Rutgers University professor Clinton Andrews and colleagues at Rutgers ran the numbers on a thought experiment and came up with some surprises.

The question in the thought experiment: Imagine if your country had an unlimited budget but a limited amount of land: what renewable energy has the most potential?

The results are simple, perhaps too simple, and point out some challenges. The information used here is from a piece by Martin LaMonica at CNET. Andrews presented an early version of the forthcoming paper at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy conference in Cambridge, Mass, Monday May 31, 2010.

First a look at the graph that shows the percent of the earth’s land that would be taken for energy production. While the numbers are arguable and the positions among the candidates debatable, the graph is illustrative from a human social perspective in the question, what should be developed first as the land area required is concerned.

Land Use for Energy by Clinton Andrews. Click image for more info.

The second matter would be to look at the green lines of current area in crops and all current human uses of land.  As expressed from the total of earth’s land area these two numbers, just over 10 and 30 percent, seem to leave lots of land available.  But take out deserts, semi-submerged, very steep, cold and frozen over etc, the total of 100% to useable is going to shrink back to closer to the 30 percent or so that human life uses now.

Below the green lines is where the confusion lies.  At soy based biodiesel there is no chance that soy will grow over 100% of the planet’s land area.  Nor is diesel going to be 100% of the fuel used for energy production.  The same reasoning applies right up to ethanol from sugar cane. That doesn’t mean the crops shouldn’t be pursued as fuel stores of energy, but it does illuminate that as always before and forever to come, fuels and foods are the same whether burned in a human body cell or in a vehicle.  Humanity has been choosing use from the wild and agriculture for centuries between food and fuel – this will not change.

Above the green line the formidable opportunities are shown and where public interest needs much more focus.  It comes as a surprise that Andrews and his colleagues found wind at about 8% to get to 100% of the energy demand.  Hydropower too, which in many views is essentially fully developed now, looks to come in about 7%.

The surprise is that petroleum and natural gas take as much land as they do.  Perhaps even more interesting is that solar photovoltaic fits between them with all three in the ±5% range.

It gets more interesting – coal needs so little land, and a bit more would fully fill the solar thermal land requirement.  Desert land nations – heads up – the energy reserve in heat available is incredible.

For much of the land mass of the planet, geothermal is a huge opportunity.  Science is racing to exploit the planet’s heat reserve, but the funding isn’t there in depth or the educational resources to develop and fill out an industry.   It’s going to take much longer than necessary – the breadth and depth of understanding the potential of geothermal over time for the public at large isn’t being taught.

The top line goes to nuclear – with a nearly invisible footprint on the graph.  Nuclear is also the most contentious in the media, pressure and special interest groups and inevitably, political oversight.  Fission using the heavy actinides of uranium and plutonium are in fact unnecessary; thorium can substitute safely and dispense with the waste on hand now.  Fusion, while not in hand will be – someday.

Moreover, nuclear reactors could be sized to meet the demand cutting the costs of energy transmission line installations.

Andrews said during his presentation, “It’s not so much the land that we need for producing the energy. It’s how we move (it) to where we want to use it. I think the siting challenges, especially for transmission, are even more daunting (than the Telecommunications Act of 1996). Those are hard and nobody wants to see them.”

For the thought experiment Andrews and his colleagues calculated the amount of land that would be required to generate all of the world’s current energy demand with one type of energy source and how much land would be required to meet 10 percent. With that and assuming slow growth in energy demand, the authors place all energy sources into three categories.

In the small footprint category is nuclear, geothermal, coal, solar thermal technology, and natural gas. Although best suitable for certain places, geothermal is a good candidate for expansion because geothermal plants might have about the same footprint as oil and gas drilling, since they all use much of the same technology, or so the academics think.  In fact the drilling will be very different and the hard rock drilling is just getting into sophisticated development.

The difficulty lies in moving the energy.  Nuclear can be small and incremental, geothermal might be applied in some places at low cost and other places would be cost prohibitive.  Solar thermal at temperatures for high output is going to be far from consumers.

If its energy production, the costs only start with production – transmission will be the investment and aesthetics issue.

If its fuel production in consideration, the products in the graph are liquid or gaseous and the gas could be compressed or liquefied.  Moving product from productive areas to consumers is for the most part a sunk investment already.

The paper’s team of authors perhaps didn’t mean for the illustration of the graph to go quite this way.  But for taxpayers, ratepayers and consumers the costs pushed off to you are going to be based in the information the graph shows and allows a little thought to infer.

Nuclear, be it fission or fusion by any fuel and geothermal should be the primary focus of research investment to produce energy and the sooner the better.  Politicos should think about being a part of the solution instead the major problem.

For fuels the list from top to bottom needs supported respectively and add in other microorganism prospects as well.  Algae potential might be a fourth or less as land demanding as sugar cane for example.

On the flip side – there isn’t an energy crisis or fuel crisis.  But there sure is a crisis in the publics’ mind of understanding the expeditious and economical routes to getting low cost and secure energy and fuel supplies.

Thanks to LaMonica and Andrews, the graph is very informative – it’s its own thought experiment, too.  Please add your observations in the comments!


14 Comments so far

  1. Al Fin on June 8, 2010 9:55 AM

    I look at Andrews’ chart as a rough sketch, which can be useful, but which can also be deceptive.

    As an academic, Andrews is prone to ignore the practical realities of some forms of energy — particularly ones he may view more favourably. Let him actually build a profitable large scale solar thermal or wind power enterprise — without using government subsidies.

    If a technology cannot be utilised economically without leaning on government handouts, it does not matter how much or how little land it hypothetically would use.

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