Intermittency = Inefficiency

Why relying heavily on wind and solar energy would fly in the face of history
Intermittent renewables take us back in time, not forward. Photo: adamzoltan | Adobe Stock

The uniqueness of humanity is efficiency. We are not the strongest, the fastest, or the largest creatures on Earth, but we are the smartest. We know how to do more with less. Humans accomplish incredible feats that no one person could do alone. Efficiency—preventing the wasteful use of resources by doing more with less—has been at the root of all our revolutions.

The agricultural revolution forever separated us from all other living organisms. We stopped endlessly foraging, settled down, and farmed for an abundance of food. Thousands of years later, we discovered fossil fuels. The industrial revolution transformed how we make products and move around the world, even measuring cars in terms of how many horses they replace.

Only a couple of centuries later, the digital revolution came. Now we communicate across the globe at the speed of light, eclipsing the weeks it would take to carry a message across an ocean. Why send a steamship full of letters over the Atlantic when you could send them all through an undersea cable in less than a second?

The clean energy transition offers a new chapter in the saga of human efficiency, but it is not a given. The world needs to stop emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases and continue delivering more energy to more people. Yet the clean energy path we are currently on takes us backward in terms of overall efficiency, not forward.

To understand why, it helps to understand the evolution of modern energy. Coal, a hydrocarbon, overtook wood as the primary source of energy worldwide in the 19th and 20th centuries for good reason. At equivalent weights, coal contains three times as much energy as dry wood. The increase in efficiency has continued for hydrocarbons; oil is more efficient than coal, and natural gas is more efficient than oil.

And nuclear blows everything else out of the water. One nuclear reaction releases one million times more energy than a chemical reaction like coal, oil, or gas—six orders of magnitude more. Weather-dependent renewables like wind and solar, though, take us in the opposite direction.

For example, what would it take to replace a typical nuclear power plant? With natural gas and coal, it would take just a handful of power plants. Doing so with wind power alone would take almost 800 wind turbines. And to do so with solar, you would need a staggering 8.5 million panels.

The clean energy path we are currently on takes us backward in terms of overall efficiency, not forward.

Unfortunately, wind and solar power's shortfalls are not just in generation but also in storage and transmission. Lithium-ion batteries have become the preferred method for storing extra solar and wind power for cloudy and calm stretches of time. However, one kilogram of gasoline holds roughly 100 times more energy than a kilogram of a Li-ion battery, two orders of magnitude more.

When it comes to transmission for an electrical grid built around wind and solar, we would need to replicate the entire buildout of the last 100 years in less than 20 years—80 million kilometers of powerlines. This would be similar in scale to doubling all the paved roads worldwide. Is that really the best use of our finite resources?

The widespread adoption of wind and solar power would be the first time in history that humanity relies on less efficient power sources than what came before. Such a transformation would require unprecedented land, minerals, and labor, topics we will cover in future editions of Quaise Energy Insights.

The inefficiency of wind and solar would upend the global energy system, if we became heavily reliant on them. It would be like mechanizing the process of foraging for food rather than farming: more resources, orders of magnitude more, chasing fewer returns.

All human development in the past two hundred years has been contingent on dense and powerful sources of energy working behind the scenes. The results are nothing short of magic.

Alfred Crosby wrote in his book Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity's Unappeasable Appetite for Energy:

"Most of us in the richer societies can only recall times of immediate access to abundant energy. That abundance tempts us, successfully, to believe that having energy flow down lines from far away and illuminate our rooms when we flip the switch is normal rather than miraculous."

That miracle is what’s at stake in the clean energy transition; it’s the seed for growing prosperity. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is paramount, but we can’t do so at the expense of overall efficiency. Luckily, the two do not have to be mutually exclusive. Next month, we will look at the ultimate frontier for clean energy on a global scale: superhot rock geothermal.

Energy is everything. At Quaise, we look at the big picture to see where the world is and where it needs to go. Today, fossil fuels still dominate global energy by a long shot. A smoother transition to clean energy requires a bold new vision grounded in science, scale, and speed. Join us as we explore the future of energy and the power of deep geothermal.