Alternative Energy Matrix

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= "Tom Murphy posted a very handy chart that ranks competing energy sources against a series of criteria": The Alternative Energy Matrix



Tom Murphy:

"When I first approached the subject of energy in our society, I expected to develop a picture in my mind of our grandiose future, full of alternative energy sources like solar, wind, nuclear, biofuels, geothermal, tidal, etc. What I got instead was something like this matrix: full of inadequacies, difficulties, and show-stoppers. Our success at managing the transition away from fossil fuels while maintaining our current standard of living is far from guaranteed. If such success is our goal, we should realize the scale of the challenge and buckle down now while we still have the resources to develop a costly new infrastructure. Otherwise we get behind the curve, possibly facing unfamiliar chaos, loss of economic confidence, resource wars, and the unforgiving Energy Trap. The other controlled option is to deliberately adjust our lives to require fewer resources, preferably abandoning the growth paradigm at the same time. Can we manage a calm, orderly exit from the building? In either case, the first step is to agree that the building is in trouble. Techno-optimism keeps us from even agreeing on that." (


Criteria used in the matrix.

Tom Murphy:

"Abundance: This is essentially the “abundant,” “potent,” and “niche” classification scheme reflected in the preceding posts. Green means that the resource can in principle produce far more power than we currently use and keep it up for many centuries. Red means a bit-player at best. Yellow is the stuff that can be useful, but is incapable of carrying the full load—not that we require everything to do this. We can tolerate a mix of of items, but will not get far by mixing reds together.

Difficulty: This field tries to capture the degree to which a resource brings with it large technical challenges. How many PhDs does it take to run the plant? How painful is it to maintain or keep churning? This one might translate into economic terms: difficult is another term for expensive.

Intermittency: Green if rock-steady or there whenever we need it. If the availability is beyond our control, then it gets a yellow at least. The possibility of going without for a few days earns a red.

Demonstrated: I don’t mean on paper, and I don’t mean a prototype that exhibits some of the technology. To be green, this has to be commercially available today, and providing useful energy.

Electricity: Can the technology produce electricity? Most of the time, the answer is yes. Sometimes it would make no sense to try. Other times, it is seriously impractical.

Heat: Can the resource produce direct heat? Yellow if only through electric means.

Transport: Does the technology relieve the liquid fuels crunch? Anything that makes electricity can power an electric car, earning a yellow score. Liquid fuels are green. Some may get tired of the broken record in the descriptions that follow that a particular resource does not help transportation, wanting to shout “electric cars, fool” every time I say it. But our large-scale migration to electric cars is not in the bag. They may remain too expensive to be widely adopted. Meanwhile, this does not help air travel or heavy transport.

Acceptance: Is public opinion (I can really only judge U.S. attitudes) favorable to this method? Will there likely be resistance—whether justified or not?

Backyard?: Is this something that can be done domestically, in one’s backyard or small property, managed by the individual?

Efficiency: Over 50% gets the green. Below about 10% gets red. It’s not the most important of criteria, as the abundance score incorporates efficiency expectations. But we will always view low efficiency negatively." (


The main conclusions:

  • "Intermittency mainly plagues solar and wind resources, with mild inconvenience appearing for many of the natural sources.
  • Electricity is easy to produce. We have loads of ways to do it, and are likely to pick the easiest/cheapest. We won’t necessarily get far down the list if we’re covered by things at the top end (assuming my rankings have any validity and some economic correlation).
  • Transport is hard. Concerns over peak oil played a huge role in making me sit up to pay attention to our energy challenges. Electric cars are the most obvious way out, but don’t do much for heavy shipping by land or sea, and leave airplanes on the ground.
  • Few things face serious barriers to acceptance: especially when energy scarcity is at stake."


More Information

Recommended in: John Thackara's Thermodynamic Bibliography