Uncharted Territory

October 27, 2009

Scientific American’s Sustainable Future

Scientific American’s customer management is appalling. When I first subscribed to the print edition, the magazine’s online presence was trumpeted as one of the benefits. I therefore understood I would also obtain access to the Scientific American Digital (how quaint!). Nope. I got no more online access than I had previously and ended up paying a Scientific American Digital subscription on top of the print subscription. Someone should call the Advertising Standards Authority! (Annoyingly my online subscription has now expired, and, I see from the correspondence page – which publishes letters on topics in the edition, I kid you not, 4 months earlier, like we’re still in the 1950s – that I appear not to have received the July issue at all).

Just lately – in the midst of a UK postal strike – I can find no way to notify my address change or even log on at http://www.scientificamerican.com. The site recognises none of the several numbers on the address labels of the magazines I’m sent. The contact email address intl@scientificamerican.com simply doesn’t work. Mind-blowing. Scientists, eh? Hardly surprising there were dodgy solder-joints at the LHC, was it?

Nevertheless, I persist with Scientific American. It’s worth it for the quality of the articles. And, I have to say, its old-fashioned feel.

The lead article in the November issue is titled: “A Plan for a Sustainable Future”, by Mark Z Jacobson and Mark A Delucchi . It discusses how the entire world could be powered by wind, water and solar power by 2030. And it’s well worth a read.

The authors note that building “millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations” is not without precedent. For example, “during WWII the US retooled automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft”. For clean energy the numbers are feasible: the list includes 490,000 tidal turbines, 3,800,000 5MW wind turbines, 49,000 concentrated solar power (CSP) plants and 40,000 solar PV plants.

I’m afraid I have some quibbles:

  • The authors quote a US Energy Information Administration projection of 16.9TW of global energy demand in 2030, compared to 12.5TW now.  I suspect 16.9TW will prove to be a massive underestimate.  As well as a greater population and higher living standards, there’ll be new sources of demand in 20 years, for example, for large numbers of desalination plants to produce fresh water.  I’d be amazed if we aren’t using twice as much energy by 2030 as we are now.
  • On the other hand, ruling out wind and solar power production “in the open seas” is suspect: I would have thought there was a lot of scope to generate power there, e.g. on floating islands, which I’ve seen proposed, probably in Scientific American itself.
  • Nuclear power is dismissed because of the “carbon emissions” caused by “reactor construction and uranium mining and transport”, but no explanation is given as to why these activities couldn’t be powered by clean energy.
  • Interestingly, the authors are concerned about all forms of pollution, so rule out carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and biofuels on the grounds of air pollution other than CO2. I’d have liked to see at least a nod to the other problems with these primitive technologies: principally the difficulty of capturing all the CO2 in a coal-fired plant, the cost of burying the carbon and the risks; and, for biofuels, the land use problems – not just food vs fuel, but that the land would store carbon quicker if left alone!
  • I doubt that geothermal energy is “renewable”.  There may be a lot of it, but the rocks will reheat only very slowly.
  • The authors suggest that we deploy 1,700,000,000 – yeap, 1.7 billion – “rooftop photovoltaic systems”.  I think this is nuts.  First off, I’m really struggling with the numbers – the 0.003MW – or 3kW – size of each system must refer to average (mean) output to be consistent with the rest of the article.  But, according to my mate David MacKay (print edition, p.40), 20W/m2 is going some for solar PV in the sort of countries where there are a lot of roofs. So these systems would have to be 150m2 each. They have big roofs in America, I guess. But my more fundamental objection is that the output of 100,000 of these babies only adds up to 1, yes one, of the 40,000 PV power plants. What’s easier, do you think, fit solar panels on every roof in a medium-sized town, such as Southampton where I come from, or stick them all in a big field outside of town (perhaps a long way outside, like in North Africa, where funnily enough you need far fewer panels)? I’ll give you a clue: let’s be pessimistic and say it takes 1/2 hour to put a panel in a standardised array in a field and optimistically 2 days to put the scaffolding up so you can get on the roof without a health and safety violation – before you start the pretty much bespoke installation process. Barmy idea, isn’t it? I worry that the inclusion of the rooftop PVs owes more to some kind of philosophical belief in the virtues of localism than to sound scientific (or economic) reasoning. And of course the article concludes by advocating the dreaded feed-in tariffs. What better way of transferring money to those with big roofs from those, um, without big roofs?

Nevertheless, notwithstanding a few hints that it may be informed by countercultural ideology, I recommend taking a look at “A Path to Sustainability by 2030”.

But the November 2009 Scientific American is worth buying for another article alone. No, not more minute analysis of the “Hobbits of Indonesia” (not read that one yet, but – to go all Iain M Banks for a moment – does the obsessive human interest in the details of our family tree perhaps represent some kind of species-level insecurity?), but “The Rise of Vertical Farms” by Dickson Despommier. The author should perhaps have credited “The World Without Us“, but he makes the point that we should farm indoors and leave nature to absorb the excess carbon we’ve been stuffing into the atmosphere.

The key argument is that you can grow so much – so much less riskily too – in controlled climate conditions indoors: “4 growing seasons, double the plant density, and 2 [or more, surely, of many crops – judging by a photo I once saw in the Guardian of a hydroponic indoor vegetable farm in Tokyo] per floor”, so that, excusing the quaint American units, a “30-story building covering one city block [5 of these ‘acre’ things] could … produce 2,400 acres of food”!

Despommier worries about how his vision can be made to happen, but in fact it’s simple. As soon as a realistic price is put on ecosystem services, there’ll be a huge economic incentive to invest in “vertical farms”.



  1. Sounds like an ok plan. What do we need to do next?

    Comment by Stephen Stretton — October 27, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

    • Steve, I assume you mean the sustainable energy rather than the vertical farm plan. The authors have nothing more constructive to suggest than feed-in tariffs. These would be a mistake, since they’ll quite quickly push up the price of electricity – see my old post on this idiocy (I expect the UK’s scheme to gift roof-owners around 35p/kWh for PV feed-in electricity – really this should vary depending on demand or at least the time of day/year, of course – 7 times the cost of other forms of electricity, which we’ll still be paying in 2020 (in fact 2035!) when, according to SciAm, wind and wave will energy will cost around 2.5p/kWh, i.e. 1/14th as much).

      The point is that the danger I see is not so much a failure to produce renewable energy, but a failure to stop using fossil fuels. In other words, with current policies I expect us to do both. What we need is policies to keep fossil carbon in the ground.

      At the risk of repeating myself, feed-in tariffs will raise the cost of electricity when we need to move to electricity-based transport in particular, but in fact to an entirely electricity-based energy system. We need to ensure the fossil fuel option is always more expensive than the clean option, so the last thing we want to do is let electricity prices rise. Madness. Depressingly, in the same November 2009 Sci Am there’s a Q&A with car industry gurus (“The Future of Cars”, p.68), who don’t see the end of the internal-combustion engine by 2030.

      Comment by Tim Joslin — October 28, 2009 @ 9:30 am

  2. If the power needed by the vertical farms is generated by solar power, this plan will merely replace the rural farms with rural solar collectors and import power instead of food.

    Comment by Joseph Hertzlinger — October 28, 2009 @ 6:34 am

    • Joseph, The author of the article would argue that replacing rural farms with energy production is a good thing, since many of the problems with farms being a long way from their market relate to transportation. It’s not just the energy required to transport food, but losses en route.

      I’d also point out that you could produce the energy needed to grow crops on a lot less land than the crops themselves. For example, PVs can convert a wide range of wavelengths of light to energy at high intensities (at up to 20% efficiency). Plants only use certain wavelengths and in general do not require intense light – they only capture a fraction of a % of the energy in sunlight.

      There is also the opportunity to use intermittent sources of energy e.g. wind to power food factories. Plants don’t much mind if you switch the lights off for a few hours now and then (e.g. when the peak times for other energy uses coincides with a dip in production).

      Food is already grown under artificial light (e.g. in Tokyo and around Moscow), so the energy economics cannot be insurmountable. I expect the market will start (or continue) to develop for high value goods that are difficult to transport, e.g. lettuce seems to be a favourite (the plants are also not very tall) rather than staples at first.

      Comment by Tim Joslin — October 28, 2009 @ 9:08 am

  3. […] h Scientific American’s Sustainable Future · … of the “Hobbits of Indonesia” (not read that one yet, but – to go all […]

    Pingback by   Details Of Ecosystem In Indonesia. by IN ASIA ONLINE — October 28, 2009 @ 10:42 am

  4. The limited supply and worldwide environmental effects of carbon-based fuels demand that a different source of energy be identified and tapped. This analysis applies to synthetic bio fuels as well as fossil fuels. The obvious candidates to supplant carbon-based fuels are solar conversion, wind generation, hydraulic generation, geothermal extraction, fission, and fusion. When scaled to the size necessary to satisfy the energy demands of the world, all except fusion have severe unmitigated environmental impacts, induce geopolitical instability, or exhibit very limited availability, reliability, and sustainability. Most technologies suffer from more than one of these drawbacks.

    What is not generally known is that a safe practical way to harness the isotope’s of Hydrogen reaction was developed in the 1970’s but abandoned because it was only economically viable at a very large scale. The process is known as High Energy Heavy Ion Fusion. Such a fusion power plant would produce about 100 GW of power rather than the 1 GW desired by the power industry. Three facilities would meet the total needs of California, allowing fission and fossil fuel generation to be cut back significantly. Yes, this would require that we upgrade our electrical grid but that needs doing anyway.

    The fusion of Deuterium and Tritium (“DT”) to form Helium and a neutron is a well-known reaction that yields prodigious amounts of energy. Though sufficient fuel is available in seawater to sustain the global energy demand for millennia, we still need an engine capable of running the reaction. As of 2009, the search for such an engine has been going on for 6 decades and common wisdom says it is still 5 decades away. The problem is that the search has been concentrated on the 1 GW regime (the size of a normal large power plant). But, with HIF, we have that engine capability currently.

    High Energy Heavy Ion Fusion technology is more “ready to go” now than rocket technology was when President Kennedy set the goal to go to the moon and back within the decade. The implementation of HIF within the decade, to produce ample electricity, heat to directly drive the disassociation of H2O to produce H2 leading to synthetic fuel, and energy for the production of potable water can meet many of the nations and worlds pressing problems.

    We have the knowledge. To get HIF going it will take leadership, commitment and money. The new leadership is in office. The monies are in the stimulus package. All we are missing is commitment. Let our leaders commit to a program that will get High Energy Heavy Ion Fusion on track, NOW, before it is to late.

    Yes, WE CAN do this for the good of our nation and the world!

    This is the Silver Bullet that the Administration has been looking for.

    Comment by hal — October 29, 2009 @ 5:06 pm

  5. […] pm Following Scientific American’s foray into the arena of grand, green projects, which I looked at a couple of days ago, I see that, in New Scientist, Fred Pearce has been looking at the Desertec plan to bring solar […]

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  6. […] PV on peoples’ roofs, for reasons that anyway make no sense, as I’ve noted several times […]

    Pingback by FIT Farmers « Uncharted Territory — October 22, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

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