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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Can Solar Power Solve the Coal Problem?

A New York Times article discusses the need to transition from a coal-based economy to a solar energy future

Coal miners in South Durham, England, in 1871. This engraving by M. W. Ridley is titled “Pitmen Hewing the Coal.”
Image Credit: M.W. Ridley (1871)

I recently read a New York Times article on the coal problem. In the future, the article notes, we won’t be able to burn coal at our current rate, so there is an obvious need to make a transition to alternative sources of energy. According to the Times article, the most likely replacement for coal is solar energy.

Because most industrial economies currently depend heavily on coal, the Times notes that the economic effects of this transition will be perilous. On the bright side, the article cites recent “revolutionary” technical improvements in solar technology that will ease our transition to a solar future, noting that engineers have developed solar power plants that can produce over 7 watts per square foot of collector. “The new power is as exhaustless as the sun itself,” the Times gushed.

Oh — I forgot to check the newspaper’s date

Here’s the kicker: the article was published on September 10, 1868. That’s right — over 145 years ago. I came across the article by chance, when I entered the word “solar” into the search box on the New York Times web site, and then (on a whim) clicked “oldest to newest.”

The article (“The Coal Problem and Solar Engines”) is so interesting that I have reprinted a good chunk of it on this page (see the sidebar below).

“The Coal Problem and Solar Engines”

[Editor’s note: The following article appeared in the September 10, 1868 issue of The New York Times.]About two years ago, a very earnest discussion, as our readers will remember, sprang up in England on the prospective exhaustion of the coal-beds of Great Britain and Europe. Not only the scientific Press, but the literary and social — the Saturday Review, the Spectator, the Times, the magazines — took it up. Sir Wm. Armstrong and other…

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  1. user-963341 | | #1

    Nothing new under the sun
    This is disturbing for a couple of reasons. First, the fact that this was talked about shortly after the Civil War and we still haven't dealt with it. Second, perhaps we might consider that even with our best efforts there might still be a long slog ahead of us. We might not have utopia ready in our lifetimes.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Bill Smith
    We can choose to be optimists or we can choose to be pessimists. Even if you can't manage optimism -- only realism -- there's always work to be done, Bill. We all have to do what we can to move the our economy and culture in the right direction.

  3. user-963341 | | #3

    Aiming for realism
    I didn't mean to sound pessimistic, although it did come across that way. Thanks for reminding me to check the tone before posting.

    Actually I am fairly optimistic, but over the years I've adjusted my thinking to allow for the fact that change sometimes takes generations. I was trying to make that point but was quite clumsy in the attempt.

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Bill Smith
    No, your comments weren't clumsy at all. You're quite right that our society has a slow pace of change, and that climate change is now imposing a schedule that our society probably won't be nimble enough to keep up with.

    So my optimism isn't based on data. It has other origins.

    I respect the pessimists.

  5. user-1135248 | | #5

    reality check
    David MacKay offers a pretty solid analysis of just how *much*
    solar we'd need to make up the difference in his online book
    "with hot air". Martin's referenced that site before, I think..

    I've passed through an awful lot of completely useless land in
    the US Southwest, which is basically just dead -- not suitable
    for ag or livestock, mostly devoid of interesting life, and about
    as sun-baked as it gets all day every day except maybe for short
    bursts in monsoon season. Why aren't we carpeting that with
    PV and using some of the land left over for researching
    better utility-grade storage facilities?? Making those vast
    basins a little more shiny on the surface would not detract in
    the slightest from the overall physical grandeur of them and
    the surrounding mountains.

    The storage problem is an important one to solve, as everything
    that exists right now appears to be either inefficient, resource
    hungry, expensive, hard to scale, etc etc.


  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Response to Hobbit
    In an earlier blog ("Understanding Energy Units") I addressed your question about "just how much solar we'd need." In that blog, I wrote:

    "The average American uses about 12,000 watts — six times the world average. In Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, the figure is well under 500 watts per person.

    "It’s hard to understand the quantity of the energy used by a typical U.S. family, but here’s a mental exercise that helps: how big a photovoltaic array would be needed to provide all of the energy used by the average American?

    "Let’s assume the American lives in Chicago. A person using 12,000 watts requires 288 kWh/day or 105,120 kWh/year. In Chicago, that much energy could be produced by a 90-kW PV array. The cost to install such a PV system would be about $405,000. A family of three would require an array costing $1.2 milllion.

    "Of course, this PV array would produce enough energy to cover every aspect of one’s life, including one’s transportation and a personal share of the energy used for U.S. manufacturing."

    A 90-kW PV array requires about 9,000 square feet -- an area measuring 95 ft. by 95 ft.

  7. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #7

    It's not a 1:1source fuel replacement strategy
    Burning coal a 15% efficiency in a steam engine or oil in a 20-25% efficient rakine-cycle automotive engine isn't going to have the same PV-watt requirements as the source fuel.

    Taken as a whole, 60% the US grid-loads about 60% of the metered & paid for power ends up being wasted.

    Exergy- (essentially efficiency at the load) matters too.

    Efficiency is first/best/cheapest solution to all of it, rendering the XX square feet of PV per person (and the $/space costs thereof) to replace fossil fuel use calculation pretty silly. This has been known by anybody doing the real math on energy policy (and carbon-policy) for decades, but outside of certain circles it's been largely lip-service. Time will tell if the current US Energy Secretary is just giving lip service as well.

    A large chunk of green building is about building-envelope efficiency, and the primary energy of heating/cooling/lighting buildings is about 40% of the overall energy use in the US ( ), and an important place to focus attention. But there are PLENTY of places to chisel away at the other 60% too, and a large fraction of the efficiency improvement is still going to be cheaper than the powerplant (any type) required for supporting that load.

    The devil is in the details of how to get there though, and some of those details don't mesh well with every utility's business model either. As long as energy is cheap, most people don't really care, and efficiency investments by homeowners/consumers need a (as measured by purchasing behavior) discount rate in a present value calculation well into double digit percentages, whereas utility/energy companies are willing to make the long-term investments with low mid single digit discounting. Figuring out how to make the efficiency investing more rational so that it works in everyone's best interest is not at all obvious to the behavioral economists or policy wonks. The rooftop PV solar third party ownership and power purchase agreement tricks work pretty well for photon-farming the roof top, but doesn't touch what's under the roof.

  8. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Response to Dana Dorsett
    I hope you'll give me credit for realizing that our energy future will not require us to replace our coal plants with PV on a 1 KW for 1 KW basis, and for also realizing that PV can't fulfill all of the functions of a dependable supply of baseload electricity.

    The point of the mental exercise of imagining how big an American family's PV array would have to be to satisfy our energy-hog lifestyle was to cause us to step back and ask, "Wow! Is there any way I can get by with a smaller energy footprint?"

    As someone who lives off the grid, and has to balance my energy use with my energy production, I am very aware of the "more-PV-versus-more-efficient-appliances" tradeoffs.

  9. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #9

    Response to Martin
    I of course get that you (more than most) understand it, but wanted it to be explicit. Nobody really knows how much new generation (of any type) will be required to maintain the current standard of living in a growing US economy, since it's a very elastic squishy number.

    A large part of the reason the nuclear industry has failed to launch is that it's expensive and takes a long time to build, which is a very risky and inflexible base-load generation investment in an electricity market with tepid-at-best growth in baseload demand. Even in growing states like Texas, with growing baseload but also a large and growing wind generation, baseload generator output is being displaced. And with increasing intelligence to the grid managing the loads is cheaper & easier than building peak-load generators. If Moniz is able to put (our) money where his mouth is on the efficiency front it could be literally DECADES before any new baseload generation needed to be built, but it could also cut into rate of wind & solar implementation. Efficiency is still by far the cheapest thing going.

    And in that time frame "decades" could even turn into "never", as better and more flexible grid storage comes online. The liquid metal battery stuff is looking pretty promising, both cheap and scalable: We'll see. The market for scalable grid storage in Europe is large and increasing, and the recently enacted California Assembly Bill 2514 mandating 1.3GWH of distributed grid storage by 2020 guarantees a nice boost in domestic market for grid storage. The way the grid works in 2030 won't look very much like it did in 1990, and it'd not at all clear that grid power needs to grow much (if at all) to sustain the US economy & lifestyle, even as parts of the transportation sector become electrified. The impediments are more political than technical & economic- business models in the energy sector are undergoing much needed revision right now, but not everywhere, and not at the same rate.

  10. user-946029 | | #10

    Memory Lane
    This was the best article I've read on this site. Loved the trip down a sepia-toned memory lane.

    It seems the younger members of society are quick to label something with superlatives; "Best ever" or "Most innovative" or "Unprecedented". Sometimes it's good to be reminded of our history as a civilization (both good and bad).

    And I too find it sad that 145 years later, we're still trying to wean ourselves off coal. I sure hope it's not another 145 years before we finally decide the time is right.

  11. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #11

    Response to Dana Dorsett
    Thanks for your comments; I agree with your analysis.

    I think that the (fast-changing) introduction of distributed sources of renewable energy is already disruptive, and will be increasingly disruptive -- with mostly positive consequences. The cost of renewable energy is dropping rapidly, and we don't yet know all of the ways that that fact will change our energy landscape.

  12. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #12

    Response to Mike Collignon
    Thanks for the feedback.

    I share your interest in recognizing the humanity and creativity of our forebears. Even back in 1868, engineers were wrestling with some of the same issues we face today. This fact allows us to feel a human connection with our great-great-grandparents, who had some of the same hopes and dreams that we do.

  13. Brent_Eubanks | | #13

    Magnitude of our energy use

    Your example of the PV requirements to offset personal energy use is a good one for establishing the scale of the problem. Let me offer you another one.

    Consider the lowly kilowatt-hour.

    A human being can produce about 100 watts, give or take, of mechanical output on a sustained basis. For most people, this represents working really hard but a fit person can probably sustain that output for many hours.
    (As a point of reference, Lance Armstong was clocked outputting about 500 watts(!) during the Tour, but he only sustained that level of output for 20 minutes, on a climb. And that may actually exceed the bounds of unaugmented human capability - It's not clear whether that would be possible without chemical enhancement.)

    So, a person working really hard for a whole day (10 hours) will produce 1 - ONE - kWh of mechanical energy.

    The average American uses 7 kWh/day just of electricity. If you add in other sources of energy, it works out to something like 300 kWh/day/person.

    So each and every one of us has something on the order of several hundred "energy slaves" doing our bidding.

  14. user-963733 | | #14

    History rhymes if not repeats
    Thank you VERY much for pointing out one more folly of the past. Has anyone at all noticed a parallel with the now-tarnishing Peak Oil thinking?

  15. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #15

    Response to Mark Johnson
    It's still a little early to determine the timing of Peak Oil. In 145 years, it's possible that analysts will laugh at those who thought that Peak Oil might occur in 2015. Or not.

    It's certainly true that it's hard to predict the size of the world's fossil fuel resources. However, an increasing number of analysts are now pointing out that to prevent a climate catastrophe, we need to have the self-restraint NOT to burn all of the oil and coal that we are capable of pulling out of the ground.

    If we can enact regulations that help us pull back from the edge of the climate cliff, it may turn out that the size of the planet's fossil fuel reserves is irrelevant -- because burning those reserves would be suicidal.

  16. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #16

    Peak oil, peak car, peak oil relevance...
    The easy stuff has been had, the energy return on energy investment (EROEI) of tight-oil plays is less than 20 and falling (the easy stuff was 100:1, the mid-20th century plays were in the 50:1 range). Silicon PV is about 10:1 and rising, with a soon-to-come step function as the better kerfless thin-silicon technologies hit full production stride.

    The US consumer has long driven the world oil demand, but that is turning very quickly now that there are fewer cars on the road (driving fewer miles per car), and the booming economies of China and India become the big-dogs slurping at the every tighter oil. Most credible estimates place peak-car in the US somewhere during 2006, and peak US oil consumption in a similar time frame:

    Barring a dramatic cut in the world price of oil, US consumption is projected to decline a fairly steady (and historically rapid) pace, as the transportation infrastructure evolves (and not just with personal cars.)

    Oil is a commodity, and while the price elasticity has been pretty firm, at the recent few years ~$100/bbl average the effects on consumption are being felt, and those with used that can be shifted to other sources have begun (and will continue) to shift to cheaper, less price-volatile options. We'll never run out of oil, we'll simply run out of interest in chasing it for use as a fuel. The party already over for oil at the new-oil EROEI- the next couple of decades will be dimming the lights and a rousing chorus of "Is that all their is?" It will take awhile for the energy infrastructure to fully shift, but oil is destined to becoming irrelevant at some price-point. Even the ongoing price volatility is enough for prudent investors to start shifting away to other sources. The price of oil basically quadrupled in real terms in the past decade, which has bumped the production rate slightly (tight oil & tar sands are now economic), but has had a more dramatic effect on shifting the rising energy demand to other sources, and that shift has really only begun.

    Oil as a space heating fuel is VERY economically displaced by air-source heat pumps at current heating oil prices. There's no point in continuing to compete with the world price for motor fuels for applications like space heating- a farmer with a diesel tractor in Indonesia will pay more for (and get better use out of) that fractional-barrel of oil than a homeowner in Maine. Electric & hybrid cars already make economic sense for many people & many situations too.

    The US market for oil is big, but no longer the biggest, and it's unlikely that the US can shrink consumption fast enough to cut the world-price of oil in the face of growing oil use in the developing economies, the way it did back in the early 1980s. But it's also pretty clear that the developing world's thirst for oil isn't as price-inelastic as the already-rich countries. They're selling more electric cars in Asia than the Americas (which is just part of why the Korean-built Chevy Spark EV is only available in California and Oregon- there is bigger demand for the technology at home and in neighboring China.) The grid-fuel-source-to-pavement efficiency of and electric car isn't any better than a rankine cycle liquid-fuel car if the grid source is ~30% efficiency fossil-thermal, but the EROEI of low-efficiency fossil-fired grid power is also declining, as the EROEI of wind & solar power keep climbing. With the implmentation of distributed storage and ever cheaper PV there is a tsunami coming that is destined to rock the power utility business (the first swells are already apparent), and with the further electrification of the transportation sector worldwide, the outlook for oil by 2050 isn't very clear at all.

    The relevance of oil has already peaked- we're just too near to that peak to tell how far and how fast it will change, but change it must. When oil hits $200/bbl it's simply no longer a satisfactory/useful/affordable energy source. (Some would argue that at $100/bbl it's already done-for, which it mostly-is.) As individuals the sooner we make the necessary changes in equipment/habit, the less disruptive it is for us all.

  17. MarcYoung | | #17

    Off topic - Martin

    How can I send you a question/comment re another relevant green building topic?

    Thx, Mitchell

  18. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #18

    Response to Mitchell Daniels
    The best place to post a question is on GBA's question and answer page:

    The best place to post a comment is at the bottom of the page that has the article that you wish to comment on. If you want to post a comment on a new theme, to suggest a new discussion, that may be posted on our Q&A page (link above), which also serves as the GBA forum.

    I prefer not to provide advice or individual consulting services by e-mail. However, if you have a message about GBA's services that you prefer to communicate privately, feel free to send me an e-mail:
    martin [at] greenbuildingadvisor [dot] com.

  19. MarcYoung | | #19

    Thanks Martin
    I just posted on the Q&A page.

  20. thoughtful | | #20

    Optimism and Political Vision or Why I Beleive we can Dump Coal
    Excellent article and commentary!

    This is admittedly mostly anecdotal observation (not to mention philosophical) but...

    It seems if we as a culture develop a political vision with optimism we can collectively solve most any problem and create a thriving economy along the way. I think this holds true with our making an energy transition to renewables.

    Two examples are WWII and the space race (any more?).

    In WWII the US manufacturing economy was transformed from civilian to military in a matter of months. As well previously unimaginable technologies were developed very quickly and creatively.

    Similar things happened during the space race and both times led to booming economies with good quality jobs and better quality of life in general.

    The climate crisis might be the first time we can bring this optimism and political vision together truly worldwide and for a non-military purposes.

    As Einstein said, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." As well I don't think we can, right now, fully imagine all the solutions and technologies that will solve this crisis we are facing. We can be fairly confident that we can collectively solve the problem if we undertake the task with collective vision and optimism. We can also be quite confident that by undertaking this task we will provide a better life for more people in the process. It will likely even be fun and engaging. Solving complex problems is what humans do best!

    As in both periods of history we will have to make sacrifices and change our outlook on humanity but in the end we will all see this as great progress.

    My two cents worth...

  21. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #21

    Response to Garth Hood
    I agree with you that the transition from coal to renewable sources of energy will face more political hurdles than technical hurdles.

    We can look to countries that have done a much better job than we have: Germany and Denmark come to mind. By contrast, efforts at addressing this issue in the U.S., Canada, and Australia have been failing dismally. The window for climate action is now rapidly closing. What we need now, politically speaking, is something in the category of a miracle.

  22. user-757117 | | #22

    Response to Martin.

    What we need now, politically speaking, is something in the category of a miracle.

    Unfortunately, I think you're right.
    And even if that miracle is forthcoming, well, "interesting" times ahead anyway.

  23. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #23

    Response to Lucas Durand
    Climate change is already happening. A few business leaders (especially in the insurance industry) are paying attention, but most aren't. The ostriches have their heads in the sand right now.

    Michael Specter wrote an interesting article in a recent issue of the New Yorker, profiling David Friedberg. In an aside, Friedberg mentions that it's only a matter of time before the U.S economy takes a huge hit because of "markdowns" in the valuations of real estate in places like Florida (which will be underwater) and Kansas (which is unlikely to be a good place to grow corn in the future). Friedberg predicts that these "markdowns" will make our recent housing crisis look like small potatoes.

  24. user-757117 | | #24

    Response to Martin.
    Yes, I see climate change in my own yard every spring now as wood ticks (and now even deer ticks with the lyme disease they may carry) that never used to come this far north make themselves at home - not consistently cold enough in the winter to kill them all off anymore I guess.
    An acquaintance of mine who lives much further north was recently telling me that the native hunters there have in recent years had to give up caching meat in the (not-so) permafrost - something they've been doing for time out of mind.

    Things are happening quickly and inexorably outside the human purview.
    The consequences that are already "baked into the cake" to this point will be more than enough to make life "interesting" for generations I think.

    And yet, cultural and political change proceed at a glacial pace...
    My "inner Spock" finds this a truly fascinating experiment...

    * Edited to add some links.

  25. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #25

    Response to Lucas Durand
    Like you, I always thought I was north of the tick line, too. This piece of land has been tick-free since I moved here in 1975, until just last summer, when ticks first showed up.

    Within just a couple of more decades, the climate of Vermont may resemble the current climate of North Carolina. Such a change will require entirely new species of forest trees to take over, and many Vermont species to disappear.

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