Economics Renewable Energy

The Renewable Energy Singularity

It’s gonna happen. Some day.

Some day, we (as the human race) will reach a point–or a singularity–where it will be more economically viable to create renewable energy than to harvest oil or coal out of the ground; there won’t be any going back. We started toeing that line a few months ago. Oil just about crossed the $150 mark before dropping way back, thanks to the possibility of recession. Now that we’re back into cheap oil land, we will probably suffer a setback on developing newer more efficient energy solutions (not even necessarily renewable ones). But once we cross that threshold where renewable energy is cheaper than hydrocarbon based energy, the world can only change for the better.

Let’s look at things that will accelerate the pace at which we (are forced to) develop new energy technologies:

  1. We run out of oil — Whoops! Can that really happen? You’re darn skippy it can happen. And will happen, if growth continues as it had for the past few years. China and India are waking up as new middle class citizens and they are thirsty for oil. There were only so many dinosaurs and other critters that are now our oil supplies.
  2. The oil that is left is REALLY hard to get to — Recently Cuba found out they have one of the largest oil reserves in the world just off their coast. Too bad it’s a mile or more under the ocean. That’s a lot of water to get through just to get at the oil. It’s even tougher if you have primitive oil companies trying to get at that oil. If the price of oil is high enough there’s likely to be someone crazy enough to go get it, but that might raise the price even more.
  3. The oil and coal the US imports is no longer available — The main reason would be “conflict” a.k.a. War. We make Iran or other friends of OPEC angry enough and they might decide to stop sending us 55 gallon drums of crude (that’s just how they measure it…not ship it, right?).
  4. We can’t afford it anymore — Since we’ve been sending China our money for a long time, they are sitting on some significantly larger piles of cash (in US dollars, thank you very much). If it comes down to an eBay style bidding war, the bigger pile is going to win. Even bidding at the last moment won’t help!

OK, so we’ve decided what might get us into this mess. But what else can get us out of this mess? It’s pretty clear that the next US presidential administration will have some serious sway over how renewable energies are governed and encouraged. If they read, or better yet employ the author of “Hot, Flat and Crowded” — Thomas Friedman, then they will have a level headed economist with some great ideas on their side. More important than one man or even one administration is a multi-point plan of attack for reducing the cost of renewable energy.

Remember, the thing we’re concentrating on is that point where it’s more cost efficient to harvest renewable sources than to dig up carbon based sources. In theory, this makes a lot of sense. Sunshine is definitely free, even if it is harder to come by in the great north. Wind is prevalent just about everywhere, just look at Kansas. But until the infrastructure and the methods are in place, all of these elements won’t contribute to our renewable energy solution, they will just sit useless until everybody jumps on board. Let’s look at a list of hurdles we will have to pass in order to make renewable energy, and more importantly energy independence, a reality:

  1. Efficiently storing energy– From what I’ve seen so far, this will probably be done by splitting H20 into hydrogen and oxygen. While I don’t like the idea of liquid or gaseous hydrogen sitting in my car, basement, etc, I would hope material technologies catch up so catastrophic events aren’t as often as we might think. Unless some game changing technology such as batteries or super capacitors comes and proves it can store energy better than electrolysis, then splitting molecules will be the way to go.
  2. A newer and better power grid — This is one whopper of a problem. You know how you hate going to Best Buy to purchase a 10 ft length of cable because the one coming out of your wall won’t reach your TV? You know how they totally overcharge you because those are their high margin products? Well even if there was NO margin, imagine how expensive it would be to run one wire all the way across the United States. Now imagine criss-crossing those wires across every town and city across the United States. Oh and those really huge amounts of cable? Well, let’s make them out of copper, which is currently at some all time price highs right now. A better routed and controlled power grid is a good first step to increasing the efficiency of power transport. But until we as a country begin to revamp the aging infrastructure of this country, renewable energy will not be a reality for locally generated power sold to the masses or at a central power station system where excess power can be put on the grid at any time it is available.
  3. Bringing in the big boys — Like it or not, the big energy companies need to be a part of it. Until BP or Chevron can continue to make the profits they are making with oil, then there will be problems.  I’m not saying that the king cannot be dethroned (ahem, GM), but I think that if the big boys are in on the action, they will be less likely to lobby the government for oil and maybe even turn their interest towards lobbying for renewables. Who wouldn’t want to get free energy (solar)? All you do is plop down the infrastructure and collect those deliciously free solar rays.  On another note about the big boys, I am happy to say that they have started recognizing some of the potential in renewable energy, although it is unlikely that they will be turning in their oil rigs for solar panels anytime in the next few years. Oil rigs are expensive!
  4. Progressive tax credit reforms — Again, this is likely to hinge on the upcoming election and ensuing presidency but in the event that point 3 does not go through and oil companies continue to lobby for hydrocarbon use, tax credits will be needed so individuals are encouraged to buy their own wind, solar and geothermal systems.  Sure, the lowered costs help, but until there is governmental push, it’ll be slower adoption on the part of big business.
  5. Finding replacements for current solutions — I once visited the GE Aviation facility in Cincinnati and I can tell you, that facility is HUGE. It must be miles of offices and test bays completely dedicated to producing engines that run on jet fuel. Until THEY decide to switch over and try new methods of propulsion, having an abundance of hydrogen might not do them (or us) any good. The end products (in this case engines) require jet fuel and until they require something other than jet fuel (and therefore drive the demand down and the impetus to go find and sell more of it down), then the cost of renewables will remain high by association (because there will be less demand for it).

As much as we wish it was, making cheaper solar panels isn’t the only solution to reducing costs of renewable energy. There are many different aspects that feed into making renewable energy a final solution for the human race. If you can think of more milestones we’ll have to reach before this vision becomes a reality, please post them in the comments.

By Chris Gammell

Chris Gammell is an engineer who talks more than most other engineers. He also writes, makes videos and a couple podcasts. While analog electronics happen to be his primary interests, he also dablles in FPGAs and system level design.

11 replies on “The Renewable Energy Singularity”

They don’t ship oil in barrels. It is transported in barrels to service centers and stuff (next time you get your oil changed look around for a few), but ships built to transport oil just have giant tanks that they fill. As for energy independence, America has a ton of energy reserves if you count coal and natural gas. Supposedly West Virginia has enough coal to satisfy the energy needs of America for several decades, the problem is that nobody makes appliances, or vehicles that run on coal, and furnaces that run on coal are few and far between. Coal power plants are also not too popular these days, so powering your computer/lights/blender/whatever with coal is becoming less of a possibility. On the other hand, new processes for converting coal and natural gas to liquid fuels are being discovered and improved (see GTL, CTL, synthetic kerosene, etc.) which can use these natural resources to replace current petroleum-based sources. So that’s independence…. but not renewable or environmentally friendly. And just to throw in my two cents on GE and their aircraft engines, I don’t think we will ever see hydrogen or battery-powered aircraft engines. Petroleum is so easy to store and use, and has such a high energy density that replacing it in aircraft will never happen unless we discover something crazy like dilithium crystals (star trek fans, anyone?). But assuming we can’t predict radical changes and just projecting forward the currently possible technologies, aircraft will always run on petroleum derivatives.

However, if we can use gas-to-liquid processes and also invest in environmentally friendly processes to remove some of that pollution created by airplanes, then we could find a carbon-neutral route around the issue. We’ll see where it goes.

As for renewable energy, I’m all for solar/wind power, and personally I think if we had taken a chunk of that $840,000,000,000.00 bailout package and thrown it into electrical infrastructure, we might have done our economy more good in the long run. Less waste and better protection from manipulation of our power grid would be good. I know nuclear (not nucular! argh!) power has become a hot item these days, but the problems they had 20 years ago are still there. Meltdowns are bad. Waste that won’t be safe to handle for 10,000 years is bad. Lets not get overzealous about the whole greenhouse gas thing and make a rash decision that we have to live with for the next millenium. Current cutting-edge technology with space-rated triple junction photovoltaic cells get something like 60-80% efficiency. They cost a crazy amount of money, but I bet if they start producing enough of them the price will come down — and at the same time provide more money for R&D, possibly raising their efficiency further. Back in the 60’s IBM switched to transistors from vacuum tubes and it resulted in a drop in the cost of transistors by like 99.9%. I don’t think that big a drop will be seen in solar cells, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a pretty sizable drop. Wind turbines are pretty much as good as they are going to get I think. We might see another few percent improvement, but nothing earth-shattering like solar power has the potential for.

I definitely agree that improvements to the power grid are necessary if we’re going to take advantage of new energy technologies. But I’m not sure if I’ve seen you mention ‘enhanced geothermal’ energy in your lists of renewable sources.

I heard a research talk about it and have done some reading and it seems promising. It allows the oil companies to make doing something they’re very good at (drilling), and is basically a limitless source of energy with no pollution. You just circulate water deep into the ground, heat it up, produce steam, and run turbines. The same basic idea as a coal plant except the steam comes from the earth’s natural heat instead of burning coal.

There are a few companies currently developing this technology, including AltaRock Energy ( and Potter Drilling (

As a general note, I don’t think there’s going to be one magic solution to our energy/climate change crisis. I think it will have to be a combination of new energy technologies and changing our building practices and lifestyles to decrease energy consumption.

I agree with Elaine, Stirling engines kick butt. However, as your temperature difference gets smaller, the radiators get bigger, which causes more parasitic efficiency losses from viscous effects, etc. I would love to see some more development on Stirling engines in the US, they are clean, they are very reliable, and they don’t care what creates their heat. We could fuel them with natural gas, geothermal heat, concentrated sunlight, or the breath of politicians — pretty much anything that can make hot air.

Picking nits with your terminology, I believe that date will be a tipping point, not a singularity. 🙂

Mathematically, a singularity is a point at which the value or slope of a function becomes infinitely large. The projected crossover from the superiority of biological intelligence to artificial intelligence is referred to as the singularity not because it’s the crossover from one thing to another; but because the intelligence of AI is expected to self-reinforce, grow hyper-exponentially, and reach a singularity that then causes it to surpass biological intelligence.

It’s the AI-designing-the-next-AI that causes the hyper-exponential growth of intelligence. That same phenomenon doesn’t occur with the climb of renewable energy, so it’s not exponential or hyper-exponential growth.

Can you tell I just finished reading Kurzweil? 🙂

1) We will not run out of oil in the foreseeable future, because it can be made easily from coal or natural gas by Fischer-Tropsch or Mobil-MTG. We can keep burning it until the earth becomes so hot that civilization collapses, unless…
2) We can find a source of energy that will undercut the price of fossil fuels (since political agreement to sufficiently raise the price of carbon is unlikely). Solar and wind might or might not get there, except…
3) Renewables have low density (require huge amounts of land) and suffer from fluctuation with the weather. Best estimates are they can make up 30% of our needs, which leaves just one option: Nuclear. Unfortunately…
4) People are rightly scared of 10,000 years of waste, proliferation, melt downs, high expense of deployment associated with Uranium. Fortunately…
5) There is another completely different proven nuclear cycle based on Thorium which has none of these problems, and which is 4x more plentiful than Uranium. It was developed in the US but dropped in the 1970s (MSR experiment, LFTR) but is being rapidly revived in India and China. Only thorium is plentiful, cheap, energy dense, and safe enough to replace fossil fuels this century using known or easily developed technology.

Human civilization: thorium powered in our lifetimes, or bust.

Comments are closed.