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Japan tests the MacKay limit

Even though humanity has barely scratched the surface of its dependency on fossil fuels, it is already hitting hard limits.  The most obvious of these is the storage/back-up problem, which limits renewables like wind and solar to a maximum of some 25 percent of electricity production before it begins to undermine the viability of the grid infrastructure that it depends upon.

Current solutions to this issue are unsatisfactory.  Battery technology is inadequate and far too expensive to iron out delivery issues.  Pumped storage would be cost-effective, but we lack the necessary locations to provide sufficient storage for even a modest increase above today’s level of renewable generation.

This limit, however, is merely the best known; and the one that governments have been reluctantly drawn into attempting (and probably failing) to resolve.  Space may be emerging as an even harder limit.  Because while renewable energy enthusiasts wax lyrical about building gargantuan solar farms in deserts, that is not, for the most part, where they are being built.  In Japan, for example, the attempt to transition from nuclear to solar following the Fukushima accident places solar electricity in conflict with the environment that it purports to be saving.  As Justin McCurry in the Guardian reports:

“Pressure on Japan to increase renewables’ share of the energy mix means the number of large-scale solar farms is expected to rise. But, far from welcoming the dawn of a new age of clean energy on their doorstep, residents near the proposed site of a huge solar farm in the city of Kamogawa are mounting a last-ditch effort to prevent its construction.

“To make the Kamogawa mega solar plant, developers will destroy 300 hectares of pristine forest.

“The irony of chopping down trees, which absorb CO2 in the air as they grow, to replace them with a solar plant has not been lost on campaigners, who claim the facility will destroy the natural environment and put the area at the mercy of the elements.”

This is the real world manifestation of the spatial issue raised by British physicist David MacKay in a TEDx talk in 2012:

“Remember where we are, 1.25 watts per square meter, wind farms 2.5, solar parks about five. So whichever of those renewables you pick, the message is, whatever mix of those renewables you’re using, if you want to power the UK on them, you’re going to need to cover something like 20 percent or 25 percent of the country with those renewables. I’m not saying that’s a bad idea; we just need to understand the numbers. I’m absolutely not anti-renewables. I love renewables. But I’m also pro-arithmetic.”

In a desert or an ocean, covering such a huge area with wind turbines and/or solar panels is not so much of a problem (although delivering the electricity to where it is intended to be consumed continues to be).  But in an already congested country like Japan or the UK, there is simply not enough space to go around – it is needed for growing the food we consume and export.  So sooner or later, renewables are forced into conflict with the flora and fauna that they are supposed to be saving.

As you made it to the end…

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