Petroleum council urges Arctic oil to offset declining production in lower 48

The U.S. should immediately begin a push to exploit its enormous trove of oil in the Arctic waters off of Alaska, or risk a renewed reliance on imported oil in the future, an Energy Department advisory council says in a study submitted Friday.

The U.S. has drastically cut imports and transformed itself into the world’s biggest producer of oil and natural gas by tapping huge reserves in shale rock formations. But the government predicts that the shale boom won’t last much beyond the next decade.

In order for the U.S. to keep domestic production high and imports low, oil companies should start probing the Artic now because it will take decades of preparation and drilling to bring oil to market, according to a draft of the study’s executive summary.

The push to make the Arctic waters off of Alaska more accessible to drillers comes just as Royal Dutch Shell is poised to restart its troubled drilling program there. The company has little to show after spending years and more than $5 billion. After assuring regulators it was prepared for the harsh conditions, one of its drill ships ran aground in heavy seas near Kodiak Island in 2012.

Environmental advocates say the Arctic ecosystem is too fragile to risk a spill, and cleanup would be difficult or perhaps even impossible because of weather and ice.  “If there’s a worse place to look for oil, I don’t know what it is,” says Niel Lawrence, Alaska director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “There aren’t any proven effective ways of cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic.”

The analysis, conducted by the National Petroleum Council at the request of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, makes the case for the United States to aggressively develop Arctic oil and gas resources that can help supply the country with energy long after some onshore fields’ production starts tailing off.

A recent surge in domestic oil production is tied to the extraction of oil from dense rock formations in North Dakota, Texas and other parts of the contiguous United States, but “production profiles for these oil opportunities will eventually decline,” the NPC says. “Given the resource potential and long timelines required to bring Arctic resources to market, Arctic exploration today may provide a material impact to U.S. oil production in the future, potentially averting decline, improving U.S. energy security and benefiting the local and overall U.S. economy.”

But changes are needed to facilitate Arctic oil production, the advisory panel said, including an overhaul of the terms for U.S. oil and gas leases, which typically span just 10 years, and a collaboration between regulators and industry aimed at extending the drilling season that is now limited to about 80 days when Arctic waters are free of ice.

Related story: Shell conducts drills with Arctic oil spill response system

“Drilling an exploration well to target takes about 80 to 90 days, so this current practice requires multiple mobilizations to drill a single exploration well,” said Carol Lloyd, with ExxonMobil Corp., chair of the Arctic Research Coordinating Subcommittee.

The NPC urged regulators to allow companies to continue drilling even when ice has begun forming in fall — a change that would add an additional 30 to 45 days to the current drilling window, potentially to mid-December.

Right now, the Interior Department insists that companies leave enough time — while waters are still clear — to drill a relief well in case of an emergency.

Conservationists argued that companies need those conditions to effectively respond to blown-out wells and other emergencies.

“Responding to a blowout after the fall storms and ice moves in is virtually impossible,” said Marilyn Heiman, director of the U.S. Arctic Program for Pew Charitable Trusts. “We strongly advocate for limiting drilling to the open-water season to minimize the chance of a blowout extending through the winter and delaying response until the following summer.”

Heiman said that if a major spill lasted through the winter, it would be “devastating to the Arctic.”

The short drilling window was one of many factors that constrained the most recent exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska, in 2012, when Shell Oil Co., finished drilling only the top part of two wells. Damage to critical emergency equipment necessary for the company to penetrate potential oil-bearing zones and the late retreat of sea ice that year, also narrowed Shell’s opportunity.

The company aims to return to the Chukchi Sea this summer, this time armed with two rigs and hopes of finding oil in its Burger Prospect about 70 miles from the Alaska coastline.

The NPC report was developed by more than 250 people, nearly half of whom work for oil and natural gas companies; others represented environmental organizations, state and federal agencies, research groups and academia. The Natural Petroleum Council itself is a 59-year-old, privately funded advisory group established to provide guidance to the federal government, with members appointed by the Secretary of Energy.

But the report has an undeniable industry tilt, environmentalists said Friday, noting that many of its recommendations have been on oil companies’ wish lists for years.

The U.S. Arctic is estimated to contain approximately 35 billion barrels of oil — but getting to it requires navigating cold, forbidding terrain, far from deep-water ports and the traditional infrastructure for supporting industrial energy development.

Arctic conditions are diverse, with some areas at the top of the globe marked by long periods of open water, and others — like the U.S. Chukchi and Beaufort seas — often covered by thick ice or broken ice all but two to four months a year.

“We see significant potential in the U.S. Arctic resource areas that are as attractive if not more attractive than Arctic resource potential in other nations,” Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson told reporters after an NPC meeting in Washington, D.C. But there are regulatory and technological “opportunities to enhance and support prudent development in the Arctic.”

Oil development in the region “requires securing public confidence,” the NPC says, noting industry must operate responsibly, government must maintain and upgrade “effective policies and regulation” to protect people and the environment and both sides must engage local communities.

Lois Epstein, the Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society, noted that a recent Interior Department analysis says there is a 75 percent chance of at least one large spill occurring in the Chukchi Sea and releasing more than 1,000 barrels of oil over the next six decades.

Those spill estimates make it hard to gain the public’s confidence, Epstein said. “The report’s authors seem to be (comfortable) with Arctic Ocean and coastal contamination since there haven’t been significant cleanup advances and there’s a projected 75 percent likelihood of a major spill, just in the Chukchi.”

Read more: Feds up Arctic oil estimates to satisfy court

The report itself says little about mishaps by Shell and its contractors in 2012 that undermined public confidence in the industry’s ability to safely operate in the forbidding Arctic frontier.

The NPC urges a shakeup in the the duration of offshore oil and gas leases — which generally require companies to be able to move into a commercial development phase by the end of 10 years, whether the target is in the temperate Gulf of Mexico or the ice-covered Beaufort Sea.

While that construct may work well in other parts of the United States, “in the case of the Arctic, where you can only work three months a year, it is particularly challenging given the number of wells that will be required,” Lloyd said.

Related: Feds weighing Shell bid for more time in Arctic

Other countries take a different approach, sometimes formally dividing the exploration phase from the development one that typically follows a commercial discovery. For instance, in Canada, oil companies can obtain 9-year exploration licenses with the option of extending them as long as they are diligently pursuing drilling. If a discovery is made, the oil company receives a new license, allowing it to hold the lease indefinitely until the field can be economically developed.

The recommendation dovetails with a separate move by at least three companies with drilling rights in U.S. Arctic waters — Shell, ConocoPhillips and Statoil — that have asked the Interior Department to extend their leases.


AP. March 27, 2015. U.S. urged to develop Arctic oil and gas. Associated Press.

Dlouhy, J.A. March 27, 2015. Arctic oil drilling needed now to sustain U.S. energy security. Arctic


Posted in Arctic | 1 Comment

Making the most energy dense battery from the palette of the periodic table

There hasn’t been much progress in batteries the past 200 years, not enough for affordable cars, let alone far more essential freight vehicles.

The very heavy, 4,647 pound Tesla Model S gets most of its mileage from aerodynamics, reduced rolling resistance, light-weight materials, and so on. The Tesla S goes further than other all-electric cars because it has more batteries.  Tesla S battery packs weigh 1,323 pounds (plus 350 lbs for the electric motor and inverter) versus 660 lbs for the Nissan Leaf (also pretty heavy at 3,340 lbs).

Batteries are simply not as energy dense as oil.  Pound for pound, oil is 500 times more energy dense than a lead-acid battery, and 120 times a lithium-ion battery (roughly, since there are many kinds of li-ion batteries).

So let’s start over and design a high-energy battery from scratch. The first step is to look at the periodic table to choose the best elements.

There are only 118 possible elements to work with, and most of them can be ruled out:

  • 39 are radioactive
  • 23 are far too scarce or expensive to scale up commercially such as rare earth and platinum group metals
  • 6 inert noble gases
  • 4+ toxic metals such as cadmium, cobalt,mercury, arsenic
  • and others are too heavy, too valuable (gold), hard to recycle, scarce, have too little reduction, oxidation, and other properties essential to making a battery work

Here is Aidan Stranger’s point of view (taken from a comment below): “Alkali metals (and indeed most other metals) have a greater reducing potential the further down the periodic table you go. So if reactivity were the deciding factor, caesium would be the best choice (francium’s not an option because it’s radioactive, extremely rare and very short lived). If cost is the deciding factor, sodium’s a better choice. But lithium is usually preferable for batteries because it’s lightweight; the higher specific energy more than makes up for the lower energy density.  But there are more factors to consider. Alkali metals only have one electron each. Something with more outer shell electrons could be more effective. Vanadium (with five) is often used in wet cells.  As for fluorine, forget it! Fluorine gas is far too dangerous to have in batteries, and oxygen fluorides are also dangerous and difficult to work with. I’m amazed that anyone’s even contemplated it. Unlike fluorine, cadmium can be contained fairly easily, so has been used for batteries despite its toxicity.”

periodic table reducing and oxidizing elements







Another possibility is looking at what elements could produce the highest voltage from the most reducing and most oxidizing elements.  The highest potential is nearly 6 volts with a  lithium anode (the strongest reducing element) and a fluorine cathode (strongest oxidizing element)  of -3.04 & 2.87 respectively).  Battery researchers know this and have been trying to develop such a battery since the 1960s. Scrosati et al have an excellent history of Li-F battery research and where we stand on different battery types today if you want to know the technical details.

The material electrons swim through between the anode and cathode matters as well.  Cells with aqueous (containing water) electrolytes are limited to less than 2 volts because the oxygen and hydrogen dissociate above this voltage. This is a shame, because water is very inexpensive. Lithium batteries don’t use water but this prevents electrons from flowing as well (high internal impedance) so 2.7 to 3.7 volts are achieved, rather than the maximum 6 volt potential between lithium and fluorine

The laws of physics means that there is no possibility of making a battery that rivals the energy density of oil, ever.  So the question is, if a 6 volt lithium-fluorine battery could be built — and it probably can’t — but if it could, would it be energetically cheap and powerful enough to move heavy-duty class 7 & 8 all-electric tractors, harvesters, road construction, and mining trucks?

If so, then is there enough lithium on the planet, including recycling, to make enough batteries for all electric cars, trucks, and utility-scale energy storage and lithium-battery mining trucks to haul ore to refining plants, and so on?

The main elements that lithium are dating are shown below. The rare earth elements aren’t in the battery, but are being used in the electric motor and generator, so even if lithium is recycled, the limits to EV may come from rare earth metals used other components of electric vehicles, which can NOT always be recycled:

li-ion periodic table other elements in batteries

by Alice Friedemann,


Scrosati, B., et al. 2013. Lithium batteries. Advanced technologies and applications. Wiley.

For a more in-depth look at battery chemistry see: Battery and Energy Technologies. Cell Chemistries – How batteries work. Electropaedia.

Posted in Electric Cars, Lithium-ion | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Wave, Tide, Ocean Current, In-stream, OTEC power: National Academy of Sciences 2013

A review of “An Evaluation of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Marine and Hydrokinetic Resource Assessments. 2013. Marine & Hydrokinetic Energy Technology Committee; National Research Council” by Alice Friedemann, July 7, 2014,

Last updated April 15, 2015 OTEC


The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) hired contractors to evaluate five Marine and Hydrokinetic Resources (MHK) globally: 1) Ocean tides 2) Waves 3) Ocean Currents 4) Temperature gradients in the ocean (OTEC) and 5) Free-flowing rivers and streams.

Then DOE asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to evaluate the results, so NAS assembled a panel of 71 experts to write this assessment.

The NAS replied it was a waste of time for DOE to ask the contractors what the global theoretical maximum power generation from MHK resources might be.  For example, solar power plants provide less than .1 % of electricity in the United States, even though the theoretical amount would be staggeringly enormous if you plastered the entire continent with them.  But you can’t do that.

Nor can you fill the world’s ocean and rivers with devices to harvest the power in waves, tides, ocean currents, rivers, and temperature gradients (OTEC).

NAS says DOE should have asked was how much power could be generated locally at specific sites in the United States after taking into account technical and practical resource limits. For example:

The GIS database of MHK resources has a 100 MW resource. But after evaluating the location further, it turns out to be a 2.7 MW resource because of 1) technical resource limits (turbines 30% efficient, only 20% of the area can be used, the efficiency of connecting the extracted energy to the electric grid is 90%), and 2) practical resource issues: 50% of the remaining area interferes with existing fisheries and navigation routes, leaving a practical resource of 2.7 MW (100 MW * .30 * .20 * .90 * .50 = 2.7 MW).

Here are some more practical barriers to developing MHK:


  • Impacts on marine species and ecosystems (e.g., rare or keystone species, nursery, juvenile and spawning habitat, Fish, Invertebrates, Reptiles, Birds, Mammals, Plants and habitats)
  • Bottom disturbance
  • Altered regional water movement
  • acoustic, chemical, temperature, and electromagnetic changes or emissions
  • Physical impacts on the subsurface, the water column, and the water surface, scouring and/or sediment buildup, changes in wave or stream energy, turbulence

Regulatory obstacles:

  • Endangered Species Act; Coastal Zone Management Act; Marine Mammal Protection Act; Clean Water Act; Federal agency jurisdictions: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), State Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), U.S. Coast Guard
  • Overlapping jurisdiction of state and federal agencies: FERC (within DOE) has jurisdiction over hydroelectric development; leases on the U.S. outer continental shelf require approval by BOEM (Dept of the Interior; NOAA (Dept of Commerce) is responsible for licensing commercial OTEC facilities; FWS (Dept of the Interior) and NOAA coordinate protection of marine mammals from potentially harmful development; NOAA also protects essential fish habitats. Projects in navigable waters fall under the jurisdiction of USACE and may also require involvement of the U.S. Coast Guard. USACE permits may be required for projects involving dredging rivers or coastal areas. The Coastal Zone Management Act involves coordination among local, state, and federal agencies to ensure that plans are in accordance with a state’s own coastal management program.

Social and economic:

  • Spatial conflicts (e.g., ports and harbors, marine sanctuaries, navigation, shipping lanes, dumping sites, cable areas, pipeline areas, shoreline constructions, wreck points, mooring and warping points, military operations, marine sanctuaries, wildlife refuges, Traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering; commerce and transportation; oil and gas exploration and development; sand and gravel mining; environmental and conservation activities; scientific research and exploration; security, emergency response, and military readiness; tourism and recreational activities; ocean cooling water for thermoelectric power plants that use coal, natural gas, or nuclear fuel; aquaculture; maritime heritage and archeology; offshore renewable energy; view sheds, commercial and recreational fisheries, access locations such as boat ramps, diving sites, marinas; national parks, cultural heritage sites
  • Interconnection to the power grid (e.g., transmission requirements, integrating variable electricity output, shore landings; Capital and life-cycle costs (e.g., engineering, installation, equipment, operation and maintenance, debris management, and device recovery and removal
TABLE 1 Issues That Impact the Development of the Practical MHK Resource

No Commercial scale MHK plants exist because:

Once installed, MHK devices are subject to mechanical wear and corrosion that is more severe than land-based equipment

Corrosion-related problems (i.e. galvanic, stress, fatigue, biocorrosion) and marine fouling are key challenges for all MHK devices.   Advanced structural materials with appropriate coatings and paints still need to be identified in order to construct the robust, corrosion-resistant components for MHK energy generation.

Survivability in hurricanes, tides, storms, large waves, and so on

This is another challenging problem, especially in shallow water. Devices can be destroyed, damaged, or moved from their moorings under the actions of rough seas and breaking waves

Making MHK devices rugged enough is expensive

Rugged MHK devices require huge amounts of steel and concrete, which is inherently expensive, and many use expensive exotic materials or engineering.  The power electronics on MHK devices will be a challenge to implement and operate reliably. In shallow tidal and riverine areas, there is a great concern that debris will affect both the efficiency and durability of any installed devices.

Capital and Life-Cycle Costs

As with any energy device or power plant, there are costs such as design, installation, operation and maintenance, removal, and replacement. The largest of these costs, and potentially the greatest barrier to MHK deployments, is the capital cost. An earlier NRC committee concluded that it will take at least 10 to 25 years before the economic viability of MHK technologies for significant electricity production will be known. A 2008 report evaluating the potential for renewable electricity sources to meet California’s renewable electricity standard found that the cost of electricity from waves and currents was higher than that from most other renewable sources and had a substantially greater range of uncertainty.

The best places for MHK are often far from urban centers

  • In-stream power: Alaska is by far the largest resource but it’s questionable whether it would work because rivers freeze up, the scour incurred during spring ice break-up would make year-round deployment a challenge and possibly require seasonal device removal.
  • Tidal resource: Alaska’s Cook Inlet
  • OTEC: only feasible near Hawaii, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa.


These challenges affect not only installation, maintenance costs, and electricity output, but also MHK scalability from small to utility applications

Time and Regulation

The time to get all the regulatory agencies at federal, state, and local levels to agree to a project is formidable and time-consuming.  MHK devices are far from being ready to scale-up to commercial levels.

Most of the ocean and rivers are too far to connect to the electric grid

The distance required to interconnect into the electricity system is critical, as it directly impacts the economic viability of a project.  Often the MHK device needs to be placed far from areas close to the grid because ports, cities, and other users already occupy prime grid-connection locations.

Connection to the grid is challenging and requires extra equipment due to harsh environmental conditions, intermittent and unstable load flows, variable energy output, lack of electrical demand near the generation, the length of cable from a device or array to a shore terminus, potential environmental impacts from the cable, permitting issues, and the reliability of the equipment.

The situation is even more complicated if there are large numbers of offshore generators, because connecting a large number of devices together with no load demand along the path of the network cable could produce an unstable system.

Tidal Power

The potential of tidal power has long led to proposals of a barrage (a dam that lets water flow in and out) across the entrance of a bay that has a large range of height between low and high tides. It would generate power by releasing water trapped behind the barrage at high tide through turbines similar to a hydro-power facility. Or this could be done with in-stream turbines similar to the way that wind turbines work.

Scale:  A tidal amplitude of 3.3 feet would require over 110 square miles to produce 100 MW (enough to power about 70,000 homes). This is why tidal power is limited to regions with very large tides (which tend to be in the northern latitudes, far from any cities that could use the power). Even with a current speed of 3 meters per second, a 100 MW project would need a flow of nearly 40,000 cubic meters per second, which requires 120 turbines, each having a cross-sectional area of 120 square yards, or 24 turbines of 82-foot diameter. Many more turbines would be needed for more typical, smaller currents. This many large turbines are likely to interfere with existing water uses, and an array this large would have near-field back effects that reduce the current each individual turbine experiences.

More than 1 channel: Power is reduced if there’s more than 1 channel, which also tends to divert flow to other channels.

Engineering challenges: Corrosion, biofouling, and metal fatigue in the vigorous turbulence typically associated with strong tidal flows.

Conflicting uses: Some of the locations with the highest tidal energy density are also estuaries having ports with heavy commercial shipping traffic. It is likely that there will be limitations to the number and size of turbines and the depth at which they can be deployed so as not to interfere with established shipping lanes.

Tides only generate power two to four times a day.

Wave Power

Power in ocean waves originates as wind energy transferred to the sea surface when wind blows over large areas of the ocean. The resulting wave field consists of a collection of waves at different frequencies traveling in many directions.

If energy is removed by a wave energy device from a wave field at one location, less energy will be available in the shadow of the extraction device, so a second row of wave energy devices won’t perform as well as the first row.  The planning of any large-scale deployment of wave energy devices would require sophisticated, site-specific field and modeling analysis of the wave field and the devices’ interactions with the wave field. 


One theoretical study on wave-device interaction modeled the Wave Dragon Energy Converter deployed in the highly energetic North Sea. They concluded that capturing 1 GW of power would require the deployment of a 124-mile-long single row of devices or a 5-row staggered grid about 1.9 miles wide and 93 miles long. This doesn’t take into account that the recovered power must be transformed into electricity and then transmitted. Because of the high development and maintenance costs, low efficiency, and large footprint, such devices would be a sustainable option only for small-scale developments considerably less than 1 GW close to territories with limited demand, such as islands.

It would take about 81 miles of wave machines to produce as much power as a typical power plant (1000 MW). Even if you built wind machines as far north as Canada and as far south as Mexico along both coasts, you’d only get 9% of the electricity we use now (Hayden).

Wave Power Efficiency

None of these systems are likely to operate at efficiencies over 90% and will probably have more realistic efficiencies of 50-70%. This calls into question claims of wave energy facilities that capture 90% or more of the available energy.

Other Wave Power Issues

  • Waves are intermittent, which means energy production is spotty
  • Waves have a low potential energy that varies with the weather and only a small hydraulic head of 2 or 3 meters. Hence large volumes of water have to be processed which means large structures relative to power output
  • The waves are a challenge for energy harvesting since they not only roll past a device but bob up and down or converge from all sides in confused seas, plus have to cope with the period of the wave (Levitan)
  • No design that’s been investigated is very good at capturing a very large fraction of the energy over a range of wave conditions. If they’re designed to efficiently capture wave energy in “average” sea conditions, they’ll be totally overwhelmed in high sea conditions. If they’re designed for efficient energy capture in high sea conditions, they’ll be almost totally insensitive to the energy present in average conditions (HED).
  • These devices typically produce what’s known as low-frequency power, which can be difficult and expensive to convert to high-frequency electrical grids
  • Wave technologies have lots of electrical components, hydraulic fluids and oils — all presenting a pollution risk
  • So far about 30 wave power ventures have failed, such as Denmark’s “Wave Dragon”, the UK “Salter Duck”, Netherlands “Archimedes Wave Swing”, The Sea Clam, the Tapchan, the Pendulor, Finavera Renewables “AquaBuOY” in Oregon, Pelamis Wave Power in Portugal, Verdant Power’s East River project ($30 million spent so far), Pacific Gas & Electric’s wave energy testing program, Oceanlinx in Sydney, and Ocean Power Technologies in July 2014 canceled plans to build a wave energy project off the coast of Australia, saying it says is no longer commercially viable and will repay what it has received of a A$66.5M government grant, which was intended to be used toward the A$232M proposed cost of building the project.

Ocean Current Power

Ocean currents (excluding tidal currents) are affected by Coriolis forces and mainly generated by winds that cause strong, narrow currents which carry warm water from the tropics toward the poles, such as the Gulf Stream, with an ocean current in the Florida Strait that can exceed two meters per second.

The ocean current power team estimated the Florida current could generate 14.1 GW, or 62% of the 20 GW maximum power obtainable.

NAS thought that figure was way too high for many reasons and concluded that maximum power that could be extracted is 1 and 2 GW at best.

Or it may be less than 1-2 GW:

  1. If the high turbine density in the water column diverted the Florida Current and forced the flow around the Bahamas
  2. Seasonal variability and meandering might limit the placement of turbines to just a few narrow areas where the flow was consistent

Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) Power

Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) is the process of deriving energy from the difference in temperature between surface and deep waters in the tropical oceans. The OTEC process absorbs thermal energy from warm surface seawater found throughout the tropical oceans and ejects a slightly smaller amount of thermal energy into cold seawater pumped from water depths of approximately 1,000 meters. In the process, energy is recovered as an auxiliary fluid expands through a turbine.

NAS thought the study should have been limited to just the areas this could possibly work: the Hawaiian Islands, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. Hawaii could generate 143 TWh/yr, the Mariana Islands (including Guam) 137 TWh/yr, and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands 39 TWh/yr. The majority of this resource is found far from the United States near Micronesia (1,134 TWh/yr) and Samoa (1,331 TWh/yr).

OTEC would increase global warming

Ken Caldeira, senior scientist in the Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution, California, and Stanford colleagues report in Environmental Research Letters that when they began to simulate an ocean dotted with vertical pipes that exchanged deeper and shallower waters, found that “Prolonged application of ocean pipe technologies, rather than avoiding global warming, could exacerbate long-term warming of the climate system.” Kwiatkowski, L., et al. March 19, 2015. Atmospheric consequences of disruption of the ocean thermocline. Environ. Res. Lett. 10

The efficiency  is so low  — just 3 to 4 percent — that it may take more electricity to pump the deep cold water to the surface than is generated by the process.

OTEC  sinks a long pipe into cold waters (< 4°C) beneath  warm seas, whose daily high temperatures are > 25°C, and uses the temperature difference to generate electricity.  The 20°C difference in temperature between the hot and cold reservoir is too tiny to generate much power (Smil).

The continental U.S. resource is very seasonal and limited, and it is unlikely that plant owners would want to operate only part of the year.

OTEC plants are vulnerable to corrosion, strong currents, tides, large waves, hurricanes, and storms, and remaining anchored.

OTEC could cause environmental damage.

OTEC plants must be near tropical islands with steep topography to make it easier to reach deep cold water and transmit power to shore.

The committee estimated the global OTEC resource could be 5 TW (a 100-MW plant every 30 miles in the tropical ocean). In reality, this would never happen because you need to connect them to land-based electric grids.

OTEC needs very large equipment and very high seawater flow rates

OTEC systems are similar to most other heat engines. There are significant practical aspects that make it difficult to implement, mainly from the small available temperature difference of only ~20ºC between the warm and cold seawater streams. Because of the low efficiencies, OTEC plants require very large equipment (e.g., heat exchangers, pipes) and seawater flow rates (~200-300 cubic meters per second for a typical 100-MW design) that exceeds any existing industrial process to generate a significant amount of electricity.

OTEC needs to be near existing electric power systems

The cold-water pipe is one of the largest expenses in an OTEC plant. As a result, the most economical OTEC power plants are likely to be open-ocean designs with short vertical cold-water pipes, close enough to shore to connect to existing electric power systems.

Concerns with tides, variation in power output, shear current effects on the cold-water pipe

The committee is concerned about the variations in isotherm depth due to internal tides, which can be significant near islands. For example, deep isotherm displacements of as much as 50 or even 100 m are common near the Hawaiian Islands, which could induce a 5-10 percent variation in power output over the tidal cycle. In addition, areas with strong internal tides will also impose strong shear currents on the cold-water pipe. Seasonal variations could lead to a 20% variation in power output in Hawaii over the course of the year. Even more dramatic changes result from fluctuations due to El Niño or La Niña in the central tropical Pacific, where the committee estimates variations in power production as high as 50 percent. The assessment group largely fails to address the temporal variability issue.

Spacing must be far apart given the huge seawater requirements

Clearly, a key question for determining the OTEC technical resource would be how closely plants could be spaced without interfering with each other or excessively disturbing the ocean thermal structure. At regional and global scales there could be a variety of impacts on the ocean arising from widespread deployment of OTEC.

There are many interesting physics, chemistry, and biology problems associated with the operation of an OTEC plant. Whitehead suggested that an optimal plant size would be around 100 MW in order to avoid adverse effects on the thermal structure the plant is designed to exploit.

In-Stream Hydrokinetic Power

In-stream hydrokinetic energy is recovered by deploying a single turbine unit or an array of units in a free-flowing stream.  Estimates of the maximum extractable energy that minimizes environmental impact range from 10 to 20% of the naturally available physical energy flux.

There are many limiting factors that will reduce the in-stream hydrokinetic energy production

These factors include but are not limited to ice flows and freeze-up conditions, transmission issues, debris flows, potential impacts to aquatic species (electromagnetic stimuli, habitat, movement and entrainment issues), potential impact to sites with endangered species, suspended and bedload sediment transport, lateral stream migration, hydrodynamic loading during high flow events, navigation, recreation, wild and scenic designations, state and national parklands, and protected archeological sites. These considerations will need to be addressed to further estimate the practical resource that may be available.

Navigable waters are a resource for a number of sectors, and coordinating their use is an immense logistical challenge that will definitely impact in-stream energy development.


NAS criticisms of the DOE report

This is just a very small part of the criticisms scattered throughout the report, much of which criticizes the data, methods, and conclusions of each of the 5 contractors, such as:

The committee was disappointed by the resource groups’ lack of awareness of some of the physics driving their resource assessments, which led to simplistic and often flawed approaches. The committee was further concerned about a lack of rigorous statistics, which are essential when a project involves intensive data analysis. A coordinated approach to validation would have provided a mechanism to address some of the methodological differences between the groups as well as a consistent point of reference. However, each validation group (chosen by individual assessment groups) determined its own method, which led to results that were not easily comparable. In some instances, the committee noted a lack of sufficient data and/or analysis to be considered a true validation. The weakness of the validations included an insufficiency of observational data, the inability to capture extreme events, inappropriate calculations for the type of data used, and a focus on validating technical specifications rather than underlying observational data.

The committee is also concerned about the scientific validity of some assessment conclusions.

All five MHK resource assessments lacked sufficient quantification of their uncertainties. There are many sources of uncertainty in each of the assessments, including the models, data, and methods used to generate the resource estimates and maps. Propagation of these uncertainties into confidence intervals for the final GIS products would provide users with an appropriate range of values instead of the implied precision of a specific value, thus better representing the approximate nature of the actual results.

The committee has strong reservations about the appropriateness of aggregating theoretical and technical resource assessments to produce a single-number estimate for the nation or a large geographic region (for example, the West Coast) for any one of the five MHK resources. A single-number estimate is inadequate for a realistic discussion of the MHK resource base that might be available for electricity generation in the United States. The methods and level of detail in the resource assessment studies do not constitute a defensible estimate of the practical resource that might be available from each of the resource types. This is especially true given the assessment groups’ varying degrees of success in calculating or estimating the technical resource base.

Challenging social barriers (such as fishery grounds, shipping lanes, environmentally sensitive areas) or economic barriers (such as proximity to utility infrastructure, survivability) will undoubtedly affect the power available from all MHK resources, but some resources may be more significantly reduced than others. The resource with the largest theoretical resource base may not necessarily have the largest practical resource base when all of the filters are considered. It is not clear to the committee that a comparison of theoretical or technical MHK resources—to each other or to other energy resources—is of any real value for helping to determine the potential extractable energy from MHK.

Site-specific analyses will be needed to identify the constraints and trade-offs necessary to reach the practical resource.

Quantifying the interaction between MHK installations and the environment was a challenge for the assessment groups. Deployment of MHK devices can lead to complex near-field and/or far-field feedback effects for many of the assessed technologies. Analysis of these feedbacks affects both the technical and practical resource assessments (and in some cases the theoretical resource) and requires careful evaluation. The committee noted in several instances a lack of awareness by the assessment groups of some of the physics driving their resource assessments, such as the lack of incorporation of complex near-field and/or far-field feedback effects, which led to simplistic and sometimes flawed approaches. The committee was further concerned about a lack of rigorous validation.

As part of the evaluation of the practical resource base, there seemed to be little analysis by the assessment groups of the MHK resources’ temporal variability. The committee recognized that the time-dependent nature of power generation is important to utilities and would need to be taken into account in order to integrate MHK-generated electricity into any electricity system.

DOE requests for proposals did not offer a unified framework for the efforts, nor was there a requirement that the contractors coordinate their methodologies. The differing approaches taken by the resource assessment groups left the committee unable to provide the defensible comparison of potential extractable energy from each of the resource types as called for in the study task statement. To do so would require not only an assessment of the practical resource base discussed by the committee earlier but also an understanding of the relative performance of the technologies that would be used to extract electricity from each resource type. Simply comparing the individual theoretical or technical MHK resources to each other does not aid in making such a comparison since the resource with the largest theoretical resource base may not necessarily have the largest practical resource base. However, some qualitative comparisons can be made, especially with regard to the geographic extent and predictability of the various MHK resources. Both the ocean current and OTEC resource bases are confined to narrow geographic regions in the United States, whereas the resource assessments for waves, tides, and in-stream show a much greater number of locations with a large resource base. As for predictability, while there is multi-day predictability for wave and in-stream systems, especially in settings where the wave spectrum is dominated by swells or in large hydrologic basins, the predictability is notably poorer than for tidal, where the timing and magnitude of events are known precisely years into the future.

Overall, the committee would like to emphasize that the practical resource for each of the individual potential power sources is likely to be much less than the theoretical or technical resource.

Tidal resource NAS criticisms

Based on the final assessment report, the assessment group produced estimates of the total theoretical power resource. However, this was done for complete turbine fences, which essentially act as barrages. The group did not assess the potential of more realistic deployments with fewer turbines, nor did they incorporate technology characteristics to estimate the technical resource base. It is clear, however, that the practical resource will be very much less than the theoretical resource.

Because power is related to the cube of current speed, errors of 100% or more occur in the prediction of tidal power density in many model regions. In the Pmax scenario, the fence of turbines is effectively acting as a barrage, so that Pmax is essentially the power available when all water entering a bay is forced to flow through the turbines. Pmax is thus likely to be a considerable overestimate of the practical extractable resource once other considerations, such as extraction and socioeconomic filters are taken into account.

Allowing for the back effects of an in-stream turbine array deployed in a limited region of a larger scale flow requires extensive further numerical modeling that was not undertaken in the present tidal resource assessment study and is in its early stages elsewhere. However, a theoretical study by Garrett and Cummins (2013) has examined the maximum power that could be obtained from an array of turbines in an otherwise uniform region of shallow water that is not confined by any lateral boundaries. The effect of the turbines is represented as a drag in addition to any natural friction. As the additional drag is increased, the power also increases at first, but the currents inside the turbine region decrease as the flow is diverted and, as in other situations, there is a point at which the extracted power starts to decrease. The maximum power obtainable from the turbine array depends strongly on the local fluid dynamics of the area of interest. Generally, for an array larger than a few kilometers in water shallower than a few tens of meters, the maximum obtainable power will be approximately half to three-quarters of the natural frictional dissipation of the undisturbed flow in the region containing the turbines. In deeper water, the natural friction coefficient in this result is replaced by twice the tidal frequency. For small arrays, the maximum power is approximately 0.7 times the energy flux incident on the vertical cross-sectional area of the array (Garrett and Cummins, 2013). Estimates of the true available power must also take into account other uses of the coastal ocean and engineering challenges.

Conclusions & Recommendations. The assessment of the tidal resource assessment group is valuable for identifying geographic regions of interest for the further study of potential tidal power. However, although Pmax (suitably modified to allow for multiple tidal constituents) may be regarded as an upper bound to the theoretical resource, it is an overestimate of the technical resource, as it does not take turbine characteristics and efficiencies into account. More important, it is likely to be a very considerable overestimate of the practical resource as it assumes a complete fence of turbines across the entrance to a bay, an unlikely situation. Thus, Pmax overestimates what is realistically recoverable, and the group does not present a methodology for including the technological and other constraints necessary to estimate the technical and practical resource base. The power density maps presented by the group are primarily applicable to single turbines or to a limited number of turbines that would not result in major back effects on the currents. Additionally, errors of up to 30% for estimating tidal currents translate into potential errors of a factor of more than 2 for estimating potential power. Because the cost of energy for tidal arrays is very sensitive to resource power density, this magnitude of error would be quite significant from a project-planning standpoint. The limited number of validation locations and the short length of data periods used lead the committee to conclude that the model was not properly validated in all 52 model domains, at both spatial and temporal scales. Further, the committee is concerned about the potential for misuse of power density maps by end users, as calculating an aggregate number for the theoretical U.S. tidal energy resource is not possible from a grid summation of the horizontal kinetic power densities obtained using the model and GIS results. Summation across a single-channel cross section also does not give a correct estimate of the available power. Moreover, the values for the power across several channel cross sections cannot be added together. The tidal resource assessment is likely to highlight regions of strong currents, but large uncertainties are included in its characterization of the resource. Given that errors of up to 30% in the estimated tidal currents translate into potential errors of more than a factor of 2 in the estimate of potential power, developers would have to perform further fieldwork and modeling, even for planning small projects with only a few turbines.

The tidal resource assessment is likely to highlight regions of strong currents, but large uncertainties are included in its characterization of the resource. Errors of up to 30% in the estimated tidal currents translate into potential errors of more than a factor of two in the estimate of potential power. Although maximum extractable power may be regarded as an upper bound to the theoretical resource, it overestimates the technical resource because the turbine characteristics and efficiencies are not taken into account.

Waves. The theoretical wave resource assessment estimates are reasonable, especially for mapping wave power density; however, the approach taken by the assessment group is not suitable for shallow water and is prone to overestimating the resource. The group used a “unit circle” approach to estimate the total theoretical resource, which summed the wave energy flux across a cylinder of unit diameter along a line of interest, such as a depth contour. This approach has the potential to double-count a portion of the wave energy if the direction of the wave energy flux is not perpendicular to the line of interest or if there is significant wave reflection from the shore. Further, the technical resource assessment is based on optimistic assumptions about the efficiency of conversion devices and wave-device capacity, thus likely overestimating the available technical resource. Recommendation: Any future site-specific studies in shallow water should be accompanied by a modeling effort that resolves the inner shelf bathymetric variability and accounts for the physical processes that dominate in shallow water (e.g., refraction, diffraction, shoaling, and wave dissipation due to bottom friction and wave breaking).

The wave power team used a model that’s only accurate in water depth over 164 feet deep (50 m). Yet shallow-water regions are where developers might prefer to put wave machines to minimize the distance to connect to the grid, and would be easier and cheaper to build and maintain if close to shore. NAS recommended a model for shallow be used next time, one with much higher spatial resolution that includes shallow-water physics (e.g., refraction, diffraction, shoaling, wave dissipation due to bottom friction and wave breaking).

Nor did they capture how often very large waves or extreme weather events are likely to occur that might destroy or harm the wave power equipment, and the model was likely to double count part of the wave energy, and even when this was pointed out, continued to use this methodology even though it “clearly overestimates the total theoretical resource”.

The mechanical and electrical losses in the transformation processes and transmission significantly reduce the technical resource, typically to 15-25% of the recoverable power. So the Energetech prototype would have had a technical power resource of just 4.5% to 7.5% of the incident wave’s theoretical power.

Estimates of the current state of wave-energy technology are not based on proven devices.

Ocean Currents. The ocean current resource assessment is valuable because it provides a rough estimate of ocean current power in U.S. coastal waters. However, less time could have been spent looking at the West Coast in order to concentrate more fully on the Florida Strait region of the Gulf Stream, where the ocean current can exceed 2 m/s. This would have also allowed more focus on the effects of meandering and seasonal variability. Additionally, the current maps cannot be used directly to estimate the magnitude of the resource. The deployment of large turbine farms would have a back effect on the currents, reducing them and limiting the potential power. Recommendation: Any follow-on work for the Florida Current should include a thorough evaluation of back effects related to placing turbine arrays in the strait by using detailed numerical simulations that include the representation of extensive turbine arrays. Such models should also be used to investigate array optimization of device location and spacing. The effects of meandering and seasonal variability within the Florida Current should also be discussed.


The group chose to use a specific OTEC plant model proprietary to Lockheed Martin as the basis for its resource assessment, a 100-MW plant, a size generally considered to be large enough to be economically viable and of utility-scale interest yet small enough to construct with manageable environmental impacts. Since no plants this large have yet been built, there are many technical and environmental challenges to overcome before even larger plants are attempted.

The committee views the use of the HYCOM model for assessment of the theoretical resource to be inadequate and also regards the application of a specific proprietary Lockheed Martin plant model with a fixed pipe length to be unnecessarily restrictive.

The DOE funding opportunity for OTEC was the only one to specify that the assessment should include both U.S. and global resources, and the assessment group chose to focus on the global resource. The committee believed, however, that more emphasis should have been placed on potential OTEC candidates in U.S. coastal waters. To demonstrate this point, the committee evaluated equation 1 and used the National Oceanographic Data Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s World Ocean Atlas data to map this function for a 1,000-m pipe length, a TGE efficiency of 0.85, and PL of 30 percent. This simple exercise shows that in USA territory, the coastal regions of the Hawaiian Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa would be the most efficient sites for OTEC.

The committee is also concerned that the 2-yr HYCOM run will not provide proper statistics on the temporal variability of the thermal resource. Although it does include both El Niño and La Niña events, 2 years is not sufficient to characterize the global ocean temperature field with any reliability. Longer datasets are widely available, so it is not clear why the assessment group limited itself in this way. Ocean databases that extend for more than 50 years are readily available; these data would allow assessment of the inter-annual variability in thermal structure due to El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) to be evaluated. The advantage of HYCOM’s higher resolution over earlier estimates from coarser climatologies may vanish if HYCOM is used without appropriate boundary conditions near the coasts, resulting in inaccurate seasonal and inter-annual statistics on thermal structure. Without these abilities, this study is not much more valuable than prior maps of global ocean temperature differences, which already identified OTEC hot spots.

The OTEC assessment group’s GIS database provides a visualization tool to identify sites for optimal OTEC plant placement. However, assumptions about the plant model design and a limited temperature data set impair the utility of the assessment. Recommendation: Any future studies of the U.S. OTEC resource should focus on Hawaii and Puerto Rico, where there is both a potential thermal resource and a demand for electricity

Rivers and Streams. The theoretical resource estimate from the in-stream assessment group is based upon a reasonable approach and provides an upper bound to the available resource; however, the estimate of technical resources is flawed by the assessment group’s recovery factor approach (the ratio of technical to theoretical resource) and the omission of other important factors, most importantly the omission of statistical variation of stream discharge. Recommendation: Future work on the in-stream resource should focus on a more defensible estimate of the recovery factor, including directly calculating the technically recoverable resource by (1) developing an estimate of channel shape for each stream segment and (2) using flow statistics for each segment and an assumed array deployment. The five hydrologic regions that comprise the bulk of the identified in-stream resource should be tested further to assure the validity of the assessment methodologies. In addition, a two- or three-dimensional computational model should be used to evaluate the flow resistance effects of the turbine on the flow

Additional references

Hayden, Howard. 2005. The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won’t Run the World

HED. 7 May 2003. Hawaii Economic Development Department study.

Levitan, David. 28 Apr 2014. Why Wave Power Has Lagged Far Behind as Energy Source.

Martin, Glen. 4 Aug 2004. Humboldt Coast Wave power plan gets a test. San Francisco Chronicle.

Smil, V. 2010. Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate. AEI Press.


Posted in Waves & Tidal | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

All Electric Trucks. Probably not going to happen. Ever. Why not?

There are “forms of transport that cannot be electrified — heavy-duty trucks and planes… Even if the electricity problem can be solved, it won’t address the needs of planes, trucks, ships and some industrial heating that cannot be electrified” (Long).

The heavy-duty trucks that do the essential work of civilization, such as agricultural tractors and harvesters, Class 7 and 8 long-distance freight trucks, the trucks used in mining, logging,  and so on are too big and heavy to run on batteries.

The battery packs or fuel cells would take up so much space there would be little, if any, room for cargo. The batteries are so heavy that the truck would barely move, and it might take a day or more to charge the battery. Tractors and other off-road vehicles would be stranded if they ran out of power, and likely to be far from a power outlet.

FedEx is concerned that charging just 10 EVs during “off peak” hours will increase the “off peak” load to “peak” or higher level. That could result in additional infrastructure costs (Sondhi).

Medium-duty class 3-6 All-electric delivery vans

All of these vans run on lithium-ion batteries. That’s okay for the short and medium term, but long-term there isn’t enough lithium even with recycling.

Many companies bought medium-duty delivery trucks starting in 2011, such as Frito Lay and Staples, and the National Renewable Energy Lab has been testing their performance.

But just like electric cars, delivery trucks are being held back by poor performing, high cost batteries.  They need, far more than autos, a very powerful, revolutionary battery.  And I’m not holding my breath, since battery development has been very slow the past 200 years (see Who Killed the Electric Car? for details).

Price of an electric Van

These were the only prices I could find after a lot of searching:

  • Kansas City’s municipal government wanted a bucket truck. A diesel version cost $132,000. The city bought the Smith All-electric truck, which cost $330,000, almost $200,000 more, because a federal grant covered the difference (Lockridge)
  • $800 per kWh (Lyden, Calstart)
  • $175,000 for the e-truck. A diesel equivalent would cost $65,000. A 60 kWh battery is $54,000, an 80 kWh $70,000 (Calstart)
  • The basic electric van is $75,000, and the battery ranges from $25,000 to $75,000 (Motavalli).
  • Smith Electric trucks cost up to $90,000 each. Frito-lay has bought them at a reduced price with subsidies from both the federal government and New York state. A comparable diesel truck costs $60,000 (Vyas)
  • Each truck cost $100,000 to $150,000 with federal subsidies of about $57,000 and also many other additional grants and tax breaks
  • Mike O’Connell, senior director of fleet operations at Frito-Lay, which has a fleet of 280 Smith medium-duty electric trucks, said in an interview: “In the short term, buying electric trucks without subsidies is extremely challenging…” (Motavalli)
  • Calstart estimated that without the $40,000 HVIP incentive it would take 12 to 36 years to payback an electric truck. But the Smith electric battery warranty was a 5-year limited, full replacement within 3 years. With batteries costing $25-$75,000 one or more replacements means the price might never be paid back

The incentives are huge

Common EV incentives include tax credits, rebates, vouchers, grants and unrestricted access to high occupancy commuter lanes on major roadways. Here are some federal level incentives in the US:

  • Tax credit from $2500-$7500 (Qualified plug-in electric drive motor vehicle tax credit)
  • EPA DERA funds up to 25% of the total cost of the vehicle
  • Clean Cities: up to 50% total cost of the vehicle
  • Congestion Mitigation & Air Quality Funds (CMAQ): federal money dispersed to states where these funds are given to localities based on air quality and varies state to state

Each state also offers subsidies.

  • New York has 5 different programs, including one that pays up to $60,000 per vehicle.
  • The Oregon Department of Transportation is launching a $4 million new electric truck buyer incentive program. The Commercial Electric Truck Incentive Program will be offered in the form of $20,000 vouchers per eligible, all-electric vehicle over 10,000 pounds, regardless of manufacturer.

The battery and electric truck makers were heavily subsidized, but are bankrupt or in financial trouble

  • A123 made batteries for Smith Electric, but went bankrupt in March 2012 despite a $263 million dollar grant (Cohan).
  • Smith has never made a profit since despite a federal $32 million dollar grant that paid for 44 to 67% of each trucks’ cost. Smith went bankrupt late 2013. Net losses were $17.5 million 2009, $30.3 million 2010, $52.5 million 2011, and $27.3 million through June 30, 2012 with only 439 of 500 vehicles delivered and $29,150,672 government dollars reimbursed, a $66,402 taxpayer subsidy per vehicle (FS, Chesser)
  • Navistar Inc received $39.4 million for 950 electric delivery trucks but is in financial trouble and discontuned its eStar electric van in March 2013 (based on technology from bankrupt Modec)

Smith was already a failed company based in the United Kingdom within the Tanfield Group. Smith-U.S. established itself in Kansas City in January 2009, following a precipitous drop in Tanfield’s U.K. stock value in mid-2008. Financial analysts became troubled because claims the company made about matters such as vehicle orders could not be verified. The company was accused of exercising poor disclosure standards and weak financial controls, according to the London Telegraph. Tanfield’s cash evaporation led the company to lose 97 percent of its value in 2008, prompted inquiries by the London Stock Exchange and by the U.K. Accountancy and Actuarial Discipline Board.

Charging time

Typical charge duration for the FCCC MT E-Cell was measured between 12 and 14 hours to achieve the bulk of the charge and over 17 hours to achieve a full charge. Total charge duration for the Navistar eStar was estimated between 12 and 13 hours (calstart).


Calstart. 2013. Battery electric parcel delivery truck testing and demonstration. Prepared by California Hybrid for California Energy Commission.

Cassidy, W. B. Apr 16, 2014   Smith Electric Vehicles Halts Truck Production.

Chesser, P. July 8, 2013. Bottomless Subsidies Needed to Keep DOE Electric Truck Project Alive. National Legal and Policy Center.

Chesser, P. April 15, 2014. Energy Dept. Revives Stimulus Loans as Another Electric Vehicle Comany Stalls. Bankruptcy Law Review.

Cohan, P. June 12, 2012. Is A123 electric battery a waste of $263 million in government funds. Forbes.

FS. May 16, 2013. Fuel Smarts. Fuel Smarts Navistar Sells RV Business, Drops eStar Van as Part of Its Turnaround Plan.

Lockridge, D.June 28, 2012. What’s up with electric trucks?

Long, J. October 26, 2011. Piecemeal cuts won’t add up to radical reductions. Nature 478.

Lyden, S. 2014. The State of All-electric trucks in the U.S. medium-duty market.

Motavalli, J. November 16, 2011. Smith Electric to build trucks in the Bronx. New York Times.

Sondhi, K.. Feb 20, 2013. Talking Freight Webinar. FedEx

Vyas, A. D., et al. February 2013. Potential for Energy Efficiency Improvement Beyond the Light-Duty-Vehicle Sector. Prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy by Argonne National Laboratory.

Posted in Batteries, Lithium-ion, Trucks | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Tilting at Windmills, Spain’s disastrous attempt to replace fossil fuels with Solar Photovoltaics

Book review of “Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution. The Energy Return on Investment”, by Pedro Prieto and Charles A.S. Hall. 2013. Springer.

Reviewed by Alice Friedemann,

Last updated April 11, 2015 with responses from Prieto on criticism received at the 2015 Stanford University Net Energy Conference and the attempted suppression of  publication of this book, plus Ted Trainer’s response 

Spain Olmedilla 60 MW Solar PV plantOlmedilla, Spain 60MW Solar Photovoltaic Power Plant. Source: SolarNovus Large Solar Installations around the world.

Note to readers: Charles Hall is one of the originators of the concept of EROI (along with Howard Odum and many others). As a tenured professor not funded by any special interests, he is one of the most respected, cited, and unbiased scientists writing on EROI. I found this description of Hall at an excellent article about energy storage and EROI by John Morgan:

“…US fisheries ecologist Charles Hall noted that the energy a predator gained from eating prey had to exceed the energy expended in catching it. In 1981, Hall applied this net energy analysis to our own power generation activities, charting the decline of the EROI of US oil as ever more drilling was required to yield a given quantity, and suggesting the possibility that oil may one day take more energy to extract than it yields. Hall and others have since estimated the EROI for various power sources, a difficult analysis that requires identification of all energy inputs to power production. EROI is a fundamental thermodynamic metric on power generation. Net energy analysis affords high-level insights that may not be evident from looking at factors such as energy costs, technological development, efficiency and fuel reserves, and sets real bounds on future energy pathways. It is unfortunately largely absent from energy and climate policy development.”

Finally, the first and only book to use massive amounts of real data, not models

This is the only estimate of Energy Returned on Invested (EROI) study of solar Photovoltaics (PV) based on real data.  Other studies use models, or very limited data further hampered by missing figures about lifespan, performance, and so on that are often unavailable due to the private, proprietary nature of solar PV companies.

Models often limit their life cycle or EROI analysis to just the solar panels themselves, which represents only a third of the overall energy embodied in solar PV plants. These studies left out dozens of energy inputs, leading to overestimates of energy such as payback time of 1-2 years (Fthenakis), EROI 8.3 (Bankier), and EROI of 5.9 to 11.8 (Raugei et al).

Prieto and Hall used government data from Spain, the sunniest European country, with accurate measures of generated energy from over 50,000 installations using several years of real-life data from optimized, efficient, multi-megawatt and well-oriented facilities.  These large installations are far less expensive and more efficient than rooftop solar-PV.

Prieto and Hall added dozens of energy inputs missing from past solar PV analyses.  Perhaps previous studies missed these inputs because their authors weren’t overseeing several large photovoltaic projects and signing every purchase order like author Pedro Prieto. Charles A. S. Hall is one of the foremost experts in the world on the calculation of EROI.  Together they’re a formidable team with data, methodology, and expertise that will be hard to refute.

Prieto and Hall conclude that the EROI of solar photovoltaic is only 2.45, very low despite Spain’s ideal sunny climate.  Germany’s EROI is probably 20 to 33% less (1.6 to 2), due to less sunlight and less efficient rooftop installations.

Spain saw much good coming from promoting solar power. There’d be long-term research and development, a Spanish solar industry, and many high-tech jobs created, since the components for the solar plants would be manufactured locally. Spain imports 90% of its fossil fuels, more than any other European nation, so this would lower expensive oil imports as well.

To kick start the solar revolution, the Spanish government promised massive subsidies to solar PV providers at 5.75 times the cost of fossil fuel generated electricity for 25 years (about a 20% profit), and 4.6 times as much after that.  Eventually it was hoped that solar power would be as cheap as power generated by fossil fuels.

Financial Fiasco

The gold rush to get the subsidy of 47 Euro cents per kWh began.  Because the subsidy was so high, far too many solar PV plants were built quickly — more than the government could afford.  This might not have happened if global banks hadn’t got involved and handed out credit like candy.

Even before the financial crash of 2008 the Spanish government began to balk at paying the full subsidies, and after the 2008 crash (which was partly brought on by this over-investment in solar PV), the government began issuing dozens of decrees lowering the subsidies and allowed profit margins. In addition, utilities were allowed to raise their electric rates by up to 20%.

The end result was a massive transfer of public wealth to private solar PV investors of about $2.33 billion euros per year, and businesses that depended on cheap electricity threatened to leave Spain.

Despite these measures, the government is still spending about $10.5 billion a year on renewable energy subsidies, and the Spanish government has had many lawsuits brought against them for lowering subsidies and profit margins.

Solar companies went bankrupt after the financial crash, including the Chinese company Suntech, which sold 40% of its product to Spain.  About 44,000 of the nation’s 57,900 PV installations are almost bankrupt, and companies continue to fail (Cel Celis), or lay off many employees (Spanish photovoltaic module manufacturer T-Solar).

Nor were new jobs, research, and development created, since most of the equipment and solar panels were bought from China.  But unlike China, where the government insisted PV manufacturing be supported by massive research and development (and cybertheft of intellectual property from the United States and other nations), the only “innovations” capitalists in Spain sought were the numerous financial instruments they “invented” to make money, such as “solar mutual funds”.  Far more money went into promoting and selling solar investments than research and development.

Prieto and Hall believe this fiasco could have been avoided if the Spanish government had invited energy and financial analysts to flow-chart the many costs and energy inputs to have had a more realistic understanding of what the costs would be versus the extremely small amount of electricity added to Spain’s electric supply.

Germany’s is having a similar financial solar power fiasco

Germany has spent about $100 billion Euros between 2000-2011 according to Alexander Neubacher’s article in Der Spiegel  Solar Subsidy Sinkhole: Re-Evaluating Germany’s Blind Faith in the Sun (some excerpts below):

“For weeks now, the 1.1 million solar power systems in Germany have generated almost no electricity. The days are short, the weather is bad and the sky is overcast. As is so often the case in winter, all solar panels more or less stopped generating electricity at the same time.

To avert power shortages, Germany imports large amounts of electricity generated at nuclear power plants in France and the Czech Republic and powering up an old oil-fired plant in the Austrian city of Graz.

Solar farm operators and homeowners with solar panels on their roofs collected more than €8 billion ($10.2 billion) in subsidies in 2011, but the electricity they generated made up only about 3% of the total power supply at unpredictable times.

The distribution networks are not designed to allow tens of thousands of solar panel owners to switch at will between drawing electricity from the grid and feeding power into it.

Because there are almost no storage options, the excess energy has to be destroyed at substantial cost. German consumers already complain about having to pay the second-highest electricity prices in Europe.

Under Germany’s Renewable Energy Law, each new system qualifies for 20 years of subsidies. A mountain of future payment obligations is beginning to take shape in front of consumers’ eyes.

According to the Rhine-Westphalia Institute for Economic Research (RWI), the solar energy systems connected to the grid in 2011 alone will cost electricity customers about €18 billion in subsidy costs over the next 20 years. The RWI also expects the green energy surcharge on electricity bills to go up again soon. It is currently 3.59 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity, a number the German government had actually pledged to cap at 3.5 cents. But because of the most recent developments, RWI expert Frondel predicts that the surcharge will soon increase to 4.7 cents per kilowatt hour. For the average family, this would amount to an additional charge of about €200 a year, in addition to the actual cost of electricity. Solar energy has the potential to become the most expensive mistake in German environmental policy.

Solar lobbyists like to dazzle the public with impressive figures on the capability of solar energy. For example, they say that all installed systems together could generate a nominal output of more than 20 gigawatts, or twice as much energy as is currently being produced by the remaining German nuclear power plants.

But this is pure theory. The solar energy systems can only operate at this peak capacity when optimally exposed to the sun’s rays (1,000 watts per square meter), at an optimum angle (48.2 degrees) and at the ideal solar module temperature (25 degrees Celsius, or 77 degrees Fahrenheit) — in other words, under conditions that hardly ever exist outside a laboratory.

In fact, all German solar energy systems combined produce less electricity than two nuclear power plants. And even that number is sugarcoated, because solar energy in a relatively cloudy country like Germany has to be backed up with reserve power plants. This leads to a costly, and basically unnecessary, dual structure.

Because of the poor electricity yield, solar energy production also saves little in the way of harmful carbon dioxide emissions, especially compared to other possible subsidization programs. To avoid a ton of CO2 emissions, one can spend €5 on insulating the roof of an old building, invest €20 in a new gas-fired power plant or sink about €500 into a new solar energy system.

Former industry giant Solarworld, based in the western city of Bonn, is having problems. Solon and Solar Millennium, once considered model companies, have gone out of business. Schott Solar shut down a plant that was producing solar cells in Alzenau near Frankfurt, shedding 276 jobs and losing €16 million in government subsidies in the process.”

So is Japan

If every solar plant now on the drawing board were actually to be built in the Japanese region of Kyushu, it would cost users $23 billion, four times the premium they’re paying now. Solar power here is costly for consumers because of high state-mandated prices. Utilities say their infrastructure cannot handle the swelling army of solar entrepreneurs intent on selling their power or handle the fluctuating output of thousands of mostly small solar producers.  To do this, utilities need to install more hardware — transmission cables, substations and the like — and develop new kinds of expertise to avoid disruptions. To make renewables work they have to be properly connected to the power system. Installed solar capacity roughly doubled  since 2012, when a law took effect requiring utilities to buy renewable energy from outside producers at rates far above market prices. By last summer it stood at 3.4 gigawatts, about equal to the output of three modern nuclear reactors but only when the sun was shining at full strength. An additional 8.4 gigawatts’ worth of projects are planned, more power than the region consumes on some low-demand days — and far too much for Kyushu Electric’s grid to handle without the risk of failures.  New transmission cables are being laid but progress is slowed by the expensive task of securing land rights (Soble).

A realistic look at solar PV can give us better ideas of how to cope in the future

Solar advocates can learn from this analysis as well to design solar PV with far less dependency on fossil fuels.  That can only be done by realistically looking at all of the inputs required to build a solar PV plant.  Narrowing the boundaries to avoid these realities is not good science and leads to wasted money and energy that could have been better spent preparing more wisely for declining fossil fuels in the future such as Heinberg’s “50 Million Farmers“.

Some energy statistics


  • The world burns 400 EJ of power, though after fossil fuels begin their steep decline, there will be 10-20 EJ less per year.
  • Very large oil fields provide 80% of oil, and they’re declining from 2 to 20% per year, on average at 6.7%.
  • The exponential decline rate is expected to increase to 9% if not enough investments are made – and perhaps 9% or more even with investments
  • Oil is the basis of 97% of transportation

Spain’s solar photovoltaic electricity

  • It’s the 2nd largest installation of PV on earth
  • Produces about 10% of the world’s PV power: 4,237 MW—equal to four large 1000 MW coal or nuclear power plants
  • Solar PV would have to cover 2,300 square miles to replace the energy of nuclear and fossil fuel plants.  You’d also need the equivalent of 300 billion car batteries to store power for night-time consumers.
  • In 2009, these plants generated 2.26% of Spain’s electricity, the largest percent of any nation in the world

2009 Types of PV Installations in Spain (ASIF. July 2010 report)

  • 63%        Fixed plants
  • 13%        1-axis trackers
  • 24%        2-axis trackers

Types of PV Used 

  •     .6%     HCPV
  •   2.1%     Thin Film
  • 97.3%     Crystalline silicon

Amount of Power generated

  • 36%     < 2 MW
  • 20%     2-5 MW
  • 44%     > 5 MW

Where were the PV panels placed

  •   2.2     Rooftop
  • 97.8     On the ground (far more efficient than rooftop)

Why wasn’t as much power produced as promised?

Only 66% of the nameplate, or peak power, was actually delivered over 2009, 2010, and 2011.  The expected amount was 1,717 GWh/MWn but only 1,372 GWh/MWn were produced.

Typical losses in Performance Ration (PR) analysis (see Slide 14)

% Loss is the “loss factor in % over nameplate”

% Loss     Reason

0.6       Mismatch of modules. One bad apple and all the rest are reduced to the lowest common denominator — the least efficient module. Mismatches can occur from irregular shading, ice, dust, and other problems.

1.0     Dust losses can be as high as 4 to 6% if washing isn’t done often enough

1.0     Angular and Spectral loss of reflection when the PV isn’t directly aimed at the sun

5.5     Losses due to temperature

1.0     Maximum power point tracker

1.0     DC wiring

5.4     AC/DC output of inverter

0.4     AC wiring within the PV plant

2.1     Medium-voltage losses within the plant

0.0     Non-fulfillment of nominal power, Shadowing/Shading, voltage sags, swells, etc

Performance Ratio: 82

Other losses beyond the typical Performance Ratio: extended performance ratio factors

8.0     Peak versus nominal installed power factoring

2.0     Losses in the evacuation/connection line/transformers

11.4     Degradation of modules over time

Will PV modules really last for 25 years?  If not, the EROI is less than 2.45

Prieto and Hall distributed the Energy Invested across 25 years, but it is not likely that PV (and other manufacturers) will honor their contracts for that long:

  1. Many manufacturers are already out of business, and many more will go out of business as their level of technology falls behind advancements elsewhere in the world. Companies who took on lots of debt expecting higher subsidies are failing now and will continue to do so.
  2. Events of Force Majeure, acts of god, wind, lightning, storms, floods, and hail are likely to damage facilities within the next 25 years.
  3. The degradation of PV modules may be higher than 1%/year up to a maximum of 20% over 25 years. This figure was very hard to come by, since Solar PV manufacturers don’t like to reveal it. Prieto & Hall found out by looking at commercial contracts.
  4. Any component that degrades or fails, not just the PV itself, will lower the overall EROI.
  5. As fossil fuels decline, it will be hard to find the resources to maintain society. These plants will not be high priority, since dwindling diesel fuel will be diverted to agriculture, trucks, and other more essential services.
  6. Once fossil fuels begin their steep decline, social unrest will make it hard for businesses to operate.

Low EROI: The Devil is in the Details

Most of the book explains the methodology and details of how EROI was calculated. The level of detail even extends to each of the three types of facilities (fixed, 1-axis, 2-axis) for many factors.  Below is a partial summary of the Energy Invested table 6.18 in the book with the Energy Invested and money-to-energy columns missing. You can also see an older version in slide 18).  Economic expenses (not shown) were converted to GWh/year energy equivalents and spread across 25 years.  The book goes to great lengths to explain how they converted money to EROI equivalents.

GWh/year        Factors


56.6   Foundations, canals, fences, accesses

4.7   Evacuation lines and right of way

11.2   Module washing and cleaning

28.2   Self consumption in plants

138.6   Security and surveillance


608      Modules, inverters, trackers, metallic infrastructure (labor not included)


96      Transportation (locally in Spain, international (i.e. China)

148.4   Premature phase out of unamortized manufacturing and other equipment

0       Energy costs of injection of intermittent loads; massive storage systems

(i.e. pump-up costs)

19.9   Insurance

26.4   Fairs, exhibitions, promotions, conferences

34.3   Administrative expenses

14      Municipal taxes etc (2-4% of total project)

8.7   Land cost (to rent or own)

16      Indirect labor (consultants, notary publics, civil servants, legal costs, etc)

6      Market or Agent representative

11.9   Equipment theft and vandalism

0      Pre-inscription, inscription, registration, bonds & fees

178      Electrical network / power line restructuring

39.6   Faulty modules, inverters, trackers

198      Associated energy costs to injection of intermittent loads; network stabilization associated costs (combined cycles)

0          Force majeure: Acts of God, wind, storms, lightning, storms, floods, hail

The 2,065.3 GWe of the above energy inputs used annually to generate electricity is 40.8% of all the electricity generated by the solar PV plants of Spain, resulting in an EROI of 2.45 (1/.408).

Most life-cycle analyses only consider the 608 GWe of the modules, inverters, etc.  They also usually ignore some or all of the Balance of System energy expenses (energy used on-site) and the remaining factors.

I can’t resist a few examples to give you an idea of how complex a solar PV plant is. Every factor had complications and nuances that made this book very interesting and entertaining to read.

The access roads from the main highway to the plant, which across all the PV plants in Spain added up to about 300 km (186 miles),  used 450,000 m3 or 900,000 tons of gravel.  That takes 90,000 truckloads of 10 tons each traveling an average of 60 km round-trip, or 5,400,000 km (3,355,400 miles) at .31 of diesel per km or 1,620,000 liters of diesel. At 10.7 KWh/liter, that’s 17.3 GWh of fuel.  Then you need to add the energy used by other equipment, such as road rollers, shovels, pickups, and cars for personnel, and the energy to grind, mix, and prepare the gravel and the machinery required.

There are also service roads onsite to inverters, transformers, and distributed station housings, the control center, and corridors between rows of modules.  There are foundations and canals.  A total of 1,572,340 tons of concrete was used, requiring 489.3 GWh of energy.

Surrounding all these facilities are fences 2 meters high that used 3,350 tons of galvanized steel, and another 3,350 tons of steel posts, or 385 GWh of energy.

Washing and cleaning Solar Panels

Solar plants tend to be in desert-like surroundings with little water. Spain is so short on water they’ve got the 4th largest desalinization capacity in the world. Solar PV can’t be washed with tap or well water because they leave calcium and mineralized salts which degrade the PV performance, and can even scratch them.  So the water has to be de-mineralized, decalcified, and sometimes even de-ionized. Washing might take place on average four times per year, but that’s not nearly enough – dust storms and dust from agriculture plowing can happen any time of the year, perhaps even right after they’ve been washed.

Critics of their book dismiss these issues by mentioning various techno-fixes.  Across all technologies, whether it’s biofuels or nuclear power, this is an easy way for pepole who want to believe in something to dismiss criticism.  So for the dust problem here’s an example of how the problem has been “solved”.    Critics reply that the technology exists to use an electrostatic charge to repel dust and force it to the edges of the panels. But when you look into this, you find that the technology was developed for NASA to use on Mars back in 2010.  On earth, this technology has to compete with cheaper technologies such as blowing air or adding a non-stick layer.  And on Earth, it doesn’t work if the dust gets wet and turns to mud.   Consider how much EROI (and money) it would cost to replace all of Spain’s solar panels to have this feature.  The panels can’t be modified because it’s embedded in the panel using “a transparent electrode material such as indium tin oxide to deliver an alternating current to the top surface of the panel.”  That will take some EROI as well.  Indium is very expensive — it’s a rare earth metal, and the U.S. Department of Energy considers it critically rare for the next 5 years. China has 73% of the world’s Indium reserves, refines half of it, and limits exports.  The USA has been 100% dependent on indium imports since 1972.  The U.S. DOE says reductions in “non-clean energy demand” will be needed “to prevent shortages and price spikes”. This article also pointed out that dust storms reduced power production by 40 percent at a large, 10-megawatt solar power plant in the United Arab Emirates.  I wonder how bad the dust storms are in Spain?  Will the 2nd edition of Prieto & Hall’s book reduce the EROI even further?  (Bullis).

Cheaper and More Efficient DOESN’T MATTER: PV is only 1/3 of the EROI

Critics of this book will say cheaper and more efficient PV cells are on the way.  But as Prieto and Hall point out, the most effect an improved solar PV could have on the overall EROI is a maximum of 1/3 because of all the other factors.  Plus EROI goes down every time the oil price goes up, because that causes all of the other factors to increase.  Press releases of solar PV breakthroughs can be very exciting, but keep in mind that none of these past improvements could replace fossil fuels: thin-film, nanotechnology PV, cadmium telluride cells, organic cells, flexible cells, rollable sheets of PV for rooftops, slate modules, multi-junction cells, back-junction cells with 20-40% efficiency, PV grapheme, etc.

These improvements have costs, that’s part of what’s meant by the “premature phase out” factor.  Solar businesses and PV plants go bankrupt when out-competed if they can’t afford to make expensive alterations and retrofits.

Spain PV plants 20 MW and 22 MW 2-axisTwo axis tracking PV Plants of 20 MWn and 22.1 MWp. Slide 25 states that to replace a nuclear plant 1/3 that of Fukushima with solar PV, you’d need to expand the area above 430 times to 190 square miles. Photo Source:

Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI)

[Also see pitfall 8 in Gail Tverberg: 8 pitfalls in evaluating green energy solutions]

EROI = Energy returned to society / Energy invested to get that energy

Hall and Prieto believe that solar is a low EROI technology.  Solar has too many energy costs and dependencies on fossil fuels throughout the life cycle to produce much energy. It’s more of a “fossil-fuel extender” because PV can’t replicate itself, let alone provide energy beyond that to human society.

Nor is solar PV carbon neutral.  Too many of the inputs require fossil fuels.

Solar PV doesn’t come close to providing the 12 or 13 EROI needed to run a complex civilization like ours.

In the introduction, the authors say that “we recognize that some of our inputs will be controversial. We leave it to the reader and to future analysts to make their own decisions about inclusivity and methods in general for a comprehensive analysis of EROI. Whatever your opinion, this study should really open your eyes to the degree to which fossil fuels underlie everything we do in our technological society.”

But I would argue the boundaries can’t possible capture all the oil-based antecedents.  Fossil fuels are so embedded in every aspect of our life that we can’t see them. Think about solar PV when you read my summary of Leonard Read’s antecedents of a pencil.

April 1, 2015 update: Criticism of Prieto and Hall

I was at a net energy conference at Stanford University the past two days. The hoped for outcome is a new net energy think-tank that would standardize net energy by having a specific way researchers must conduct their studies, which LCA or other data tables are most-up-to-date and should be used, what assumptions they must state, and so on.  If researchers strayed from this format or added additional material, they’d need to say why.

The reason this needs to be done is because policy makers don’t take EROI studies seriously. Nor should they since they’re too easy to game by proponents (i.e. not counting the energy to make steel because it is 100% recycled, cherry-picking the best performing wind or solar farms over the best performing time period, etc).  Policy makers can’t be expected to make policy decisions or recommendations when EROI studies of a renewable ranges from 4 to 115.

Meta-studies can’t be done either because there is too much missing data, and/or unstated assumptions, and/or different models used, and rarely is real data available, since private companies don’t have to, and don’t want to reveal their true performance, operation, and maintenance costs or they’d get less investment and lower stock prices.

Yet even at the conference several EROI papers were not clear about their boundaries.  Long after the artificial photosynthesis presentation it came up that the outside boundary was set at 300 feet outside the factory gate.  Earlier they said the best guess EROI was 1.66, clearly if storage of the hydrogen produced, and delivery to the customer were added, the EROI is probably negative. The researcher implied that trying to combine the hydrogen with CO2 to make liquid fuels would be negative at this stage.  There may be a good reason why the boundary is 300 feet away, probably they assume that there’s a refinery nearby using the hydrogen to upgrade heavy or tarsand oil.

By the end of the conference I was a bit frustrated at the lack of discussion of boundaries.

This has been the main problem for 40 years and one of the big reasons why  studies come up with such different results.

So I asked the panel what they thought should be done about the boundary issue. For example, ethanol studies using narrow boundaries found higher EROI values than those with the widest boundaries, which often found a negative EROI.  Then I said that if there’s to be a discussion of how to set boundaries, I recommended Spain’s PV revolution by Prieto and Hall which used real production data over several years rather than models as a good way to decide  what to include or not include, and why, because I thought the boundaries should be as wide as possible. Also, since what you’re proposing is a mostly electric world, does that mean new standards will include the electricity used to make cement for the windmill and roads it travels on, the electricity to make the steel and fiberglass, and the electricity to make electric mining trucks and the electric delivery trucks that deliver the windmill?  And what would that electric delivery truck look like anyhow?

I had the strong impression this was not a welcome question. No one leaped to answer, and finally one of the panelists said that the boundaries ought to be wide but that this question was best talked about over a glass of wine.

After this session one of the speakers, Marco Raugei, at Oxford Brookes University, came over.  He was very upset by my question because he thought Prieto and Hall’s book was awful. He told me it was so bad that several scientists had tried to prevent Springer from printing it.

I told Raugei that I had looked very hard for any criticism of the book but had not been able to find any rebuttals, so what exactly was wrong with it?  Raugei replied that the book wasn’t peer-reviewed.  So I asked why someone didn’t write a paper to refute the book, and he said that since it wasn’t peer-reviewed, why bother, but I pointed out that Farrell in 2006 had used non peer-reviewed papers in his famous ethanol EROI study.  I don’t know if their book not being peer-reviewed is a valid criticism or not, does anyone know?

When I asked Raugei to tell me more about what was wrong, he said that it was inconsistent in so many ways, not defensible the way economic inputs were converted from money to energy such as the insurance figures, some air travel expenses, too haphazard, inconsistent in method and goal, not clear enough in stating that this is just one snapshot moment in time in Spain and that it used an ill-advised subsidy scheme, that the EROI is not the same in other countries and parts of the world, and that the goals should have been more explicitly explained.

What goals? I assume he thinks they try to come up with low EROI figures, which is outrageous, they have no special interests in pushing the result up or down.

If anything, Prieto ought to be skewing results towards a high solar PV EROI since he built some of the solar plants he writes about in the book.  He could make more money by touting solar PV rather than by criticizing it. Hall certainly has no dog in this fight.  In fact, if there were a way to have outsiders with no financial interest do EROI studies I’d be all for it, because parties with a financial interest tend to skew the results, such as the National Corn Growers Association funded scientists, who found the highest EROI results in their non-peer-reviewed papers.

I know there has been a firestorm of criticism of this book, but it’s all within private email, and the only one I have been privy to said that a better LCA database should have been used.

EROI is the only rational way to look at energy contraptions and to reach the right conclusions about what should be done.  I don’t have high hopes that a standardized way of doing EROI will be done.

It was ironic that Steven Chu was the opening keynote speaker at this net energy conference, since Patzek once wrote me that “Steven Chu decided not to fund my Laboratory Directed Research and Development (at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory) project whose goal it would have been to arrive at a consistent thermodynamic description of all major energy capture schemes bio and fossil, so that we compare apples with apples. What I did not appreciate is that no one wants to know that they may be working on a senseless project, such as industrial hydrogen from algae. I despair seeing the rapid corruption and sovietization of American science (without the Soviet strengths in basic sciences), but can do little about it. … It is not easy to get funded on the subjects I have proposed.  …In fact, my LDRD proposal to develop the comprehensive thermodynamic language to talk about the different energy resources was just not funded…”

Someday when a future history of science author attempts to write about the history of EROI, I hope that Patzek, Hall, and others have written memoirs that discuss how hard it was to get funding, get published (did scientists really try to prevent Spain’s solar revolution from being published?!), the criticism they received, and so on, because I think it will be of great interest to the grandchildren and further generations down the line.  Understanding why renewables have such low EROI might prevent cargo-cult like behavior to spend huge amounts of resources and time to build them after the dark age that may ensue at some point on the downslope of Hubbert’s curve.

Pedro Prieto’s 4/11/15 response to criticism of his book:

(Bold is my emphasis):

Alice, as promised, let’s start answering and commenting on some of your wise comments.

The first thing is to confirm that no EROI studies can be taken seriously if the range of results varies so wildly. So it is quite a sensible approach to try to reconcile the different studies and methodologies.

Having said that, the prevailing methodology is what fails, specifically in the case of Solar PV analyses, but also in others. Experts in solar PV will have more and more available data as time passes from global installations.

Until now, we had seen many studies on different solar PV technologies with different typologies and topologies. Even before our book “ Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution. The Energy Return on Investment” (Prieto & Hall. Springer 2013) appeared, there were already many variances and divergences.

Even works of Fthenakis or Raugei have contemplated significant variances in the EROI results over time and with different studies of solar plants.

But they all had a methodology in common: they generally used, as you have correctly pointed out, the best material recovery, the best theoretical solar PV system in each case, the best irradiated areas, the assumption that systems will operate in full along the lifetime with no problems. In summary, a methodology that has helped or served as documentary support or reference to many to reach global conclusions on the long term ability of modern renewables to replace, take over or substitute fossil fuels, from a given particular plant analysis extrapolated massively. That was the case, for instance, of Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucci in their studies on how modern renewables could replace fossils and supply the present global consumption. This is a traditional bottom-up approach.

After my experiences of several years in the field with different technologies, typologies, topologies, latitudes and state of development countries and confronting with the real world results, Charles Hall and myself, after having had a pint of beer in an Irish Pub in Cork commenting these issues, in the ASPO International Conference held there in 2007, decided to embark in a study on solar PV. But we tried to do it in a radically different form. It took us several years of back and forth, discussions, checks and double checks, consulting with other experts and so on.

The study, as many of you may already know, was on a real world installed plant in the best irradiated country in Europe (Spain), with the official and very accurate energy production records of the Ministry of Industry (read by telemetry to more than 40,000 digital sealed meters in each of the respective individual plants) over a period of three complete years (2009-2011). That was the main innovation: a top-down analysis and the huge scope of the solar PV plants working in the real world, rather than theoretical academic bottom-up approaches.

With more than 140 GW of installed plants worldwide, and several complete yearly cycles of operation of many of them, it is going to be increasingly difficult for some authors to continue with the academic approach, to verify real behavior of the EROI.

Now, about the energy input boundaries.

Of course, if we focus only on the energy inputs of the solar modules and their composition (glass, aluminum frame, connection box, copper or silver soldering, doping materials, silicon, ingots, wafers, cells, etc.) and perhaps inverters or metallic structures orienting and tilting the arrays, then we may come with spectacular results in a very good irradiated area with the theoretical module yield. This is what has been generally considered in most of the studies carried out to date and what is proposed by some authors as the recommended methodology.

But this is just one of the factors we looked into when we decided to analyze the energy inputs of a complete solar PV system, not just what appears in the marketing pictures of the solar plants.

After many years working in the field, one can appreciate the number of activities that are indispensable (sine qua non conditions), for a solar PV plant to work and operate as some of the authors of several EROI/LCA/EPBT studies consider they are going to work.

We differentiate some 24 factors and additional analysis that was not absolutely complete nor exhaustive, but proven and existing. None of these factors had been considered or hardly appeared in but few of the analyses made by the most renowned solar PV EROI authors. Your study of our book already identifies some of them and I have mentioned them on many occasions.

One of the factors, a7 (the energy input required for modules, inverters, trackers (if any) and metallic infrastructures, labor excluded), was precisely the EROI as usually calculated by many authors. We decided not to judge the different results of this universe of conclusions but to accept a sensible average of the range of many publications that gave us an EROI in itself for this concept of 8:1; that is, for 25 years of lifespan an Energy Pay Back Time (EPBT) of 3.1 years. Or an energy input cost equivalent to 0.125 of the total generation along the lifespan of the system.

But then we started to consider the rest of the factors (boundaries or extended energy input boundaries) and discovered that conventional EROI studies were ignoring 2/3 of energy inputs indispensable to get the solar PV plants in operation.

The list calculated the energy inputs, based on the experience of several plants in Spain and extrapolating to the 4 GW installed power studied in the book, to road accesses to the plants, foundations, canalizations, perimeter fences, evacuation lines, rights of way, O&M module washing or cleaning self consumption, security and surveillance, transportation — sometimes as far as from China, premature phase-out or un-amortized manufacturing and other equipment, insurances, fairs exhibitions, promotions or conferences (like the one you had in Stanford –to whom to attribute the involved energy expenses?), administration expenses, municipality taxes, duties and levies, cost of land rent or ownership, circumstantial labor (notary publics, public officers, civil servants, etc.) agent representative or market agent, equipment stealing or vandalism, communications, remote control and plant management, pre-inscription, inscription and registration bonds and fees as required by the authorities, electrical networks and power lines restructuring ass a consequence of the newly injected 4 GW in a national network with about 100 GW, in unexpected and not previously planned nodes of the grid, faulty modules, inverters or trackers, associated costs to the injection of intermittent loads: network stabilization associated costs (only referred to combined cycle gas fired plants, well known costs).

Some of these factors may certainly have diminished with time. Many others, have certainly increased over time. Taxes, for instance, have raised sharply. Stealing in Spain, for instance, is not relevant, but in many countries of the world it is a problem.

We mentioned and developed a little of the associated energy costs of the injection of intermittent loads, by pump up or other massive electric energy storage systems, because we knew it was going to be fundamental and relevant and did not want to open any more the old wounds in an already meager EROI. These costs are still today in a fierce debate in Spain and in many other countries, but they are certainly relevant, should the modern renewables have to replace the present fossil fueled global societal functions.

As you can see, the BOUNDARIES are of essence to determine the real life EROI, rather than an academic EROI. No one critical of our book, could say, to the best of my knowledge, that any of these briefly listed factors was not a real one and was not needed to have (at least in Spain) a solar PV system up and running along its lifetime. But for some strange reason they had never considered them.

Once they recognized the facts of real life, then this battlefield was rapidly abandoned and shifted to the “comparison” with other energy sources, namely the fossil fuel sources. Some authors were claiming that if fossil fuels were treated with these ‘extended’ energy input boundaries and factors, their EROIs should obviously go down in a similar proportion.

What they did, then, was to use a multiplying factor on the order of 3 for solar PV, arguing that it has a logic, when comparing equivalent systems and using an equivalent methodology. I fully disagree and I have shown in several occasions the reason why:

The world uses (mostly burns) about 13 BToe/year of primary energy or more than 510 EJ/year.

Of that, approximately 170 EJ of fossil + nuclear go to produce an equivalent of 40 EJ of clean and useful electricity, this making the point of Raugei valid to some extent, if the solar PV systems would entirely go to replace electricity produced by fossil fuels, because of the losses of about 2/3 of the primary energy in the conversion process.

But the world is not behaving in this way, as scientists like Raugei and Fthenakis must know. New renewables just enter into the energy equation to simply provide more energy to the global system.

Above all, the most important flaw in this assumption is that the world also consumes about 285 EJ in non-electrical uses, like aviation, civil works, mining, transportation, merchant fleets, armies or agriculture (eating fossil fuels, Dale Allen Pfeiffer). And it happens that if we would pretend to use electricity from renewables to replace the fossil fuels used for these global activities, likely through an energy carrier like the eternal hydrogen promise, the pretended multiplication factor used by Carbajales et. al, would immediately operate in the reverse form and become a division factor, probably in the order of 3, with respect to the direct use of fossil fuels of today. That is why we did not employ this “correction factor” used by Carbajales et al.

I will not enter into this debate further, because I find it futile. I do not care if when treating the EROI of coal, oil or gas with these extended boundaries may go down 2/3 from already published studies, now ranging with the old methodologies, for instance, from 100 to 12:1 for oil, depending on the period and places, or 60 to 20:1 or coal or gas in similar levels.

Taking down these 2/3 of present EROI studies will not change the fact that this society is now moving itself with fossils in an 80%. And makes it possible to move it. This is the final proof. And an important part of the rest (excluding perhaps a part of biomass in underdeveloped countries) is also being produced because the energy subsidies given by fossil fuels to the other sources, like nuclear, or hydro, that we could not have dreamt of having them, if a well endowed fossil fueled society and its related machinery and technology wouldn’t have been available. Nuclear, hydro, solar PV, solar thermal or wind energies are underpinned (or absolutely underpinned) by a fossil fueled society, not the vice versa. The global society has been making its growing economic, industrial and technological life basically without those energy sources. But we could not imagine these sources working and feeding themselves in all the complex value chain, and besides giving an important net energy surplus to the global society. Not now, neither in a foreseeable horizon.

That is, we can not ignore this crucial fact: biomass helped initially to coal to develop, but 60 years from the first massive use of coal, this fossil fuel had already passed biomass in volume and versatility of use and became quite independent of biomass.

This happened circa 1900, at the level of 800 MToe/year of global primary energy consumption and with about 1.6 billion inhabitants.

Then came oil, much more dense and versatile than coal. It took oil again about 60-70 years to pass coal and biomass as the main global energy source. This happened circa 1960, but then, in a consumption level of 3,000 MToe/year and with 3 billion people on Earth.

Now, we move in the level of 13,000 Mtoe/year of global primary energy consumption and with about 7.2 billion people. But gas or nuclear have not passed oil as the prime energy source. And we have to wonder why, if they were discovered and tried to be used massively more than 60 years ago.

Quite the contrary, we are moving fast, because of peak oil, back to the possibility of coal surpassing oil again in a decade or so, as the main energy contributor, but this time, probably at a lower global consumption level and probably with a world population still growing in numbers and in poverty.

The first two big energy transitions (biomass to coal and coal to oil) were made with the surpassed energy source still growing and helping to initially boost the coming one, but soon proved to be quite self sufficient to feed a growing and demanding global society, well after paying for their own energy inputs in the exploration, mining or drilling, extraction, transporting, refining and distributions processes WITHOUT ANY DOUBT, because nobody will doubt the evolution of the last century and the role of the fossil fuels on it. Now, we have to face the third big energy transition, in the highest level of energy consumption and population and with the main energy fuel, oil, in depletion.

Of course, one has to accept that in this complex world, all energy sources are somehow interrelated, but, as Orwell said in The Animal Farm, ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. This is exactly what is happening with the energy sources and its properties and qualities: they can all be measured in EJ or in TWh or whatever, but some are more equal than others. Meaning that there is an obvious ASYMMETRIC interdependence of energy sources, being in the last century, the fossil fuels (and oil in a very first place), the ones responsible for our present global status.

To me, then, there is a non sequitur to shift the EROI battlefield to try to extend the boundaries in the fossil fuel EROI studies, to lower them and favor renewables by comparison, because whatever the EROI and the boundaries considered, it is obvious that the present global society spending 13 BToe/year of primary energy (80% of them from fossils), has been able in the last century (we shall see for how long) to pay their own energy expenses, and BESIDES putting a huge net energy surplus at the disposal of 7.2 billion humans and keep growing in a spectacular form for more than a century.

For instance, when the IAE mentions in their WEOs the costs of ‘subsidies’ to different energy sources, it always calculates much bigger subsidies for fossil fuels than for the modern renewables. It is a sort of energy fallacy, from my point of view.

If the global society has resources to subsidize anything, it is because it has previously gotten a surplus of resources from somewhere. And this ‘somewhere’ is obviously a global society that has created them using mainly fossil fuels at discretion. I can ‘subsidize’ my son to go to the cinema, but I cannot ‘subsidize’ myself from the salaryI  earn by myself and saved in my left pocket, by changing it to my right pocket.

I understand that some fossil fueled activities may certainly be ‘subsidized’ in certain forms. For instance, kerosene for aviation in the airports, which is tax exempted in many countries, when compared with gasoline. Or ‘subsidized’ coal prices paid to depleted coal basins in Spain to continue producing low quality brown coal, to keep the social peace in the region and avoid the miners revolting. But it is a fallacy to conclude that ‘somebody’ is ‘subsidizing’ fossil fuels globally speaking, when fossil fuels are 80% of our global activities creating surplus. From a strict energy point of view, fossil fuels are subsidizing basically the whole present world activities. Period.

What in reality the OECD watchdog does is a mystifying operation. When digging up the IEA figures of ‘subsidies’ of fossil fuels, one discovers that they are really talking about ‘prices’ or ‘price levels’ of fuel in the producing countries that are selling them domestically at prices lower than those the IEA drawn line would wish they had, to leave more ground to the big OECD importers to buy this fuel from producers at prices OECD can afford.

Coming back to the energy input expenses in extended boundaries, we also left out the financial costs, despite knowing that they were quite large and generally also a sine qua non factor. Most of the plants have been financed in an 80% of the total turnkey projects at about 10 years term, with interest, that ranged from 2% to 5% per year. I firmly believe that finance is a form of using a pre-stored available resource (in a fossil fueled society, coming from fossil fuel related activities) to erect or put in place and operate a given system. In that case, an energy system. So, when one asks for credit or leasing and has to pay back with this resource the principal and the interest to the bank, in let’s say a 10 year term, this is energy evaporating into the system through the bank.

Labor energy input costs were also left aside, even we had a very good set of data from industry in Spain, classified by categories, skills and full time and part time employees in the sector. The reason was that some of our factors may have had already included part of this labor in, to avoid some limited duplicities.

If we had included these financial (even just the additional money created and having to pay back in the form of interests by the requested credits or leasing) and labor energy input cost, the solar PV EROI would have probably plummeted to  <1:1.

In fact, it is very surprising how they criticize the methodology we used to evaluate the financial data (which they did not question basically in numbers), by stating that the conversion of monetary into energy units is not adequate and do not conform to conventional input-output methodologies. Our methodology is clear in these conversion units and reflects a quite direct relation between GDP and total primary energy spent in Spain or between active labor and energy spent per laborer or any given and specific related industrial activity or service rendered. This despite we mentioned that Spain hasn’t publish, for years, any input-output tables for the economy (Carpintero, Oscar).

However, it seems remarkable how some are incapable of detecting any anomaly in describing EPBT’s of solar systems recovering the energy spent in them in a question of few months for a life time of 30 years (EROI’s of 40:1 !!) and the astounding divorce with the economic reality, of a world or promoters that look for about 10 years economic recovery, this including heavy premium tariffs (Germany, Spain, Italy, now UK or France) or tax holidays or exemption (US and others) or economic recoveries that last more than the expected life time, if no economic incentives are given.

Without these incentives, the rest of the world is a renewables wasteland. Promoters are virtually not investing (with few exceptions in volume worldwide) in modern renewables, if there are no such incentives. The 140 GW world installed base so certifies, with about 70% of the global installed base made in developed countries with incentive schemes and some 25% made by emerging countries, like China or India (now Brazil or South Africa in a much lesser amounts), also with strong political incentives to cope world markets, leaving a meager 5% for the rest of the world. Doesn’t this crude reality shows anything in their conversion of monetary units to energy units methodologies, to the ones giving EPBTs of few months and financial recoveries of many years?

So, I am not surprised, Alice, that some experts, having in their records tens of papers published with high solar PV EROI results, would have shown some annoyance at your question on our book. I would humbly ask from here that when somebody mentions that we work with some methodological ‘inconsistencies’, -a term to which they are so fond of to disqualify other disturbing views- they should rather look into the above explanations and facts of the real world.

I have kept silent until now on what I consider a very regrettable behavior now made public by Raugei, as per your comments. It is true that they dared to write our publisher asking him to stop publishing the book when it was in a draft version in a sort of censorship I had not seen since several centuries in medieval Spain. The recommendation came after somebody took the draft from our publisher without our consent some time before the release and they tried to stop the publication, even threatening that they would discredit it, as they have been doing since it was published, if it were published.  I have never seen such a type of behavior, even less in the academic instances.

The reason they gave first is that we missed our final EROI (2-3:1 being quite conservative and I reaffirm myself more and more as years are passing) by an order of 3. That was precisely the Raugei view on the penalty to be imposed on fossil fuels, if a clean electricity source could replace every kWh of fossil fuel origin, considering that in conventional fossil fuel (or nuclear plants for the case) we need about 3 units of primary energy to get out 1 unit of electric energy. We tried to clarify this in some posts, but unsuccessfully.

Fortunately, the publisher did not consider this a direct threat and the book was finally published.

As for the Raugei comment that the book was ‘awful’ because it had not been ‘peer reviewed’, he qualifies himself. Just look at the acknowledgements of the book. Two professors in Physics from different universities did review the book and produce sensible comments. Charles Hall, the coauthor, is an institution in EROI, that is here questioned with superficial comments. Besides, I understand that publishing a book is a free decision, that does not necessarily require peer revisions, yet despite that, we did have our work reviewed. Perhaps what Raugei wanted to say is that the peer review was not made by the usual reviewers in an endogamis game.

I have been observing that in the academic world, things are getting unfortunately tougher. Some of the technical papers have sometimes more pages of references than pages of content (see more of my comments on the article below). In the case of solar PV systems, and the references in published papers, it seems there is an excess of ‘selfies’ which were a fashion in the academic papers, much before than with the smart phones and the sticks. And secondly, it appears that credits are gained or given by the number of references that a given person is quoted and this has started a race for a sort of endogamic cross-quotations, that gives all the reason to Tadeusz Patzek, when he talks about the ‘Sovietization’ of the American science. Perhaps what disturbed Raugei about our book is that we also skipped somehow from these habits and did not leave to the usual teams a review that, with all probability, would have ended in the basket.

Of course, Raugei is right when he presumes that our case is perhaps valid for Spain and for the 4 GW installed within the period 2009-2011. Because should we had considered Germany and its public production of solar PV systems within the same period, the Energy Return in terms of MWh per MWp installed would have been less than half of those of Spain.

I am now retired and happily growing my organic farm. Not now or since 2001, when I left working for a telecom corporation, have I had any interest in discrediting or crediting solar PV systems. I am not making my life by publishing papers and trying to gain credibility on a given subject. If anything, I should have defended, as you very well stated, the solar PV systems, because I own 50 kW within a 1 MW plant that I manage and I have helped to design, develop and done some consulting (including what we call here ‘permisología’ (an intricate paperwork to get all permits and licenses to the the solar PV plants) of more than 30 MW that are working with different technologies, typologies, and topologies in different latitudes in Spain. I have also cooperated with projects in some Latin American and African countries and I have worked as director of Development of Alternative Energies for a listed Spanish company for a couple of years within the period.

Just a final nota bene, with additional comments on the paper Energy return on investment (EROI) of solar PV: an attempt at reconciliation. Michael Carbajales-Dale, Marco Raugei, Vasilis Fthenakis, Charles Banhart Journal of Latex Class Files. Volume 11 No. 4 December 2012


2) select the thumbnail picture on the left and then download

I can’t get the link provided to work, but maybe it’s my computer settings:

The title of this paper, is a supposed attempt to reconcile different views on solar PV EROI, but I have never been informed by the authors of it, even though I have the dubious honor of being cited several times in it.

I did not know that I had formed a so called “Prieto group in Madrid ”, in second place, after Fthenakis group in Brookhaven and before Weissbach group in Berlin or Brandt group in Stanford.

Also surprising is that the document is dated in December 2012 and our book was not published until the spring of 2013. Even more surprising, that the book is mentioned several times, to be criticized, but it does not appear as such (Prieto & Hall. Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution. The energy Return on Investment”. Springer, 2013) in the bulky references, that occupy almost as much space as the article in itself. It appears, however, as some uncertain (P. Prieto and C. Hall, “Eroi of spain ’s solar electricity system,” 2012). This does not seem to be a very edifying example in referencing others.

Then, the paper comments that “an average energy payback time (EPBT) of 3 years and lifetime of 25 years are used to calculate the EROI subscript PE-eq = 8.33 value for this part of the system. No references are given for any other input data; though it appears that anecdotal worst cases of installations were generalized by the authors”.

Well, a brief look to the a7 factor (page 78) of Energy derived from Conventional Life Cycle Analysis Studies and Calculated as an Inverse Factor of EPBT”, comes out with an EROI of 8:1 for the energy content in modules, inverters, trackers and metallic infrastructure, quotes some works of Fthenakis, Alsema and Kim among others not cited, not to make too boring the EROI publications ranging around 8:1 in their conclusions and with these parameters analyzed (without extended energy input boundaries). Some more could be found in many places. In fact, these levels of EROI for solar PV were quite common in the early years of 21st century. See, for instance, Bankier and Gale in its Energy Payback of Roof Mounted Photovoltaic Cells. Energy Bulletin. June 16. 2006, where they come out with a number of EROI’s ranging from EPBT’s from 1 year (EROI 25:1) to 25 years (EROI = 1:1)

Author Low Estimate (years) Low Estimate Key Assumptions High Estimate (years) High Estimate Key Assumptions
Alsema (2000). 2.5 Roof mounted thin film module 3.1 Roof mounted mc-Si module
Alsema. & Nieuwlaar (2000) 2.6 Thin film module 3.2 mc-Si module
Battisti & Corrado (2005) 1.7 Hybrid photovoltaic / thermal module 3.8 Tilted roof, retrofitted mc-Si module
Jester (2002) 3.2 150W peak power mc-Si module 5.2 55W peak power mc-Si module
Jungbluth, N. (2005) 4 mc-Si module if emissions are not taken into account 25.5 sc-Si module if emissions are taken into account
Kato, Hibino, Komoto, Ihara, Yamamoto & Fujihara (2001) 1.1 100MW/yr a-Si, modules including BOS 2.4 10MW/yr mc-Si module including BOS
Kato, Murata & Sakuta (1997) 4 Sc-Si module. Excludes all processes required for micro-electronics industries. 15.5 sc-Si module. Includes all processes required for micro-electronics industries.
Kato, Murata & Sakuta, (1998) 1.1 a-Si module. Excludes all processes required for micro-electronics industries. 11.8 sc-Si module. Includes all processes required for micro-electronics industries.
Knapp & Jester (2001). 2.2 Production thin film module 12.1 Pre-pilot thin film module
Lewis & Keoleian (1996). 1.4 36.7 kWh/yr frameless a-Si module located in Boulder, CO 13 22.3 kWh/yr a-Si module with frame located in Detroit, MI
Meijer, Huijbregts, Schermer & Reijnders (2003). 3.5 mc-Si module 6.3 Thin-film module
Pearce & Lau (2002). 1.6 a-Si module 2.8 sc-Si module
Peharz & Dimroth (2005). 0.7 FLATCON (Fresnel-lens all-glass tandem-cell concentrator) module – 1900 kWh/(m2 yr) insolation 1.3 FLATCON (Fresnel-lens all-glass tandem-cell concentrator) module – 1000 kWh/(m2 yr) insolation
Raugei, Bargigli & Ulgiati (2005) 1.9 CdTe module including BOS 5.1 mc-Si module including BOS
Schaefer & Hagedorn (1992). 2.6 25 MWp a-Si module 7.25 2.5 MWp sc-Si module
Tripanagnostopoulos, Souliotis, Battisti & Corrado (2005). 1 Glazed Hybrid photovoltaic / thermal 4.1 Unglazed Hybrid photovoltaic / thermal
Alsema E. (2000). Energy Pay-back Time and CO2 Emissions of PV Systems. Progress in Photovoltaics: Research And Applications, 8, 17-25.
Alsema. E. Nieuwlaar, E. (2000). Energy viability of photovoltaic systems. Energy Policy, 28, 999-1010.
Battisti, R. Corrado, A. (2005). Evaluation of technical improvements of photovoltaic systems through life cycle assessment methodology. Energy, 30, 952–967.
CSIRO, Advanced Gasification Research Facility, Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies,
Jester, T. (2002). Crystalline Silicon Manufacturing Progress. Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications, 10, 99–106.
Jungbluth, N. (2005). Life Cycle Assessment of Crystalline Photovoltaics in the Swiss ecoinvent Database. Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications, 13, 429–446.
Kato, K. Hibino, T. Komoto, K. Ihara, S. Yamamoto, S. Fujihara, H. (2001). A life-cycle analysis on thin-film CdS/CdTe PV modules. Solar Energy Materials & Solar Cells, 67, 279-287.
Kato, K. Murata, A. Sakuta, K. (1997). An evaluation on the life cycle of photovoltaic energy system considering production energy of off-grade silicon. Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells, 47, 95-100.
Kato, K. Murata, A. Sakuta, K. (1998). Energy Pay-back Time and Life-cycle CO2 Emission of Residential PV Power System with Silicon PV Module. Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications, 6, 105-115.
Knapp, K. Jester, T. (2001). Empirical Investigation of the Energy Payback Time for Photovoltaic Modules. Solar Energy, 71, 165–172.
Lewis, G. Keoleian, G. (1996). Amorphous Silicon Photovoltaic Modules: A Life Cycle Design Case Study. National Pollution Prevention Center, School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan.
Meijer, A., Huijbregts, M., Schermer, J. Reijnders, L. (2003). Life-cycle Assessment of Photovoltaic Modules: Comparison of mc-Si, InGaP and InGaP/mc-Si Solar Modules. Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications, 11, 275–287.
Odum, H. (1996). Environmental Accounting: Emergy and Environmental Decision Making. John Wiley & Sons, New York.
Pearce, J., Lau, A. (2002). Net Energy Analysis for Sustainable Energy Production from Silicon Based Solar Cells. Proceedings of Solar 2002 Sunrise on the Reliable Energy Economy June 15-20, 2002, Reno, Nevada
Peharz, G., Dimroth, F. (2005). Energy Payback Time of the High-concentration PV System FLATCON. Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications, 13, 627–634.
Raugei, M. Bargigli, S. Ulgiati, S. (2005). Energy and Life Cycle Assessment of Thin Film CdTe Photovoltaic Modules. Energy and Environment Research Unit, Department of Chemistry, University of Siena, Italy.
Schaefer, H. Hagedorn G. (1992). Hidden Energy and Correlated Environmental Characteristics of P.V. Power Generation. Renewable Energy, 2, 15-166.
Tripanagnostopoulos, Y. Souliotis M. Battisti R. Corrado A. (2005). Energy, Cost and LCA Results of PV and Hybrid PV/T Solar Systems. Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications, 13, 235–250.

As can be seen from the above, we were far from using as an EROI for modules+inverters, plus metallic infrastructure in a sort of anecdotal worst cases of installations generalized by the authors. On the contrary, we were more in the low estimate in years (high estimate EROI), than using worst cases.

Now, for the record, it should also be very convenient for all the prolific authors on solar PV EROI to revise the figures given in papers published several years ago, to double check how are they performing (Energy return statistics). We are very anxious and expectant to learn how it has gone with, for instance, the hybrid PV/Thermal promising analysis, or even better, the results, years after publication, of the Fresnel lenses combined with high efficiency cells in concentration mode.

I recall specifically in this respect  the V.M. Fthenakis and H.C. Kim paper, titled “Life Cycle Assessment of High-Concentration PV Systems”, in which they analyzed The estimated EPBT of the Amonix 7700 PV high concentration system with Fresnel lenses in operation at Phoenix , AZ, and found 0.9 yrs for its EPBT. I wonder if they could still support this analysis, just five years after their study and how the promising system has contributed to the grid parity worldwide, considering they recovered the energy spent on it in less than one year.

Scientific authors should be more careful when accusing to others of using ‘anecdotal worst cases’, specially for the expected Energy Return along a life time, when they are probably using ‘anecdotal best cases’, instead of going on to real life 3 years cycle proven and official statistics of production for 4 GW installed park.

Talking about the life time (directly involving the Energy Return), it is very interesting to see how some papers have changed the estimated life time of solar PV Systems from 25 years to 30 years. It is curious that virtually all manufacturers give a maximum of 25 years of power guarantee of their modules (with the corresponding degradation process over the years) and 5 years of material guarantee (the later superseding or prevailing on the former in case of failure) and we find scientists happily granting 30 years for the EROI studies. In my opinion this is a clear attempt to produce higher EROI’s and lower EPBT’s with no rational grounds.

The fact that the Carbajales et al paper ends recommending “that the conventions outlined by the EIA PV Systems Program Task 12 (Environmental, Health and Safety) be followed in conducting EROI calculations, considering that the IEA methodology has easily swallowed the 30 years life time for solar PV modules, gives us a very clear clue of what is going on with these recommendations.

In our discussions on this topic a couple of years ago, an editor came to say that if our factors were really sine qua non (indispensable) for the system to be up and running and the IEA methodology did not considered them, perhaps it was the moment to change the IEA methodology.

I would just recommend the IEA tour Spain (it is not the worst country in solar PV systems; on the contrary, it is one of the most efficient in terms of MWh produced per Mw installed). The IEA should come and check and double check how many solar PV plants have not lasted, for a variety of reasons, the 25 year life time of the manufacturers or the 30 years of the IEA backed by some scientists. Just in 2015 alone about 40 MW have been dismantled, with a lifetime averaging about 5 years. Trials are the delight of reputable and expensive law firms, which earn quite a lot of money preparing lawsuits against promoters, manufacturers, banks and the government. That is real life, far beyond the academic instances. I am following now a demand of a promoter that has decided to buy 2/7 of the modules he originally bought for his 500 kW plant, because the manufacturer (not Chinese), he originally bought from 6 years ago, has disappeared, as have most of the European manufacturers in the last 5 years. One wonders what is the value of a technical guarantee on power, if the life time of the manufacturers becomes much shorter than the one of the power of the promised modules. This is, of course, ‘anecdotal’, although not for the interests of the affected promoters.


After a couple of years from the publication, I have much more data to reaffirm for myself that we were really conservative in our 2.4:1 EROI for many different reasons and factors. But I will not publish more data. I will go back now to my organic garden and wish you all the best for what I suspect may be a grim future.

I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will. Antonio Gramsci.

Pedro in Madrid, without any group.

Ted Trainer, author of “Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society” and many other great books detailing what needs to be done, wrote this thoughtful response to what I wrote about the net energy conference:

Thanks Alice for your valuable comments on the EROI of P/v issue. Yes it is very disappointing that so much confusion and acrimony surrounds this crucial issue, and that they seem not to be moving to a resolution as quickly as they should be. There are of course big interests at stake, with the conventional high EROI assumption suiting the industry, and the theorists who have previously put out such claims. At the very least Prieto and Hall should be commended for getting the whole messy issue of boundaries and components, and appropriate energy cost assumptions for the various components, on the agenda. Sadly the disputation over this issue illustrates the way scientists are not immune from prejudiced and nasty behaviour, (a considerable amount of which my efforts to analyse renewables has evoked.) As Alice notes, when large scale research funding is at stake there can be strong incentive for competitors to reinforce perspectives that suit them.

As I see it the goal should not be a single EROI figure for PV, because much depends on the situation and conditions. We need values for, for instance modules operating at the average site in Spain with its level of radiation and losses, and we need figures for the various components in the system, such as energy used to produce modules in the factory, energy used to produce the factory, energy lost in inversion, in typical inefficiency due to dust, poor alignment…, and in transmission… , energy embodied in inverter replacement, energy used to get workers to the factory, energy used for O and M at the solar farm, energy “retrieved” when the modules are recycled … A fairly thorough provision of these elements would enable anyone to work out the EROI for a particular plant at a particular location, and most importantly the EROI assuming a given set of boundary assumptions. Graham Palmer has just begun a PhD at Melbourne U intended to sort all this out

I strongly object to Raugei’s comments to you re peer review. I have little respect for the entire peer review edifice, due to my unsatisfactory experience in trying to get critical analyses published. Very often I have found the comments of reviewers to range between nit picky imposition of the way they would have expressed things or gone about the job, through reasoning that I see as at least challengeable and at times dead wrong, to rejection on utterly idiotic grounds … such as being told that my recent c 20 page detailed critique of the 2014 IPCC report on renewables was “not scientific”, after waiting seven months for review. (That phrase constituted the full case given for rejection.) On another occasion, where it took over a year to get through the difficulties, I was presented with a seven page essay disagreeing with elements in my case. If that reviewer wanted to express a different view he should have done it somewhere else, not try to insist that I say what he would have said. I have another case where possibly a c 50 word review from probably the most prestigious individual in the field said the paper was good, but the paper was rejected because a second even shorter review was unfavourable. The reasons were so unintelligible that I had to ask what they meant. It eventuated that the editor said he didn’t think it was the kind of paper his journal published … after I had waited seven months.

I see the process as far too prone to the whims, prejudices and in fact arrogance of reviewers and editors. They should get out of the way and let people say what they have found or think, and focus only on things like pointing out mistakes or pointing to overlooked evidence or assumptions, or logical errors. Their role should be to help get ideas and analyses out to others, and to block only as a last resort. Too often I have found that reviewers think their role is to make authors conform to their preferred style and they assume the right to condemn work that doesn’t proceed as they would have. I have written reviews in which I say I think the argument is wrong and the procedure not satisfactory but I think the paper should be published, because I could be mistaken and the paper does present a case that it is important for us to think about.

Ultimately what matters is not whether some guru approves of your analysis, what matters is whether the case is sound/convincing/persuasive/well supported, and that judgment should be up to readers, and the quality of the work should be established over time as others in the field comment on it. My main concern here is what must be the large amount of time and good work that doesn’t get published because of the whims of some guru. I would assume that most of us have had papers rejected by one set of reviewers but regarded highly by those from another journal.

So I see any attempt to block publication of controversial, and even flimsy/challengeable cases, on grounds to do with “peer review” as very annoying. I have no interest in whether or not it was peer reviewed; what matters is whether or not the case it argues is sound, or valuable, or ought to be heard. (Theses that are dead wrong can turn out to be valuable contributions, by helping subsequent discussion to clarify an issue.)Whether or not it was peer reviewed has nothing to do with whether or not it is correct, or a valuable contribution, and, Alice, should certainly not be regarded as “a valid criticism” .

In my view Raugei raises some important problems, such as the effect on the Pietro and Hall conclusions had by the Spanish subsidy system, but it’s appropriate to now sort these, not to regard them as reasons why the gook should be rejected. The most important issue he raises is in claiming that the energy input to PV production should be reduced to one-third, on he grounds that it is electricity and PV produces electricity. As I see it this simply depends on whether the electricity used to produce the modules is coming from PV (or wind or CSP) generating systems … and at present it isn’t. In a world where all electricity came from PV farms it would make sense to put the value of the electricity input into the denominator of an EROI, but in the presenter world the energy going into production is (mostly) coal.
Endnote: This book was only available online at the University of California. It’s a shame libraries are putting many journals and books into electronic versions only.  Especially this book.  Microchips, motherboards, and computers will be among the first casualties of declining fossil fuels, because they have the most complex supply chains with many single points of failure, dependence on rare metals, and so on (see Peak Resources and the Preservation of Knowledge for details). I encourage you to get your (university) library to buy a hard copy of this book, so that future scientists and historians will understand why our society didn’t replace fossil fuels with “renewables” even though we knew oil couldn’t last forever.

On an energy form, Prieto recently wrote (March 2014): “Since we wrote the book, I have been able to experience a few more incidental factors: mice delightfully gnawing the cables and covers and optical fiber communication color cables, and storks excreting on modules with about 6 inches size -one cell- per excretion. Real life has many factors that they are not accounted in organized studies in labs, universities with particular technologies and plants in perfect irradiation places.”


Bankier, C.; Gale, S. Energy payback of roof mounted photovoltaic cells. The Env. Eng. 2006, 7, 11-14.

Bullis, K. 26 Aug 2010. Self-Cleaning Solar Panels A technology intended for Mars missions may find use on solar installations in the deserts on Earth. MIT Technology Review.

Colthorpe, Andy. 18 July 2013. Solar Shakeout: Spain’s Cel Celis begins insolvency proceedings   PVTech.

Fthenakis, V.H.C. et al. 2011. Life cycle inventories and life cycle assessment of   photovoltaic systems. International Energy US Energy Investment Agency (IEA) PVPS Task 12, Report T12-02:2011. Accessed 19 Sep 2012.

Neubacher, A. January 18, 2012. Solar Subsidy Sinkhole: Re-Evaluating Germany’s Blind Faith in the Sun. Der Spiegel.

Nikiforuk,Andrew. 1 May 2013. Solar Dreams, Spanish Realities.

Parnell, John. 22 July 2013. Spain’s government accused of killing solar market. PVtech.

Parnell, John. 23 July 2013. Spanish government facing court action over cuts to solar support. PVTech.

Raugei M., et al., “The energy return on energy investment (EROI) of photovoltaics: Methodology and comparisons with fossil fuel life cycles.” Energy Policy (2012), published on line doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2012.03.00897.  See more at:

Prieto & Hall, 15 Apr 2011. How Much Net Energy does Spain’s solar PV program deliver?  A Case Study.  State University of New York 3rd Biophysical Economics Conference.  Data sources for Energy Generated and Energy Invested slide 10, How monetary costs were converted to energy units.  Slide 12, How the embodied energy costs and boundaries were determined  Slides 17, and much more.

Soble, J. March 3, 2015. Japan’s Growth in Solar Power Falters as Utilities Balk. New York Times.

Spanish solar energy: A model for the future?


Posted in Alternative Energy, Charles A. S. Hall, Debt, Electric Grid, Energy, EROEI Energy Returned on Energy Invested, Photovoltaic Solar, Solar | Tagged , , , , , , | 17 Comments

GAO on why ethanol, and other non-drop in fuels, face pipeline & installation at service station challenges

[The challenges that ethanol faces in being put into new or modified pipelines and added to gas stations are issues faced by all alternative fuels (methanol, CNG, LNG, DME, diesohol, CTL, hydrogen, and so on) in a transition from gasoline and diesel to “Something Else”. 

Since natural gas, coal-to-liquids, and other fuels are nonrenewable and also at or near their peak, and biofuels don’t scale up (and have a negative EROI), it’s unlikely that these problems will need to be solved. But it’s still interesting to understand why E85 is in so few stations.  Alice Friedemann]

USGAO. June 2011. Challenges to the transportation, sale, and use of intermediate ethanol blends. United States Government Accountability Office. 57 pages

The U.S. transportation sector is almost entirely dependent on petroleum products refined from crude oil—primarily gasoline and diesel fuels. In 2009, this sector consumed the equivalent of about 14 million barrels of oil per day, or over 70% of total U.S. consumption of petroleum products. To meet the demand for crude oil and petroleum products, the nation imported, on a net basis, about 52 percent of the petroleum products consumed in 2009.

Ethanol is the most commonly produced biofuel in the United States. In 2010, the nation produced 13.2 billion gallons of ethanol, the vast majority of which came from corn. Most U.S. corn is grown in the Midwest, and ethanol is generally produced in relatively small biorefineries near corn producing areas. Unlike petroleum products, which are primarily transported to wholesale terminals by pipelines, ethanol is transported to wholesale terminals by a combination of rail, tanker truck, and barge. At the terminals, most ethanol is currently blended as an additive in gasoline to make fuel blends containing up to 10 percent ethanol (called E10). Finally, the blended fuel is transported via tanker truck to retail fueling outlets.

In a 2009 report, we identified fuel-blending limits as a challenge to expanded ethanol consumption.  We stated that the nation may soon reach a “blend wall”-the upper limit to the total amount of ethanol that can be blended into U.S. gasoline, given current constraints. At the time, the blend wall existed partly because under EPA’s implementation of the Clean Air Act, fuels containing more than 10% ethanol were prohibited from being introduced for use with the vast majority of U.S. automobiles.

One option to address the blend wall is to use “intermediate” ethanol blends such as E15 or E20 (generally 15% or 20% ethanol).

The EPA, in January 2011, allowed E15 for use in model years 2001 through 2006 automobiles. The EPA did not allow E15 for use in older automobiles or non-road engines (such as lawn mowers, chainsaws, and boats), motorcycles, or heavy-duty gasoline engines. EPA cited insufficient test data to support the use of E15 in these engines, as well as engineering concerns that older vehicles and non-road engines may not maintain compliance with emission standards if operated on E15.  In light of the potential use of intermediate ethanol blends, you asked us to review their potential effects. Our objectives were to (1) determine the challenges, if any, associated with transporting additional volumes of ethanol to wholesale markets to meet RFS requirements; (2) determine the challenges, if any, associated with selling intermediate ethanol blends at the retail level; and (3) examine research by federal agencies into the effects of intermediate ethanol blends on the nation’s automobiles and non-road engines.

As shown in figure 2, the infrastructure used to transport petroleum fuels from refineries to wholesale terminals in the United States is different from that used to transport ethanol. Petroleum-based fuel is primarily transported from refineries to terminals by pipeline.  In contrast, ethanol is transported to terminals via a combination of rail cars, tanker trucks, and barges.  According to DOE estimates, there are approximately 1,050 terminals in the United States that handle gasoline and other petroleum products. At the terminals, most ethanol is currently blended as an additive in gasoline to make E10 fuel blends. A relatively small volume is also blended into a blend of between 70% to 83% ethanol (E85) and the remainder gasoline. E85 has a more limited market, primarily in the upper Midwest, and can only be used in flexible-fuel vehicles, which are vehicles that have been manufactured or modified to accept it.  After blending, the fuel is moved to retail fueling locations in tanker trucks.

There are approximately 159,000 retail fueling outlets in the United States, according to 2010 industry data. This total included more than 115,000 convenience stores, which sold the vast majority of all the fuel purchased in the United States. Consumers in the United States use retail fueling locations to fuel hundreds of millions of automobiles and non-road products with gasoline engines. According to DOT data, Americans owned or operated almost 256 million automobiles, trucks, and other highway vehicles in 2008, while about 91% of all households owned at least 1 automobile the same year, according to U.S. Census data. Americans also owned and operated over 400 million products with non-road engines in 2009, according to one industry association estimate. According to EPA documentation, non-road engines are typically more basic in their engine design and control than engines and emissions control systems used in automobiles, and commonly have carbureted fuel systems  and air cooling, whereby extra fuel is used in combustion to help control combustion and exhaust temperatures. According to representatives from industry associations for non-road engines, most of the small non-road engines manufactured today rely on older technologies and designs to keep retail costs low, and all of the small non-road engines currently being produced are designed to perform successfully on fuel blends up to E10. According to industry representatives, while it is possible to design small non-road engines to run on a broad range of fuels, such designs would not be cost effective and could add hundreds of dollars to the price.

Fuel economy. According to DOE’s report for Project V1, ethanol has about 67 percent of the energy density of gasoline on a volumetric basis. As a result, automobiles running on intermediate ethanol blends exhibited a loss in fuel economy commensurate with the energy density of the fuel. When compared to using gasoline containing no ethanol, the average reduction in fuel economy was 3.7 percent using E10, 5.3 percent using E15, and 7.7 percent using E20.

Large investments in transportation infrastructure may be needed to meet 2022 projected consumption, according to EPA documentation. One option for doing so may be to construct a dedicated ethanol pipeline, but this option presents significant challenges.

Railroads hauled more than 220,000 rail carloads of ethanol in 2008 (the most recent year for which data are available)-which was about 0.7 percent of all the rail carloads and about 1% of the total rail tonnage transported that year in the United States, according to data from the Association of American Railroads. Similarly, knowledgeable DOT officials and industry representatives said there is sufficient capacity in the short term to transport additional volumes of corn ethanol via trucks, which transport about 29% of corn ethanol to wholesale markets, and barges, which transport roughly 5%, to meet RFS requirements.

If overall ethanol production increases enough to fully meet the RFS over the long term, one option to transport it to wholesale markets would be through a dedicated ethanol pipeline. Over many decades, the United States has established very efficient networks of pipelines that move large volumes of petroleum-based fuels from production or import centers on the Gulf Coast and in the Northeast to distribution terminals along the coasts. However, the existing networks of petroleum pipelines are not well suited for the transport of billions of gallons of ethanol. Specifically, as shown in figure 4, ethanol is generally produced in the Midwest and needs to be shipped to the coasts, flowing roughly in the opposite direction of petroleum-based fuels. The location of renewable fuel production plants (such as biorefineries) is often dictated by the need to be close to the source of the raw materials and not by proximity to centers of fuel demand or existing petroleum pipelines.

Existing petroleum pipelines can be used to ship ethanol in some areas of the country. For example, in December 2008, the U.S. pipeline operator Kinder Morgan began transporting commercial batches of ethanol along with gasoline shipments in its 110-mile Central Florida Pipeline from Tampa to Orlando. Kinder Morgan invested approximately $10 million to modify its Central Florida Pipeline for ethanol shipments, which included chemically cleaning the pipeline, replacing equipment that was incompatible with ethanol, and expanding storage capacity at its Orlando terminal.

However, pipeline owners would face the same technical challenges and costs that Kinder Morgan representatives reported facing, including the following:

  • Compatibility. Ethanol can dissolve dirt, rust, or hydrocarbon residues in a petroleum pipeline and degrade the quality of the fuel being shipped. It can also damage critical nonmetallic components, including gaskets and seals, which can cause leaks. In order for existing pipelines to transport ethanol, pipeline operators would need to chemically remove residues and replace any components that are not compatible with ethanol. According to DOT officials, the results from two research projects sponsored by that agency have identified specific actions that must be taken on a wide variety of nonmetallic components commonly utilized by the pipeline industry.
  • Stress corrosion cracking. Tensile stress and a corrosive environment can combine to crack steel. The presence of ethanol increases the likelihood of this in petroleum pipelines. Over the past 2 decades, approximately 24 failures due to stress corrosion cracking have occurred in ethanol tanks and in production-facility piping having steel grades similar to those of petroleum pipelines. According to DOT officials, the results from nine research projects sponsored by that agency have targeted these challenges and produced guidelines and procedures to prevent or mitigate stress corrosion cracking. As a result, pipelines can safely transport ethanol after implementing the identified measures, according to DOT officials.
  • Attraction of water. Ethanol attracts water. If even small amounts of water mix with gasoline-ethanol blends, the resulting mixture cannot be used as a fuel or easily separated into its constituents. The only options are additional refining or disposal.

Some groups have proposed the construction of a new pipeline dedicated to the transportation of ethanol. For example, in February 2008, Magellan Midstream Partners, L.P. (Magellan) and Buckeye Partners, L.P. (Buckeye) proposed building a new pipeline from the Midwest to the East Coast.

The federal government has studied the feasibility of building a pipeline similar to the one proposed by Magellan. The report identified a number of significant challenges to building a dedicated ethanol pipeline, including the following:

  • Construction costs. Using recent trends in and generally accepted industry estimates for pipeline construction costs, DOE estimated that an ethanol pipeline from the Midwest to the East Coast could cost about $4.5 million per mile. While DOE assumed that the construction of 1,700 miles of pipeline would cost more than $3 billion, it did not model total project costs beyond $4.25 billion in the report.
  • Higher transportation rates. Based on the assumed demand for ethanol in the East Coast service area and the estimated cost of construction, DOE estimated the ethanol pipeline would need to charge an average tariff of 28 cents per gallon, substantially more than the current average rate of 19 cents per gallon, for transporting ethanol using rail, barge, and truck along the same transportation corridor.
  • Lack of eminent domain authority. DOE estimated that siting a new ethanol pipeline of any significant length will likely require federal eminent domain authority, which currently does not exist for ethanol pipelines.

Non-Drop-in fuels face huge barriers in being added to service stations as shown by E85

According to several industry associations representing various groups, such as fuel retailers and refiners, many fuel retailers may face significant costs and risks in selling intermediate ethanol blends. According to these industry representatives, retailers make very little money selling fuel-for example, the national average profit from selling gasoline last year was 9 cents per gallon, according to industry data. Most retailers make most of their profit selling merchandise such as food, beverages, and tobacco products, according to these industry representatives, and gasoline is sold below cost in some markets to attract customers to buy more profitable goods. As a result, according to several industry representatives, most retailers do not upgrade their fuel-storage and -dispensing equipment without a significant market opportunity.

For these fuel retailers, the prospect of selling intermediate ethanol blends presents several potential challenges. The first is cost. Some fuel retailers may have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade their equipment to store and dispense intermediate ethanol blends, for the following reasons:

  • Under current OSHA regulations, most fuel retailers will need to replace at least one dispenser system to sell intermediate ethanol blends. According to estimates from EPA and several industry associations, installing a new dispenser system compatible with intermediate ethanol blends will cost over $20,000.40 According to some industry association representatives, a typical fuel retailer has four dispensers and, therefore, would face costs exceeding $80,000 to upgrade an entire retail facility.
  • According to EPA and industry estimates, the total cost of installing a new single-tank UST system compatible with intermediate ethanol blends is more than $100,000. In addition to the high costs, some industry association representatives stated that fuel retailers who have recently installed new UST systems may be particularly reluctant to replace them, especially since UST warranties can last for several decades, and the useful life of these systems can be even longer.

A second potential challenge consists of financial and logistical limitations on the types of fuel a retailer may be able to sell. According to representatives from several industry associations, most retail fueling locations have only two UST systems, and many fuel retailers cannot install additional UST systems due to space constraints, permitting obstacles, or cost.42 Currently, fuel retailers with two UST systems can sell 3 grades of gasoline: regular, midgrade, and premium. To accomplish this, they typically use one of their tanks to store regular gasoline and the other for premium, both of which are pre-blended with up to 10% ethanol. They then use their dispensing equipment to blend fuel from both tanks into midgrade gasoline. If fuel retailers with two UST systems want to sell intermediate ethanol blends, however, they may face certain limitations. For example, fuel retailers with two UST systems who want to sell regular, mid-grade, and premium gasoline could use the tanks to store regular and premium grades of an intermediate blend, such as E15. However, since EPA has only allowed E15 for use in model year 2001 and newer automobiles, these retailers would not be able to sell fuel to consumers for use in older automobiles and non-road engines.

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Biofuels do not scale up enough to power society

Richard, T. August 23, 2010. Challenges in scaling up biofuels infrastructure. Science. (329)  

Below are excerpts from this paper.  Look at the impossible scale of biomass required:

  • 150 EJ/year = 15 billion metric tons of plant biomass = 200 billion cubic meters of bales, wood chips, pellets, etc
  • Agricultural products: Rice, wheat, soy, corn, etc: 2 billion tons, 2.75 billion cubic meters
  • Coal: 6.2 billion cubic meters, Oil: 5.7 billion cubic meters
  • Therefore, the biofuel biomass required would be much larger than all energy and agricultural commodities now.

Rapid growth in demand for lignocellulosic bioenergy will require major changes in supply chain infrastructure. Even with densification and preprocessing, transport volumes by mid-century are likely to exceed the combined capacity of current agricultural and energy supply chains, including grain, petroleum, and coal.

The next few decades will require massive growth of the bioenergy industry to address societal demands to reduce net carbon emissions. This is particularly true for liquid transportation fuels, where other renewable alternatives to biofuels appear decades away, especially for truck, marine, and aviation fuels. But even for electricity and power, the growth potential of other renewables and nuclear power appears limited by high cost, technology barriers, and/or resource constraints.

With both agronomic and societal concerns about further increases in the use of grains and oilseeds for biofuels, almost all of this increased bioenergy will likely come from lignocellulosic feedstocks: dedicated energy crops, crop residues, forests and organic wastes. These materials have considerably lower bulk densities than grains, resulting in significant logistical challenges.

The transportation fraction of the energy required to grow and deliver energy crops to a biorefinery is only 3 to 5% for grains and oilseeds, but increases to 7 to 26% for lignocellulosic crops such as switchgrass, miscanthus, and other forages and crop residues (5–7).

To reach the IEA 2050 target of 150 EJ/year, primary energy from biomass would require 15 billion metric tonnes [i.e., megagrams (Mg)] of biomass annually, assuming 60% conversion efficiency (4, 7) and a biomass energy content of 17 MJ/kg dry matter (8). A typical dry bulk density of grasses and crop residues is about 70 kg/m3 when harvested, so without compaction the shipping volume of these 15 billion metric tonnes would require more than 200 billion cubic meters (bcm). At baled grass and woodchip densities of 150 and 225 kg/m3 (8–10), this transport volume would be 100 or 60 bcm, respectively (Fig. 1). Using reported energy densities of pellets, pyrolysis oil, and torrefied pellets these densified products would require 28, 17, and 15 bcm of transport capacity, respectively.

For agricultural commodities, the sum of rice, wheat, soybeans, maize, and other coarse grains and oilseeds will approach 2 billion tons in 2010, with a total volume of 2.75 bcm (11).

Current global volumes of energy commodities are somewhat larger, with 6.2 bcm of coal and 5.7 bcm of oil transported in 2008 (12).

The combination of expected growth in energy demand and the lower density of biomass imply that by 2050, biomass transport volumes will be greater than the current capacity of the entire energy and agricultural commodity infrastructure.

a major stress on the transportation infrastructure, especially in rural regions around the world. If managed poorly, this additional traffic could degrade rural roadways and increase safety concerns.


The transportation and logistics at the back end of a biofuel refinery must also be addressed. Ethanol is incompatible with the current fuel pipeline distribution system due to its corrosivity and its azeotrope with water, which can lead to pipe or tank failure and fuel contamination, respectively. That 200 ML/year biofuel plant would require 16 to 20 tanker trucks or railcars per day to move the fuel to market, increasing both traffic and costs

These fuel distribution challenges are helping drive the interest in “drop-in” fuels that would be compatible with both the existing fuel distribution infrastructure as well as the vehicle fleet. Several such advanced biofuels are nearing commercialization, including butanol, Fischer-Tropsch fuels, and other bio-based gasoline and diesel equivalents. But regardless of the fuel product, massive investments in new pipe, rail, and highway infrastructure are needed to move those fuels from a new biorefinery network dispersed across the landscape.

Economic analysis of both preprocessing and conversion systems highlights the importance of year-round operations, as it is difficult to amortize capital costs for facilities that are only used for a few months of the year (6, 13). However, many biomass feedstocks have optimal harvest periods that may run for only a few weeks. There are likely other seasons during which harvesting should not occur due to weather or various ecosystem constraints. Livestock farmers have been facing a similar problem supplying forages to their 24/7/365 milk- and meat-producing animals for over a thousand years, and have developed effective wet (<70% dry matter) and dry 80% dry matter) storage systems for grasses and crop residues (Fig. 3). Dry biomass is preferred for pellets, torrefaction, and downstream thermochemical processing, where the presence of water would reduce overall energy efficiency

The size and efficiency of bioenergy conversion facilities will determine how far these huge volumes of biomass and biofuel will need to travel, and thus transportation’s contribution to the energy, economic, and environmental impacts of biomass use. At a community scale, biomass energy can be converted in combined heat and power (CHP) systems producing 1 to 30 MW at efficiencies of 80% or more (4). At 80% efficiency, 30 MW of useful energy would require 150 Mg/day of biomass, or rough overwhelm, the economies of scale associated with advanced conversion technologies.

In contrast, cellulosic biofuel refineries are expected to achieve economies of scale at 200 to 1000 megaliters (ML) per year (7, 13, 14). Above this size range, the marginal cost of biomass transport can become greater than the marginal savings of larger biorefinery equipment on a per-unit basis (13). At the lower end of this range, feedstock needs would be equivalent to those of a 300-MW power plant, and a single biorefinery would require 50 trucks to deliver the 1600 Mg of biomass consumed each day. At the high end of this range, with 250 trucks per day, one truck would be unloading every 5 min around the clock.

Both feedstock supply and fuel distribution logistics will influence the optimal size required for these biorefineries to achieve economies of scale

Brazilian sugar cane factories operate as a plantation system, with monocultures of sugar cane surrounding each refinery. Most sugar cane production is within 100 km of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and industrial base, so the markets for biofuels are relatively close. In the United States, by contrast, midwestern corn ethanol must travel by road and rail more than 1000 km to markets on the east and west coasts.

Although capital costs, oil stability, corrosivity, and deoxygenation remain challenges for pyrolysis (6), downstream conversion possibilities include gasification and blending with petroleum in conventional refineries. Pyrolysis also produces a biochar coproduct that can be used to improve soil quality, serving as a carrier for returning recovered nutrients to the soil. Interestingly, the economies of scale for most of these densification and preprocessing technologies plateau in the range of 20 to 80 MW thermal equivalent (6).

References and Notes

  1. E. M. W. Smeets,

  2. J. E. Campbell,,

  3. I thank C. Taylor, K. Ruamsook, E. Thomchick, and C. Hinrichs for providing helpful comments and sources.
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Oil shortages: Transportation needs to go back to high inventories, not just-in-time delivery

Huge amounts of fuel are wasted as trucks arrive half full with just the needed parts at factories and warehouses and return empty. As oil shocks strike, fuel will be less available.  Large inventories will help by cushioning businesses from long and unpredictable delays in deliveries.  Large inventories of food (nonperishable especially) will also help prevent social unrest and famine.

Let’s go back to “push” logistics and high inventories:

logistics push pull more inventory

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The shocking truth about life in Saudi Arabia, oppression, conformity, poverty, but internet may change things

Karen House. 2013. On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future. Vintage. 320 pages.

[Saudi Arabia produces 1 in 4 barrels of oil. Their fate will affect all of us.

The way women are treated is outrageous, and the way Saudi rulers (the last significant absolute monarchy) controls everyone equally appalling and nightmarish.

Most people are poor despite the $400 billion in income, and lack decent homes, health care, sanitation, education, etc. The conformity is suffocating. Fear, passivity, isolation, and suspicion of others pervades society as everyone focuses on survival. When you walk down the streets, all you see are walls. Men all look alike in their white robes. Laughter is discouraged. Religion dominates every aspect of life. Women are virtually slaves, controlled by men their whole life. But this may change. Saudis are incredibly young — 70% are under 30, 60% are under 20, and they’re tuned into the internet and Facebook where they can see how they’re being manipulated, other interpretations of the Koran, that women have rights in other nations, and so on.

What follows are my excerpts from the first few chapters.  I hope they’ll tantalize you enough to read this book about a society almost as strange as North Korea

Alice Friedemann,].

Quotes from “On Saudi Arabia” by Karen House:

Over time I grew less interested in Saudi Arabia as an oil-rich and influential country, and more and more determined to understand the Saudi people and the lives they led—and what that portends for the future stability of a country feared by many for the terrorists it has spawned but so essential to the West for the oil it provides.

As a Western woman I had access to men, even some of the most religiously conservative ones, who met with me so long as I was appropriately shrouded in my floor-length abaya and head scarf. As a woman I also had a degree of access to traditional Saudi women that would have been impossible for any man.

This book focuses on the lives of individual Saudis and how they are shaped and suppressed by traditions and authorities, whether religious figures, tribal elders, or princely rulers. This web of traditions and rules means that women are not free but neither are men. Both sexes are trapped by societal expectations. As a result, individual initiative and enterprise are virtually nonexistent. Society is a maze in which Saudis endlessly maneuver through winding paths between high walls of religious rules, government restrictions, and cultural traditions. Men must obey Allah and women must obey men. As a result, all too few Saudis have the energy, enterprise, curiosity, or confidence even to try to leave this labyrinth. However, in recent years, information via the Internet and youthful demands are penetrating the labyrinth and threatening the very foundations of these walls.

When I first began traveling in the kingdom in the late 1970s, the West could view Saudi Arabia with a mix of curiosity and mild concern, but today its future is critical to the West. The industrial world’s insatiable appetite for energy has made us ever more dependent on the kingdom, which provides 1 of every 4 barrels of oil exported around the globe.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia no longer is the tame American ally of a generation ago. The once monogamous Saudi-U.S. marriage has become a polygamous Muslim one as the Saudis build bonds with multiple powers. The royal family may still depend upon the United States for its ultimate survival, but widespread anti-Americanism among conservative Saudis means even princes cannot appear to be in America’s pocket.

For nearly 80 years, a succession of Al Saud princes have traversed the balance beam, skillfully maintaining control of a deeply divided, distrustful, and increasingly dispirited populace, by cunningly exploiting those divisions, dispensing dollops of oil money, and above all, bending religion to serve Al Saud political needs. This ruling family never promised democracy—and still doesn’t. Nor does it bother with sham elections to present the appearance of legitimacy, as do so many other Arab regimes. The Al Saud believe they have an asset more powerful than the ballot box: they have Allah.

Nearly 300 years ago, when Arabia was nothing but harsh desert inhabited by wild and warring tribes, Muhammad al Saud, leader of one such tribe, discovered a magic lamp in the person of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, a fundamentalist Islamic scholar bent on imposing on Arabia his version of the pure Islam of the Prophet Muhammad a millennium earlier. So fanatical was this preacher that by the time the two men met, Abd al Wahhab was fleeing for his life, having destroyed the tomb of one of the Prophet’s companions and stoned to death a woman accused of adultery in a public display of his Islamic fervor. None of this bothered Muhammad al Saud. He saw in the preacher’s call for Islamic jihad the opportunity to use religion to trump his tribal enemies and conquer Arabia. Sure enough, the Al Saud sword, wielded in the name of religion rather than mere tribal conquest, proved triumphant. The first Saudi state was declared in 1745. Arabia has been under the sway of the Al Saud—and their religious partners—off and on ever since, with the most recent Saudi state established in 1932 by the current king’s father, Abdul Aziz bin Al Saud. Over all those years, religion has been a pillar of strength, steadying the Al Saud atop the kingdom that bears their name. To this day, the monarchy justifies its rule by claiming to personify, protect, and propagate the one true religion. The Saudi monarch styles himself as “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” a unique title intended to convey his spiritual leadership of all Islam. King, after all, is a temporal and rather common title. These days, however, the old magic of divide and conquer, the majesty of appropriated religion, and even the soothing balm of money, lots of money, are not enough to blind a new generation of Saudis to the decay rotting the very foundations of their society and threatening their future and that of their children. Islam as preached is not practiced. Jobs are promised but not delivered. Corruption is rampant, entrapping almost every Saudi in a web of favors and bribes large and small, leaving even the recipients feeling soiled and resentful. Powerful and powerless alike are seeking to grab whatever they can get, turning a society governed by supposedly strict Sharia law into an increasingly lawless one, where law is whatever the king or one of his judges says it is—or people feel they can get away with.

All of this is widely known to Saudis. For the first time, the Internet allows the young generation—70% of Saudis are under 30 years of age, with more than 60% age 20 or younger—to know what is taking place at home and abroad. These young people are aware of government inefficiency and princely corruption, and of the fact that 40 percent of Saudis live in poverty and at least 60 percent cannot afford a home. They know that nearly 40 percent of Saudi youth between twenty and twenty-four are unemployed, at the very age when most men would like to marry if only they could afford the bride price. They know that 90 percent of all employees in the private sector of their economy are imported foreign workers, whom business owners, often including Al Saud princes, exploit for low wages. Saudis, undereducated and often indolent, sit idly by rather than work for what they regard as slave wages doing menial jobs. If all too many Saudi men who could work do not, even educated Saudi women who want to work often cannot. The female half of the Saudi population remains sheltered, subjugated, and frustrated.

In each of the past five years, the government has created only about 50,000 new jobs, and that the 2.5 million jobs created by private industry over that period have gone overwhelmingly to foreigners.

All this they know, and now share with each other through social media. These young Internet-savvy Saudis are breaching the walls that have been so carefully constructed and maintained over decades by the regime to keep Saudis separated and distrustful of those outside their family or tribe, to ensure their near total dependence on Al Saud protection and largesse. Stability (more recently coupled with the promise of prosperity) in exchange for loyalty was for most of the last three hundred years the social contract binding the people to their Al Saud rulers. But no longer. These days young Saudis compare their lives with those of contemporaries in neighboring Gulf states and elsewhere, and that comparison leaves many of them humiliated and embittered. All too many of these young Saudis know they are living third-world lives in a country that has more than $400 billion in foreign reserves and, in recent years, annual oil revenue in excess of $200 billion. Yet the government fails to provide basic services like quality education, health care, or even proper sewage and drainage to protect from floods. And things just keep happening to stoke anger and forge bonds among the young. In January 2011, as Cairo was erupting in revolution, the kingdom’s second largest city, Jeddah, flooded for the second time in little more than a year in a deluge of rainwater and sewage. For decades corrupt businessmen and bureaucrats had stolen billions of dollars allocated for construction of a proper sewage and drainage system, leaving the city vulnerable to floods of sewage-polluted rainwater. The first flood, in 2009, killed more than 120 people, displaced another 22,000, and destroyed 8,000 homes. King Abdullah promised “never again,” yet in less than 14 months, once again Jeddah was drowning. Young Saudis using Facebook and Twitter helped stranded citizens find safety and shelter when authorities were scarcely seen.

Even the generally respected monarch, King Abdullah, was the target of unprecedented criticism for such a visible failure to deliver on his previous promise. His photo was posted on the Internet with a giant red X and the words, “Why do you give them all this power when they all are thieves?

If Saudi citizens increasingly are in touch, their rulers are increasingly out of touch. King Abdullah, 89, generally popular for his effort to make at least modest reforms, is seen as isolated by his retainers and, at any rate, was slowed by age and serious back surgery in 2010 and again in 2011. Despite his age and infirmities, the king has largely governed without a crown prince since taking the monarchy’s mantle in 2005 because Sultan, 84, was suffering from cancer and Alzheimer’s and finally died in October 2011. The new crown prince, Nayef, 77 and ailing from diabetes and poor circulation, died after less than eight months, to be followed by yet another brother. After them? No one knows. What scares many royals and most ordinary Saudis is that the succession, which historically has passed from brother to brother, soon will have to jump to a new generation of princes. That could mean that only one branch of this family of some seven thousand princes will have power, a prescription for potential conflict as 34 or 35 surviving lines of the founder’s family could find themselves disenfranchised. Saudis know from history that the second Saudi state was destroyed by fighting among princes. Older Saudis vividly recall how this third and latest Saudi state was shaken by a prolonged power struggle between the founder’s two eldest sons after his death in 1953.

Beyond all this, religion, once a pillar of stability, has become a source of division among Saudis. Many Saudis, both modernists and religious conservatives, are offended by the Al Saud’s exploitation of religion to support purely political prerogatives. The accommodating flexibility of religious scholars is eroding the legitimacy of both the Al Saud and their religious partners in power. Saudis hear religious scholars condemning infidels in the sacred land of the Prophet, yet they recall that the religious hierarchy obediently approved the presence of U.S. troops when the king needed them to confront Saddam Hussein in 1990. The scholars similarly condemn any mixing of men and women and deploy their religious police to enforce this ban on ordinary Saudis, but they acquiesced in 2009, when the king opened a richly endowed university where Saudi men and women mix with each other and with foreign infidels.

For all their frustrations, most Saudis do not crave democracy. To conservative Saudis, especially the many devoutly religious, the idea of men making laws rather than following those laid down by Allah in the Koran is antithetical and unthinkable. More modern and moderate Saudis, aware the Al Saud have banned any political and most all social organizations even down to something as apolitical as photography clubs, fear that without Al Saud rule, the country would face tribal, regional, and class conflict—or rule by religious zealots. With seventy thousand mosques spread across the kingdom, only the religious are an organized force; moderates fear that power inevitably would be seized by the most radical. Whatever lies in Saudi Arabia’s future, it is not democracy. What unites conservatives and modernizers, and young and old, is a hunger not for freedom but for justice; for genuine rule of law, not rule by royal whim. They want a government that is transparent and accountable, one that provides standard services such as are available in far less wealthy societies: good education, jobs, affordable housing, and decent health care. Saudis of all sorts resent having to beg princes for favors to secure services that should be a public right. They also want to be allowed to speak honestly about the political and economic issues that affect their lives.

The country fundamentally is a family corporation. Call it Islam Inc. The board of directors, some twenty senior religious scholars who theoretically set rules for corporate behavior, are handpicked by the Al Saud owners, can be fired at royal whim, and have nothing to say about who runs the company. Al Saud family members hold all the key jobs, not just at the top but right down through middle management, even to regional managers. (The governors of all thirteen Saudi provinces are princes.) At the bottom of the company, ordinary employees are poorly paid and even more poorly trained because management doesn’t want initiative that might threaten its control. Imagine working for a company where you can’t aspire even to a regional management position, let alone influence those who control the company that determines your livelihood and your children’s future.

Sullen, resentful, and unmotivated. Most feel no pride in their country but focus on getting even with their overlords by chiseling on their expense accounts and showing up late for work—in effect, by grabbing what they can get from their corporate masters.

Can the Al Saud regime reform in time to save itself?

In the 80 years since Abdul Aziz bin Al Saud used a combination of religion and ruthlessness to reunite Arabia under the Al Saud, his extended family has evolved as perhaps the most successful family enterprise in modern history—and certainly the wealthiest. Saudi Arabia remains an absolute monarchy, the last significant one on earth. Its power centers all are controlled by princes. The king appoints the country’s senior religious leaders, all judges, and all 150 members of its toothless parliament. His relatives own the news media. No social or civic organizations that might be a breeding ground for citizen organization are allowed. Slavery was abolished only in 1962! Royals also control the kingdom’s oil wealth, which has subsidized—and subdued—Saudi citizens while enriching and entrenching the royal rulers. The wealth of the family, like its internal politics, is veiled from public view, a growing source of public anger.

How has an absolute monarchy and a royal family by now consisting of some 7,000 princes—sons, grandsons, even great-great-grandsons of the founder—continued to maintain near-absolute power amid the winds of change sweeping in from the outside world and the pressures boiling up from a young population? One answer is the skill of the family at adapting the founding father’s strategy of divide and conquer from an age of manipulating desert tribes to a modern era of manipulating social groupings and foreign allies. Second, there is the family’s clever use of money—whether the limited gold coins in the founder’s portable money chest or today’s billions from oil revenue—to buy loyalty, or at least submission. Third, there is the pervasive and so often oppressive role of religion that preaches obedience to Allah, and inextricably to the Al Saud, who, unlike ruling dynasties in Western societies, are not simply a temporal power but also Allah’s instruments on earth. Finally, there is the somnolence of Saudi society itself. Notwithstanding the occasional terrorist who blasts onto the world stage, the society has been overwhelmingly passive, imbued from birth with a sense of obedience to God and ruler and with customs of conformity such that only the rarest of Saudis steps outside the strict social norms to leave his place in the labyrinth that divides Saudis one from another. Saudis vividly demonstrate Karl Marx’s axiom that religion is the “opium” of the people.

Like Washington, Abdul Aziz was a giant of a man, towering above most of his fellow countrymen. Like Washington, he exuded a courage and dignity that set him apart from and above his people. But unlike Washington, who refused to be king and retired to his private estate after two terms as president, leaving no sons, Abdul Aziz ruled the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia until his death in 1953 and fathered 44 sons by 22 wives, 36 of whom lived to adulthood. (He limited himself to no more than the four wives at a time allowed by Islam. But he is estimated to have had brief marriages for political purposes to nearly three hundred women over his lifetime.) His elderly sons continue to rule the kingdom to the present. To this day, the Al Saud princes insist they are the glue that holds Saudi Arabia together. As Cairo was engulfed in one of its many “days of rage,” one middle-aged prince assured me: “Without our family, this country would dissolve into chaos. Our people revere the family as you revere George Washington.

If George Washington is famous for never telling a lie, Abdul Aziz is equally famous for cunning and duplicity, traits still much admired in Saudi Arabia.

Knowing when to yield and when to fight is a survival instinct the founding ruler perfected—and passed to his sons. When his Ikhwan urged him to declare a holy war on the British infidels, who after World War I had replaced the Ottoman Turks as the dominant foreign power in the Middle East, Abdul Aziz demurred because he needed British money and cooperation to drive his rival, Sharif Hussein, the great-great-grandfather of Jordan’s King Abdullah, from Mecca and complete his conquest of Arabia. Once the Ikhwan helped conquer Mecca and the surrounding Hejaz region, Abdul Aziz fought a brutal war with these same religious extremists because they wanted to continue to wage jihad beyond Arabia into Iraq, a British protectorate. He was not about to risk his precariously constructed kingdom to expand into Iraq and turn the powerful British against him. Instead, he turned on the Ikhwan, precisely the people whom he had used to help him secure power, and destroyed them. Abdul Aziz’s devotion to religion took a backseat to his determination to retain his rule of Arabia. (And the same is true today of his sons who, when it suits them, confront religious leaders and even fire some of them, while professing total devotion and obedience to Allah.)

“Draw the sword in their face and they will obey; sheathe the sword and they will ask for more pay,” Abdul Aziz once told a British official, to explain his modus operandi.

To demonstrate his willingness to use power where persuasion failed, Abdul Aziz razed the villages of some of his own cousins who had massed an army to threaten his hold on Riyadh.

Like his father, the current king, Abdullah, has practiced the art of balance. Much as his father subdued the Ikhwan, Abdullah has faced the challenge of subduing its modern variant, the Islamic jihadists. In a striking parallel to the Ikhwan, whom Abdul Aziz used and then destroyed, the modern-day Islamic extremists were indulged in the 1980s by a royal family eager to burnish its religious credentials, as Islamic fundamentalism swept the region in the wake of the religious revolution in Iran. The regime supported the jihadists as they fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and imposed rigid religiosity in the kingdom. The Saudi regime then ruthlessly suppressed religious extremists some thirty years later when they began terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia in 2003 and thus were seen to pose a threat to Al Saud rule.

This embrace of extreme religiosity began in 1979 after a Bedouin preacher and several hundred followers did the unthinkable: they used firearms, forbidden in any mosque, to seize control of Islam’s holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Juhayman and his cohorts were determined to end what they saw as the Al Saud’s excessive tolerance of infidel innovations—women newscasters on television, cinemas, and even tolerance of Shias, who in their fanatical minds, are members of a heretical sect of Islam not worthy to be called Muslim.

The siege claimed at least one thousand lives. Juhayman and his compatriots were quickly executed. The traumatized royal family soon curbed the societal liberties Juhayman had condemned. Women announcers were ordered off television, women were forced to wear the veil, and cinemas were closed (except at Saudi ARAMCO). In short, the Al Saud killed Juhayman and his cohorts but adopted their agenda of intolerance, spawning yet more radical Islamists and eventually their deadly attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and on Saudis in 2003. This incident marked the beginning of a now widespread sense among Saudis that their government was incompetent. That sense only grew in 1990, when the kingdom’s rulers, despite hundreds of billions of dollars in defense purchases over the decades, nonetheless concluded they needed U.S. troops to protect the country from Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait and had his eye on Saudi oil fields as well.

In the wake of the attack on New York’s Twin Towers by Saudi nationals, both political reformers and religious fundamentalists began to call for reforms inside the kingdom. Fundamentalists sought reforms that essentially would make religious leaders full partners of the Al Saud. Seeing the regime on the defensive, Saudi intellectuals and other moderates too began to press for political pluralism, including a constitution limiting the government’s powers and even direct elections to the country’s Potemkin parliament, the Majlis Ash Shura, or Consultative Council. Faced with these mounting and seemingly irreconcilable demands, Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler (as King Fahd lay dying), deftly sought to defuse both threats. The regime imprisoned some of its critics and co-opted others. In 2003 Abdullah launched what he called “National Dialogues” that moved the debate from substantive political reform of the monarchy to superficial reform of the society. The articulate activists from the religious and the reformer ranks soon were subsumed and diluted by a broader and far less threatening group of public representatives selected by the government to participate in the nationally televised “dialogue.” In short, the government picked the topics for discussion, such as the role of women, youth, tolerance, and unemployment, and selected those who would discuss them. These National Dialogues soon sucked the energy out of the incipient reform movement and within a year had become just another somnolent event under royal sponsorship, ignored by most of society and viewed with cynicism by more politically aware Saudis.

For two years after the attack on the World Trade Center, as the United States pressured Riyadh to cut Saudi citizens’ financing of terrorists, the Saudi government largely denied that extremism was a problem. But when frustrated extremists turned to violent attacks on Saudi civilians in 2003, the government met the challenge with massive force, killing hundreds and arresting thousands, many of whom remain incarcerated without trials nearly a decade later. Like Abdul Aziz, his sons strongly prefer to co-opt rather than to confront, to buy rather than to bully, to deflect rather than to directly deny. But in extremis, they are willing to employ pretty much the same harsh practices as neighboring Arab rulers or Abdul Aziz himself. Saudi Arabia is replete with secret police, surreptitious surveillance, grim prisons, and torture chambers, even if this is an aspect of the regime that most Saudis manage to avoid.

Since becoming king in 2005, Abdullah, more than any modern Saudi king, has sought to introduce modest reforms to please modernizers and to blunt the kingdom’s image at home and abroad as a breeding ground for fanaticism.

King Abdullah also began sending a flood of Saudi youth abroad for education—more than 100,000 attend foreign universities now, roughly half in the United States. He established King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), the new gender-mixed research university, a first in Saudi Arabia, with an endowment reported to be second only to Harvard’s. When one of the senior religious ulama had the temerity to criticize this unprecedented mixing as an infidel innovation forbidden by Islam, the mild-mannered king promptly fired him, a modern form of his father’s beheadings.

The sacking of this sheikh had the desired effect of prompting supportive statements on KAUST from other tame religious leaders, but it angered religious conservatives who see the approval of gender mixing as yet further prostitution by a religious establishment that puts pleasing the king and retaining its privileges ahead of pleasing Allah. Always careful to balance, the king, who had secured ulama approval for gender mixing at his elite university, did nothing to curb the country’s religious police from roaming the kingdom’s streets and harassing ordinary Saudis mixing with anyone of the opposite gender. As is clear by now, the regime perpetually performs a delicate minuet, dancing closer at times to the religious establishment and at other times to modernizers, but always focused on retaining Al Saud control.

The second source of Al Saud survival is money.

The succeeding Al Saud monarchs have lived more or less luxurious lifestyles, but the family as a whole has become infamous around the world for the profligacy of its numerous playboy princes. While Abdul Aziz would have disapproved of such profligacy, his strategy of using at least some of the kingdom’s wealth to buy the loyalty of its subjects continues to this day. Buying loyalty in Saudi Arabia is not, as in so many countries, a matter of greasing the palms of purchased politicians, since there are no independent Saudi politicians to purchase. Purchasing loyalty is far more pervasive than that. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is a wealthy welfare state, in which the public pays no taxes yet receives widespread, if often poor-quality, services, from free education and health care to water and electricity and, of course, cheap energy. At least 80 percent of the revenues in the Saudi treasury accrue from petroleum. All revenue, whether from oil, earnings on the country’s $400 billion in foreign reserves, or even traffic fines, flows into the central government in Riyadh—that is, to the royal family. No accounting is given to the public of either total revenues to the Al Saud coffers or total spending by the Al Saud—on behalf of the people and on behalf of the ever-expanding royal family. The public has no say in the formation of the annual government budget, which represents that portion of government spending that is disclosed publicly.

Royal benevolence pervades the society in myriad minor ones. A seriously sick Saudi waits outside a princely office for a letter that will admit him to one of the premier military hospitals. A reformed terrorist is the beneficiary of a new Toyota,

The list of petitions and royal favors is as long as the line of supplicants who once gathered outside the desert tent of King Abdul Aziz seeking free meals and clothes.

A third source of Al Saud survival is the pervasive and often oppressive role of religion. Indeed, if finely honed political skills and oil riches are essential components of the Al Saud survival kit, Islam is the monarchy’s survival manual.

The puritanical Wahhabi sect of Islam that he represents instructs Muslims to be obedient and submissive to their rulers, however imperfect, in pursuit of a perfect life in paradise.

Mu’awiyah’s Umayyad dynasty lasted nearly 100 years before being conquered by the Abbasids, who accused his heirs of abandoning the true Islam. The conquerors invited the surviving Umayyad rulers to dinner, and after pleasantries, by prearrangement, the waiters locked the doors and clubbed to death their ruler’s guests. The debauchery and cruelty of these early caliphs is reminiscent of some of Roman Catholicism’s medieval popes. Not surprisingly, this depressing history has bred a political fatalism down through the centuries among many Muslims who believe that if just rule couldn’t be established even when the Prophet’s example was so fresh, there’s no possibility that it could happen now. This resignation to living under corrupt temporal leaders and focusing not on improving life on earth but rather on securing a better life in the hereafter helps explain why oppressive and greedy rulers reign for so long in so many Arab countries.

Like an earthquake-proof building, the Al Saud have long had the wisdom to bend ever so slightly at the moment of greatest pressure and then later reclaim, over time, most of what they yielded.

Saudis’ overwhelming desire to conform, to pass unnoticed among the rest of society, is surely a boon to Al Saud control. If Westerners love individualism, most Saudis are literally frightened at the mere thought of being different. To be different is to attract attention. To attract attention is to invite envy from peers and anger from family.

Imagine a life spent anticipating the unspoken desires of an extended family and acquiescing to the unwritten rules of society. This need for conformity forces Saudis to wear multiple faces and change them multiple times each day. The need to adapt and fit in is stressful, so most Saudis tend to reduce the stress by keeping primarily to those they know, thereby reinforcing their isolation from others who aren’t members of their extended family or tribe. “Americans have one face,” says the Saudi who studied in the United States. “We have multiple faces—two, three, four, five, six faces. Our views depend on which face we are wearing, and which face we are wearing depends on who we are with. Saudis don’t have the same views here that we have in Paris.” Young Saudis, however, are increasingly frustrated with this consuming focus on appearance and pervasive social conformity, and they are much more willing than their parents to try to discover who they are rather than just follow the dictates of parents, teachers, imams, and royal rulers. “Our minds are in a box,” says a middle-aged Saudi businessman. “But the young are being set free by the Internet and knowledge. They will not tolerate what we have. No one knows how the spark will come, but things will change because they have to.”

Paradoxically, it is the Al Saud’s deft duplicity, their paternal dispersal of favors, their arrogant exploitation of religion for their own purposes, and their rendering of Saudis to powerless passivity that now threaten the family’s survival, because more and more Saudis—especially women and youth—now share a growing awareness of the rather non-Islamic tactics so artfully employed to cage them and they are determined to press for change that allows more freedom and more dignity for individual Saudis.

By choice, Lulu rarely leaves home. She has no interest in the world outside her home, where her focus is on serving her husband and ensuring that her children follow a strictly religious path. As the days go by, it becomes clear Lulu not only accepts but welcomes the confines of her life. She has no aspiration beyond living life in a way that pleases Allah and ensures her entry to paradise. An essential element of achieving this goal is serving every need of her husband, a professor of hadith, the thousands of stories about the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, collected and passed down by his contemporaries as a guide for devout Muslims’ daily lives. If her husband should be dissatisfied with her or, even worse, be somehow led astray, the fault would be hers. “Men are in charge of women,” says the Koran. “So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard.” Serving Allah means serving her husband. Lulu’s children, including teenage girls, admire and obey her. I ask Lulu if she wants her daughters to have opportunities she did not have. “No, I pray they have a life like mine,” she says instantly. Her eldest daughter, a student at King Saud University, says, “She is dedicating herself to helping us have a life just like hers.” The daughter, dressed in a modest floor-length skirt and long-sleeved sweater even at home, speaks with deep reverence, not the sarcasm that a Western teenager might use.

Most Westerners, who live in an aggressively secular environment, would find it impossible to imagine the pervasive presence of religion, which hangs over Saudi Arabia like a heavy fog and has been a source of stability, along with the Al Saud, for nearly three centuries. But the growing gap between Islam as revealed in the Koran and Islam as practiced in the kingdom is undermining the credibility of the religious establishment and creating divisions among religious conservatives and between them and modernizers. As a result, the religious pillar is cracking, with serious implications for the kingdom’s future stability. But for devout Muslims like Lulu, these troubling divisions simply mean redoubling their effort to follow the true Islam by adhering strictly to the example set by the Prophet Muhammad fourteen hundred years ago.

Every airport, shopping mall, and government or private office building includes a large area spread with prayer rugs indicating the direction of Mecca, so worshipers know where to kneel and pray. Every hotel room has a sticker on the wall or bed or desk with an arrow pointing toward Mecca.

When her husband is home, I am banished to my room, where I read the Koran to pass the time. A religious man like her bearded husband would never mix unnecessarily with a woman who is not a relative, even if she covers her body and face. Indeed, during the week I spend with Lulu, I see her husband only once—when he picks us up from a rare outing to her sister’s home. Fully veiled, I silently slip into the seat behind him, but we are not introduced and the conversation continues as if I were as invisible as Casper the friendly ghost.

At age 19, when her husband offered himself to her family, Lulu willingly chose to be a second wife. “Some men need another wife for many reasons, perhaps to keep from doing something bad,” she explains, clearly meaning adultery, though she doesn’t speak the word. “I prayed to Allah, ‘Let me do this if it is good.’ ” She is separated from the first wife only by a set of stairs, yet they rarely visit. She is far more concerned about whether God had a son than about which elderly son of Abdul Aziz will next rule Saudi Arabia.

A greater openness in recent years has allowed some Saudis to choose a more liberal lifestyle—where men and women sometimes mix, where women can check into a hotel without a male relative, where there is even talk of women being allowed to drive; but if it were to become the new norm, Lulu would undoubtedly resist adapting with all her might. This is the challenge for the kingdom: how to accommodate those citizens who want more freedom to change and those, like Lulu and her family, who truly see change as a road to hell.

As old divisions among tribes, regions, genders, and classes grow ever more visible, religion’s ability to serve as a unifying force is becoming weaker.

Islam is now becoming another source of division.

First, the Al Saud have politicized Saudi Islam. For two decades they used their religious establishment to support jihadists in Afghanistan and religious extremists at home. Then they abruptly switched course in 2003 to insist that the same religious leaders promote the regime’s campaign for a kinder, gentler interpretation of Islam, to undermine Islamic extremists, whom the Al Saud belatedly recognized as threatening their rule. This shift, which followed the terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists inside the kingdom in 2003, has led many Saudis, moderates as well as conservatives, to view the religious establishment, or Council of Senior Ulama, as apologists for the Al Saud and, worse, as indirect puppets of America.

In recent years the religious partner has come to be seen as so openly compliant with Al Saud political needs rather than Allah’s commands that it has lost much of its credibility—and as a consequence, the Al Saud also are losing theirs.

Secondly, while Islam often is seen as a very literal faith, whose adherents follow the injunctions of the Koran to the letter, in fact, in the Muslim world, many interpretations of Islam exist. For most of Saudi history, religious scholars of the Wahhabi sect provided the only valid interpretations. But that is changing dramatically with the advent of the Internet and education. More Saudis are reading and interpreting the Koran for themselves. Thus, for example, women seeking more social equality are plucking verses from the Koran to justify an expanded role for women, even as fundamentalists cite other verses to justify keeping them sequestered and subordinated. In sum, the Al Saud and their Wahhabi ulama no longer have a lock on interpreting Islam.

Third, while the many muezzins call to the faithful in scripted words in perfect harmony, the religious voices reaching Saudi citizens these days through the Internet and satellite television are anything but harmonious. Saudi Islam has become discordant. On any given day, at any hour, Saudis are logging on to the Internet or tuning in to a satellite television channel, where they hear a wide range of Islamic voices preaching everything from modern and moderate Islam to extreme fundamentalist and even violent Islam.

Fourth, modern society presents a whole range of challenges that the Prophet Muhammad did not have to deal with and could not foresee. A youthful population with Internet access to the rest of the world has raised a profusion of issues that are taxing the theology and ingenuity of Islamic scholars.

Sheikh Mutlag, a member of the senior ulama and an adviser to King Abdullah, surely didn’t expect, when he was pursuing his religious studies, that he would be called upon to issue a fatwa on the appropriateness of carrying into a toilet a cell phone that included downloaded selections from the Koran. He settled the issue by permitting cell phones in a toilet on the clever justification that the Koran is (or should be) completely “downloaded” into every Muslim’s mind at all times.

Muslims believe that each human is flanked by two angels who record good and bad deeds. If a believer even thinks of doing something good, the angel records the thought as a single good deed. If the believer actually does what he or she says, God gives credit for ten good deeds. So perhaps this is why Saudis so often make promises even if they have no intention of keeping them. Partial credit is better than none at all.

The obligatory Muslim prayers, or salat, are not requests for intercession or offers of thanks, as common Christian prayers are. While Muslims also offer this sort of prayer, or du’a, the salat is something very different. It is a precisely regulated, formal ritual that features bodily bending while repeating specific verses from the Koran and that climaxes in prostration to God in the direction of Mecca to demonstrate submission to God’s will. The entire procedure requires nearly ten minutes and can be performed only after the worshiper has properly purified himself—and his heart—for the act of worship. This washing, or ablution, is a critical part of preparing for prayer; it requires the worshiper to wash his hands up to the wrist, rinse the mouth, clean the nose, and scrub the face, forearms up to the elbows, head (by rubbing a wet finger from the forehead to the nape of the neck and back), ears, and finally feet. The Prophet is quoted as saying, “The key to paradise is prayer [salat] and the key to prayer is purification.

It is routine for a Saudi—male or female—to interrupt a conversation to pray. Men go to a nearby mosque, while women cover themselves and pray wherever they are indoors.

Other times, in public places, a man will simply roll out a prayer rug in the lobby of a hotel and fall to his knees as others continue to traipse past, scarcely taking notice of the prostrate worshiper. Occasionally, a host will simply prostrate himself across the room, leaving his guest to watch as he subjugates himself to Allah.

Religion cannot serve to direct society down a common path when the religious guides themselves are divided. So beyond the cacophony of Islamic voices now bombarding Saudis from television and the Internet is the even more serious spectacle of a religious establishment at war within itself. In recent years, the senior religious scholars have publicly criticized first the king and then each other over the issue of the religious rectitude of men and women mixing.

So minute and myriad are the issues where religion impacts daily life that the government has established an official Web site for approved fatwas to guide the faithful. The site ( ) is intended to discourage young Saudis from following fatwas they find posted on the Internet from some unapproved sheikh at home or abroad who doesn’t represent Islam as propounded by Saudi Arabia’s religious scholars. For instance, one Saudi sheikh issued a fatwa condemning soccer because the Koran, he insisted, forbids Muslims to imitate Christians or Jews. Therefore, using words like foul or penalty kick is forbidden. The country’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al Ashaikh, rejected that fatwa and called on the religious police to track down and prosecute its author. Using a few non-Arabic words, said the grand mufti, is not forbidden, as even Allah used some non-Arabic words in the Koran. (Not incidentally perhaps, the grand mufti understood that soccer is a national passion.)

Many Saudis can’t afford, or won’t risk, indulgences like alcohol or prostitution while inside the kingdom but are eager to partake of them during travels abroad. Millions of Saudis cross the King Fahd Causeway that connects the kingdom to Bahrain, a sheikdom where they can enjoy cinema, alcohol, and prostitutes or just the pleasure of dinner in a relaxed environment with friends both male and female.

Saudi Arabia, assaulted by technology and globalization, tipsy from a population explosion that has left more than 60% of its citizens age twenty or younger, and clinging to religion as an anchor in this sea of change, is trying to preserve a way of life exhibited by the Prophet fourteen hundred years ago.

For millennia, Saudis struggled to survive in a vast desert under searing sun and shearing winds that quickly devour a man’s energy, as he searches for a wadi of shade trees and water, which are few and far between, living on only a few dates and camel’s milk. These conditions bred a people suspicious of each other and especially of strangers, a culture largely devoid of art or enjoyment of beauty.

Even today Saudis are a people locked in their own cocoons, focused on their own survival—and that of family—and largely uncaring of others. While survival in the desert also imposed a code of hospitality even toward strangers, life in Saudi cities shuts out strangers and thus eliminates any opportunity and thus obligation for hospitality toward them.

Walk down the dusty and often garbage-strewn streets of any Saudi residential neighborhood, and all you will see are walls. To your right and to your left are walls of steel and walls of concrete. Walls ten or twelve feet high.

The people present a picture of uniformity. From the king to the lowest pauper, men wear identical flowing white robes. Their heads most often are draped in red-and-white cotton scarves, usually held in place by a double black circle of woven woolen cord. Similarly, women—when in public—are invisible beneath flowing black abayas, head scarves, and generally full-face veils, or niqab. The society presents a somber cast as men move about their daily business, because laughter and visible emotion are discouraged by Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia.

After the shocking terrorist attack on New York’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, carried out mostly by Saudi-bred terrorists, the royal family began belatedly to discern that it had made a pact with the devil. So once again the regime swung into action to combat extremism. With one hand, it got tough on homegrown terrorists, arresting jihadists and trying to root radical imams from the kingdom’s seventy thousand mosques. With the other hand, the regime relaxed some of the oppressive social restrictions it had imposed two decades earlier. Press controls were partially eased so that newspapers could criticize extremists, suddenly a popular whipping boy of the regime, and even once again publish photos of women. The regime convened national dialogues and, more important, curbed some of the worst excesses of the religious police—at least temporarily. Previously, any fanatic could proclaim himself a mutawa, or religious policeman, and bully his fellow citizens in the name of religious purity. Now the would-be bullies had to be appointed and trained by higher authorities.

But as soon as uprisings began sweeping the Middle East, the nervous Al Saud once again began to cement the small nicks in the walls of Saudi society that the king had created less than a decade earlier. The religious establishment was given new money and new authority to expand its reach deeper into the kingdom by establishing fatwa offices in every province. More ominously, King Abdullah issued a royal decree making it a crime for print or online media to publish any material that harms “the good reputation and honor” of the kingdom’s grand mufti, members of the Council of Senior Ulama, or government officials. So much for reform.

Most remain deeply averse to conduct that might be seen to violate social norms and invite shame upon themselves and their families. So myriad unspoken rules bind most Saudis in place as tightly as Lilliputians tied down Gulliver. The tight-knit tribal unit tracing its lineage to a single ancestor is the key social grouping in Saudi Arabia and remains a powerful force for conformity. Over millennia, to survive the challenges of the desert and of competing tribes, these groups developed a set of core values such as generosity, hospitality, courage, and honor that bound the entire group and preserved its unity. These values, writes David Pryce-Jones in The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs, can be summed up as self-respect, but not in the Western sense of conscience or relationship with God. For Arabs, a man’s self-respect is determined by how others see him. So appearance is everything.

A man who kills his wife or daughter for unfaithfulness simply is preserving the honor of his family and his tribe.

The determination of all Saudis to retain honor and avoid shame cannot be overstated. Understanding this begins to help Westerners like me, accustomed to spontaneity, grasp why Saudis are so passive and conformist.

Something as simple as a wife accompanying her husband on a brief trip abroad is laden with rules and norms that trap her into largely self-induced inaction. If a Saudi woman is traveling, Rana explains, she is expected to visit senior relatives and even close neighbors to bid them good-bye. Upon her return, she is obliged to make another round of visits to the same individuals to pay her respects and dispense small gifts. To simply pack her bag and fly off for a few days with her husband would break society’s conventions and thus disrupt social harmony, exposing her to negative gossip and bringing shame upon her family. So confronted with that heavy load of tradition, the wife simply stayed home. This little convention, multiplied and magnified throughout the Saudi maze, is what consumes so much of the time and saps so much of the initiative of Saudi citizens, confines them to their walled compounds, and restricts them largely to contact among family members.

With urbanization, Saudis know little about the true piety of those they encounter in daily life, so appearances have become even more important. To be accepted as pious, a man simply has to sport a beard and short thobe. Covering herself completely in public similarly conveys a woman’s devotion to Allah. This is precisely why many educated Saudi women say they veil: not to do so risks conveying antisocial behavior and being ostracized as liberal.

Both tradition and religion have made most Saudis accustomed to dependence, to being reactive, not proactive; to accepting, not questioning; to being obedient, not challenging; to being provided for rather than being responsible for their own futures. During the centuries when Arabia was dominated by warring tribes, the tribal head was responsible for the needs of his tribe and expected to receive loyalty and obedience from others if he met those needs.

Saudis, from poor supplicants at royal offices to impressive servants of the regime like Abdul Rahman, are accustomed to receiving their livelihood from the ruler. The unspoken but implicit social contract still is that rulers provide stability and prosperity, and the ruled obey. So far prosperity has been sufficient to secure most people’s acquiescence, even as many grumble these days about too much religion, too much dependence on the United States, too much corruption among the princes, too great a gap between rich and poor, too much unemployment among the young. Perceptive Saudis also mutter about the reemergence of tribal loyalties because the regime, rather than create a spirit of nationalism, has sought to ensure control by keeping citizens divided and distrustful of one another, and by encouraging tribal leaders who still meet weekly with senior princes to compete for Al Saud loyalty and largesse.

Today’s Saudi Arabia thus is less a unified nation-state than a collection of tribes, regions, and Islamic factions that coexist in mutual suspicion and fear. A resident of the Hejaz, the relatively cosmopolitan region encompassing the port of Jeddah and the holy city of Mecca, the kingdom’s two international melting pots, resents the fact that men from the Nejd in central Arabia, and the original home of the Al Saud, occupy all key judicial and financial jobs in the kingdom and are allowed to force their conservative customs and religious views on all Saudis. Shia Muslims from the oil-rich Eastern Province, even more than the Sufi Muslims from Jeddah or the Ismaili Muslims from the impoverished south of Saudi Arabia, resent the total domination of the Wahhabi philosophy over every aspect of life and the pervasive discrimination against them. Tribal loyalties also divide the population, as few individuals ever marry outside their tribe. The preferred marriage partner is one’s first cousin. A Saudi instantly can tell, from an individual’s accent and name, the tribal origins of another Saudi. Social life consists almost entirely of family, and family connections are almost always within one tribe. Thus even the most modern and relatively liberal of Saudis who may mix at work with coworkers of various tribal backgrounds most likely is married to a cousin and socializes almost exclusively with other relatives.

Saudi society has undergone a pell-mell urbanization over the past forty years with the result that fully 80 percent of Saudis now live in one of the country’s three major urban centers—Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam.

Some royal palaces stretch literally for blocks behind their high walls that block out the less fortunate parts of Saudi society. In poorer neighborhoods, some Saudis live in tents beside barren patches of dirt, where filthy, barefoot boys play soccer on fields demarcated only by piles of garbage or live in ramshackle tenements often with little furniture and limited electricity.

Trapped between the wealthy and the poor is an increasingly fearful and resentful Saudi middle class, whose standard of living has slipped dramatically over the past half-dozen years. A 2006 Saudi stock market crash, coupled with rising inflation, has left them treading water and slowly sinking as they borrow money to try to maintain a lifestyle they cannot afford.

The intensifying clash over the role of women in Saudi society is about far more than whether women should be allowed to drive or, however well shrouded, mix with men in public places. It is not a war between the sexes, but rather a proxy war between modernizers and conservatives over what sort of Saudi Arabia both sexes will inhabit and over the role and relevance of the omnipresent religious establishment in Saudi society.

As Arab youths challenged authoritarian regimes across the Middle East in the Arab Spring of 2011, in Saudi Arabia, ironically, it was the women, not youth, who had the temerity to confront authority. This challenge amounted to some dozens of women repeatedly gathering outside the Interior Ministry demanding the release of their husbands, brothers, and sons imprisoned for political reasons. Some dozens of other women staged a succession of “drive-ins” to protest the continued ban on women driving. Some were arrested; others were ignored. Still, courageous individual women across the kingdom have continued unannounced to test authority by getting behind the wheel of a car and posting videos of their defiance on YouTube.

It is easy to exaggerate the significance of these small public protests. That said, however, even small acts of public defiance are a remarkable sign of change in a society where all public demonstrations are banned and in which the overwhelming majority of women are totally subjugated by religion, tradition, and family.

If a woman could exercise the freedom to drive, a tether of male control would be severed. Indeed, the whole core premise of Wahhabi Islam—that men obey Allah and women obey men—would be challenged.

Not only are women divided against each other, they also are divided from the rest of society by the religious establishment that enforces separation of the sexes. To be born a woman in Saudi Arabia is at best to endure a lifelong sentence of surveillance by a male relative and to take no action outside the household without male approval and, most often, male accompaniment. A father controls every aspect of a Saudi girl’s life until she is passed to a new dominant male—her husband. At worst, a woman’s life is one of not just subjugation but virtual slavery, in which wives and daughters can be physically, psychologically, and sexually abused at the whim of male family members, who are protected by an all-male criminal system and judiciary in those rare cases when a woman dares go to authorities. So it’s not surprising to learn that the supplication to Allah that a groom offers on his wedding night is the same he is instructed to offer when buying a maidservant—or a camel: “Oh Allah, I ask you for the goodness that you have made her inclined toward and I take refuge with You from the evil within her and the evil that you have made her inclined toward.” Imagine on your wedding day in any other society being equated by your husband to a servant or a beast of burden.

The religious ideal in the kingdom is that the two sexes never meet outside the home after kindergarten.

A woman is not allowed to drive a car, not because Islam forbids something that didn’t exist in the Prophet’s day, but ironically because authorities say she might be prey to misbehavior by Saudi men. Nor can she be alone with a man who isn’t a close relative, even in a public place—indeed, especially in a public place, as this flouts religious tradition against gender mixing. When she shops, she cannot try on clothes in the store, because sales attendants are men. She must first buy the garment and then take it home or to a female-supervised restroom for a fitting. In some conservative homes, she doesn’t even eat with her husband but dines only after his meal is finished. Because most ministries and places of business are staffed only by men, if she wants to apply for a job, pay a telephone bill, or secure a visa to import a maid for her home, she needs a male relative to accompany her.

If the men in her life are not enforcing these strictures, self-appointed members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the mutawa’a, or so-called religious police, will always do so.

The imam’s mother, like many traditional Saudi women, is one of several wives of her husband. His two other wives, she explains, live nearby so he can easily move from home to home. The wives do not mix, but their children do. One of the other guests acknowledges that she too is the second wife of her husband of two decades.I ask if any of the younger females shares her husband with another wife, and each emphatically shakes her head no. “But it is not my choice,” adds one. “If Allah wills, I accept.

Before the migration of nearly 80% of all Saudis from rural villages into one of three urban centers—Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam—people were much freer, they say. A woman’s abaya was simply a short shawl around the shoulders. Couples mixed over dinners in their homes. Children played all across their neighborhoods and spent the night in each other’s homes, something most children aren’t allowed to do these days. “In the eighties the country became very conservative,” says one woman. “We no longer know what is required by religion.

Essentially a Saudi woman is seen as some kind of sexually depraved creature who, if alone in a car, would be rapidly lured into adultery. On the other hand, that same woman being chauffeured around Riyadh by a foreign male driver is considered secure, as she is under the control of a man—the driver. Moreover, that man by virtue of being foreign is seen by Saudi men as merely a sexless extension of the car with no possible appeal to the female passenger.

The independence and forthrightness of Arab women like Kadijah and Aisha were curtailed over the next centuries, as the new Islamic religion conquered most of the area from Arabia to Spain and its triumphant foot soldiers procured captured women as multiple wives and concubines. During the eighth and ninth centuries, women, now plentiful in the harems of elite men, became debased and dependent. Unfortunately for women, codification of Muslim legal thought and practice occurred during this period and achieved final formulation in the 10th century in four major schools of thought that still dominate today. These schools of thought were—and still are—deemed infallible. Thus, legal scholars to this day are obliged to follow precedent, not originate legal doctrine. As a result, women continue to be seen as sex objects whose intrigues can destroy men and disrupt society unless tightly controlled. “Establishment Islam’s version of the Islamic message survived as the sole legitimate interpretation … because it was the interpretation of the politically dominant—those who had the power to outlaw and eradicate other readings as ‘heretical.’ ” The same is true in Saudi today, where the Al Saud and their senior ulama enforce their interpretation of Islam.

Ironically, it was oil wealth that made possible the sidelining of half the country’s productive population. These days, as government allocation of oil wealth fails to keep up with a growing population and increased public expectations, more and more women hope to get off the sidelines and into the game.

Women’s sports are the latest arena for female activists. Officially, sports for girls are banned. This helps account for why some 66% of Saudi women (as opposed to 52% of Saudi men) are reported by health officials to be overweight. Despite this strong religious opposition, women in recent years have been forming soccer, basketball, volleyball, and cricket teams. Some are in schools. More are under the auspices of charities.

“If you want to change society, you have to change the women,” she says. The kingdom’s wealth is dwindling, she argues, and the new generation must be taught to create wealth, not simply consume it, as earlier Saudi generations have done.

The young, overwhelmingly Internet savvy, are well aware of the lifestyles of Western youth, but have almost no leisure options available in the kingdom to absorb their youthful energies. Cinemas are banned. Dating is forbidden. Shopping malls are off limits to young men unless accompanied by a female relative. (This is intended to ensure they do not prey on young women in the malls.) Public fields for soccer are few. Concerts are outlawed. Even listening to music is forbidden by conservative religious sheikhs, though this admonition is widely ignored, as the ubiquitous rap music along Tahlia Street underscores.

An annual book fair sponsored by the Ministry of Information and Culture is about as close to public entertainment as the kingdom gets. Yet religious fundamentalists in 2011 crashed even that staid event, seized a microphone, and berated the presence and dress of women in attendance. “Youth want freedom,” says Saker al Mokayyad, head of the international section at Prince Nayef Arab University, which trains the oppressive internal security forces, here and throughout the Arab world, that keep citizens under constant surveillance. “A young man has a car and money in his pocket, but what can he do? Nothing. He looks at TV and sees others doing things he can’t do and wonders why.

The youth rebellion takes many forms. Some young people simply show their independence by wearing baseball caps and sneakers or by adopting other Western fashions and habits, though this does not necessarily mean they want a Western way of life.

Bugnah concludes the film by interviewing the neighborhood imam, who acknowledges that young boys are selling drugs and young girls are sold by their fathers into prostitution to earn money. He asks each family what they want to say to King Abdullah, and each asks only for a home, something out of reach for about 70% of Saudis, given the high price of land because previous kings have given most of the state’s land to princes or a handful of powerful businessmen who do the regime’s bidding.

A second youth video, Monopoly, highlighted the near impossibility of owning a home in Saudi Arabia because a monopoly on landownership by royals and other wealthy Saudis has put the price of land out of reach of a majority of Saudis.

The Saudi government in 2010 installed in major cities a sophisticated camera system that tickets speeders by automatically sending a ticket to their cell phones. Traffic accidents are the number-one killer in Saudi Arabia. Every ninety minutes someone dies in a traffic accident, and every fifteen minutes another Saudi is left handicapped for life. Traffic fatalities in 2010 totaled more than six thousand, double the number who died in Britain, even though Saudi Arabia’s population is less than half that of Britain. The new saher system has been repeatedly vandalized by young Saudis, who destroy the cameras or steal license plates from police cars and then repeatedly speed through lights, generating scores of bogus tickets for police officers. Youth claim that the money from fines goes to enrich Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, crown prince and minister of interior, who is responsible for the nation’s invasive intelligence agencies. In choosing this target, young Saudis are protesting what they see as both royal corruption and state intrusion into their lives.

Saudis, even Internet-savvy ones, are not at all like Western youth. It isn’t just that many young people in the West use drugs, have sex before marriage, and rarely even think about religion, let alone practice any faith. The biggest difference is that Western youth aren’t reared in societies that venerate religion or value tradition, so they are free to seek their own paths uninhibited by strong societal or family pressures. Young Saudis, even those resisting authority and seeking some independence, are struggling against the thick walls of religion and tradition constructed brick by brick from birth by family, school, mosque, and government. Even if these values and traditions are rejected, the act of breaking free defines the individual.

Saudi youth, whether liberal, traditional, or fundamentalist, share at least three characteristics: most are alienated, undereducated, and underemployed. Unlike their parents and grandparents, who generally express gratitude to the Al Saud for improving their standard of living during the oil boom of the 1970s, young Saudis born in the 1980s and 1990s have no memory of the impoverished Arabia prior to the oil boom and thus express almost no sense of appreciation. Instead, they have experienced a kingdom of poor schools, overcrowded universities, and declining job opportunities. Moreover, their royal rulers’ profligate and often non-Islamic lifestyles are increasingly transparent to Saudis and stand in sharp contrast both to Al Saud religious pretensions and to their own declining living standards.

Young people in any Saudi city drive past princely palaces that often stretch for blocks and ask how such opulence squares with the Prophet’s example of humility and equality among believers. They also hear their religious imams condemn any human likeness as sinful, yet they see life-size pictures of Al Saud rulers in the foyers of every public building in the kingdom.

“Facebook opens the doors of our cages,” says a young single Saudi man in his midtwenties, noting that the social network is the primary way men and women meet in the kingdom.

Saudi society, as we have seen, is deeply divided along multiple fault lines—tribal, regional, religious, gender, and more. All these divisions are visibly accentuated among Saudi youth. The gap between the easy riders on Riyadh’s Tahlia Street and the devout but questioning Imam University students, between the educated young women at Saudi ARAMCO and the isolated girls on the mountaintop in Faifa, between Lulu’s cloistered daughters and Manal’s liberated ones, is all the sharper and thus all the more threatening to the future stability of the Al Saud regime. If overall Saudi society was once homogeneous, the current generation of Saudi youth is openly and proudly heterogeneous. The most significant thing they have in common is dissatisfaction with the status quo. Whether, and if so how, to accommodate this pressure from the young is among the most daunting challenges for the Al Saud regime. CHAPTER

Saudi soccer games are about the only time reserved Saudis are allowed to shout and show joy.

The fact that most Saudi princes are as powerless as ordinary Saudis to address these problems may seem surprising, but perhaps it should not in a society where seniority trumps enterprise, especially among princes. Being born a prince still has advantages, but these days the benefits are more akin to those enjoyed by the offspring of elite businessmen or politicians in the West. These younger princes can gain access to an influential minister or businessman more easily than the average Saudi, but they have little access to or influence on the handful of senior Al Saud princes who rule the kingdom through division, diversion, and dollars.

Saudi Arabia’s founder fathered 44 sons and innumerable daughters. Many of his sons were almost as prolific as their father, so the kingdom now boasts thousands of princes—sons, grandsons, great-grandsons, and by now great-great-grandsons of the founder. These princes may be born to rule, but the truth is only a handful ever will.

In no other country on earth is there a royal family on anything like this scale. Collectively, they increasingly are viewed by the rest of Saudi society as a burdensome privileged caste.

The monarch sees their diversity, divisions, and demands as just one more problem requiring skillful management, all the more so as the issue of generational succession looms large, now that Abdul Aziz’s surviving sons all are in their late sixties or older. Even in a government that prefers princes for most key jobs in Riyadh ministries and provincial leadership roles around the country, the majority of Abdul Aziz’s heirs have no government position. Hundreds of them, to be sure, have quasi-official roles running programs to help the poor or foundations of one sort or another, and many hundreds more use their royal lineage to build businesses through which they obtain land and government contracts worth hundreds of millions and sometimes billions. But the family is so large some princes still can’t find a sinecure. Third-generation princes are said to receive only $19,000 a month, hardly enough to lead a princely life, and King Abdullah, since assuming the throne in 2005, has stopped passing out envelopes of money to vacationing family members, has curbed the use of the Saudi national airline as an Al Saud private jet service, and has privatized the telephone company so the government no longer covers free cell phone usage for royals. The extended royal family, including progeny of Abdul Aziz’s siblings, is said to include roughly 30,000 members.

The prince typifies the generation that came of age in the 1980s on the heels of the attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious extremists. The country ceased sending students abroad for education and exposure to Western ways and sharply tilted toward pacifying the fundamentalists, allowing the religious establishment to dominate every aspect of Saudi life, especially education. So for most of the two decades between the attack on the Grand Mosque in 1979 and the attack by extremist Saudis on the World Trade Center in 2001, Saudi education was dominated by fundamentalist, xenophobic religious indoctrination that encouraged young Saudis to see the West as decadent and Christians and Jews as infidel enemies of Islam. That is pretty much Abdul Aziz’s view.

Major Saudi cities now offer all manner of modern consumer products not available a couple of decades ago. Indeed, about all that isn’t available in Saudi Arabia these days is entertainment, alcohol, and books that the government considers subversive—meaning most political and religious titles, including the Bible, and almost all books on Saudi Arabia.

Illiteracy has never shamed Saudis. No less an exemplar than the Prophet Muhammad could not read or write. For nearly two decades, the Angel Gabriel spoke Allah’s revelations to Muhammad, who repeated them to his followers. As with Muhammad, hear and repeat is the foundation of all Saudi education. To this day, the concept of educational inquiry is barely nascent in Saudi Arabia. Students from kindergarten through university for the most part sit in front of teachers

End of Kindle notes: now buy the book!


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A third of Nuclear Reactors are going to die of old age in the next 10-20 years

Number of operating reactors by age (as of June 26, 2007). Age is determined by first grid connection. Source: IAEA power reactor information system

70% of reactors are over 25 years old, 23% are over 35 years old, so within 10 to 20 years about a third will have to be decommissioned, far more than the 63 under constructionSome are bound to fail as they age, making the future of nuclear power even less certain.

And where will the waste go?

The U.S. depends on nuclear power plants built with designs from the 1950s that have known flaws.

Worse yet, the U.S. has 23 reactors with the same design as those in Fukushima Japan that melted down after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

In both old and more recent plants, the components face a daily load of high temperatures, pressures, vibration and bombarding neutrons, which can render thick steel walls so brittle that cracks form at welds and joints (Biello).

Biello, D. Feb 7, 2015. Sorry State: U.S.’s Nuclear Reactor Fleet Dwindles. Scientific American.


Number of operating reactors by age (as of June 26, 2007). Age is determined by first grid connection. Source: IAEA power reactor information system

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