An update on geo-engineering and solar power prices.

(note to self)

For many years now, it has been clear to the insiders that there is no hope in achieving serious reductions to greenhouse gas emission by means of international co-operation: the incentives to free ride on the efforts of others is too great and none of the big players is willing to subjugate themselves to a world police that would enforce a deal. So whilst we have all been happily increasing our consumption of fossil fuels year-on-year, the smart money was always on finding some technological fix to global warming that did not require near-unanimous international agreement, whilst simply adapting to the problem in the meantime. That fix could be geo-engineering or a renewable energy source becoming economically competitive with fossil fuels.

So, where are we currently when it comes to geo-engineering and renewables? In terms of geo-engineering the likes of Bill Gates, Richard Branson, the UK Royal Society, and a whole set of EU-US based institutions have been pouring money and time into looking at what can be done. In terms of renewables, the big movers have been Chinese companies and a glut of new ideas that are leading to much cheaper forms of solar power.

To start with solar power first, according to the Bloomberg New Energy Finance’ Solar Value Chain Index the costs per Kilowatt-hour of solar has reduced around 50% in the last 3 years alone, with various new technologies that have the potential of going down much further. They are talking about printing off solar cells, using iron guns to produce them, making solar panels out of a spray-on paint, and various others ideas. One needs to be an expert at this to judge whether it will actually work, which I am not, but the clear reduction in costs that was achieved recently is there for all to see.

So how close is solar to being competitive to fossil fuels in terms of producing for the electricity grid?

As a rule-of-thumb, the life-time costs of the cheapest fossil fuels are currently around US 65 dollars per Megawatt-hour whilst solar was still estimated to minimally cost over 200 dollars per Megawatt-hour in 2010. The cheapest fossil fuels are natural shale gas, natural gas turbines, and some forms of coal. Allowing for a halving of the fixed-cost of solar infrastructure in the next year, solar would still cost above 100 dollars per Megawatt -hour. This is competitive with many currently used forms of electricity generation of fossil fuels, including conventional combustion engines with a cost above 120 dollar per Mwh.

What is important to note is that the current trend of solar prices doesn’t have to continue for long for solar to be the stand-out cheapest form of mass-electricity generation for countries with a lot of sunshine. At the moment solar is hence looking like a real potential long-run replacement for many countries. Even at today’s costs, solar would only be marginally more expensive than fossil fuels.

But what are the inherent disadvantages of solar? Well, for one, you need a lot of solar panels to get a decent electricity flow, so cars or planes with solar cells are nowhere near a realistic prospect in terms of mass-transportation. Hence fossil fuels remain the front-running source of energy for our cars and planes, which on their own are enough to guarantee sufficient demand to keep increasing atmospheric CO2 levels.

Also, it needs to be sunny in order to get electricity, which is a problem for a lot of our economy which is reliant on guaranteed energy flows at any time of the day and where people don’t want to have to reboot their computer after every cloud. Since most of our energy needs are connected to industry or in activities that could run on batteries charged up when the sun shines (like charging up the car and the i-pad), there is some mileage for weening ourselves off this ever-ready energy pattern, but it would seem fair to say that it would be hard for us to adjust to only engaging in major economic activities when the sun shines. Hence a remaining technological hurdle is how to store solar energy easily and in sufficiently huge quantities as to allow for a lack of sun for a few weeks. Given the huge amount of constant electricity demand, this big-battery problem still prevents us from adopting solar as our steady supplier of electricity. If we would have to keep relying on fossil fuel generated electricity when the sun doesn’t shine, which would be the current reality if we’d adopt big solar farms for our electricity base-load, then once again we are guaranteed continued increases in the amount of CO2.

One might object to this by saying that in a large electricity grid one can connect the grids of different countries and thus effectively share sunlight with other regions, but electricity transportation over large distances has a remarkably high loss-rate. As this old Global Energy Network Institute report estimated, every 1,000 kilometers of extra distance increases the costs by around 5-10%, or equivalently that there is about a 5-10% loss in electricity when having to transport it another 1000 kilometers. If one then reflects on the fact that the distance between Sydney and Perth is already close to 4000 kilometers and thus involves a 20-40% loss of electricity, it is clear that it probably is not even cost-effective for Australian states to ‘share’ their sunshine, let alone to share sunlight with other countries.

Hence the problem of energy storage is a serious one for solar and we are still waiting for improvements in battery-efficiency to consider solar as an alternative to the fossil fuel electricity generators which can deliver power whenever we need it. This problem of course also besets wind-energy, for which the prospect of large future reductions in costs is much less rosy.

Furthermore, solar panels need setting up and they have to be kept clean, things that become much cheaper to do if one is setting up many of them in a single spot. Hence solar is unlikely to replace combustion engines as a means of delivering local energy or energy to residential homes: too much hassle and only viable with subsidies or in places where it is hard to get constant supplies of fossil fuels. Some major structures like large boats and sky-scrapers are a different matter though, so one should expect more medium scale uses of solar, although there too the problem of energy storage is a major one.

In short, the price reductions for solar is exceptionally good news for our way of life: given the big price reductions that bring solar close to parity with existing fuels, and given the near inexhaustibly huge supply of solar (the sun sends about 6000 times more solar energy to us than we humans generate from all sources), the future of our industrial modern societies based on cheap energy looks very bright. We might have to adapt to the intermittent nature of the energy flow if we can’t crack the energy storage problem, but at least we now have a liveable alternative. The substitute source of energy to fossil fuels is hence in sight even though it may take a decade or two before its better than what we currently use.

Then the topic of Geo-engineering. Since the landmark 2009 report by the Royal Society (which I extensively reviewed previously), engineers have been dreaming up a lot of new stuff, with particularly hopeful possibilities in the area of Solar Radiation Management (SRM). Front-runners are the ideas of spray-gunning the atmosphere in order to create more clouds, and sending dust particles up into the air.

The spray-gun idea is of a charming simplicity: clouds are white and reflect a lot of sunlight. Hence if you can create yourself more clouds, you cool the earth. How do you create more clouds? Well, clouds are made of water vapour. That vapour arises naturally from the sun heating water, but you can also try to do it yourself by putting water into a plane and delivering the vapour into the atmosphere where you want it (Neukermans A, Cooper G, Foster J, Galbraith L, Ormond B, Johnston D, Wang Qin (2011). Supercritical saltwater spray for marine cloud brightening. Geophysical Research Abstracts, 13, EGU2011-9655-1).

The technology hence has many potential advantages: because one would be in the business of creating thousands of clouds every day, one gets a very sensitive instrument for geo-engineering. You get to decide where you want to cool, just at what temperature you are going to stop cooling, and one can easily experiment with small regions without seriously upsetting the balance of the planet. After all, Nature experiments with clouds all the time and a few more or less wont unbalance the earth. So the technology can be safely tested and experimented with and has great advantages in terms of timing and delivery.

What are the problems? Well, for one, we don’t quite yet seem to be able to produce a fine enough mist quickly enough. After all, you want to be able to do this quickly and thus convert thousands of liters of sea-water into a cloud in a matter of minutes. Yet, sea-water is salty and thus corrosive, and there are all kinds of things in sea water that would clog up any tiny holes. Nature solves this by simply heating the water and thus having salt-free water molecules rising up in the air, but that solution is not open to us because the sun warming the sea water was precisely the problem we are trying to address, not add to. Hence we still need to sort out the problem of quickly filtering sea water and misting it.

A secondary problem is sheer coordination: if we end up with thousands of planes misting the atmosphere then one would be looking at a whole network of airports and cooperating countries. The countries most suited, i.e. close to the North Pole, might actually discover they don’t want to halt warming and thus fail to cooperate.

The bigger problem is that it might not work: aeroplane delivery of water-vapor is an intriguing idea but there are only computer simulations that suggest it is do-able at reasonably low costs. The computer models can easily be off by a magnitude of 10 or more in terms of how much cloud needs to be created to get enough cooling. Just think about it: if we would have to create 10% more clouds in the world, we would be talking about an artificial vapour with the size of America. That’s too much vapour and planes to realistically be able to muster, so one has to hope that it would require no more than a hundredth of this area. I am personally skeptical on this point and would thus not be surprised if some new computer model in the coming years would say it’s a hopeless plan, but we will see.

Then the dust particles, also known as dimming, or ‘aerosols’. I have written about this before and the advantage of this one is that it’s a proven technology. Volcanoes proved it for us. The Mt Pinatubo eruption in 1991 caused a global cooling by belching huge volumes of dust particles into the atmosphere, proving that dust can cool the earth.

Despite some people saying we don’t know how to dust the atmosphere, we humans have also done it. Until about 20 years ago we put a lot of dirty particles into the air by having dirty coal power stations, unfiltered car exhausts, and various other unfiltered industrial emissions. This lead to large-scale dimming to the extent that the amount of sunlight hitting the earth was reducing by up to 4% per decade from 1960-1990.

What happened to dimming? We started to clean up because of concerns over the local environment. People don’t like smog and haziness in their own cities, so governments have mandated industries and electricity generators to clean up and no longer send particles in the air. This has reversed the global dimming trends, such that our days are once more full of gloriously clear sunshine. And quite probably also means global warming is resuming on a faster upward trajectory.

It is not too hard to guess what can be done: by re-adopting our dirtier ways we can resume the dimming process. Furthermore, there are scientists trying to perfect what we stumbled upon by accident. We can make the dust we send up more reflective, more buoyant (so it stays up for longer), less degradable, and less annoying to people.

The big problem with this solution is again one of sheer scale: when we were dimming we were belching up an awful lot of stuff into the atmosphere. We were effectively blocking out an area the size of Australia and we were still warming up the planet! It is even worse: since then we have added a lot of extra Greenhouse gasses, meaning that we’d have to take dimming to an extra level to be of potential help. To make an impact, we’d have to re-designate large areas that we don’t care about, such as, say, the Pacific Ocean, as dimming territories and continuously belch up huge volumes of dust. That in turn requires a massive industrial exercise since it would involve sending huge volumes of resources to tiny island in the middle of distant oceans in order to send it up. It is not at all clear yet that this is affordable in terms of what we are willing to pay to stop global warming (which is not much).

Summarising, geo-engineering is probably do-able though we don’t yet know the true costs. We can safely assume it would be minimally in the order of hundreds of billions of dollars every year. And the uncertainties are such that we are easily 20 years off knowing enough to be able to implement it. During that 20 years, we can safely say that we will keep going through the cheapest energy sources – fossil fuels, whilst solar energy is promising to be the go-to source once the cheapest forms of fossil fuels have run out. If improvements in solar and battery technology are spectacular, it may even muscle out fossil fuels within this decade as the major provider of base-load energy.

In short, there have been very hopeful developments for the sustainability of our current way of life on this planet in the last 2 years.

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45 Responses to An update on geo-engineering and solar power prices.

  1. john says:

    I think I Have read that there is also a solar way for powering the catalytic conversion of CO2 into Carbon monoxide and oxygen I.e feed stock for synthetic fuels.

    Assume that the efficiency of photosynthesis could also be engineered up?

  2. Kurt says:

    I think your point about the cost competitiveness of solar power is ultimately what will decide when renewable energy is going to become a viable economic alternative or not.

    The price per MW hour will have to meet at some point, with fossil fuels prices going up and solar going down.

    I don’t see a quick solution to it, but as solar becomes more economically feasable….that’s when we are going to see dramatic improvements.

  3. Paul Frijters says:


    I dont really know what you mean with the conversion, but it doesnt sound good. Carbon monoxide is poisonous.

    I doubt there is an easy way to ‘engineer up’ photosynthesis. If nature hasn’t found a way to improve it in the last 500 million years, I wouldn’t put much hope in us tinkering with photosynthesis. Its hard to even imagine finding a cheaper way to do photosynthesis than a plant: all you need to do is put a seed into the ground and burn what grows a few years later.
    Rather, I’d put my hopes in techniques based on getting electric currents out of the sun. Plants have much less use for electric currents than we humans have so we are not competing with with long periods of evolution on that one.

  4. john says:

    From memory the process is to heat a catalyst to about 200c , it then steals a oxygen molecule from CO2 and the resulting Carbon monoxide is then reacted with Hydrogen to produce liquid hydrocarbons . The Germans resorted to some thing like this in WW2. Obviously the heat for such a process could be solar rather that coal.

    The Photosynthesis pathways for many plants is not particularly efficient especially at higher temperatures “Thus the efficiency of photosynthesis can be decreased by 40% under unfavorable conditions including high temperatures and dryness” U Gowik – The Path from C3 to C4 Photosynthesis.

  5. Paul Frijters says:


    you seem to be making my argument for me: the C4 and C3 photosynthesis are variants seen in Nature, nothing we humans discovered. Indeed, the link says Nature discovered C4 at least 50 times.

    The Germans abandoned the catalyst technology you talk about as soon as they could because of prohibitive costs and poor efficiency. And costs are crucial in this debate as the underlying argument is that in terms of mass-energy consumption the world is by and large going to hop from cheapest to next-cheapest. That is the business-as-usual scenario that is far and away more likely than some grand-coalition-policed alternative.

    Yet, given that the big problem with solar might well be energy storage, it may well turn out to be the case that solar plus energy-inefficient-but-otherwise-cheap-storage is the package that wins. For that kind of package to win though, solar electricity itself would have to be exceptionally cheap, much cheaper than the fossil fuel alternatives (if I do back-of-the-envelope calculations based on current estimates of start-up costs and variable costs, then solar has to be no more than 25% of the cost of fossil fuel to be viable as a base-load in the absence of full-storage capacity, and no more than 50% of the cost of fossil fuels if we allow for a full-storage technology where 30% of the energy is lost and there is a 20% additional set-up cost. I might stress that we are nowhere near such a storage technology at present). At present, the storage problem means that solar needs to come down another 80% in price to be cheaper in terms of base-load generation than fossil fuels.

  6. john says:

    Paul was merely suggesting that solar can generate high energy liquid fuels.
    The article in New scientist suggested that the costs of this new variation on synthetic fuel were not too bad , but it is a while ago.

    Basically agree with you about storage/weight and costs , particularly about petrol : 8 liters of fuel @$1.60 can push our car 100ks at great speed , what can compete?

    As for plants .. if the predictions of increased heat in major food bowls turn out to be half true we will need to do a bit of engineering simply to maintain existing supplies of food.

  7. derrida derider says:

    One point I think you’ve got wrong is the cost of long distance transmission. International or even intercontinental (eg Sahara desert to EU) high-voltage DC transmission is these days far more feasible since new ultra-high-power switching devices (to convert AC to DC and back again) have been developed. There are already a number of multi-thousand kilometre lines in use around the world to transfer hydroelectricity to population centres, and quite a few more planned. According to the Wikipedia article these lines average about 3% loss per 1000k – but newer lines should do a bit better than that.

    This is good news for large scale solar. It is not good news for the “small is beautiful” brigade because absent massive projects your point about transmission and other ancillary costs applies (long distance DC is only worthwhile for moving LOTS of power). So our electricity would still be very centralised – maybe even more so than now – and controlled by large multinational corporations.

    But then the point is to reduce carbon emissions, not re-engineer society.

  8. TerjeP says:

    If you don’t like burning coal then go nuclear. If nuclear is still too pricey then innovate. Something along the lines of the LFTR would be great.

  9. emess says:

    Another consideration is that due to the peaking nature of power supplies, needing to generate capacity for the peak day, the marginal cost of providing for the peak hour of that peak day is quite high. (Generating companies are not normally able to say ‘f*7kit’ and have on-going rolling blackouts on those days as a matter of course).

    Since those peak days now are mostly associated with summer and airconditioning loads, it is not inconceivable that solar power would not only be reliable enough (temp goes down when the clouds come out), but also compared to buying that extra 50 MW alternator used for only one day per year, it might not be that much more expensive where the major peak is air-con rather than winter heating.

  10. Paul Frijters says:


    yes, the DC technology is more efficient, but comes with high fixed-cost. The article you link for instance says the 70 km line between France and Spain costs about 10 million euro a kilometer. You can build a lot of fossil fuel plants in stead of a single line between the Sahara and the population centers, so in terms of lifetime costs we’re probably still easily looking at 10% loss per 1000k. Its hard to be sure because the companies are keeping the costs secret and dont convert them into a single metric like the life-time cost of a typical power plant.

    nuclear is surprisingly expensive in terms of lifetime cost. High costs to set up, low costs to run, high costs to knock it down. Gas and coal are a lot cheaper.

    yes, the peak-problem is the key one because a system has to cope with peaks. The peak in the summer is probably not the right one to look at for solar: it is probably more the peak in the winter following a few weeks of cloud cover. It is that peak that one has to either have a storage capacity for or have another source of generator that you can switch on for such days. Given that the main cost in base-load power plants is the set-up costs and simply keeping the plants up and running (not the fuel itself), the big question is whether solar+storage can cope at such times. If not and we’d have to incur about 70% of the lifetime costs of fossil fuel plants just for the few weeks of the peak, then solar must suddenly be a hell of a lot cheaper to beat continuously running fossil fuel plants. That is also why the issue of electricity transportation and storage is so important: if you can connect big enough areas (preferably southern hemisphere with northern and light with night), you dont need the back-ups anymore and solar becomes a lot more attractive.

  11. john says:

    Have to agree ,I live in one of the coldest bits of Australia . Solar, in really cold weather, really does not work like they make out.

  12. derrida derider says:

    Paul @11, that 10m Euro per kilometre line is irrelevant to LONG DC lines because it includes the cost of the gear to convert AC to DC and back again, which is basically invariant with length. Plus you neglected to mention that the cost includes a long tunnel under the Pyrenees.

    As the Wikipedia article makes clear this switching gear is still a big expense, though if you chase a couple of the references up you’ll see the new technology has made it too fall sharply in price. But the article quotes a cost of 1m pounds per kilometre laid for HVDC cable under the English Channel. A 3000k overhead line through unpopulated desert would be a small fraction of that so the line cost is, by the standards of electricity infrastructure, not particularly big. Hell, the energy authorities are probably thinking about it anyway as part of the national grid.

  13. Paul Frijters says:


    yes, agreed, if the big lines could really be done as cheaply as 1m per km with only 3% energy per 1000k, then a major solar grid is no longer so fanciful.

    But don’t underestimate these costs or take the 1 million per k as truly indicative. Just think about it:

    – the oversea cost in the North Sea per 1k wont be so high. Its a flat shallow sea and you dont need to put effort into burying the cables because nothing big disturbs the floor. Try making that argument for the major oceans with underwater mountain ranges, razor sharp reefs, or areas with lots of tectonic activity. Repairing a faulty power cable if its 4000 meters down ain’t easy or cheap. You are thus going to need an expensive relay system for long undersea transport.
    – in overland systems you do want to effectively bury the cables or go around major obstacles. There are a lot of obstacles between the Sahara and Europe or even between the Sahara and the African coast. There are a lot of obstacles just within Europe or the US (the Alps, the Rockies, the rivers, etc.), so blasting through mountain ranges or taking major detours is quite likely a part of the mix. Also, like oil pipelines, electricity pipelines would be political hot potatoes eminently useful as collateral or blackmail (just look at what happens to the gas pipes from Russia!).
    – if you really want to circumvent the summer-winter and night-day problems of solar, then you really want very long lines. In the ideal grid you basically want to connect the major population centers with deserts in Australia, the Sahara, the Gobi Dessert, the Valley of Death, etc.. Even at only 3% loss per 1000k you would then be looking at huge overall losses: a 20,000k line would mean a loss of about 50%. And if you don’t connect the Northern with the Southern hemisphere, then in order to out-compete fossil fuels you need enough solar capacity to generate enough during the winter months with limited daylight hours, which easily means you need 3 to 4 times more solar panels.

    It is these kinds of considerations that made me say above that in order to be competitive at present, solar would have to be only 25% of the cost of current fossil fuels to be competitive, far less than parity.

  14. Paul, the worm at the heart of your particular rosebud is acidification of the oceans. If the pH of seawater gets too low (and it will, if we keep burning fossil fuels with gay abandon), it will result in the collapse of marine life.

  15. Paul Frijters says:


    I talked about acidification in my previous post on adaptation (link in the post). There too, I would suggest to you that you had better put your hopes in technologies to reverse acidification (such as by churning up calcium-rich rocks) or in technologies that make fossil fuels second-best cost wise so that the growing economies have less demand for fossil fuel. Don’t put your hopes in international agreements to attempt to make the use of fossil fuels more expensive world-wide. If the choice is truly between the extinction of much of current marine life and local development, there is only ever going to be one outcome.

    Having said all this, the acidification issue is less clear-cut than the warming issue.

  16. john says:

    You have not mentioned Geothermal wind and wave options , not economic?

  17. TerjeP says:

    nuclear is surprisingly expensive in terms of lifetime cost. High costs to set up, low costs to run, high costs to knock it down. Gas and coal are a lot cheaper.

    Yes which is why we use gas and coal. However gas and coal emit CO2 and if you want an energy source that is CO2 free then nuclear is a cheap option. That said I reckon with alternate designs, eg LFTR, nuclear could actually be cost competititive with coal.

  18. Paul Frijters says:


    let’s have some fun and consider the following thought-experiment: suppose we would indeed put a world-grid in place based on huge solar farms in the major desserts of this world, connecting North with South, and East with West. That kind of grid would mean it is no longer relevant that it is winter in one place, summer in another, dark in one place, or rainy somewhere: by combining the regions in a super-grid, one is basically down to adding enough solar panels to the desert operations to provide for base-line world energy demand.

    What would such a grid cost? Well, first consider the length of the grid: the grid has to go close to all the major population centers in order to deliver massive electricity supplies, and it needs to connect up places like Australia with China. Thinking of the length of the earliest railway lines, we would thus easily be looking at a minimal grid of, say, 200,000 km.

    Then consider the currents on it. At present consumption levels, the grid would need ‘only’ a few Terrawatt total capacity, but thinking about the future demand, a figure of 20 Terrawatt is probably closer to the mark in terms of normal energy demand on the total grid around the year 2030. Considering that one needs less on each bit of the line line, one is thinking of, say, 2 Terrawatt on an average bit of the 200,000 km grid.

    A very optimistic estimate of the current cost is 1m per km per 5 Gigawat DC line. Scale that up to this imaginary grid and you get (2000/5)*200,000=80,000,000 million dollars cost. That 80 trillion dollars is about twice current world GDP. If we take a more normal estimate of 5m per km per 5 Gigawat DC line, then the costs would be much higher, but of course 400 lines of 5 Gw close together are surely much cheaper to put down than 400 disparate lines, so lets run with the 80 trillion figure as an estimate of the cost of just the grid.

    The key thing to note is that 80 trillion would also buy one roughly 80,000 normal power-stations which would churn out about 60 Terrawat, much more than would be on this grid.

    In short, at current technology, a world grid that sends solar energy around the world is a clear no-starter, even if the solar energy generation itself were free. We’d have to get to about 20 million per kilometer for a 2 Terrawat DC line (which would take the cost of the grid to 8 trillion and would make the energy streams on the grid higher than what could be generated just for the price of the grid) to get into the right ball-bark for this world grid, which in turn is the major element needed to make solar viable.

  19. conrad says:


    I’m under the possibly incorrect impression that solar cells are actually becoming more and more efficient in terms of the amount of sunlight they need to produce energy (they work in Germany after all), so in many places you wouldn’t need to worry so much about this distinction between winter and summer so much. In any case, you could obviously just supplement them and any shortfalls with gas in anything but an all-or-nothing approach.

    So here’s a second thought experiment. Let’s just take China. They already have their own deserts and places that are fairly sunny all year round. You also have really high population densities in many areas, so I would assume that a grid such as you are talking about would probably want to exist in many places even without solar power.

    How much would this then cost?

  20. Paul Frijters says:


    the winter-summer thing is crucial. Yes, you can get a current out of less sunlight, but we’re not taking about the business of just getting a current: we’re talking about generating Terrawats on a regular guaranteed basis. As soon as you need 4 times more cells to be guaranteed that, those cells have to be 4 times cheaper to compete with fossil.

    Your argument to ‘Just supplement … shortfalls by gas’ suffers from the same problem: because about 70% of the estimated life-time costs of the fossil fuel plants (according to the link in the post) are in the fixed costs and sheer running of the plants, then as soon as you need fossil fuel plants to merely exist as a supplement to solar, you are effective pitching solar against the variable costs of fossil fuel. If solar is more expensive than that variable cost, it is once again cheaper not to bother with solar at all. That variable cost of fossil fuel is very low so it is then very hard for solar to win. That is what the whole point of the grid is about.

    Take China: its big but still only a couple of hours away from each other. So no sun at night and winter at the same time. Worse, occasional large cloud cover over the whole country. Without mass-storage, that means China must keep all its fossil fuel plants up and running alongside solar. For this to be worth it, solar needs to come down to something like 25% of the cost of fossil fuel plants, which is still a long way off.

  21. derrida derider says:

    Na, submarine power lines in shallow waters need a trench dug for them – deepwater laying on the seabed is actually much cheaper. That is especially so in an extremely busy waterway like the Channel, where you can pretty well guarantee that at some stage a sunk ship or at least shipping container is going to land near the thing. Plus there would be lots of extra cost while laying to ensure you don’t disrupt traffic.

    Part of the point of projects such as the Euro-supergrid is massive redundancy to prevent outages, accidental or deliberate. Its why the Desertec/Medgrid project will have 9 separate trans-Med cables originating from 5 different countries, for instance. And the most difficult parts of the Euro-supergrid already exist (yes, running power lines through the Alps and major population centers was ruinously expensive – but it was mostly done long ago).

  22. Paul Frijters says:


    Starting with the European grid, I had a lot at that one beforehand and if you reflect on it, you will see exactly the kind of problems I described: the current bits of the grid only carry 5-10 Gwh and merely serve the function of a bit of internal smoothing. That is a whole different proposition from sending Terrawats around the planet, in which case the existing infrastructure is small fry. The articles mention the problem of shared major weather events (winter/night) which means you need the world grid. And if you see where the imagined grid would go, you will see many political hotspots are en-route, and the imagined course goes through maintain ranges and other obstacles.

    Then the ocean versus shallow sea stuff: have you seen studies looking at costs for these deep oceans? I couldnt find any, but I have a hard time believing underwater deep trenches, hot-air vents, volcanic activity, mountain ranges, and other things you find in the deep oceans, are the pushover you seem to think they are. The channel is shallow and flat and a major DC line is a different proposition to a glass-fiber cable. And dont forget that cables in the Atlantic have also been broken by freak events. When world energy relies on it, you want to be much surer than you need to be for an optic cable for which you have alternatives anyway.

  23. john says:


    Tasmania has more hydro than can use, how much would it cost to put an string an extension cable across bass strait?

  24. john says:

    Tasmania has more hydro than they can use, how much would it cost to string an extension cable across bass strait?

  25. desipis says:

    About $800 million:

    Basslink is the world’s longest sub-sea power cable. It cost $800 million to build and started up in April [2006], allowing Tasmania to import power from the mainland during dry periods and to export surplus hydropower and wind-generated electricity.

  26. Paul Frijters says:

    Basslink is typical of what currently goes on in this realm: it can carry only 0.5 Gw and has a length of 370 km. If you scale that up to the world grid talked about above, you need the spend the next 100 years of GDP just on these cables.

    Basslink is just there for a bit of expensive electricity smoothing. At 800 million it is a white elephant. Pure window-dressing and political pork-barreling.

  27. Petra Liverani says:

    There is a form of solar which can store energy relatively cheaply, Concentrated Solar Thermal Power plus Molten Salt Storage (CSP+). According to a report by Beyond Zero Emissions and the Energy Research Institute, Melbourne University, published in June 2010, CSP+ and wind (with a small hydro/biomass backup over a few days in winter) could provide all Australia’s energy needs including those of transport assuming a fuel-switch to electricity from oil. To see an exciting video explaining CSP+ go to Beyond Zero Emissions will be releasing plans for Buildings, Transport, Land Use & Agriculture, Industrial Processes and Coal Revenue Substitute in the next couple of years.

  28. Paul Frijters says:

    Oh yes, the molten Salt Storage fantasy. That’s clearly not a big winner: these molten salts only keep going for about 15 hours, which is not even a long rain shower, let alone the dark times in winter. Its one of the many ways in which you get a bit of a battery function that can tide you over for a few hours, but you still need all the other conventional plants for reliable baseline. It comes out of the same stable as using electric cars as batteries feeding the net, reverse hydro, and a few others. Not enough storage capacity for the fairly gigantic amounts of energy you need to be able to store if you want solar to provide for our energy needs.
    No, I am afraid solar either needs a world grid to be a real prospect or else become truly dirt-cheap when the sun shines.

  29. Petra Liverani says:

    Currently, the longest salt storage currently is 15 hours but, of course, it can be made longer by having a larger amount of salt. The CSP+ plants in the Beyond Zero Emissions Stationary Energy Plan have 17 hours storage. From insolation, wind and energy demand research (plus efficiency) the plan authors determined that we can meet all our energy requirements without resorting to fossil fuels as follows:

    * 60% CSP+ (comprising 12 solar regions each containing 19 220MW plants located in the high-insolation vicinities of Carnarvon, Kalgoorlie (WA), Port Augusta (SA), Mildura (VIC), Bourke, Dubbo, Moree, Silverton (NSW), Roma, Longreach, Charleville, Prairie (QLD)) and

    * 40% wind (comprising 23 wind regions in Albany, Bunbury, Esperance, Geraldton (WA), Cape Jaffa, Ceduna, Port Augusta, Port Lincoln, Streaky Bay, Yongala (SA), Cooma, Crookwell, Orange, Silverton, Walcha (NSW), Ballarat, Mt Gellibrand, Port Fairy, Wonthaggi (VIC), Atherton, Collinsville, Georgetown, Stanthorpe (QLD)) and

    * a small hydro/biomass backup for a few days in winter

    The plan can be downloaded from the website

  30. Paul frijters says:

    Current capacity is about 50Gw and this proposal suggest replacing it with around 8Gw sun and wind. Plus our econy has to get used to operating only in weeks with enough sun and wind. Plus there needs to be a DC grid to connect the fields. Hmmmm

  31. Petra Liverani says:

    8 GW? Have a look at the plan, Paul. 12 x 19 x 220MW = 50,160 for solar plus the wind.

  32. Paul frijters says:

    8Gw is phase one of this plan. The rest of the plan follows the same as outlined above: salt batteries lasting no more than a day, meaning usage must follow sun and wind. You need a world grid because demand will refuse to adjust.

  33. JC says:

    As a rule-of-thumb, the life-time costs of the cheapest fossil fuels are currently around US 65 dollars per Megawatt-hour whilst solar was still estimated to minimally cost over 200 dollars per Megawatt-hour in 2010. The cheapest fossil fuels are natural shale gas, natural gas turbines, and some forms of coal. Allowing for a halving of the fixed-cost of solar infrastructure in the next year, solar would still cost above 100 dollars per Megawatt -hour. This is competitive with many currently used forms of electricity generation of fossil fuels, including conventional combustion engines with a cost above 120 dollar per Mwh.

    This of course never takes in the cost of land to place the panels and maintenance. Even if we were magically able to produce panels at cents , it would never be competitive as operational scaling is impossible due to indivisibility of costs and the need for land.

  34. Paul Frijters says:


    what makes you say it doesnt include the cost of land and maintenance? The numbers derive from the Energy Bureaus associated with the US energy ministries. Maybe not the perfect source, but they explicitly tried to look at all the costs, including maintenance.

    I think the cost for land and maintenance is second order with solar: you can put the panels in the desert where land is almost free and there is little to make the panels dirty. The issue of connecting those deserts with population areas in other ‘sun-shine zones’ is the big one.

  35. JC says:

    what makes you say it doesnt include the cost of land and maintenance?

    You would need two states equal to the size of california to energize the US economy and that would be at stand still demand. Who could possibly maintain that size economically and where has that been factored in terms of determining cost? The cost curve for solar rises as you increase its use. That’s why I said it’s cost structure is indivisible and not suitable for scaling unlike coal, gas or nuclear.

    The numbers derive from the Energy Bureaus associated with the US energy ministries.

    Ummm okay. But where do they show the marginal cost curve rises as the supply from this energy form increases? This is the very opposite of what you want to see happening with mass produced energy sources.

    I think the cost for land and maintenance is second order with solar:

    Really? You think the size of California or two is second order? And land is really not free.

    you can put the panels in the desert where land is almost free and there is little to make the panels dirty.

    Well actually the land would not be free and the cost would rise (as I said) as you raise the supply from this source. Look, I’m not an environmentalist by any stretch of the imagination, however even I would be aghast at using the deserts for this purpose. You would absolutely fuck up the micro environments in these areas and there could also be serious reprecussions at the global level.

    The issue of connecting those deserts with population areas in other ‘sun-shine zones’ is the big one.

    That would end up being the least of our problems potentially.

    Look, Paul, solar and wind have been on a perpetual..”we’re almost there” for the past 50 years or so and every day has been “we’re almost there”. I’ll believe it when I see it… and the cost curve needs to be sloping downward too.

    There is no way this diffuse energy source will ever be economically efficient as you can’t scale it up. You can’t add more coal to a furnace for instance , or turn the dials up or down on a turbine or reactor.

    They’ve chewed up billions in subsidies to the point where it’s an embarrassment and the sector is still gunning for more loot. They are simply subsidy whores.

    It’s also unfair to be subsidizing this source while nuclear and other sources have been frozen out for the past 30 years with little spending going on in R&D because of unfair and unnecessary propaganda leveled particularly against nuke. Freezing nuke advancement while subsidizing the subsidy whores has totally skewed things up.

    And sitting panels of roofs is a joke, as it does nothing in terms of demand. It’s barely a blip on the screen.

  36. Petra Liverani says:

    Just to clarify, solar thermal uses mirrors, not panels.

    The plan addresses the siting of all plants, the land area required, the costs including those of the land, materials, labour, etc. The cost is affordable as it comes down dramatically as more infrastructure is deployed. The energy supplied also includes that required for transport assuming a fuel-switch to electrification. If you look at the cost of the plan ($370 billion or $37 per year for 10 years (3% of GDP) over 30 years) it is far cheaper than business as usual, especially when you look at conservative oil cost projections. The plan was audited by Sinclair Knight Merz, a leading global projects company.

  37. Jc says:


    Are you associated with the person that was on Q&A last night peddling solar thermal from the audience? I’m assuming you do have a connection.

    Two things I would lke to say.

    1 if the technology was brilliant you’d have every I-bank and private equity person racing to associate with the technology.

    2. The person on Q&A mentioned its use in Spain. What he didn’t say was that’s it’s been an absolute bust there and wouldn’t survive if it wasn’t for massive government subsidies.

    Look, let me be open minded. Present the technology as subsidy free, with the unit cost busting through the traditional sources, operating for a few years and I will half believe you. Anything other than that and I reserve the right to call it a scam.

  38. Paul Frijters says:


    you are being too negative. You certainly dont need twice California, not even for the whole world. Just think about it: we currently use 1/6000th in all energy sources from what comes in via solar. Even at only 20% efficiency this means that you need less than 1/1000th of the surface to cater for current demand (and note that all energy sources includes a lot of things not easily substituted with electrical, like aeroplanes).

    Of course the deserts are the logical place to put them. And the mentioned solar report has marginal cost-curves.

    Being so abrasive (calling solar ‘subsidy whores’) is unhelpful on this post. Subsidies are rife for many energy sources. Saying that solar has not become a serious contender the last 30 years is also no big statement on the future. Oil lamps have been around for centuries before they were used for cars and combustion engines: people couldn.t imagine the networks and technology needed to unlock its potential.
    So whilst I agree with you that solar still is far too expensive at present, I do think recent cost-reductions make it look more hopeful and am laying down my expectations for what it would take to be competitive. As to tone, please be civil.

  39. Paul Frijters says:


    please, no nonsense on this website. 370 billion is a serious pot of money asked of the Australian tax payers. Reading the report, I find it full of maybe’s and dependent on future inventions to cover costs. Its a glossy brochure but JC is right about the fact that this technology is seen as a bust by the industry and not because they have an ideological aversion to making money via solar. Also, I basically dont believe the estimates for a second as pertaining to costs of maintenance and the cost of the grid (‘transmission’).

    As to ‘independent’ costings by some paid consultant, I take them with a grain of salt. Mainly, they illustrate how we need independent tax-payer funded budgeting agencies here in Australia so that we are not bombarded by bogus claims every other week.

    Finally, with the fairly spectacular recent increases in proven fossil fuel reserves it may be longer than previously thought for fossil fuel costs to rise.

  40. Jc says:


    I wasn’t casting any aspersations towards you in saying what did.

    In fact I didn’t say anything about your ideas on geoengineering as I largely agree. I see you as pro technology and we’re basically on the same side.

    I do have a problem with solar and wind as they have absorbed massive amounts of subsidies around the world and don’t see anything ever comng of it when the money could have been used for better things.

    I’m open minded though and if I’m proved wrong well and good, however the money spigot ought to stop.

  41. Paul Frijters says:


    yes, we are on the same side on this one. But Petra writes under her actual name and is stating her case so deserves some respect and decorum. That doesn’t mean she should be allowed to pretend to have a magic bullet and get away with it without being called out.

  42. Ken Parish says:

    Long article in The New Yorker about geoengineering solutions to climate change

  43. Pingback: Core Economics | How is Nature doing? Biodiversity, sustainability, and biomass

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