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2015 SkS Weekly News Roundup #11B

Posted on 14 March 2015 by John Hartz

Coal: burning up Australia’s future

With less than a year to go before the United Nation’s annual climate change meeting scheduled to take place in Paris in November 2015, citizens and civil society groups are pushing their elected leaders to take stock of national commitments to lower carbon emissions in a bid to cap runaway global warming.

Industrialised countries’ trade, investment and environment policies are under the microscope, with per capita emissions from the U.S., Canada and Australia each topping 20 tonnes of carbon annually, double the per capital carbon emissions from China.

But despite fears that a rise in global temperatures of over two degrees Celsius could lead to catastrophic climate change, governments around the world continue to follow a ‘business as usual’ approach, pouring millions into dirty industries and unsustainable ventures that are heating the planet. 

In Australia, coal mining and combustion for electricity, for instance, has become a highly divisive issue, with politicians hailing the industry as the answer to poverty and unemployment, while scientists and concerned citizens fight fiercely for less environmentally damaging energy alternatives.

Coal: Burning Up Australia’s Future by Suganthi Singarayar, Inter Press Service (IPS), Mar 11, 2015

Delivering at scale, empowering transformation

In 2014, Tajikistan applied climate analysis to maximize investments in an aging hydropower system upon which half a million people depend. Morocco continued the phased development of a 500 MW concentrated solar power complex — the first of its kind in Morocco and one of the largest in the world, promising to bring electricity to 1.1 million Moroccans. Indigenous peoples’ groups in Brazil presented and received approval for a $6.5 million plan to advance their participation in sustainable forest management.

These are just a few of the many progressive steps that 63 developing and middle income countries are taking to shift to low carbon, climate-resilient economies with support from the Climate Investment Funds (CIF).

With more than $8 billion in resources expected to attract at least an additional $57 billion from other sources, the CIF is accelerating, scaling up, and influencing the design of a wide range of climate-related investments in participating countries. While this may be only a small portion of the resources needed annually to curb global warming, the CIF is showing that even a limited amount of public funding, if well placed, can deliver investments at scale to empower transformation.

Delivering at scale, empowering transformation by Mafalda Duarte, Development in a Changing Climate, World Bank, Mar 9, 2015

Earth science is not hard science, congressional Republicans declare

U.S. geoscientists are accustomed to being used as a punching bag by climate change skeptics in Congress, who challenge the science of global warming. But some influential Republican legislators are now going a step further, by denigrating the discipline itself.

Senator Ted Cruz (R–TX), the new chair of the science and space panel within the Senate commerce committee and an unofficial presidential candidate, asserted yesterday at a hearing that the earth sciences are not “hard science.” Freshman Senator Cory Gardner (R–CO), a member of the panel and a rising star within the Republican Party, echoed Cruz’s words. And the new chair of an important science spending panel in the House of Representatives, Representative John Culberson (R–TX), has said repeatedly in recent weeks that the earth sciences don’t meet his definition of “the pure sciences.”

Earth science is not hard science, congressional Republicans declare by Jeffrey Mervis, Science, Mar 13, 2015

IFRC and UNFCCC call for cooperative action to meet climate challenge

Statement by Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 

IFRC and UNFCCC Call for Cooperative Action to Meet Climate Challenge, UN Climate Change Newsroom, Mar 13, 2015

Global emissions trading scheme 'should be based on UN carbon budget

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) carbon budget could provide the scientific basis for a global cap on emissions, suggested Tim Yeo, the outgoing chair of the UK's energy and climate change committee.

In its most recent  report, the UN-backed panel of climate scientists  calculated that total carbon dioxide emissions must be limited to 3,670 gigatonnes in order to prevent warming of more than two degrees Celsius. Around 1,890 gigatonnes of this "budget" had already been emitted by 2011.

Yeo told a  conference in London today that the remaining gigatonnes could guide governments in capping carbon globally through an emissions trading scheme. 

Global emissions trading scheme 'should be based on UN carbon budget by Sophie Yeo & Simon Evans, The Carbon Brief, Mar 12, 2015

NASA: California has one year of water left

Plagued by prolonged drought, California now has only enough water to get it through the next year, according to NASA.

In an op-ed published Thursday by the Los Angeles Times, Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, painted a dire picture of the state's water crisis. California, he writes, has lost around 12 million acre-feet of stored water every year since 2011. In the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins, the combined water sources of snow, rivers, reservoirs, soil water and groundwater amounted to a volume that was 34 million acre-feet below normal levels in 2014. And there is no relief in sight.

"As our 'wet' season draws to a close, it is clear that the paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions. January was the driest in California since record-keeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows" Famiglietti writes. "We're not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we're losing the creek too."

NASA: California Has One Year of Water Left by Zoe Schlanger, Newsweek, Mar 13, 2015

The Intergenerational Report underestimates climate threat: an open letter to the government

The following is an open letter initiated by Dr Andrew Glikson, signed by Australian environmental and climate scientists.

The Intergenerational Report underestimates climate threat: an open letter to the government by Andrew Glikson, The Conversation US Pilot, Mar 11, 2015

Twin’ cyclones could jolt weak El Nino

Weather geeks have been fixated this week on an unusual meteorological phenomenon over the Pacific Ocean: Two tropical cyclones are spinning directly across the equator from each other.

But these “twin” cyclones aren’t just a satellite spectacle, they could give a jolt to the El Niño that was officially declared by U.S. forecasters last week after months of sitting on the fence. This El Niño is a weak one, expected to have little impact on weather in the U.S. The two storms that could provide a boost, however, are Cyclone Pam, churning over the South Pacific at about 14 degrees south latitude, threatening the islands of Vanuatu and Fiji with strong, damaging winds and storm surge, and Tropical Depression 3 (or Bavi), spinning over the northern Pacific near 10 degrees north latitude heading towards Guam.

Together, the cyclones and El Niño illustrate the interplay between short-term weather and longer-term climate cycles, in this case potentially reinforcing each other. It is unclear, though, whether the cyclones caused a westerly wind burst ramping up the El Niño, or if it was the El Niño pattern that spawned the cyclones.

‘Twin’ Cyclones Could Jolt Weak El Nino by Andrea Thompson, Climate Central, Mar 13, 2015

Will natural gas dim solar’s shine?

On the outskirts of downtown St. Paul, Minn., Xcel Energy’s High Bridge Generating Station offers an iconic view of the current state of electrical generation in the United States. Opened in 2008 as a replacement for an aging coal plant, the 534-megawatt natural gas facility looms over three solar photovoltaic panels that provide a sculptural element to the site in addition to 9.8 kilowatts of electricity.

In the United States in 2014, PV accounted for around half of a percent of the nation’s electricity production compared with natural gas’s 27 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Yet if PV seems more ornamental than a serious energy contender, the data over the past two years documenting a dramatic increase in PV generation show a promising rookie ready to compete in the big leagues.

Will Natural Gas Dim Solar’s Shine? by Frank Jossi, Ensia, Climate Central, Mar 14, 2014

Wind could supply a third of the country’s power needs by 2050, government says

Wind power could provide more than a third of the country’s electricity by 2050 while yielding a net savings in energy costs paid by consumers, the Energy Department reported in a major study released Thursday.

Continued growth of wind energy—which has tripled since 2000 and now supplies nearly 5 percent of the country’s electric power—also could dramatically reduce air pollution and go a long way toward meeting the country’s goals on slowing climate change, the report said.

But the study also warned that consistent government policies were critical to avoiding “boom and bust” cycles for investment in wind energy. Congress must keep wind-friendly tax policies in place to minimize market uncertainty about future returns on investments in wind turbines, Energy Department officials said.

Wind could supply a third of the country’s power needs by 2050, government says by Joby Warrick, Energy & Environment, Washington Post, Mar 12, 2015

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Comments 1 to 27:

  1. @ Will natural gas dim solar’s shine?  The technology of turning heat into electricity is mature and with a maximunm efficiency of around 60% for gas fired stations IIRC.  In comparison PV technology is not so mature or so efficient and there will need to be further advances in storage technology before PV can really contribute a bigger slice of our energy needs. Personally I believe that here in OZ we are well placed for PV to have a bigger input than it currently has.

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  2. I came across this in a comment at an NPR article  " a new paper appeared that found a colossal error in the climate models"

    It refers to a post at Judith Curry's blog, about a new paper on albedo.

    Graeme L. Stephens, Denis O’Brien, Peter J. Webster, Peter Pilewski, Seiji Kato, and Jui-lin Li are the authors

    Link to manuscript: 

    And I was wondering if you are doing an article on it.


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  3. obviously the line from the comment is hyperbolic.  the commentor thinking it's another proverbial nail in the coffin of AGW. 

    I read most of Judith's article about the paper, but am not knowledgeable enough to critique it.

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  4. @3 Sailrick

    "And then there's Physics" blog has come interesting commentary on the albedo paper here:

    I'm no expert so will leave the argments to those who are, but the blog is worth a look.

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  5. uncletimrob @1, people who say that solar is less efficient than gass are very confused.  All energy used on Earth except geothermal comes from the Sun.  It may come directly as in solar.  It may come indirectly as in wind power (where the winds get their energy from the Sun).  For natural gas, the energy came from the Sun long ago.  It was converted into chemical energy at about 10% efficiency by photosynthesis.  However, most (greater than 99.9%) of the resulting chemical energy was wasted in respiration either by the plant or plant eaters.  The miniscule amount of chemical that remained was buried and in a process that lost still more of the energy, converted to gas.  The gas was then pumped out of the ground, and distributed (requiring more energy) until finally we get to burn it.  Clearly, as an energy source, gas is far more inefficient than solar.

    I imagine those who support fossil fuel use into the future will object to a full energy cycle calculation of energy efficiency.  They will consider most of the energy efficiency as a spent cost, and therefore irrelevant.  A bonus even, as when we burn fuels we are obtaining energy from yesterdays Sun, today.

    However, even in those terms solar is far more efficient than any fossil fuel.  The simple fact is that whether we use solar or fossil fuels, we are using a fuel with a finite resource base.  If you want to calculate efficiency, the only efficiency that matters is the proportion of the finite resource base used to obtain that energy.  And the fact is that the finite resource base for solar is so large that it is effectively free for the taking.  Each kilowatt hour of solar generated at 10% efficiency of incoming solar radiation represents a far, far smaller proportion of the total resource base of solar power than each kilowatt hour of electricity generated from gas does of the total fossil fuel resource base.

    Again, fossil fuel boosters won't be happy with that estimate of efficiency.  The reason is that they want to impose an almost irrelevant accounting measure to make their preferred technology look good.

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  6. Tom Curtis @ 5: Thanks for your very insightful view of energy efficiency. I'll promote that view in all my future efforts to educate. With regard to the Sun's resource size, I think we might as well label it infinite, because the Sun will outlast the planet Earth and will far outlast humans on Earth.

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  7. Sailrick @ 2 & 3, Uncletimrob @ 4: My opinion, upon having skimmed through the paper by Stephens et al., is that the paper is an excellent example of the scientific process at work. The paper builds on current climate science and adds more precise measurements of albedo in the two hemispheres. The authors point out that the albedos of the two hemispheres are more closely matched than models easily predict--but that's not surprising, since models are just models and will always need finer tweaking. There's nothing in this paper that in any way invalidates any aspect of current climate science.

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  8. Thanks for the replies.   Joel - about what I figured, science learns and moves on. 

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  9. Tom Curtis @ 5,

    In addition to your efficiency comparison there are many other consideration that favour solar over burning extracted non-renewable gases:

    • Solar supply is essentialy perpetual, non-renewable gas isn't
    • Everyone can develop to benefit from solar energy, people have to fight over who gets to benefit from non-renewable gas
    • Once a solar energy system is set up no new 'purchase' is required, the price of non-renewable gas will inevitably keep going up especially of all impacts have to be paid for upfront leading to more intense fighting over the benefits
    • Burning gas still generates excess CO2. It is only half as bad as burning. So it is not a solution.
    • Extracting, transporting, and burning non-renewable gas also produces many other unacceptable impacts including NOx and SOx.
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  10. @ 5 Tom_Curtis.  Thank you, I hadn't thought of efficiencies in those terms, only in terms of our conversion into electricity.  It's very good to read such insightful stuff.


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  11. Joel_Huberman @6, absent extensive space borne industries, the rate of extraction of solar energy is restricted to something in the order of 5*10^15 Watts.  That represents 5% of the total solar energy falling on the Earth's surface after albedo adjustment and atmospheric absorption.  We do not want to change overall albedo, of course, because that would also drive climate change.  Nor do we want to extract all solar energy, for energy we extract by solar collectors is not available to drive photosynthesis to provide food, or maintain ecosystems.  

    For comparison, total human energy consumption for industrial usage is approximately 14.3*10^12 Watts.  That means, allowing for a 10% efficiency in extraction, we can supply 35 times our current energy usage from solar power.  That is vast, but distinctly finite.  

    Your point, which is correct, is that for all practical purposes, that supply is available till the end of human existence and so their is no practical end to the supply.  However, that still leaves a practical limit on the energy supply in terms of extraction rate.  That probably means that for my third paragraph, I should not have used total resource base (ie, 15*10^12*4.5*10^9 Wattyears for solar) but extraction rate, or short term reservoir limited extraction rate (ie, the resource we could theoretically extract over the next century or two centuries) to calculate efficiency.  So calculated, both would improve the relative efficiency of gas, but not to a point where it compares favourably with even a small fraction of the solar value.

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  12. OPOF @9, I agree with your first point, and your last two.  With respect to access, people at high latitudes have a very limited access to solar.  In the extreme (above the Arctic circle) that access is limited to 3-6 months of the year, with the Sun being either below the horizon or very close to the horizon (where too much energy is lost to the atmosphere) for the rest of the year.  Still, a vastly improved access situation than is the case for oil or gas.

    With respect to the second, Photovoltaic systems degrade in efficiency over time, and will always need to be replaced after a period.  Thermal solar also will suffer from plant degredation though at a slower rate (but higher capital cost to replace).  These costs, however, are small relative to the purchase cost of fuel which you undoubtedly had in mind.

    So, on these to points, I do no so much disagree with you but think some qualification is needed to make the statements entirely accurate.

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  13. And here the good news -


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  14. Tom @12,

    I agree. It is probably more appropriate to name the better alternatives to burning non-renewable gas the 'least consumptive ways of obtaining useable energy from the almost perpetually available energy sources', which would include tidal which is not solar related.

    Humans simply need to adapt to living within the means of this amazing planet, and use that knowledge to live within the means of other planets. Regions with insufficient access to that type of virtually eternal energy supply are places humans should not bother trying to live in. And based on the history of locations inhabited that leaves just Antarctica as a place only for scientists and adventurers to explore. Why try to set up any other type of human habitation in a place like that?

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  15. @Tom Curtis:

    You are right but IMO a little disingenuous. As a historical fact yes, the sun has made gas available at a tiny overall efficiency, but who cares?

    One might as well argue that all the energy involved in laying down the deposits of the various elements that are used to make PV panels - moving tectonic plates, weathering, sedimentation and the like, should be included in PVs energy budget.

    The sun's energy is, whichever way you look at it, essentially unlimited. Making full use of the small percentage that we can tap through wind, wave and solar is really only a matter of scale when you get down to it.

    If it is "merely" a choice between an uninhabited earth and more expensive energy, perhaps the latter might be seen as the sensible choice. So many of the deniers' arguments centre on the cost side of the equation, and too many people spend time fruitlessly arguing on their terms.

    I will omit mentioning population growth as it seems to be a taboo topic even here.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] All comments must conform to the comments policy and the closest to a taboo subject is politics. Provided your comments conform to all aspects, then they remain. However, it is hard to see how any discussion about the problem of too many wealthy high-energy consumers could progress without moving into politics.

  16. Wol @15, I have read your post, and cannot see any coherent argument.  Nor can I see any reason for your offensive comments regarding me.  Therefore, other than to note that I have read it, I see no reason to respond.

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  17. Tom Curtis @ 16.

    I apologise: my understanding of "disingenuous" was slightly incorrect in that I have always thought of it as a soft, slightly ironic way of advancing a proposition. Having looked it up I see it refers to insincere, dishonest, untruthful, false, deceitful, duplicitous, lying, mendacious;
    hypocritical. Hence the apology.

    Far from what I intended.

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  18. Tom Curtis @5 In your discourse you don't include an assessment of the energy costs of producing the PV cells. Should you do so for completeness?  I'm rather surprised that, so far, there is no discussion or even mention  of nuclear fission or nuclear fusion.  Surely these, and particularly the latter,  are of considerable relevance to the supply of non-fossil fuel deived energy.  As I expect is common knowledge here, development of trial nuclear fusion power stations is underway and it is hoped the technology will be commercially viable before 2050.  

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  19. Apologies that should read fossil fuel derived energy

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  20. ...development of trial nuclear fusion power stations is underway and it is hoped the technology will be commercially viable before 2050.

    I would say the challenge comes with the unpredictability of when the technology will be commercially viable. And even then, how long after that it takes to bring full scale power plants online.

    There are an awful lot of unknowns in that package. We all have high hopes for that technology for sure, but it would be a huge mistake to toss too many eggs into that particular basket.

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  21. Ryland,

    For my entire life fusion researchers have said they would be commercial in 20 years.  I can remember reports from 45 years ago and they are no closer now than they were then.  It is better to emphasize technologies that currently work and use fusion when (if) it becomes available.

    Fission is always a controversial topic.  Some people feel strongly that it is successful and others that it is unsuccessful.  Discussions are usually long and do not change anyone's minds.  

    Since SkS is really dedicated to discussing the science of climate change these solutions are tangential to the basic point of the site.  They can be discussed at length at other sites.

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  22. In the words of J. Wellington Wimpy: "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."  We should work on what we have available now to reduce our emissions (renewables), and if we have fusion further down the road that would be just ducky. But we can't depend on a technological Deus ex machina to save us, and we can't just go further down the CO2 hole without paying for it later. 

    Fusion power has been projected to be available 20-25 years out for half a century - and it remains 20-25 years out. I'm not holding my breath. 

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  23. Wol #17

    "Having looked it up I see it refers to..."

    I know that feeling all too well.

    A year or so after leaving Glasgow Univ, I was down in England watching the highlights on TV of a game of football. (That's football - as in played mainly using one's feet.) The commentator, perhaps in a misguided attempt to introduce some polysyllabic terminology into a rather drab encounter, referred to one of the players as "the ubiquitous Andy Lochhead".

    As I was later to discover, the context was that the player had, after an initial stable period of 8-9 years at Burnley, changed clubs every 2 or 3 years. Unfortunately, the word "ubiquitous" was one with which I was totally unfamiliar. What, on reflection, I should have done at this point, was to have cracked open the old Oxford English Dictionary.

    Instead, I refused to admit to myself that some bloody football commentator had just used a word I didn't know. So, the challenge was to work out what he could have meant, using only the information available.

    After some rumination, the (false) Eureka moment arrived. The only distinguishing characteristic possessed by Andy L seemed to be that he was the only player on the pitch bereft of hair.

    So, for many years afterwards, I laboured under the delusion that "ubiquitous" was some form of polite euphemism for baldness. It was only when I happened to say to one of chums something along the lines of "... you seem to be getting a little ubiquitous these days ...", that the horrible truth finally dawned.

    cheers   bill f

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  24. "the only player on the pitch bereft of hair"


    btf, thankd for that literally lol moment (much needed right now). I think we've all had similar experiences but mostly don't want to admit them even to ourselves.

    Meanwhile, what's freaking me out at the moment is another Mauna Loa reading over 403 ppm (March 15).

    (Does anyone else notice these things, or do I live alone in my horror at watching the world coming apart at the seams?)

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  25. Wol @17, apology accepted.

    From 15:

    "One might as well argue that all the energy involved in laying down the deposits of the various elements that are used to make PV panels - moving tectonic plates, weathering, sedimentation and the like, should be included in PVs energy budget."

    Only if you also include the energy involved in processing animal and vegetable matter to oil or gas (which involves sedimentation, massive burial to quite deep depths where a combination of pressure and geothermal energy make the transformation).  Further, for an apples to apples comparison, pushing that far back, you would have to quantify the energy involved in forming and moving into exploitable veins, the minerals used in manufactoring oil and gas refineries, pipelines, tankers etc.  I don't know how to quantify all these additional factors, but the net balance certainly won't make our equation show fossil fuels as more efficient than solar, and in fact is likely to make the comparison less favourable for fossil fuels.

    Further, including these factors only detracts from the simple point I was making.  Specifically, fossil fuels are a very energy inefficient way to store energy but are only viewed favourably because the energy in storing them is largely already expended.  Put another way, standard energy efficiency comparisons cherry pick an irrelevant comparison while neglecting far more imporant issues of sustainability.  The comparison is irrelevant because the denominator for the energy efficiency equation for solar is so large (considering total resource) that even ridiculously low energy efficiencies provide more than enough energy.

    Finally, for completeness, there are two relevant comparisons.  The first is a gateway comparison only.  Is the energy returned greater than energy used in gathering the energy (technically, Energy Returned on Energy Invested or EROEI).  If not, the resource cannot be a primary energy resource for society.  Solar comfortably meets this margin for most projects south of the Artic Circle, and wind does better.  Second, what is the relative levalized cost of the two energy sources including all externalities.  Solar and Wind comfortably win this comparison as well (though they loose it if you exclude fossil fuel externalities).

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  26. ryland @18, the lifetime energy costs of producing solar cells is a very limited look at EROEI.  Done properly, that should be a whole of project investment, including in the comparison the costs of refining the steel, manufacturing the pipe, and building oil refineries etc for comparison, not to mention the energy cost of refining and transport.  It should also include the energy cost of the transmission infrastructure.  By picking only on the cost of PV cells, you appear to assume that oil goes from the well to our use without any energy cost.  Because many of these costs vary by project, the overall cost can only be assessed project by project.

    As it happens, assessments of relative EROEI of fossil fuels and solar are quite varied.  Never-the-less, the EROEI of PV solar in Germany is greater than 1.  Ergo, even in Germany solar could provide all energy needed for industrial purposes, including the manufacture of new PV cells.  Given that, and given the size of the total energy resource base from solar, a pure solar powered civilization is feasible, even at current technologies.  As it happens, however, the EROEI of fossil fuels is declining with time, while that of solar is improving.

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  27. ryland @18, nuclear and fusion are simply off topic in this thread as none of the news articles above discuss them.  There is, however, extensive discussion of both options on other SkS threads.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Serious discussion of nuclear is probably better conducted at

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