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An alternative to propping up coal power plants: Retrain workers for solar

Posted on 6 September 2018 by Guest Author

Joshua M. Pearce, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Electrical and Computer Engineering, Michigan Technological University.  This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Trump administration announced new pollution rules for coal-fired power plants designed to keep existing coal power plants operating more and save American coal mining jobs.

Profitability for U.S. coal power plants has plummeted, and one major coal company after another has filed for bankruptcy, including the world’s largest private-sector coal company, Peabody Energy.

The main reason coal is in decline is less expensive natural gas and renewable energy like solar. Coal employment has dropped so low there are fewer than 53,000 coal miners in total in the U.S. (for comparison, the failing retailer J.C. Penny has about twice as many workers).

The EPA estimates the new rules will cause about 1,400 more premature deaths a year from coal-related air pollution by 2030. The Trump administration could avoid the premature American deaths from coal pollution – which amount to about 52,000 per year in total – and still help the coal miners themselves by retraining them for a more profitable industry, such as the solar industry.

A study I co-authored analyzed the question of retraining current coal workers for employment in the solar industry. We found that this transition is feasible in most cases and would even result in better pay for nearly all of the current coal workers.

How to make the jump?

What is left of the coal mining industry represents a unique demographic compared to the rest of America. It is white (96.4 percent); male (96.2 percent); aging, with an average age of 43.8 years old; and relatively uneducated, with 76.7 percent having earned only a high school degree or equivalent. Many are highly skilled, however, with the largest sector of jobs being equipment operators at 27 percent. Many of these skills can be transferred directly into the solar industry.

In the study, we evaluated the skill sets of current coal workers and tabulated salaries. For each type of coal position, we determined the closest equivalent solar position and tried to match current coal salaries. We then quantified the time and investment required to retrain each worker.

Our results show there is a wide variety of employment opportunities in solar – the industry overall already employs more than five times more people than in coal mining, at over 250,000 by one industry group estimate. We also found the annual pay is generally better at all levels of education, even with the lowest-skilled jobs. For example, janitors in the coal industry could increase their salaries by 7 percent by becoming low-skilled mechanical assemblers in the solar industry.

Overall, we found that after retraining, technical workers (the vast majority) would make more money in the solar industry than they do in coal. Also note this study was about careers and was done before an uptick in the practice of hiring temporary coal workers. The only downside on salaries we found are that managers and particularly executives would make less in solar than coal. This represents only about 3.2 percent of coal workers that are professional administrators.

Retraining needs

How would coal workers make this transition? There are over 40 types of solar jobs which the DOE has mapped out. They range from entry-level jobs, such as installers, to more advanced positions in engineering and technical design. Most coal workers could not simply walk into a solar job; they would need some retraining. But certain positions require less training.

For example, a structural engineer in the coal industry would not expect to need additional schooling to work as one in the solar industry. And for some coal employees, the retraining would amount to only a short course or on-the-job training. This is particularly true for installers, which represents the most common and geographically spread solar jobs.

There are various programs already set up to do this, such as California’s solar apprenticeship program or one in Oregon, for example, and another through the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

More advanced positions would require more education. Some solar-related engineering positions call for up to a four-year university degree, which has a large range in costs, from US$18,000 to over $136,000, depending on the school.

Our paper includes appendices that can help current coal workers match their existing job to the best potential fits in solar, as well as what training they’ll need. (Please note the costs and specific schools used are only examples and are not meant to be prescriptive; for example, most coal miners that need college credits would be able to find less expensive options at their own state schools.)

Overall, the analysis showed that a relatively minor investment – viewed from a nationwide retraining perspective – would allow the vast majority of coal miners to switch to solar-related positions. In the worst-case scenario we calculated, the cost was $1.87 billion.

Counting the benefits

Although there was a dip in solar jobs last year, in general the solar industry needs trained workers. Since the rapid decrease in the costs of solar photovoltaic technology, unsubsidized solar is now often the least expensive source of electric power, and solar deployment is rising in the U.S.

The way I see it, if the country retrains coal miners for the solar industry, the workers themselves win by making larger salaries in a growing field; America wins because we will be more economically competitive with lower-cost electricity; America wins again because of lower health care costs and reduced premature deaths from coal-fired air pollution; America wins a third time because of an improved economy and solar-related employment; and even the environment wins.

President Trump could even win by taking credit for it – he did recently sign an executive order that boosts American apprenticeships, which could be used to train coal workers for solar jobs. That is a lot of winning.


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Comments 1 to 24:

  1. The thing about solar is it's an intermittent power source, not producing electricty during the night or when skies are overcast. Which means to maintain constant flow with a solar and other intermittent alternative power production you need grid scale power storage.

    So not only will transitioning coal workers to solar production create jobs in sustainable energy, the more solar you build into your grid, the more jobs and economic activity will be created in grid level power storage technology.

    Grid scale storage can take several form, the most applicable being redox-flow batteries which require a large scale to be economic.

    How three battery types work in grid-scale energy storage systems


    Flywheel power storage is also a mature technology, the more people that are trained and working in solar, wind, geothermal, etc.. the more investment there will be in all phases of sustainable energy production.

    Flywheels power storage

    Using that energy in a much more stable, sustainable and energy dense form is also about to become much more practical and appealing to consumers. With the development of lithium metal batteries that use a solid polymer instead of a flammable liquid for an electrolyte the risk of catastrophic release of energy with lithium batteries has effectively been removed. They also have more energy density that current lithium ion batteries meaning vehicles will have more range, one of the big shortfall of current electric vehicles.

    The future is going to be electric in a big way or there is going to be no future. President Trump's approach to energy production and support of the coal sector is just one more instance of his retreat to a past that no longer exists. And probably never did.

    With the technology we currently have, work forces like the coal sector are far better off being retrained and employed in a sector that does have a future and a far more justifiable social license.

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  2. How about we also encourage the petrochemical industry workforce to transition to carbon neutral production like with hydrous thermal depolymerization.

    Hydrous Thermal Depolymerization


    Instead of extracting carbon deposits of ancient life overloading the Earth's carbon cycle, we build thermal depolymerization facilities in every large center and turn petroleum sector workers into municipal workers employed in turning long chain organic waste in a matter of hours into the equivalent of Texas sweet light, one of the easiest to refine crude petroleum products.

    Thermal depolymerization also produces methane as part of its process which can be used to power much of the process. Instead of building large sewage treatment facilities, composting or any other method of discarding organic waste it can all be turned into light crude oil, methane, naptha, black carbon and other marketable products by this one process.

    Thermal depolymerization is also one of the few processes that destroys prions meaning medical waste can also be converted safely.

    There are those many thousand experienced workers in the petroleum field who instead of working to pad the bottom line of ExxonMobil, Dutch Shell, Syncrude, BP, etc while helping to enable crippling climate change, could be retrained in a field that has no shelf life and would be an incredible public service.

    There is no such thing as peak oil when you're turning organic waste into light crude, the thermal depolymerization pilot plant at Carthage Missouri was producing over 500 barrels of oil a day from turkey offal.

    Anything Into Oil

    We could completely replace all fossil fuel production and use in a matter of a few decades if the vaible alternatives were supported in the same way fossil fuel production and use is now.

    And we'd be creating jobs that will never become obsolete because they rely on a sector and a source that never runs out. Like sunlight and organic waste which human society produces in large amounts on a constant basis.

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  3. There is a third sector that can also be converted from fossil fuels to sustainable energy.

    Oil and gas wells can in many cases be coverted to geothermal energy production and the expertise of gas and oil well drillers is also convertable to geothermal energy.

    From an Oilfield to a Geothermal One:


    New startup looking at tapping into abandoned oil & gas wells for geothermal power


    Alberta Making Clean Energy in Abandoned Oil Wells


    There are so many options to fossil fuels and so many career and economic opportunities in converting to sustainable energy production.

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  4. Retraining workers for solar power manufacture makes complete sense. I sympathise with coal workers being resistant to change, we all get like this, but its a hard physical job and people mainly do it for the money, and they are being offered a really good way out on even better pay.  Huge numbers of people are facing retraining as AI becomes widespread, so they aren't alone.

    Switch the government subsidies currently going to fossil fuels to retraining people for renewable energy jobs, and problem solved. This would be revenue neutral.

    However it probably won't happen until the luddites exit the White House.

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  5. Doug_C good points about solar power and geothermal energy.

    I'm a little bit sceptical about the the process of oil manufacture from offal and other organic waste. There seems little point encouraging this if it just creates petrol, especially cheap petrol. We have enough conventional oil for things like plastics probably for millenia.

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  6. nigelJ @5

    Thermal depolymerization creates a light oil similar to Texas sweet at the end, along the way it also produces methane, naptha, and some solids like black carbon which are marketable. All from any organic waste, the feedstock is adapted based on the input material. I think it's a great way to avoid treating anything as waste.

    The oil doesn't have to be refined into petrol(gas here), it can be used in petrochemical production of lots of different products. It's just one more way to reduce then phase out completely fossil fuel production in a meaningful timescale.

    I also think having a wide variety of energy sources is a good thing as it enocurages genuine competition in a market that has been an effective cartel in some aspects for a long time

    With a total phaseout of fossil fuel production there are also things like synthetic diesel and gas from air, water and electricity. Battery powered electric vehicles may not be suitable for some niche markets and it's always nice to leave options open.

    The main point is we will have a viable economy with plenty of well paying jobs without any fossil fuels with the technology that is now available. And many of the skills in the current coal, oil and gas sector are transferable to the new energy market.

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  7. Solar panels are lovely. They really are. Great way to turn sunlight into electricity. Unless you need a lot of electricity. Which we do. I read somewhere recently that solar has a negative EROEI. Whether or not that's true ( and I have always suspected it), by the time you add up all the energy inputs to manufacturing these devices, transporting them, and installing them, there couldn't be much "energy profit" left, if any. 


    And one thing I have never seen discussed - how are we going to replace all of these panels when they die. Because they do die. I guess they are up to about 25 years for a projected lifetime, but 25 years, 50 years...whatever. They all have to be thrown away and replaced. Right now we use the energy from fossil fuels to make solar panels. But when oil runs out - and it must - can we remake all of those solar panels with only energy from solar panels? 

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  8. Modern civilization requires growth in order to avoid collapse. Humanity has never transitioned away from any energy source. Even when new sources are brought on line old sources are still used too until they are completely uneconomic. Growth requires ever increasing amounts of net positive energy.

    The only way to make any kind of transition off of FFs would be to end growth and in fact begin shrinking modern civilization.

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  9. Sunspot,

    The short answer to your questions is you are reading too many denier falsehoods.  Please provide references to your sources of information.  It is difficult to respond to "I read somewhere recently" and "one thing I have never seen discussed".  Were these issues you thought up on your own?

    This reference indicates that current solar panels return the energy needed to manufacture and install them in 3 years but with expected improvements in the future 1 year will be the payback time.  Many peer reviewed references like here and here document that wind and solar can generate all the needed energy for the entire economy more cheaply than using fossil fuels.   In addition, several hundred thousand deaths per year will be prevented from lower pollution.  What do you imagine people will do in 100 years when all the fossil fuels are gone? 

    There have been great discussions about what to do with old panels.  To start off, after 25 years most panels are producing 80-90% of what they did when new.  The biggest difference wiith new panels is that the new ones have better technology so they produce more electricity.  I have 2 25 year old panels on a boat and they produce the rated electricity when it is sunny.  There is not even 10% decline.  I am not going to replace them.  Most old panels will go to developing countries to install new energy cheaply.  This is already being done with wind generators.

    Of course they can be recycled also.  Deniers claim this will be a big issue but since all the materials are reusable I see no reason why they cannot be recycled.  Please provide a reference that suggests this will be a problem.

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  10. Sunspot @7

    You read somewhere something negative about solar power?

    That's like sayng you read something that attacks the scientific basis of human driven climate change. The same groups are behind both disinformation campaigns.

    Why and How Fossil Fuel and Utility Interests Are Attacking Clean Energy


    This isn't about aesthetic appeal, this is about a functional replacement to an energy source that is already hugely expenisve in terms of human lives, financial cost and ecological damage. Half the Great Barrier Reef system dead and gone already and growing climate disaster worldwide.

    "Unless you need a lot of electricity."

    The amount of energy constantly being transmitted from the Sun to Earth is incredible, the amount of availble energy from fossil fuels is a tiny fraction of the energy potential of solar power.

    Yes it's intermittent, which means as you replace coal, oil and gas fired power plants with solar power you also must construct grid scale power storage. Which we already have with pumped hydro, redox-flow, lithium and zinc-hybrid batteries. One more opportunity for technological and economic growth away from hugely expensive fossil fuels.

    "Whether or not that's true ( and I have always suspected it), by the time you add up all the energy inputs to manufacturing these devices, transporting them, and installing them, there couldn't be much "energy profit" left, if any."

    Basing our collective future on someone's suspicions is a very poor policy choice. Once solar production is built and installed, it converts sunlight into electricity for decades with no other inputs, the returns are impressive over the lifespan of the equipment. Your suspicions are baseless.

    "And one thing I have never seen discussed - how are we going to replace all of these panels when they die. Because they do die. I guess they are up to about 25 years for a projected lifetime, but 25 years, 50 years...whatever. They all have to be thrown away and replaced. Right now we use the energy from fossil fuels to make solar panels. But when oil runs out - and it must - can we remake all of those solar panels with only energy from solar panels?"

    Solar panels are already recycled, setting up a comprehensive system to recycle aging PV panels is going to be just one more part of a carbon free energy model that provides jobs and more economic opportunities.

    The Opportunities of Solar Panel Recycling: What Happens to PV Panels When Their Life Cycle Ends


    The more solar and other sustanable energy we build into the system, the less dependence there is on fossil fuels for anything. That includes building solar panels or any other technology that provides energy in a fossil free energy model, this should be obvious.

    If we use up all the oil - and other fossil fuels - making solar panels will be the least of our worries the climatic impacts will be so catastrophic.

    As I've already said, the more solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, etc... that we build into our grid and overall energy model, the less we depend of fossil fuels until they are completely removed from the energy model.

    And then we will be using alternative sources of energy to base all economic actiivty and production on, there will be no need at all for any fossil fuels when that is done.

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  11. How many of the things we buy are really necessary? Or to put a finer point on it, how many people are employed in manufacturing and marketing items and services of far less importance than supplying clean energy and eliminating the host of problems associated with burnings fossil fuels.

    It seems to me that a rather minor adjustment to the world economy could accommodate educating and re-educating workers. A somewhat larger, but by no means overwhelming, adjustment could make up for the inefficiencies in switching to solar, wind and other nonpoluting sources of energy.

    Present technologies, while in need of improvement, are nevertheless already sufficient to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nor is there some overwhelming economic obstacle to deploying them. Eliminating planned obsolescence in a few key industries might just about cover it, possibly with some spare change left over.

    It boils down to politics: matters of political will, organization and strategy. Now that is one hell of a problem, but let's try not to be overwhelmed. Keep in mind that the geopolitical Juggernaut is not a solid mass covered in seemless armor. Political systems are just that, complex systems true, but no more so than those of the natural world. Tackle them with the same level headed analytical techniques we apply to nature. Pressure points abound and perhaps there will be a favorable tipping point in there somewhere

    Look at what the planet's aristocrats and oligarchs have managed in the last twenty years just through tugging the strings! They have plundered more resources than those necessary to stave off irreversible climate disaster for another decade, or two, perhaps even long enough to turn things around. The global economy is in need of an overhaul, but that process will stretch out for many decades. In the meantime, much can be accomplished merely by manipulating the existing system.

    (I am profoundly pessimistic most of the time. A bit of arm waving and cheerleading helps to keep my spirits up. If you read all the way to this point, thank you for indulging me!)

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  12. From the OP: "The Trump administration could avoid the premature American deaths from coal pollution – which amount to about 52,000 per year in total"

    And " Coal employment has dropped so low there are fewer than 53,000 coal miners in total in the U.S".

    For every coal miners job one person is killed every year in the USA Is it really worth it to kill someone else every year to preserve a coal miners job??

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  13. Sunspot @7

    "I read somewhere recently that solar has a negative EROEI."

    Probably one more instance of really bad science being done to either deny the science of climate change or the applicability of alternatives to fossil fuels.

    Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI) for photovoltaic solar systems in regions of moderate insolation: A comprehensive response


    "A recent paper by Ferroni and Hopkirk (2016) asserts that the ERoEI (also referred to as EROI) of photovoltaic (PV) systems is so low that they actually act as net energy sinks, rather than delivering energy to society. Such claim, if accurate, would call into question many energy investment decisions. In the same paper, a comparison is also drawn between PV and nuclear electricity. We have carefully analysed this paper, and found
    methodological inconsistencies and calculation errors that, in combination, render its conclusions not scientifically sound. Ferroni and Hopkirk adopt ‘extended’ boundaries for their analysis of PV without
    acknowledging that such choice of boundaries makes their results incompatible with those for all other technologies that have been analysed using more conventional boundaries, including nuclear energy with which the authors engage in multiple inconsistent comparisons. In addition, they use out-dated information, make invalid assumptions on PV specifications and other key parameters, and conduct calculation errors, including double counting. We herein provide revised EROI calculations for PV electricity in Switzerland, adopting both
    conventional and ‘extended’ system boundaries, to contrast with their results, which points to an order-ofmagnitude underestimate of the EROI of PV in Switzerland by Ferroni and Hopkirk."

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  14. Well good. I'll worry about Hurricane Florence instead! But I still want to see a complete manufacturing cycle running totally from solar power. You have to start with the mining operations. Then processing of course. Building the solar panel factory. Every little bit of energy used to build a solar panel being provided by solar panels. No fossil fuels. Like I said - I think solar panels are just great. But I'm far from believing that we can run our civilization at anything approaching the current level from solar and wind. I hope I'm wrong. But don't bother to convince me with studies. Show me. 

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  15. And just one more thing - I keep hearing the assumption that we are well along the road to replacing fossil fuels with solar and wind. But here's the thing: the latest forecast is that the world is going to be demanding 100 million bpd of oil by the end of the year. A record. And that means that, despite the millions of solar panels and windmills that have been installed in the past couple of decades, none of it has replaced a single barrel of oil. Not one barrel! We need more oil. More natural gas. more coal. more solar panels. more windmills. More SUVs and big-screen TVs. This is not working. Not even close...

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  16. Just one more instance where the logic is irrefutable but this abuse of the people of this planet is propped up by vested interest money in politics.  It is clear what we should be campainging about so that we stop spinning our wheels with all the things we have to get done to save us from our sorry selves.

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  17. DougC:

    Interesting reference you cited.  I noted that they conclude that in June, 2016, solar in Switzerland had an EROEI of 9-10.  With technical improvements since then it will currently be higher.  In locations with more sun (who goes to Switzerland for the sun?) the EROEI would be much higher.  Locations like Arizona and Australia would have very high EROEI.

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  18. Sunspot @14

    Solar power resources are effectively unlimited, built in a large enough scale they can power anything we want.

    And solar power production is far more efficient and far less polluting than fossil fuels. PV cells are just one variety, there are also solar furnace power generation and passive solar. Most homes in Japan have solar hot water heaters installed on the roof with small backup heaters for cloudy days.

    But we don't need to base our entire energy model on solar, there are many alternatives to fossil fuels.

    - Geothermal power resources are vast, places like Australia have access to tens of thousands of years of geothermal power at current rates at relatively shallow depths.

    Geothermal Energy Resources


    There are many geothermal power plants already in operation around the globe and the untapped potential is virtually unlimited in current power demage terms.

    Geothermal power plants global map


    There's hydro-electric, tidal, biomass, and some forms of nuclear power that are far more abundant and sustainable than any fossil fuels.

    There's no real limits in alternatives to fossil fuels despite what some still try and claim based on studies done with a thumb on the scales.

    Like the one of solar power EROI that you refered to that underestimated the returns on building solar power production by an order of magnitude.

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  19. michael sweet @17

    The energy potential of solar power is vast and it's just one alternative source of energy to replace fossil fuels. And as you say the technology is always adavancing as is the way to store and use the energy converted from sunlight.

    Australia could easily replace all its fossil fuel energy production with solar. But it wouldn't need to, Australia also has huge areas of underlying hot crustal rock relatively close to the surface that can be utlized form geothermal power generation.

    Geothermal power in Australia

    The fact we aren't well into a global planned phase out of all fossil fuels has nothing to do with rational policy.

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  20. Doug_C @6

    Ok good points, and I'm now persuaded in favour of  thermyl depolymerisation. I have this bias against biofuels that keeps influencing me, and I must get rid of it.


    Jef @8

    "Modern civilization requires growth in order to avoid collapse."

    Fallacy of argument from assertion.  I suggest look up steady state (zero growth) economies on wikipedia. Japan had near zero growth for decades and didn't collapse.

    The main challenge is financing. Bank lending is made assuming certain growth rates and this would have to change to some other model. I just suggest its a bit too pessmistic to assume there isn't some other potential model that could deal with zero growth.


    Sunspot @15,

    "And that means that, despite the millions of solar panels and windmills that have been installed in the past couple of decades, none of it has replaced a single barrel of oil. Not one barrel"

    Ok but it obviously stopped even higher use of oil, which is a good thing.

    At the risk of being pedantic, its unlikely anyone would rely just on solar power unless you live in northern africa for example. It will be combined with wind power and battery storage. Coal fired power stations in America have been replaced with combined wind / solar / battery packages.

    But I'm trying to discern your real point. You appear to be saying the real problem is our huge appetite for the  consumption of technology and energy intensive products.

    In theory renewable energy could be substituted for oil without considering this element. Whats getting in the way is politics which has slowed down rapid mass deployment of renewable energy. Because of slow progress we do need to consider our use of energy.  The first port of call is more efficient appliances. The next target is to own smaller and fewer appliances, so in other words be less materialstic. 

    Theres also an argument to conserve the use of scarce mineral resources  given the prodigous rate the world is using them. The challenge is how do we get people to conserve energy and be less materialistic like this? Because humans are status seekers by nature,  and having the latest technolgy has become a symbol of this for many people. Humans are also poor long term thinkers shown clearly by psychological studies.

    We could of course use education programmes at every possible level to encourage less use of energy, and less materialism by expressing self worth in other ways,  and we should also encourage an understanding that the world has finite resources and we need to start using them more prudently. The government could encourage lower use of energy and materials with better efficiency standards or some form of tax deduction. Given the escalating climate problem it could become urgently required.

    However I'm left thinking what is really required is a complete change of socio economic and cultural mindset towards embracing  environmental values and less materialism and this will take time, and is up against the profit motive of capitalism and people who want maximum instant gratification. This means maximum effort still needs to go into the deployment of solar and wind power and things like carbon taxes which help incentivise change.


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  21. nigelj @20

    There is good reason to question the value of some biofuels when you look at the cost of raising the crops used for feedstock and how some that can come from food production.

    The difference with thermal depolymerization is it takes things we currently treat as waste and often struggle to dispose of safely as feedostock for a catalytic process that converts the waste to useful and marketable products. 

    One of the first things produced from the process is methane which can then be used to heat the water that is used in the process, I think about 80% of the energy needed is provided from the process itself.

    Here's a list of potential feedstocks;

    Feedstocks and outputs with thermal depolymerization


    Everything from plastic, paper and offal to human sewage.

    The potential to replace a lot of current waste handling infrastructure with something that produces near carbon neutral light crude oil, naptha and solids like black carbon seems like a smart use of technology while reducing many waste issues.

    Why have any landfills for instance when we can use all organic waste as feedstocks and recycle all the non-organic material like metals, glass and ceramics.

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  22. An interesting article on the BBC News website.

    <a href="">Large-scale wind and solar power could green the Sahara</a>

    Paragraph 7: "According to authors' calculations, a massive installation in the desert would generate more than four times the amount of energy that the world currently uses every year."

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  23. Chris Snow @22

    That would make a dramatic difference in some areas there.

    "Our model results show that large-scale solar and wind farms in the Sahara would more than double the precipitation, especially in the Sahel, where the magnitude of rainfall increase is between 20mm and 500mm per year," said Dr Yan Li, the lead author of the paper from the University of Illinois, US.

    "As a result, vegetation cover fraction increases by about 20%."

    Build as much of the fabrication onsite then export the electricty all across North Africa, Middle East and Europe.

    Wouldn't take long at all to make all the oil in the region totally redundant.

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  24. Yes, solar is an intermittent source - but storage isn't the only option for baseload power. Interconnecting geographically distributed solar/wind sources over areas larger than a single weather event greatly relieves interruptions in supply.

    Archer 2007 found that connecting only 19 wind sites in the SW US could provide baseload supplies of 33% the maximum energy level, and that percentage would only increase with more sites.

    The investment would be in grid connectivity, not mass storage units, and I suspect that would be far more straightforward and cost effective.

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