Monday, August 21, 2023

Energy: "The Power Of Power Density"

If we are in a climate emergency we should start acting like we are in a climate emergency and the first step, in democracies at any rate, is upgrading the energy knowledge of the general populace. And the next step is mining. There is no way around it.

From Robert Bryce's substack, (energy, power innovation, politics), August 13:

Paul Krugman hypes renewables in the New York Times, but the Iron Law of Power Density won’t be repealed

In an August 7 article, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman claimed that “technological progress in renewable energy has made it possible to envisage major reductions in emissions at little or no cost in terms of economic growth and living standards.”

He continued, writing that last year’s Inflation Reduction Act “consisted almost entirely of carrots — tax credits and subsidies for green energy. Yet thanks to the revolution in renewable technology, energy experts believe that this all-gain-no-pain approach will have major effects in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

That last line included a link to an analysis done by academics at Princeton University. They claim that massive deployments of wind and solar energy — deployments that would require covering state-sized tracts of land with wind turbines and solar panels and doubling or tripling the size of our high-voltage transmission system — could result in significant cuts in emissions. Krugman went on to claim that “the climate war is now part of the culture war” and that “right-wingers” are “rejecting the science in part because they dislike science in general.” All of this, he avers, is part of a years-long conspiracy to prevent action on climate that’s being led by “fossil-fueled think tanks.”  

Before going further, it must be noted that in his piece, “Climate Is Now A Culture War Issue,” Krugman failed to mention the disgraceful role that two richly funded climate NGOs played in increasing New York’s reliance on fossil fuels. Not a word about former New York governor Andrew Cuomo and how he and his co-conspirators at Riverkeeper and Natural Resources Defense Council forced the premature closure of the nuclear reactors at the Indian Point Energy Center in 2021, a move that resulted in increased generation from natural gas-fired power plants and a huge jump in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. (It must also be noted that presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was a key player in Riverkeeper’s push to shutter Indian Point.) Nor did Krugman mention that Riverkeeper and Natural Resources Defense Council callously cheered the closure of the plant in the pages of the New York Times.

But I digress.

None of the claims in Krugman’s August 7 column are new. For years, academics from elite universities, climate activists, leaders of the anti-industry industry, and legacy media outlets (and the New York Times in particular) have been peddling shopworn claims about “all-gain-no-pain” renewables.

You’ve no doubt heard them: renewables are cheap and getting cheaper, wind and solar energy are the future, and the main reason that conservatives and knuckle-dragging rural landowners are opposing massive renewable projects all across America is that they don’t understand “science.”

That’s the spin. Here’s the reality: the conspiracy against wind and solar is one of basic math and simple physics. It’s not conservatives who are wrong on “science,” it’s liberals like Krugman and his myriad allies in the climate claque who refuse to recognize (or even discuss) the physical limits on our energy and power networks.

The shape and size of our energy systems are not being determined by political beliefs about climate change. Instead, those systems are ruled by the Iron Law of Power Density which says: the lower the power density, the greater the resource intensity. This can easily be seen in the graphic above. It includes a screen grab from a 2021 International Energy Agency report on the mineral intensity of various methods of electricity generation. The mineral intensity of offshore wind, including huge amounts of copper and zinc, is shocking: roughly 15,400 kilograms per megawatt of generation capacity. That is roughly 13 times more than the amount needed for natural gas-fired generation (1,148 kg) and six times more than what’s needed for a coal plant (2,479 kg).

The Iron Law of Power Density explains why Siemens Energy just reported a $2.4 billion loss on its wind business in the latest quarter. It explains why offshore wind projects here in the U.S. and in Europe, are being canceled left and right. It also explains why, all around the world, rural communities and landowners are fighting back against the landscape-blighting encroachment of massive wind and solar projects.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Power density is perhaps the most important, and least understood, metric in physics. Power density is the essential metric for understanding our energy and power systems. Indeed, the global history of energy over the last 250 years, from the steam engines designed by Newcomen and Watt to the latest nuclear reactor designs and computer chips, can be grasped by seeing them through the lens of power density. So what is power density?....


Another person who covered the same issues, albeit without Paul Krugman making an appearance, was David J.C. MacKay. 

Here is one of our many posts on him, October 31, 2021:

"Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air"

....The key point is that in the current discussion of changing humanity's sources of energy there is a great glossing-over of just how difficult the transition will be; You end up with a lot of pressure groups, poseurs and posturing politicians who: state the problem - do a lot of hand-waving - paint the picture of  the 'broad sunlit uplands' at the end of the journey. The people who do this tend not to be very accomplished in mathematics, physics or engineering. Hence the handwaving in the middle.

For years when folks wanted to engage me in talk of energy and energy policy I would ask them if they were familiar with David MacKay and had they read his book "Sustainable Energy – without the hot air"

If they had not, I would recommend they read the book and continue our conversation at a later date, MacKay could teach them more in a couple hours than they could glean from me in a couple weeks. 

He was more formally known as Sir David John Cameron MacKay Kt, FRS, FInstP, FICE, Regius Professor of Engineering at the University of Cambridge and was Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. Before he became the first Regius Professor of Engineering at Cambridge he hung his hat at the University's Cavendish Laboratory where 29 people who went on to win Nobel Prizes, mainly in physics but also the odd chemist, had also hung out over the years.

The gist of his book is that the coming transition will not be easy.
The Economist called it a "tour de force", the journal Science "... a cold blast of reality ... a must-read analysis..."

You should read it. And there is really no reason not to. Concurrent with it being published, Dr. MacKay put it online on a dedicated website: "".

And if the reader is interested we put some of our earlier links in 2016's "Energy and Artificial Intelligence Expert Professor Sir David J.C. MacKay Has Died, Age 48".