Renewable energy cannot sustain an energy intensive society

At least that is the argument put forward by Dr Ted Trainer from the University of New South Wales. To quote:

It is commonly assumed that greenhouse gas and energy problems can be solved by switching from fossil fuel sources of energy to renewables.  However little attention has been given to exploring the limits to renewable energy.  The main problems are to do with the magnitude of the supply tasks that would be set and the difficulties that would be encountered integrating large amounts of intermittent renewable energy into supply systems. [I] argue that wind, photovoltaic, solar thermal and biomass sources, along with nuclear energy and geo-sequestration of carbon could not be combined to provide sufficient energy to sustain affluent societies while keeping greenhouse gas emissions below safe levels. The case is strongest with respect to liquid fuels and transport. [There are also strong] reasons why a “hydrogen economy” is not likely to be achieved.

So where is Ted coming from with such a dismal conclusion? Ted’s principal thesis is that itermittency of supply is the Achilles’ Heel of renewable energy when operating at the scale of complete, society-wide energy replacement. The problem is far worse if projected rates of economic and energy growth are factored in, and worse again if we try to imagine a scenario where the currently developing world nations attempt to achieve the same standard of living as those in the developed world.

Ted has put together a 37 page primer which summaries the content of his recent book published by Springer (Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society; Trainer, T 2007, 200 p.). With his permission I have made a PDF copy of this primer available for download here.

Some selected quotes from his primer help illustrate the basis of his arguments and the underpinning of his calculations (EJ = exajoules of energy, GW = gigawatt):

[R]enewable sources tend to be alternative rather than additive.  Therefore it is not a matter of having each renewable source carrying a fraction of the load all the time.  If we build one unit of wind power and one unit of PV power we would not necessarily have two more units of renewable energy capacity; sometimes we would have no more, e.g., on calm nights.  This means we might have to build two or even four separate systems (wind, PV, solar thermal and coal/nuclear) each capable of meeting much or all of the demand on its own, with the equivalent of one to three sitting idle much or all of the time.

It is evident from the graphs from Oswald et al., Coelingh, and Davey and Coppin that no matter how much wind capacity we added there would still be several times a month even in the best wind time of the year when more or less the whole X GW needed would have to come from coal or nuclear plant, and that we could cut carbon emissions to the very low required level only if we had perhaps 5X GW of wind capacity and dumped most of the energy it generated (or stored it very inefficiently as hydrogen.)  Clearly the gains from “over-sizing” the wind system would be savagely offset by the rise in total system capital costs, and it would not pay to have much more than X GW (peak) of wind plant, meaning plant capable of delivering on average about .25 of demand (or whatever the average wind system capacity fell to in view of the need to use very large areas.)

[concerning solar thermal] Some of these numbers are uncertain but when combined they indicate that the total energy loss might be 35% of the meagre gross output, meaning that a net delivered amount well under 10 W/m might reach users.  If so plant capable of delivering 1000 MW in winter would need 100+ million square metres of collection area.  At the estimated SEGS cost of $800/m (Trainer 2008) the plant would cost $80 billion.

The climate data seems to show that despite their storage capacity solar thermal systems would suffer a significant intermittency problem and in winter would either need storage capacity for four or more cloudy day sequences once or twice each winter month, or would need back up from some other sources.  This means they could not be expected to buffer the intermittency of other components in a fully renewable system.

For 2100 it is not likely that we could assume any coal use, on the grounds that no CO2 emissions will be permissible.  If 9 billion people had the per capita average energy consumption Australians are likely to have by 2050, i.e., c. 500 GJ/person the gross target would be 4,500 EJ.  If energy saving and conservation advance reduced this to 3375 EJ, and if low temperature heat could easily be derived from solar sources (again not a valid assumption for Europe and US in winter), the energy “service” target for renewables would become 2,530 EJ.

If the 844 EJ of electricity was to come equally from wind, PV and solar thermal, wind capacity would have to be about 560 times as great as it was in the early 2000s.  We would need 72 PV panels per person, at Sydney insolation, and therefore many more in Europe.

The 464 EJ for transport (i.e., the amount driving wheels) would require generation of 928 EJ of electricity ( or twice as much again if via  hydrogen) making the total electricity task 1,172 EJ, and therefore requiring a wind capacity  some 1,180 times as great as in the early 2000s (assuming the task is divided equally between wind, PV and solar thermal), again ignoring intermittency and integration problems.

There should be no need to continue.  Clearly if the 2050 budget is impossible then one that is 4 times as big and unable to use geosequestration will be far more so.  Note that the never-questioned business as usual expectation of 3% p.a. economic growth from here to 2100 would see a global economy churning out more than 16 times as many goods and services in that year as is produced and consumed each year now.

And so on (these are just a few snippets). He covers all the major renewable energy types (wind, solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, geothermal, wave), as well as energy storage issues (hydrogen, vanadium batteries, compressed air, pumped water, ammonia), conversion and transmission losses, system integration problems, liquid fuels and total energy budgets. You really do need to read the whole primer in order to properly appreciate the detailed and well-worked basis of his numbers and the system-wide scope of his analysis.

Ted’s ‘solution’ is, strictly speaking, that there is no direct  solution. He says that a consumer society of the type we know today simply cannot be sustained in the post fossil fuel era. He sees the only alternative as being is that a rapid transition must be made to a ‘simpler way’, focused on well-organised regional communities which have low energy demands and a local production base — admitting that the chance of achieving this is slim at best. Trainer is thinking much deeper here than just addressing the energy crisis — the simpler way is his solution to the sustainability emergency in general (climate, energy, water, food, biodiversity). More details can be found on Ted’s website.

Trainer has also written a telling critique of the energy assumptions embedded within the Garnaut Review, pointing out that the review’s discussion of the scale-up issues for renewables amounts to nothing more than a few throw-away lines and a lot of optimistic ‘technology development will solve these problems’ type statements otherwise lacking substantiation.

What do others think of the work of Trainer? The Energy Bulletin has done a review of his book, and concludes:

Trainer’s figures on renewables have been and will continue to be disputed. However, one thing is not in dispute. The move away from fossil fuels will be much much easier with some of the cultural changes that he describes as “The Simpler Way”.

I must admit I struggled to find many direct criticisms of Trainer’s calculations, either in the peer-reviewed literature or on the internet (though there is this from Barney Foran from Monash University), but if you can track them down I’d like to be alerted to them.

There are certainly a lot of technical papers which show how a distributed and diversified renewable energy grid can enhance the supply potential of renewables to near-baseload, but none that deal directly with the long-term storage problem that can lead to supply failure for short periods (e.g., large-scale renewables may be baseload for 25 days of every month and yet still fail to provide a reliable supply for the other 5-6 days, which would obviously create serious problems for today’s ‘always on the go’ society). Perhaps the critiques are there, and are able to show where Trainer has gone wrong — if so, please do alert me to them in the comments section below.


Where do I stand on this? As BNC readers would know, I am strongly in favour of a massive rollout of renewable energy and energy efficiency. I think Trainer’s primer is superficial in its discussion of bioenergy because it focuses on the inadequacy of first-generation (crop-based) biofuels and doesn’t consider the potential of microalgal biodiesel or hydrogen-producing microbes (although his general point about a reliance on ‘future tech’ to make this stuff work is valid). His dismissal of nuclear is based on the limitations and wastefulness of Gen II LWR nuclear — he has not even considered Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) nuclear power (though I have since alerted Ted to this and he is looking into it, like we all are now!).

I would like to say Ted is being overly pessimistic about total delivery potential and the huge redundancy demands of large-scale renewables, but his stark calculations appear to be quite robust (alas). That says to me that whilst achieving a diversified renewable energy supply will remain a high priority, it will simply not be enough. If we are to close all coal-fired power stations within the next two decades, as is required, an IFR-type technology will have to be a large (perhaps primary) contributor to achieving this.

Otherwise, it’s back to a simpler way, either by design or inevitability.

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

37 replies on “Renewable energy cannot sustain an energy intensive society”

I think that at least one of the nordics is doing a really need trick that gives wind power the capacitance to support baseload. The windmills are near hydro dams and the windmills push water back up behind the dam. Pity we won’t have the water.


We are unlikely to find out just how far renewables could go in contributing to the grid mix, as we don’t have a price on the externality of greenhouse gas emissions that reflects the harm that is being caused to our future.

With the charade of emissions trading we are to expect a price pre designed and falsely presented to be around $25 per tonne CO2-e with a price cap at $40-00 per tonne. At $25, our biggest polluting generators can receive 60% or 90 % grandfathered permits face the business wide cost of $2.50 (0.1 of $25) to $16 per tonne (0.4 of $40) which roughly equates to $2.50 to $16 per MWh or 0.2c/kWh to 1.6 c/kWh.

Renewables typically cost around 5c/kWh more than the standard coal & gas grid mix so they have no competitive market future. The CPRS has made that a certainty.

If we did have a price on greenhouse gas emissions it would need to be around $2000 per tonne CO2-e considering the current emissions behaviour scenario and the consequence that the world’s 50 trillion economy will be destroyed by its global emissions of $25 billion tonnes of additional greenhouse gasses per year, within the next 60-90 years (Some argue that 80% to 100% emissions cuts will be neccessary to prevent such an outcome).

At $2000 per tonne, renewables and other better technologies would compete, but we are looking at a cost to businesses producing stationary energy across their whole emissions output of $2.50 to $16.00 per tonne and a fully nullified cost to start with on diesel and transport fuel emissions.

We can pretend that research and innovation funds and demonstration sites for renewables might go somewhere they cannot create a clean energy future when the market drivers are not there. We can pretend that ultra clean coal technologies and geosequestration might go somewhere, but they won’t if the the market drivers are not present to implement the technology (even assuming the technologies could be implemented at scale.

Renewables will roughly double if the Government follows through with its election commitment to change National Renewable Energy Target to require Australia’s total renewables to increase from around 10% to 20% by 2020. This is the absolute best that could happen in the absence of policies to adequately price greenhouse gas emissions into the market.


Is Ted no longer of the belief that it is the Consumer Society that is the problem, not the possible inability of renewables to energise a consumer society?

“If the question is how we can run a sustainable and just consumer capitalist society, the point is that there isn’t any answer. That cannot be done. We cannot achieve a sustainable and just society unless we face up to a huge and radical transition to what some identify as the simpler way. This is a society based on non-affluent but adequate living standards, high levels of self-sufficiency, in small-scale localised economies and co-operative and participatory communities. It would have to be an economy that is not driven by market forces and profit, with no growth and, most difficult of all, little concern with competition, individualism and acquisitiveness.

The simpler way could be a far more satisfying way of life. Consider being able to live well on two days’ work for money a week, without any threat of unemployment, or insecurity in old age, in a supportive community. To the conventional mind such claims are insanely impossible.”

It is just the blog seems to prime for support of nuclear power? I guess I’m just not sure what the angle is:)

I mean Ted thinks Captitalism will screw us over (and it may well), but I can see how he would actually not like renewables to be able to support a consumer society… this is his big change to push a return to simpler ways. (I even mentioned similar previously).

Hmm it is late and I’m not 100% I’m making any sense:)


Here’s what I told Trainer in 2002:

The dismissal of solar-powered production of liquid motor fuels refers only to biofuels, and so knocks over a strawman.

What must really be refuted is the prospect that the inefficiency of photosynthesis will be bypassed through the use of concentrated sunlight to drive thermochemical fuel production. So, for instance,

1. Hydrogen iodide, HI, is thermally cracked to H2 and I2 at 400 Celsius. The hydrogen is extracted through a selectively permeable membrane and cooled.

2. Sulfuric acid vapour is cracked to water, SO2, and O2 at 1,000 Celsius. All three substances are cooled and the oxygen is released.

3. Water, SO2, and iodine (I2) react at normal environmental temperature to regenerate the hydrogen iodide and the sulfuric acid which were consumed in steps 1 and 2.

This has been demonstrated, and heat-to-hydrogen efficiencies of 51 percent are projected. This makes the hypothetical large-scale solar production of hydrogen through PV cells followed by electrolysis very unlikely.

Production of fuels that are liquid at normal environmental temperature and pressure would require the solar-generated hydrogen to be further combined with carbon, by processes such as this,

CO2 + 3H2 --100 bar, 200 C --> H3COH + H2O

and possibly further processing of the methanol. This would reduce the final efficiency well below 50 percent, but still it would end up well above the efficiency of inexpensive PV cells, and vastly more than that of the oil crop plantations that are putatively proposed for the same purpose — liquid fuel production using sunlight.

Methanol is storable in big tanks like those in which oil is stored. Other things have even better storability, but methanol’s obviously adequate storability should have been sufficient to save him the trouble of writing a book.

— G.R.L. Cowan (How fire can be tamed)


0) There is indeed no way 9B people are going to live like Australia does now, and there are indeed existing developed places on the planet that just aren’t going to work very well without fossil fuels [for which in fact, 4th Gen nuclear may be the only real hope]. Long-distance transport will indeed be under great pressure.

Solutions inherently vary by area, and actually, some places (including Oz) can probably do OK … and the *omissions* from the Trainer piece make me nervous…

1) Of course, Australia is one of the *absolute worst* places on the planet for energy efficiency: see p.38 of Arthur Rosenfeld talk. [Down & left is more energy-efficient, up and right is less-so. Oz occupies the top-right place…]

I’ve mentioned Rosenfeld here before, along with summaries of what California is doing. Note on that chart the relative position of Australia and California, and while no two places are the same, CA and Oz have some useful similarities, including especially solar insolation. Oz has better wind, we have better hydro and maybe geothermal. We use relatively little coal.

2) This may be my local (CA) bias, but writing that there is “little critical discussion of limits to renewable energy” … is *seriously* odd, and not a good start. Of course there are people who get carried away assuming renewables are magic, but so what?

*Serious* people know better and have been working on the problems for years.

a) See Art Rosenfeld Bio and presentations. Art is California Energy Commissioner and has long worked in the Lab headed by Steven Chu, the next US Secretary of Energy.
Some serious study of California Energy Commission might be illuminating.

b) See Charlie Hall’s EROI series at TheOilDrum. In particular, study that first bubble chart, which is pretty well-known and shows the magnitude of the problem ahead.

c) Read any of Vaclav Smil’s books, for example “Energy at the Crossroads”, 2003.

d) Read Robert Ayres (or + Benjamin Warr) on relationship of energy*efficiency to economy, see the last slide of ASPO talk in 2005, for example.

e) The limits, and how to push on them, are widely and frequently debated in academe.
For example, see 2008 GCCEP presentatiosn at Stanford, which started around 2003.

3) Maybe they are in the longer version, but having no mention of any of those makes me nervous, as does omission of the following:

a) By area, energy uses vary by season & time of day. Using just the electricity subset, for example, CA electricity use peaks during summer afternoons. Cost calculations that whack renewables, while ignoring the equivalent for fossil plants, just doesn’t make sense. I.e., it only makes sense to run nuclear plants all-out, and coal plants almost that way. There are lots of gas-powered plants that turn on for the peak times, and otherwise sit idle.

For CA, solar power is load-following, i.e., it produces the most energy exactly when you need the extra energy. Even better, if you also have hydro [or any other form of energy storage], you can save that for the night.
See p.22 of the Rosenfeld talk.

It’s distressing that the primer doesn’t even mention load-following once…
because that can be *very* important to generalizations like “renewable sources tend to be alternative rather than additive.”

b) “Energy demand management” is also relevant, and some smart people here think it’s pretty important. See pp33-35 of Rosenfeld. This starts with appropriate pricing and goes on from there. I didn’t notice any discussion of that. It is fairly bogus to assume that power generation *must* be sized for peak demand and that nothing can be done to manage that demand. Really, we already do this, with programs that give industries price breaks if they are willing to handle low-power circumstances occasionally. We pay much more for peak-electricity in the peak summer hours, which people respond to by not using electric dryers during those hours.

c) I haven’t studied all the wind comments, but I do note that some people get different results. Mark Jacobson & Cristina Archer have done good studies of windpower. Jacobson thinks that “big-enough” geographics dispersion is useful:

“In this study, benefits of interconnecting wind farms were evaluated for 19 sites, located in the midwestern
United States, with annual average wind speeds at 80 m above ground, the hub height of modern wind
turbines, greater than 6.9 m s1 (class 3 or greater). It was found that an average of 33% and a maximum
of 47% of yearly averaged wind power from interconnected farms can be used as reliable, baseload electric
power.” I’m sure that doesn’t apply everywhere, and of course, the geography he’s talking about is huge, compared to Denmark, for example. I haven’t tried to sort out the differences in results between them and the other studies cited.

d) Transport fuels is a problem … but computing futures based on current usage patterns doesn’t encourage me. Around here [Silicon Valley], many people think that in addition to efficiency, better public transport (ours is not great), encouraging infill building near train lines, etc, etc:

– we go electric & PHEV as fast as we can, for cars and light trucks. Even coal-generated electricity yields better transport and CO2 efficiency than gas/diesel.

– some places (here, among others), like Coulomb Technologies, Google’s RechargeIT are pretty serious about company and/or public charging stations.

– If I have a pure EV (BEV) that I use for relatively short distances, and have access to charging stations, that works, and I can go somewhere without starting with a full charge. The recharge time for current electric vehicles at home is often 4-8 hours. Of course, if I can get a recharge in 4 hours, I could care less whether I get 100% windpower all night, all I need is 4 hours sometime.

People are already talking designs for cars that “negotiate” with power companies, i.e., with smart grids that say dynamically how much they charge per KWh, and how much they pay, and let the cars decide which they want to do.

– If I had a serial-PHEV that could get, say, 40 miles on batteries, and then 60 mpg on (some fuel), and I had a two-gallon fuel-tank, exactly why would I care very much if (cheap) wind electricity were only 90% reliable? Even if I got zero 3 nights a month, I’d still be able to drive. A 2-gal fuel tank and a small engine/generator are really not that big.

– Some of this stuff is like the Internet. If the Internet were designed on the “need 100% of peak demand reliable all the time” idea, it would cost hugely more. I used to help design/manage telephone systems in the old Bell Labs/Bell System days. We always had stringent requirements for downtime, availability, voice quality, etc, and this didn’t always come cheap. In particular, sizing for voice “busy hour” (usually on Mother’s Day :-)) is a pain.

The Internet doesn’t work that way. If a node gets too busy, it just drops packets, knowing that the sender will try again. A typical member of the public doesn’t get stringent service guarantees of response time. The net may get slow if you’re somewhere near the servers for the “Victoria’s Secret” show or Superbowl websites. If you use Skype, sometimes your call quality isn’t terrific.

A *whole* lot of people are trying to use the same ideas to reengineer the electrical system akin to the way modern networks work… “Good enough, most of the time” is a lot cheaper than “Always handle the maxmimum anyone could wish for”.

3) I am *not* suggesting there are magic technical & behavioral fixes for the problems, which are serious. I’m *not* suggesting that life isn’t going to get more local, because if there’s one really tough problem it’s long distance travel, especially air travel. I’m not sure the world will actually get to 9B people, and it’s pretty clear that rich countries have to reduce our energy use/person, and poor countries need to not grow their populations much, at the very minimum.

I would say that we can get a lot further on efficiency [and Oz has to get 2X better just to catch where CA is now. I do think there are some places in the world that can manage to have pretty reasonable lives without fossil fuels.

Hence, I would generally applaud Trainer raising the issues.

4) But, I wish he’d study the CA Energy Commission, and Charlie Hall’s work, and Smil’s, and all the other things that have been happening. Really, there do exist many people who understand perfectly well that renewables aren’t magic. Lack of reference to things like these doesn’t encourage confidence. I.e., Trainer may be right, or not, but the “alternative, not additive” discussion is a mis-framing.


Barry, the Trainer PDF is close to unreadable on my Linux machine. Its a font problem I’ve seen before. I can’t find an email address for Trainer, so if you have one, could you let him know? Perhaps send him my email and if I hear from him I’ll try and explain the problem.

Ed: The font is a basic TTF Arial, so I’m not sure why Linux is giving you grief with this. Anyway, I’ve sent you an email


MattB @3 wrote: It is just the blog seems to prime for support of nuclear power? I guess I’m just not sure what the angle is:)

I mean Ted thinks Captitalism will screw us over (and it may well), but I can see how he would actually not like renewables to be able to support a consumer society… this is his big change to push a return to simpler ways.

Ted’s blog material is not hot on nuclear power because of the standard Gen II uranium supply arguments [perhaps wrong or at least underestimating supply, as was discussed in earlier threads]. He needs to consider IFR. In the absence of this power source, his argument is that the simpler way is the only means of sustainability, i.e. there is no other physically possible path.

I can see your point about having a motivation to criticise renewables if he actually wants the simpler way to become a reality. But motivations on this are irrelevant – it is his calculations that must be hammered if his arguments are to be dismissed. My motivation is for us to have a high energy, high tech, low footprint society. But if we can’t get there, we need to face that prospect (I am still convinced we can get there if we are clever about it).

Cowan and Mashey above have made an excellent posts pointing out why Trainer is likely to be at the extreme pessimism end of things, and I know a few other people who feel likewise. I need to think more on the above and then I’ll try another critique myself.

Certainly I think the point made by Pielke, Wigley and Green in Nature this year holds irrespective:
Because of these dramatic changes in the global economy it is likely that we have only just begun to experience the surge in global energy use associated with ongoing rapid development. Such trends are in stark contrast to the optimism of the near-future IPCC projections and seem unlikely to alter course soon. The world is on a development and energy path that will bring with it a surge in carbon-dioxide emissions — a surge that can only end with a transformation of global energy systems. We believe such technological transformation will take many decades to complete, even if we start taking far more aggressive action on energy technology innovation today.

Enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations at acceptable levels. If much of these advances occur spontaneously, as suggested by the scenarios used by the IPCC, then the challenge of stabilization might be less complicated and costly. However, if most decarbonization does not occur automatically, then the challenge to stabilization could in fact be much larger than presented by the IPCC.

The IPCC plans to update the SRES for its next report (due in 2013 or later), but in the meantime climate policy would be better informed by having a clear view of the size of the technological challenge.

There is no question about whether technological innovation is necessary — it is. The question is, to what degree should policy focus directly on motivating such innovation? The IPCC plays a risky game in assuming that spontaneous advances in technological innovation will carry most of the burden of achieving future emissions reductions, rather than focusing on creating the conditions for such innovations to occur.

Romm critiques them heavily for being too pessimistic on what current tech can deliver — but I classify him as somewhat bi-polar on this issue — both willing to accept political/current-tech-constraint arguments in arguing for a 450 ppm target [scientifically inadequate] and at the same time believing that we’re “there already” with renewables and only require massive rollout to seal the deal.


Re: Romm

A post of mine on R&D got promoted to an article over at Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth.

I don’t think Joe’s views are too far away from that, but he gets fired up when people seem to be suggesting “wait for the breakthroughs”. (I do, too). See the R&D article about lessons from long-term R&D at Bell Labs, one of the relatively few halfway-reasonable analogies. A large fraction of people easily get confused by the meaning of R&D…


The trouble with trying to prove something can’t be done is that some smart bugger will smash one of your assumptions. Eg. Cowan @ 4 notes that if you can improve on photosynthesis then plenty of problems get easier. Similarly, I reckon when cheap natural gas is gone, cheap fertiliser will be gone and its “back” to permaculture! But if someone works out how to break nitrogen triple bonds at room temperature and pressure then we could have very cheap fertiliser — which smashes my assumption. The fact that chemists haven’t succeeded in doing this despite serious efforts doesn’t PROVE it won’t happen tomorrow.

I remember somebody telling me about a proof given by Fred Hoyle in the early 50s that a space ship couldn’t escape the earth’s pull. The proof was fine but then someone thought of ditching the first stage of the rocket.

The high temperature superconducting transmission system described in:

may mean effectively that its always hot and sunny everywhere because you can move huge amounts of energy without significant losses.

So even if there is nothing wrong with Ted’s calculations, he may not be right! Mind you, I have a neighbour who spent the weekend with a blower thing in his back yard and I was kind of hoping for an energy shortage to force a return to rakes and brooms!


A return to rakes and brooms plus leaving your car at home and walking to the local shops are easy ways to cut your carbon footprint and, at the same time, address the obesity epidemic.
Worked fo me:)
Now all I need is a treadmill or bike connected to my washing machine etc – but then again I could go back to washing by hand – more calories expended!!
Just a bit of light relief for the subject :)


How far away are we from Arthur C. Clark’s space elevator’s that allow us to collect solar power from above the atmosphere and transmit it down to earth via stations along the equator. Crazy sounding, but cool to think of.


Now I think it is relevant to promote prof. David JC MacKay – particle physicist from Cambridge Universiy, who came to the similar conclusion as Ted Trainer. His book free to download:

*This remarkable book sets out, with enormous clarity and objectivity, the various
alternative low-carbon pathways that are open to us.* – Sir David King – FRS Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, 2000–08

*For anyone with influence on energy policy, whether in government, business
or a campaign group, this book should be compulsory reading.* – Tony Juniper – Former Executive Director, Friends of the Earth

*At last a book that comprehensively reveals the true facts about sustainable
energy in a form that is both highly readable and entertaining.* – Robert Sansom – Director of Strategy and Sustainable Development, EDF Energy

basic coclusion is that we *can* sustain our huge energy consumption with *country scaled* renewables…


Alexander @ 13. The MacKay book is sometimes excellent, but he doesn’t
understand food production or IO analysis at all (IMHO). He
thinks that you can work out the greenhouse footprint
of food by considering the calories consumed by animals. This means of
course that the emissions associated with producing those calories end up
in other buckets in his analysis. The methane from animals doesn’t appear in
his analysis on page 77 — which is pretty much a joke. I’m a great fan
of back of the envelope approximations, but this is one case where it is
highly misleading.

The proper way to do this is footprint analysis of lifestyle choices is like the
CSIRO “Balancing Act”. That way, the coal to make the steel to make the truck
to ship the cattle to market ends up where it should end up — allocated to
the steak as of course does the coal to make the steel to make the butchers
freezer and the gas to run the freezer, as does the fuel to power the plane
to take the MLA rep to a conference in Brazil. When you pay for a steak, you
pay that MLA rep’s air fare, so the associated emissions belong to you (pro rata, of course).

Almost all emmisions have to be allocated to final consumption.


Yes Alexander, it does. For
2 reasons:

1) Paraphrasing Hansen, if we don’t control CO2, then we are stuffed, but if we do, then the other forcings become really important, because controlling CO2 is necessary but not sufficient to prevent us becoming toast. Probably the 2 biggest forcings we can control are methane and black carbon.

2) You can’t optimise lifestyle choices until you understand the impacts of what you do. Nobody thinks about the diesel going into the tractors pulling the chains that deforested ~100,000 hectares of Queenland this year when they buy a steak and Mackay and most people put it in an anonymous industry bucket. In the 1990s when most of this clearing resulted in vast piles of burning piles of felled timber, nobody put the black carbon into the emission cost of the steak. But that’s exactly where it belongs. Ditto the black carbon from Amazon and Indonesian deforestation (most of which is cattle and much less for soy (about 75% of which is pig/chicken feed)
and palm oil.

I’m a computer programmer and all my life I’ve seen people optimizing the performance of the code that isn’t really using the time. Its the same with climate change — light bulbs and green shopping bags are all the rage in Australia! (I’m not sure where you are from).


To me 1st up it is all about getting the economics right.

I just want that when I go to a shop to buy a product, and am choosing between two alternatives, that I can feel confident that I don;t have to make mental adjustments to cater for climate change, or other significant environmental costs.

If Product B has lower impact than Product A, then why is it that Product B has to bear the costs of improving production, but Product A gets to share the costs of screwing the environment on everyone.

Things wil never change when people on tight budgets are expected to pay more for products that do the right thing. When push comes to shove the vast majoriy of people simply can not or will not make that choice to spend more money…

Happy Christmas guys by the way – this site has certainly provided much needed sanity in a crazy climate year.


About MattB and costs.

Barney Foran was interviewed some years back about his super duper energy efficient house. “Has it saved you money?” asks the wide eyed reporter. “Yes,” grins Barney, who appreciates exactly the irony of what he is about to say, “Enough to fly the family to the Gold Coast for a holiday”.

The effect is called the “rebound” effect by economists. Eating less red meat reduces your greenhouse footprint by a huge amount, but it also saves you money and what you spend that money on is critical. Spend
it on air travel and any savings vanish.


Geoff @ 18 – call me a naive utopian… but one day there will be a world and economy where carbon costs are internalised through cap and trade with a cap set at a globally acceptable limit, where permits are traded between business without national borders, without the pointless “targets” set by individual nations, supply and demand set the price of permits, and if I want to spend my cash on air travel I can do so knowing that the greenhouse gases emitted are paid for and accounted for in the global trading system. I can dream can’t I!



After reading Ted Trainer’s primer ( as far as the section on wind energy), it’s clear that he has a very poor grasp of the basics of wind energy.

1) Capacity factor: while this is as low as 0.18 in some poor sites in Germany, it is much higher is US and Australia(average 0.33). Part of the reason is the feed-in-tariffs in EU encourage over capacity building( ie a large turbine on a smaller swept area). Another factor is the rapid growth in installed capacity( 30% in US in 2008), so by Dec 2008, the US had 25GW capacity but 8GW was installed in 2008 so not contributing power in a full year( ie those 8GW’s capacity would only have been half the expected capacity in 2009)
Keeping in mind that the capacity in UK may only be 0.3, generating more than 10% of capacity most of the time means actually generating > 33% of average capacity( ie 10% of 0.30).

2) Intermittent: Even the UK is only 250,000 km3, one 20th the size of the US or Australia. Weather systems( for example blocking highs with low wind) can span half a continent( SW Australia) and thus cause local periods of low wind. A national grid for example presently available in US spans >2,000 km, allowing at least some wind energy from distant regions. For example Canada moves hydro power >1500 km via HVDC to the US eastern distributor.

Australia’s Eastern Grid extends from Ceduna( West), Hobart(South) and North past Gladstone. It could be extended to WA connecting to Kalgoorlie, to benefit from the 2-3 day delay in weather systems. Keeping in mind that wind turbines in US and Australia are generally producing power at about the capacity factor( ie a 1MW turbine producing 200-400KW) and rarely close to 1MW(1% of time) , geographically(>1000km) dispersed wind will be producing 0.2 to 0.5 capacity >95% of the time( ie 0.35 =/-0.15.

World Resource: Jacobson paper estimates 72TW using the better sites( >7m/sec) representing 12% of the land area ( excluding Antarctica’s very large potential). For US that’s 5,500GW average power( not capacity) about X10 all energy used. Note some earlier estimates were based on 10m height wind speeds, at >80 m( todays wind machines are up to 120m hub height) wind speeds are considerable higher, and since energy is cube of wind velocity, energy can be very much higher. Another error that is often made is to calculate average wind speed across a country, for example MacKay’s “energy without hot air” calculates wind energy of UK on the average of 6m/sec at 25m. The better sites in Scotland have speeds of >9m/sec so deliver x(1.5)^3= X3.2 , actually 5% of area has wind speeds >12m/sec at 100m, so would produce X8 as much power. This means that wind power resources can be derived from relatively small areas and it is much more economic to use these remote windy sites once the electric grid is installed. The UK is only now beginning to build in these high wind sites, initially siting close to grid power but at poorer wind sites.

Costs: Larger turbines are delivering lower costs/kWh. A world wide shortage of steel in 2007-2008 and wind turbine back-orders of 2 years resulted in price rises. These price pressures have now eased.

Storage: Australia uses hydro to provide 8.5GW peak power, but only 3GWa. If the Bass-Link was expanded beyond the 600MW capacity up to 2GW peak power in Tasmania could be used. Many sites in Tasmania could very cheaply be converted to pumped storage by using reversible turbines. Overall hydro peak could be increased by additional turbines at existing Snowy hydro sites( for example Tumut2 has 3 of its six 250 MW turbines used for pump storage). In theory, Australia could have all of its 50GW peak electricity backed up by several hours of hydro(100GWh), without using any more water.

The US and Canada have 6,000GWh storage in just a 1meter change in Lake Erie/Lake Ontario water levels ( a 99 meter difference at Niagara falls). Many Canadian hydro project run now as base-load power but could be used for peak power back-up instead of NG.

The final comment is that wind generates electricity, we never have to replace the energy content of coal or oil but only 1/4 for vehicles and 1/2 for the most efficient coal fired plants. Its important to not ALL energy systems can fail, either a nuclear power shut down, a gas explosion shutting down NG power, or a drought reducing hydro and yes an unusual wind pattern reducing wind energy. A large national grid with diverse energy sources and back-up storage in several regions can reduce a total failure, but they sometimes happen.

Hope this post is not too late for your consideration,


After reading the rest of Ted Trainer’s primer and some of his other papers it appears that he is treating renewable energy issues is a very superficial way.

For example his discussion of “Pumped Water Storage”.
He states that “world hydro-electricity meets only 15% of electricity demand, (6%in Australia ) so when wind and sun(solar?) were meeting little of the demand, pumped hydro could not take up much of the demand even if suitable sites were available.”

Firstly, most hydro is not pumped storage hydro, but none the less hydro capacity factor is generally 0.50, so existing hydro could supply 30% of electricity demand part of the time. In Australia, hydro (6% electricity production ) meets 18% peak demand(8.5GW). Australia only has 1.2GW of pumped storage(13%). In the US hydro contributes 7% of the 450GWa , but the US has 80GW hydro capacity including 18GW of pumped hydro, but only 35GWa hydro production.
So instead of discussing pumped water storage he is actually using hydro production not even hydro capacity. He goes on:

“To increase generating capacity would be to build alternate plant that would sit idle much of the time.”
In many cases adding pumped hydro requires a modification to just the turbines to be able to reverse. In other cases new storage may be needed. All peak capacity such as NG only operates part of the time, for NG the capacity is 0.10. With little additional cost, much hydro capacity could be expanded( same production over shorter periods ie peak demand). This is what peak capacity does, its “idle much of the time”.

Finally he claims that in future hydro will decline due to climate change( presumably less rainfall). It is estimated that only 10% of world hydro potential has been developed. For example the DOE Idaho Laboratory estimates the US has 300GWa potential(
For pumped water storage, no net water is used so changes in rainfall patterns are not an issue.
In Australia’s case Tasmania hydro has 2,200MW capacity(1,000MWa) but can only export 600MW via the Bass-Link HVDC line. Tasmania has excellent wind resources that can have a high capacity factor(>0.40) due to its location in the reliable roaring 40’s. The building of 4,000MW wind capacity in Tasmania and installing reversible turbines at existing dams, and increasing the Bass-Link by 2,000MW capacity would allow up to 2600MW peak electricity to be supplied to mainland Australia every day,using wind power to pump the water back to the higher elevation reservoirs or surplus renewable energy from the mainland during off-peak periods.
As far as replacing oil used in transport, Trainer uses a hypothetical ” hydrogen fuel” scenario, claiming that this would need X4 the electrical energy presently generated to replace the energy content of oil. Electric cars with battery storage does not seem to be considered by Trainer as an option to replace oil based fuels, even though they are X4 more efficient at delivering power ( 85% ) than using oil based fuels (15-20% efficient).

I am not very knowledgeable of solar power issues, but Trainer seems to dismiss solar because it cannot supply energy more than 7 hours a day but claims it has to be able to store energy for more than 12 hours. What about load following, with 3 hours storage to match peak summer demand, with night-time off-peak energy and winter energy supplied by wind with hydro back-up?

Trainers thesis(2050 assumption) is that the world would need X9 the energy used today if 9Billion people are to have the expected energy consumption used by Australia in 2050( 100% higher than today using FF’s). Since he tried to demonstrate this cannot be done with renewable energy or nuclear, his solution is that developed countries instead dramatically reduce their economies and energy use, to present day 3rd world economies. He doesn’t consider a more plausible scenario that OECD countries increase renewable energy to replace FF energy( using 25% more energy, or perhaps 25% less energy) and developing countries also increase renewable energy to have a considerable growth(100%) in energy use, BUT still use less energy per capita than developed countries. Or is there some reason why all nations must use the same per capita energy by 2050??

He similarly dismisses energy efficiency gains( GDP energy intensity) because that alone would not allow all 9Billion people to have the GDP/capita of what Australia is expected to have in 2050, even though energy efficiency has increased GDP /energy unit by 1% per year in last 40 years.


As far as future predictions of energy demand, look first at the virtually certain demographic forecasts of 9-10 billion people by mid-century. We’ll need massive amounts of energy for desalination alone. Presumably all of those many many people are also going to want a standard of living at least approaching that of Australia and other developed countries. And if we intend to get away from fossil fuels—including natural gas—that means converting to an all-electric society, including space heating and transportation.

I’ve seen it said many times on this blog and elsewhere that you don’t want to build too much generating capacity because of the variation in demand, that we don’t want to “overbuild.” We always overbuild, though, because we need to be able to meet peak demand. The costs of that overbuilding have always been figured in to electric rates. Why is the future going to be any different. Besides, we’ll be not only able to desalinate in off hours but also to be producing either hydrogen (most probably for ammonia-powered engines) or recycling boron. In either case the ammonia and/or boron would act as a sort of giant storage battery, increasing the efficiency of the whole system. I sure wouldn’t worry too much about overbuilding. We’d be lucky to have such a problem.


“Presumably all of those many many people are also going to want a standard of living at least approaching that of Australia and other developed countries.”

All countries want to have a standard of living as high as possible, that doesn’t mean that they will be able to do so in 40 years even though it is a desirable outcome. It would also be desirable if Australia and US that have a relatively low GDP/BTU($110GDP/1million BTU) to at least close the gap with some of the G7 countries that have $180-200 GDP/1million BTU
While this is a moving target we should be able to catch up to some extent just as many Asia economies are catching up GDP/capita with higher growth rates. A big switch away from FF to electric based renewable and nuclear energy is going to give a considerable gain in GDP/BTU, and so too will higher energy prices, so it seems sensible to plan on realistic energy needs for 2050. A world GDP/capita of $30,000 in 2050 and an energy intensity of $300 GDP/1million BTU(approx 1 QUAD/10million), about double present world energy use. That’s still a lot of additional wind, hydro ,solar and nuclear, but over a 40 year period.

It seems that switching from coal(retiring >40 year old base-load power plants) to NG peaking is a good trade-off as a long term transition to carbon free energy. NG has half the CO2 emissions and will allow wind and solar to be integrated, keeping all( new) NG power plants and progressively reducing their use (capacity factor), but maintaining full NG peak(if or when needed).


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