making this entire endeavour doable.
Also if governments would additionally subsidise clean energy residential efforts—similar to retirement schemes, where, for each $1 invested, $0.2 — $1 dollar is returned from the taxes people pay we otherwise paid—it would significantly reduce pressure on overall personal expenses (investment).
At the end, we must not forget that this entire calculation highly depends on current energy trends, population size, and economic status of the population. Either way, increase/decrease of the population or increase/decrease of carbon footprint per capita could significantly impact human energy needs.
Eventually, as we live on a finite planet, human civilisation will one day need to use dynamic planning, management, and stabilisation of its population. When we add current developments of longevity—drugs and cures for many, up to this point, incurable diseases—further extension of human life is to be expected, increasing the overall energy footprint necessary to sustain civilisation.
Taking everything into consideration, in order to avoid a catastrophe, we would need to implement a very rapid approach on switching from fossil fuels to clean energy. Only in that way can we buy ourselves a bit of time to avoid catastrophe. We must realise that we have already exceeded 410 ppm, and that we are trying to avoid 450ppm (although permafrost is already thawing at this point, showing that we would need to do something very fast). As our acceleration model predicts, we will reach the point of no return in 13 years; that is an increase of equivalent CO2 by 3.1 ppm each year. If we would reduce emission by 0.31 ppm each year, from current levels, in 10 years, we would still end up at 427 ppm of equivalent CO2, which is still pretty high, and it will cause some major devastations, but maybe, just maybe, we would avoid extinction.
In order to prevent future CO2 increase, next time I will write about the idea that could prevent wildfires and could be used to sequester significant amounts of existing CO2 from the atmosphere.