• Ian Sutton

Climageddon and the Gigafactory

Updated: Mar 18


Climageddon describes our climate change dilemma. It conveys a needed sense of urgency. However its comments to do with the Tesla Gigafactory indicate a lack of understanding of the technological effort needed to address climate change predicaments.

The purpose of this site is to identify technologies that can help us realistically meet the goal of ‘Net Zero by 2050’. Such technologies need to meet the following criteria,

  • Provide carbon-free energy for every segment of society, including electrical utilities, transportation and manufacturing.

  • Implement the technology on a world-wide scale on or before the year 2050.

  • Allow society to maintain its current standard of living and material consumption during and after the transition process.

The key word in the above statement is ‘realistically’. Can the proposed technology be implemented on a world-wide scale in such a short period of time? After all 2050 is just 29 years away. It took 300 years to develop our current industrial infrastructure, and now we are talking about an equally radical transformation in just one generation. Do we have the material, human and financial resources to back such a dramatic change?


Climageddon

It was with these thoughts in mind that purchased a copy of Lawrence Wollersheim’s book Climageddon (1st edition, 2016) a couple of weeks ago. The book, which has the subtitle The Global Warming Emergency and How to Survive It, describes the climate change predicaments in which we find ourselves in great detail.


The author maintains that our climate change crisis is even worse, and even more urgent, than official projections (which are bad enough). For example, on page 116 he says the following regarding the the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) assessments.

A 2° Celsius increase increase in global average temperature by the year 2100 has been the official estimate of the IPCC. But it is low and overly optimistic.

Those words were written before the publication of the IPPC report Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C in 2018 (the report that is used as the basis for the discussions and analyses provided at this web site). That report provides grimmer predictions than its predecessors. Nevertheless, Climageddon’s predictions as to how quickly the climate is changing continue to be more alarming than even the most recent IPCC forecasts.


Climageddon is divided into two sections. The first section describes global warming: what it is, what is causing it, and what its impacts are likely to be. The second section is to do with responses. Its title is ‘The Key Action Steps of the Job One Plan to End Global Warming’.


Books Goals

On page 220 the book lays out its two key goals.

  1. Scale up and transition globally to nearly 100% renewable global green energy generation by 2026.

  2. Scale down and reduce global fossil fuel use to ensure achieving carbon neutrality (net zero carbon) for all greenhouse gases by 2026.

In other words, the target ‘Net Zero by 2050’ that is the theme of this web site is ‘Net Zero by 2026’.


The author recognizes that the book’s goals are enormously ambitious. Therefore, much of the second section of the book is focused on how we must change government policies because it is too late for individual and small group efforts to have the needed impact.


But even if the we were to gain the political and social commitment that Wollersheim calls for, the question remains, “How do we make the transition? What technology do we adopt, how do we implement it on a world-wide scale, and where do we find the necessary resources for implementation?”


The book’s lack of specifics when it comes to answering these questions is disappointing.


Energy Storage

Gigafactory used to produce electric vehicles and batteries. It is large, but it meets only a tiny fraction of the world’s need for energy storage capabilities.

Not only does the book fail to offer much in the way of specifics as to how we can respond to the climate change crisis, what it does say seems not to be realistic. For example, on page 221 we read,

The entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder of Tesla electric cars and SpaceX, has just built a new Giga factory for mass producing the newest technology in storage batteries. He has said that with just 100 more Giga factories being built, all of the world’s green energy storage needs could be met.

The issue that Musk is addressing is two fold. “Green” electricity comes from solar or wind. However, in many situations these low density energy sources cannot be used directly. For example, solar panels on the roof of a car will not provide nearly sufficient power to move the car at normal speeds. Therefore, we take the energy generated by solar or wind and store it in a battery, which can then be used to power an electric vehicle. Hence the need for the giga factory.


The second issue that Musk is addressing is to do with the intermittency of solar and wind power. These energy sources are only effective about 35% of the time. For solar power, it is night half the time, and the sun often does not shine during the day. Similarly with wind power, the wind does not blow all the time, or when we need it the most. Once more, batteries provide a way of storing “green” energy when it is available for the times when it is needed.


Big Numbers

One of the challenges of climate change work is that we are working with very big numbers that are very difficult to comprehend. The picture shows the vast number of stars in just one galaxy.

Credit Pixabay


Musk’s first factory in Nevada is projected to have 20 GWh (20 billion watt hours) of battery capacity per year. Other organizations are building similar factories. The idea is that the factory will use only “green” energy to manufacture batteries and vehicles.


Let’s run the numbers.


Let us say that, over the course of the next decade or so, 100 of these factories are built, and that they have an annual capacity of 50 GWh each. That gives a total energy production of 5,000 GWh per annum. That’s a big number. But it needs to be put in context. A typical nuclear power plant has a capacity of about 800 MW (million watts). If we assume a capacity factor of 80%, then the energy produced in one year is (800 * 365 * 24 * 0.8)/1000 gigawatt hours. That’s 5,600 GWh. In other words, all of those gigafactories are equivalent to just one nuclear power plant. Moreover, the one nuclear power plant takes up far less land than the hundred factories.


But one nuclear power plant or 100 gigafactories provides only a tiny fraction of the world’s overall energy consumption. The International Energy Agency tells us that, in the year 2017, that number was 113,000 TWh (terawatt-hours). That’s 113,000,000 GWh. We see that the energy produced by one nuclear power plant or the hundred gigafactories is miniscule on a world scale.


The idea of making efficient batteries in “green” factories deserves our full support. But in no way do gigafactories solve our energy dilemmas.


Conclusion

The sense of urgency that pervades the book Climageddon is needed. And the book’s emphasis on changing government policy is also needed. Whether we aim for ‘Net Zero in 2050’ or for ‘Net Zero in 2026’, the basic message is the same — the challenges are huge and time is not on our side.


However, where the book disappoints is its failure to address the engineering, project management and financial realities to do with moving to a ‘Net Zero’ economy. The challenge is not what to do, it is how to do it.

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