Scientist: Renewable energy sources won't supplant fossil fuels by 2035

| Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, 10:30 p.m.

Solar, wind and even natural gas will not be enough to supplant carbon dioxide-producing fossil fuel power sources expected to bring severe global warming problems to the planet by 2035, says a Norwegian doctoral candidate whose views have attracted wide support.

Like most climate scientists, Schalk Cloete told the Tribune-Review, he believes in global warming. But the energy and process engineering doctoral candidate argues there's little we can do to prevent it before it gets much worse.

The problem is economics, human psychology and technological limits, said Cloete, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in chemical engineering from Stellenbosch University in South Africa and studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

“My intention is not to be depressing, only to be realistic,” Cloete said.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration anticipates that renewable energy sources — solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal — may account for 16 percent of the nation's energy consumption by 2040. Of that, solar is projected to be a small component.

The Earth's atmosphere is nearing an average 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide, or CO2. Despite billions of government dollars spent on tax subsidies and direct investments in alternative energy sources to offset emissions, little can be done to prevent CO2 from exceeding 450 parts per million by 2035, some climate scientists agree.

At 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide, temperatures would raise two degrees Celsius worldwide and humans would need to make dramatic lifestyle changes, Cloete said.

Solar technology has advanced about as much as it can, and the chances of its replacing fossil fuels are “slim to none,” he said.

The cost of an installed solar cell has rapidly decreased, from $40 at one time to $3 or $4 and even less in some large utility operations.

But there is only so much energy and only so much money to be made from standard silicon, the major component of solar, Cloete said. Further cost cuts on full solar panels will have to come from frames, internal electronics and in assembly and installation labor to make them something that would be purchased more widely in the United States — let alone undeveloped nations, he said.

“When the dust finally settles, the enormous first-generation (solar panel) overcapacity will probably go down in climate-change history as a deeply regrettable misinvestment,” Cloete wrote on his blog.

Worse, solar has an inherent problem: It works well when the sun is up. A similar thing is true of wind turbines, which must have wind to work. To replace fossil fuels, Cloete said, a utility company would have to make major investments to develop batteries to conserve the energy.

“Battery technology is very important. He's right — there is a storage issue,” agreed Ben Santarris, spokesman for SolarWorld USA. “But just sitting down and doing nothing doesn't seem to be the answer. ...We are doing our best to bring up our efficiencies.”

Cloete said he doesn't disagree that a technological breakthrough could make solar or another alternative energy more significant. He points out, however, that brainstorms are harder to predict than climate change.

Cloete echoes the viewpoint of scientists Jasper Knight of South Africa and Stephen Harrison of Great Britain, who concluded in the journal Nature Climate Change last year that it is “probably too late to arrest the inevitable trend of global warming.”

Jigar Shah, a solar expert and entrepreneur, said Cloete and others who dismiss solar power lack vision, likening them to patent office employees 100 years ago who thought everything worth inventing had been invented.

“These guys don't understand exponential growth,” said Shah, who sold his solar company for $200 million in 2009.

Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley, said Cloete is “right about solar. He is missing the possibility of switching the developing world from coal to natural gas. That can reduce the emissions by a factor of two to three, and give us a lot more time. He is also assuming rapid growth of China's coal, and that is not inevitable.”

Dan Donovan, spokesman for Dominion Resources, which provides natural gas service to much of Pennsylvania, said natural gas production has picked up substantially in the United States because of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, but facilities to liquefy and export it take years to plan, win approval and build.

Experts note that many countries that want to use or develop their own natural gas have limited pipeline infrastructure compared to the United States.

Steve Winberg, vice president of research and development for coal and gas giant Consol Energy Inc. in Cecil, said long range there are technologies to remove CO2 from the air. But he doesn't see that as having a worldwide impact before 2035 — a period during which 1.2 billion to 1.5 billion impoverished people will be demanding access to cheap electricity.

“It took 150 years to build energy infrastructure. To change completely in 22 years is a herculean task. I don't see how it is possible,” Winberg said.

Cloete continues to gather attention as he publishes findings on the website The Energy Collective. He notes some scientists deny the globe is warming and others believe it will warm to the point of killing all life. He believes those are the extremes.

“I'm impressed with his ability to drill into the data,” said Lewis J. Perelman, a Washington-based energy policy strategist and consultant. “I find myself agreeing with him a lot.”

Lou Kilzer is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5628 or

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