Hurray! We are not headed for a disaster of biblical proportions

Ramez Naam says: "Back in November, you posted about investor Jeremy Grantham’s argument that ‘we’re headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.’

"I have a rebuttal up at Business Insider, based on my new book on saving the planet [The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet], that I thought you might in interested in."

Tons of Energy Available What about the world’s energy supplies? Energy, as the late economist Julian Simon said, is the ‘master resource’. With enough energy you can solve a tremendous number of other problems. The flip side is also true. Spikes in the price of oil cause recessions.

Fortunately, energy is available in huge quantities. The total amount of energy we use every year – from coal, oil, natural gas, hydro, nuclear, and everything else – is dwarfed by the amount of solar energy hitting the planet each year. How dwarfed? The solar input is 5,000 times greater than the amount we use from all those sources, combined.

In fact, it would take only about 0.3% of the Earth’s land area to meet all of humanity’s energy needs through 2030 via solar power.

Grantham Is Wrong — We Are Not Headed For A Disaster Of Biblical Proportions


  1. The hell you say…why in the blazes am I cluttering up my space with all these bullets and canned goods?!

    If Peak Energy is a sham…I guess the best I can hope for is a Superflu or global nuclear conflict in my lifetime. 

    Otherwise I’m gonna be awful disappointed…

    1.  Well, you could bring the canned goods to your local food bank.

      Then, when everyone but your family  become the waking dead in the inevitable zombie apocalypse, the ones you helped feed will have some residual fat on ’em, and thus be slower and easier to pick off with those bullets!

    2. If Peak Energy is a sham…I guess the best I can hope for is a Superflu or global nuclear conflict in my lifetime.

      Yeah, I peaked a little while ago and nothing too shabby happened.  There’s always asteroids, though.

  2. It has been obvious for years that solar energy is going to overtake fossil fuels in cost, and by that we tend to mean only the economic cost. But what is really delicious will be not pouring that money into the black hole of religious theocracies and other dictatorships. I can’t wait to see the new political landscape! And the reduced cost to the environment, and the reduced social cost when there are no more coal mining towns… it goes on and on.

    If we were smart we would start a Manhattan Project sized solar energy initiative today. There may not be anything more important or effective that we can do immediately.

    1. So what you’re saying is we will start seeing religious theocracies and other dictatorships run out of money and try to fund themselves on Kickstarter? 

      Because that would be a lot of fun.

      1. Fair point, but there’s enough desert in the stable places (US, China, India) as well.  Moreover, it’s not the ‘desert’ part, it’s the ‘lots of sunshine + infrastructure’ part.  Even places with a little less sunshine have kickass infrastructure (Japan, Europe) that more than makes up for the gap in reduced photons.

        The real upsetting part will be the radical devolution of the utilities, as rooftop systems become sufficient to power the buildings underneath them.

        1. Well I was just wondering about doing that on the top of my house! 

          I wonder what it costs these days to get that set up?

          1. It depends where you live – and I’m not talking about subsidies. If you’re in a state that serves the answer is $0. Their business is to put panels on your roof that they own, not you. They maintain them. They meter your power and charge you 15% less than your current utility rates, locked in for the lifetime of the system now matter what happens to fossil fuel prices. You can buy the panels after 5 years if you want to..

    2. The next 10 years of installations, in just the U.S., will easily exceed the Manhattan project. Probably 5 years.

      (billions of watts per year at ~$1 per watt, and we’re just recently hitting unsubsidized commercial viability. I’m assuming that the internets is getting the Manhattan project right at about $26 billion.)

      1. Most of the manufacturing and installation costs will go to American workers, so what’s the problem? And the savings of various kinds are huge too. Just putting solar panels on home rooftops will save vast sums by not losing energy in long distance power lines. Sunny places like Los Angeles could convert to electric cars, and yes it would take a while, but again the money goes into our economy. And don’t forget that the current cost of a war for oil is somewhere around a trillion dollars!

        1.  It’s interesting that 2 of you interpreted my comment as slightly negative.

          To the contrary, I was pointing out that you can get what you want by sitting back and watching (that is, a Manhattan project sized initiative, the price is right, buyers are lining up).

          1. Lol, sorry – usually when people compare things to the Manhattan project they are using that as a negative comparison.

      2. The initial costs are high, but solar panels aren’t an appliance – they actually generate a valuable commodity. The Net Present Value of a PV system (including installation costs, and discounted future revenue) is a positive number – it makes you money, rather than costing you money.

        1. You can run a block off one house here in Palm Springs. My neighbors financed their solar panels with a home loan. It only took about five years to pay it off. And that’s considering the fact that you DON”t get any financial credit for supplying more energy than you use. If homeowners were actually paid for what they’re supplying (instead of just getting $0 bills), those of us who live in the desert would have an excellent incentive to supply electricity to large chunks of territory that don’t have 355 days of sun per year.

    3. The Manhattan Project is too small a comparison by at least an order of magnitude, closer to 2 orders. U.S. primary energy consumption is about 4TW, average electricity use 400GW. With solar at 25% capacity factor and $1/W peak we’d need $1.6 trillion total spent to go solar in total, plus a brand new electric grid, plus several trillion spent on grid-scale storage. Replaceing the rest of our energy use with renewables – transportation, industrial heat production, etc. – is a much larger problem.
      This says *absolutely nothing* about whether we can, will, or must achieve a goal of this scale to continue as a civilization. In fact, most of these “expenditures” actually have net negative cost even in the near term despite the sticker price – and any business with a view beyond the next quarter or politician beyond the next term should be able to see that if they bothered to look. We can, with the technology we have now. We must, within my lifetime.  Will we?

      1. There is a fair chance, even in the near term, that technology advances are going to eat more of that $1.6 trillion figure than spending will.

        That is, $1 a watt looks like pessimistic estimate.

        1. $1/Watt isn’t an estimate. We’re already there, and yes, it will keep falling.

          What we also need is for installation costs to fall (already the majority even in commercial installations), and that is just getting started. I’ve also made no allowance for grid improvement or energy storage costs. 

    4. What people forget is that grid power and fuel for transportation are two wildly different things.  The US basically doesn’t use oil power for electricity on the grid.  It is like something 1% of the power from the grid comes from oil plants.

      This means that solar power is basically useless for solving the oil problem.  You can slurp the theoretical limit of the surface area of your car into solar cells, and it still isn’t going to be going anywhere quickly, much less powering an airplane.

      Now, if energy gets cheap enough, you can make your on fuel.  With enough energy you can do just about anything.  The problem is that it has to get a LOT cheaper.  Right now coal power, the cheapest stuff anyone has anywhere (and the US has the cheapest), is too expensive to waste on trying to make synthetic fuels for transportation.

      The other alternative is to plump your cars off of the grid.  This is harder, but battery tech is starting to catch up where it might not be insane.  This leads to the obvious problem that if you power the majority of the transportation on the grid, the grid in most places, but especially the US, is going to die.  There just isn’t anywhere near enough power.

      I’m not saying that the day isn’t coming, just that those nasty theocracies will be getting there money for a while long yet, and that the transition is going to have more to do with the cost of oil getting too high, than the cost of electricity getting cheap, and that that transition is going to fucking hurt economically.

  3. All these technologies are just delaying dealing with the ultimate issue, human population growth.

    1.  Contraceptives deal with that issue, and the article addresses declining population growth.

          1. Of course some have.

            However, other populations have stabilized without exceeding that limit and experiencing die-offs/other catastophes. (and sometimes they do it in the same way humans do vis-a-vis birth control)

            And if you’d read TFA, that is exactly the projection–not that we’ll keep growing forever, but that we’ll hit a natural population limit of our own volition.

            You can already see this happening in current population tracking (also in TFA) Malthusian panics make for interesting sci fi, but they aren’t terribly scientific. (in fairness, most of the interesting ones were published before we started to really level off)

    2. No.  It’s about material and energy consumption per person in developed nations, more than just population growth.  All those people living on less than 2 dollars a day are not using that much electricity, and usually live off of handouts and what we would call garbage (or recycling).  We need to consume less energy, consume less materials, and consume materials that require less energy to produce.

      1. We also need to keep those poor countries poor. Can’t be having them taking the world’s resources, can we?

  4. Instead of covering what natural landscapes we have left with solar panel farms I say put them over the roads and roofs in our urban environments.  We’d generated power, provide badly needed shade, and maybe cut down on the heat island effect in cities.

    1.  Roads and roofs both get dirty amazingly quickly. And in the case of roads, finding a solar panel material that can withstand being driven upon might be problematic.

      1. Most of that dirt comes from internal combustion engines, so getting rid of the cars will help a lot. And the have a train going from Belgium to Amsterdam with solar panels over the track, like a roof. 80 miles of solar roof powers the entire length of the line.

        1. Most of that dirt comes from internal combustion engines

          You have a citation for that?  Because frankly what I sweep off my driveway and everywhere else appears to be a lot like dust/dirt, not carbon.  Besides it’s is spring time in the US and in a weeks time everything outside has a yellow coating to it.

        2. And then you build one… between every major city in every country?  Replacing combustion engines with solar powered mass transit seems like a project of even bigger scope than this article is about.

    2.  we don’t have to cover all our natural landscape – the article shows that a tiny section of the American southwest could power enough PV solar to replace every calorie of fossil fuels.  Large-scale PV is  less expensive than roof top solar by orders of magnitude, and can be erected quickly.  It alone could solve our energy and AGW problems – and you would never see it unless you went to scrubland in the SW U.S.A.

  5. Sunshine is sustainable. The manufacture of solar cells is not. Solar power is not going to solve the energy crisis.

      1. There are plenty of things that weren’t true yesterday that continue not to be true today.  I don’t see any hint of a change in that trend.  This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong about solar power specifically but “it’s possible that unforeseen future technological achievements will solve these problems” is not really an argument.  In my experience optimists are frequently disappointed.

        1. You are right that technology doesn’t ever move as fast as people think it will, and at the scale that PV modules are made it will take decades at the soonest for new technology to become industry viable.

          But that doesn’t matter – conventional crystalline silicon modules are cheap, reliable, easy to manufacture, require little in the way of limited resources (mostly sand and aluminum) and have well understood long-term behavior making them a solid investment.

    1. The manufacture of any energy-producing infrastructure has associated costs. Breaking into the “popular energy technologies” band would be a huge win.  Oil and coal are primarily extraction industries, with manufacturing (of coil and oil plants, wells, and transportation) being a minor issue.  Solar is primarily manufacturing; the churn for productive solar installations may be higher than that of oil and coal, but without the extractive costs, ultimately the price will be lower.

      The alternative, of course, is to give up everything, and go back to living in caves.

      1. Indeed – people poo-poo solar for not being perfect, and thus cling to the much worse alternative. Yes there is an energy and environmental impact to the manufacture of solar panels, but over the lifetime of the product it is dramatically less than the impact of conventional sources of energy. There is always a cost, but we can somewhat control how much it hurts.

        It takes a lot of energy to manufacture, distribute and install solar panels, but they pay that back in 1-3 years. They don’t rely on many rare materials, so the extraction and refining is largely and energy process, rather than a limited resource extraction process.

    2. There are many different kinds of solar cells, some of which are even organic. Most cells are made from silicon, which is one of the most plentiful elements on earth. Your blanket condemnation is meaningless.

      1. The raw silicon isn’t the problem, it is the everything else.  Semiconductor processes that make solar cells and all of the ancillary electrical support equipment use rare elements, nasty fabrication processes, and all around are dangerous and messy things.  Now, we have gotten pretty good at doing this, but don’t delude yourself into thinking it is a perfectly feel good solution.  Depending upon which solar technology ends up being both cheap enough and efficient enough, you might find yourself staring down a nasty supply bottleneck due to some element or another being in short supply.

        I’m not suggesting that we let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  I am just pointing out that while solar technology is exciting and has a lot of hope, don’t delude yourself into thinking that you can snap your fingers and suddenly everyone will have piles of cheap and clean energy at no environmental or economic cost.

  6. Raw energy isn’t the problem.  Harvesting raw energy isn’t the problem.

    The lack of an infrastructure to store and transport that energy efficiently is the problem.

    Take a look at the infrastructure for electricity or gas/oil, for example.  Regional at best.  Cobbled together.  Requiring constant effort to keep things from going very bad very quickly.

    1. Infrastructure can be built, and hopefully, is less necessary with a more distributed power system. If electricity is being generated in more places, the power doesn’t need to be moved around so much.

      1. Infrastructure isn’t being built for the energy supplies we have now.  Sure, it would be great if we could invest in new infrastructure to support new energy industries, but my point is that there’s a lot to overcome there before it’s possible.

        Energy needs the equivalent of fiber optics linking every part of the country to each other through local and regional hubs.  Then, we can use sustainable techniques which are appropriate for each local environment…solar panels in Palm Springs vs. wind turbines off the New England coast, for example.

    2.  You have just mad a very good argument for a National Renewable Energy Utility.  national coordination, burden shared equally.  After payback in a few years – free electricity for all.

    3. Yeah I don’t think they are getting it.

      I’m pretty sure you are pointing out the fact that with solar you are only making power during daylight hours, yet we need power 24/7.  Sure every house could have a bank of batteries, but again how ecological is that?  Going further you could have local capacity in terms of kinetic storage or gravity based things like dams (or water towers), or one of the more exotic ideas of a superconducting storage ring.  Of course energy density in something like that could be an issue if cooling failed.

      Either way our entire infrastructure would have to modified to handle a purely solar environment.  I’m not saying it isn’t the direction we need to go, lets just be realistic about what we can do with it at the moment.

      1.  Yes, thanks.  We need consistently available power 24/7, and we need it even in places that don’t have good sun or wind or flowing water, or have those natural advantages but not every day.  We need to be able to store energy for (literally) a rainy day.  We need to be able to transfer it outside of a small local network, whether for storage, as a trade, or outright sale.  As you say, every house and every car maintaining its own energy via rechargeable batteries is ecologically wasteful, and not scalable in the long run.

        The change in perception needed isn’t just about convincing the public to try renewable energy: it’s about making it possible to truly rely on those energy sources.  Otherwise, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.

    1. Indeed the Energy Trap is a big deal. That graph of declining solar installation costs is predicated on the businesses that do that still being able to be profitable – ironically we still rely on conventional energy sources in order to do our work, and if those costs go up, solar prices would go up as well (at least in the short term). There is no way to avoid the initial pain of energy investment, but the longer we wait, the worse it gets.

      1.  Yeah, I don’t know how I feel about this stuff any more.  It seems like everyone wants to figure out how to switch over to alternative energy without any disruption in the current way we live our lives but I’m not sure that’s very realistic.  And any of what I suspect are needed changes will be opposed with cries of “Graargh, socialist marxist environmental fascism!”  I am rather pessimistic about our resolve as a society to brace for the pain of that initial investment until it is far too late.

        1.  That is why I am encouraging everyone to look at, and talk about, a national Public renewable energy utility.  Free electricity for all our needs should do wonders for popularity at the voting booth.

          1. Given that trillions have been spent securing the safety of the oil supply I suspect that it wont be that straight forward. And I am leaving out all the scare quotes and qualifiers to those big ideas for convenience and brevity, but the point remains.

  7. Ctrl+F “capacity factor” – 0 results.

    Sigh.  Solar power usually generates less than a third of its rated capacity thanks to cloudy days and night.  The cost per watt still has to fall another order of magnitude to be competitive. 

    I have no doubt we’ll get there some day, but even then we’ll need to have fossil generators to act as backup, or else massive battery banks, the likes of which have never been built before.  That requirement alone should double or triple the “cost per watt” figures for solar given (same for wind).

    We aren’t going to be saved by magic technology any time soon.

    1. Nothing magic about it – grid parity equations already take 8760 calculations and capacity factor into account.

      No one is suggesting that solar is the only thing we need – this is a straw man argument put forth by people who want to push the “it will be challenging, so we shouldn’t do anything” argument. Any serious improvements to the grid supply need to come from a variety of sources, with different needs and capacities, with grid communication to allow for deployment of additional resources when others are low on output.

      The reason solar gets a lot of attention is that it is the easiest of the new renewables to deploy – it can be put anywhere, at any time, for reasonable prices. It isn’t intended to supply 100% of our needs, and no one expects to build battery banks that store all the energy used at night – only small storage is required to buffer the hang-time needed to shift sources.

      1. Besides, daylight neatly matches up with times of maximum usage. Making the storage point somewhat academic.

        1. At current penetration rates, that’s true. Farther down the road it won’t be. But by intelligently combining solar, wind, and our existing hydro resources in the right proportions we can push to 20-40% renewables. Going farther will take a vastly expanded electric grid, and tremendous investment in grid-scale storage. Batteries for short bursts (seconds to minutes), compressed air and pumped hydro where geologically appropriate, thermal storage for 24 hr solar, etc. But this will require far more political will than any country has yet shown, and make the Manhattan Project look like a science fair project.

    1. By the gallon. ;)

      This graph is simplified because most people have a hard time thinking about the cost of a physical object being represented in the form of $/what the object will do over 20 years. Grid parity calculations already take into account the number of kWhs (energy quantity, like Joules) expected to be produced by a Watt of nameplate rating.

  8. Naam’s argument amounts to nothing more than “we can avoid driving off the cliff by accelerating towards it”. Pity he doesn’t seem to understand how exponential curves work, nor does he understand material flow rates. The central problem isn’t population growth, it’s economic growth. Even after the world population stabilizes sometime later this century, most of the world will still be chasing economic growth to reach the levels of prosperity we enjoy in the west. Given that nobody has ever managed to decouple economic growth from growth in carbon emissions (hint: it’s not just energy that’s the problem here), it’s hard to accept any magical thinking that technology will save us. Are people going to suddenly stop buying material goods as they get wealthier?

    I suggest Naam goes and studies the IPAT equation (, and in particular, its instantiation in the Kaya identity. Then he needs to work out how he’s going to balance the terms to allow for continued economic growth while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions to zero. Unfortunately, our entire economy is predicated on continuous growth (it’s basically a ponzi scheme, in which we pay ourselves in anticipation of future growth). Cutting resource depletion and carbon emissions cannot be done in a growing economy. Grantham is still right: either the economy crashes, or the climate does. In either case, governments fall, and western civilization declines.

    Naam needs to do more reading. I would suggest Tim Jackson’s “Prosperity without Growth” for the economic analysis, or the Huesemann’s “Techno-fix” for the critique of techno optimism.

    1. I spend quite a bit of time analyzing and debunking the IPAT equation in the book.   I enjoyed both Jackson and Haesemann’s books.  I agree with Huesemann that we need policy change, not just technological change – and the book deals extensively with the types of policy change we need.

      I also agree with Jackson that it’s possible to have prosperity without growth, but in today’s world, I see little way to get the bottom half of humanity to prosperity without significant growth.  Fortunately, with the right combination of policy change and technological innovation, substantial economic growth is possible, even as we reduce impact on the planet.

    2. What other carbon emissions sources are you referring to? He know how to generate electricity, keep houses warm, move from place to place, raise livestock and harvest crops, and reduce ores to metals without net CO2 emissions. We aren’t actually *doing* it in most cases, but we know how to, therefore it is achievable.

  9. So how’s that spreadsheet model working for you? The one where you feed in a value for yearly exponential growth in energy availability and then copy-paste it for the next hundred rows. Does it deal with the exponential growth in pollution and resource limits in other areas?

    To paraphrase Oliver Cromwell, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that your model may be of limited use in predicting objective reality.” and go back and re-read “The Limits to Growth”. JFC!

    1. No exponential trend lasts forever, of course.  Yet this particular exponential trend – in solar cost – is roughly 60 years old already.  Another 10 – 20 years will suffice for solar to undercut grid electricity throughout the large majority of the world.

      “The Limits to Growth” is a very interesting book, and one that takes an approach I admire, but the model in it can’t predict, for instance, that emissions of ozone-destroying CFCs (and lead, and benzene, and SO2, and dozens of other pollutants) have declined even as economic growth has continued.  Those emissions dropped because of policy changes, of course.  They dropped because we passed laws driving them down.  We need to do the same for greenhouse gas emissions and in other areas today.  But if we do so, we can indeed reduce damage to the planet even as we grow wealth (at least for the foreseeable future).

      1. There’s no doubt that cheap, renewable, plentiful electricity changes the game in all sorts of interesting ways. But if all it does is fuel continued exponential economic growth and business as usual then it’s just changing the cliff face for a brick wall at the end of the runway. We’re still accelerating towards the point where it all goes unstable and chaotic even if the details change a little.

        Yes, air quality in the WEIRD countries is better than it was in the 50s, but we’ve just outsourced our pollution as well as our manufacturing. From a global perspective, the world3 model standard run doesn’t look any better and is still on track. If you can reasonably argue for a better model then go for it.
        I applaud your aggressive optimism bias even as I find it hopelessly unrealistic. As always in these discussions, I’ve been waiting for the axe to fall since 1972. I still don’t know if it falls on my children or their great-great-grandchildren. Meanwhile, it looks like I’ll be able to enjoy it all while I can.

  10. Taking the graphical trend to heart, and expecting that within 10 years, the
    Average US Joe could afford to go off grid for almost 80% of his electrical needs, particularly in a home built to maximize energy need efficiency (ie. half buried in a hill with southern facing windows, etc.) the next crisis will most certainly surround fresh water access

    1. Particularly as we are forced to deal with the results of fraking.

      *new conspiracy theory* The natural gas/oil companies know that fresh potable water will be the next limited resource and so are intentionally polluting many sources to make it more scarce and drive up the price. Presumably, they already own aquifers and lakes.

  11. Maybe they could reprint that graph with a linear instead of an exponential y-axis so it was obvious just how much the price has come down.

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