The Big Lie
- in other words, accordining the President's own government data, the entire idea that "green energy sources" can produce enough energy to remove US dependence on foreign sources of oil is a lie and perhaps one of the biggest ever perpetrated in public policy debates in memo.
Environmentalists want carbon-free energy. Climate change icon Al Gore has called for transitioning America from fossil fuels (which supply 86.2 percent of U.S. energy needs
) to renewable energy (6.8 percent of U.S. energy consumption
, if you include all hydropower, geothermal and biomass, as well as wind and solar) in just 10 years.
Also, President Obama has dealt a possibly fatal blow to nuclear energy projects on the drawing board that could be the most surefire way for the U.S. to offset incrementally more fossil fuels with carbon-free energy in the coming decades.
His action runs counter to trends under way in many European and Asian nations.
Nuclear energy currently supplies about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and three-quarters of its carbon-free energy. While the U.S. nuclear energy has suffered fits-and-starts, and policy makers have been reticent to add to the nation’s complement of 104 commercial reactors, other nations (with 336 of the world’s 440 nuclear power plants) are building reactors at a rapid pace, according to a San Francisco Chronicle
article on March 8.
Other nations that backed off nuclear energy decades ago due to safety concerns have since come to grips with the required scale of power supply needs – and the fact that nuclear energy can do what wind and solar power cannot; that is, without any appreciable carbon emissions, provide large-scale power on a continuous basis (95 percent of the time, down only for maintenance vs. about 30 percent of the time for wind and solar because of their intermittent nature).
From a climate-change purist’s standpoint, nuclear power is an energy dream (see Chicago Tribune
article on other countries’ experience of returning to nuclear power).
The Chicago Tribune
article contains this quote from a Swedish energy engineer: “People shout about wind power, but it's only providing 2 percent. To replace one nuclear plant you need 5,000 to 6,000 windmills. For us, it's not a question of wind power or
nuclear power, but the proper mix."
In fact, more than 370 nuclear reactors are proposed or planned worldwide, the article says, and the global momentum of climate change advocates would seem to be pushing the ball into nuclear energy’s court, although the impact of the global recession on the ability to construct new power facilities of any kind remains an unknown.
Supporters offer that nuclear energy – already operating on not just a viable scale, but a large scale with advances in technology and safety – is a strong contender not only as the answer to carbon reduction, but to economic woes as well.
A March 9 Daily Finance
article recommends the U.S. follow France’s leading with public funding and massive growth of nuclear power to satisfy a trio of needs: energy independence, job creation and reduction of its carbon footprint.
Nuclear energy generates about 14 percent of all electricity worldwide, and more than three-fourths of electricity in France, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute
. At least 16 countries get 25 percent or more of their electricity from nuclear power.
How the U.S. Uses Energy
In June 2008, the Energy Information Administration posted a diagram
that makes good reading for anyone concerned with America’s current and future energy needs and how they can be met. Entitled, “U.S. Primary Energy Consumption by Source and Sector,” the diagram depicts the reality that has befuddled Democratic and Republican administrations alike and survived even the most fervent protests and calls for U.S. dependence from foreign oil. That reality is the U.S. economy and American lifestyle depend on fossil fuels.
U.S. energy use can generally be divvied up into three broad categories:
– about 30 percent of the total
– about 40 percent of the total
All other industrial, commercial and residential uses
– about 30 percent of the total
Taking each broad category, here is the fuel source percentages for each, according to the EIA:
(about 30 percent of total energy use)
Petroleum 96 percent
Natural gas 2 percent
Renewable energy 2 percent
(about 40 percent of total energy use)
Coal 51 percent
Nuclear 21 percent
Natural gas 17 percent
Renewable energy (includes hydro, biofuels, geothermal, wind and solar) 9 percent
Petroleum 2 percent
All other Industrial, Commercial and Residential uses
(about 30 percent of the total)
Petroleum 44 percent of Industrial; 18 percent of Residential and Commercial
Natural gas 37 percent of Industrial; 75 percent of Residential and Commercial
Renewable energy 9 percent of Industrial 6 percent of Residential and Commercial
Coal 9 percent of Industrial 1 percent of Residential and Commercial
Grappling with Realities
Arizona, a state ideally positioned in terms of geography and technological and educational resources to move renewable energy use forward, also is a frontrunner nationally in scrutinizing the economic and energy realities of doing so.
More than 60 policy makers and energy researchers attended the Powering Arizona
energy forum in June 2008 to address a glaring reality that is quite frequently ignored in environmentalists’ appeals to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy; that is, population and economies aren’t static.
It’s not going to work to freeze a snapshot of today’s energy consumption, and pin hopes of a transition to predominantly clean energy on it, because the demand for energy is ever increasing.
Even if you could freeze energy needs long enough to bring all the needed renewables online, it’s quite a mind stretch to think that an energy source that provides just 9 percent of the nation’s energy consumption could supplant an energy source that provides 86 percent of all energy Americans use.
However, often climate change advocates are really just focusing on electricity generation (40 percent of U.S. energy consumption) and there the numbers are a bit better for clean energy only by virtue of the presence of nuclear power (fossil fuels, 70 percent; nuclear, 21 percent; renewables, 9 percent).
But, participants at the Powering Arizona
forum were more forward thinking and did not limit themselves to a freeze frame of today.
They tackled projections for Arizona’s electricity demand to expand by 27 percent in 10 years and 55 percent in just over two decades (by 2030). Again, population and economic growth are leading factors.
Here are some of the key points noted by researchers for policy makers to keep in mind:
Energy futures will not be created without consideration of the global scramble for available and accessible energy resources. Although legions of Americans speak of energy independence, the fact is emergence of developing nations will become a much bigger factor in allocation of energy resources in years to come. (Cross currents of international trade affecting energy industry materials, support and services beyond the energy commodities themselves, as well as global occurrences that affect energy prices and supplies will continue to have an impact on the U.S. energy outlook.)
Solar and wind, while popular alternatives for many, are intermittent power supplies that still require a continuous power backup, which currently only fossil fuels and nuclear energy substantially provide.
Conservation has been massively successful in the U.S. (Americans today use 75 percent less energy than they would have without conservation, according to Joseph Kalt of Harvard University
) but additional conservation cannot come close to offsetting the increase in energy demand that is being fueled by population and economic growth.
Currently, if coal is pushed out of the energy picture by climate change advocates, the only viable near-term replacement for power generation is natural gas (while still a fossil fuel, it is much less carbon intensive).
In a Penn State University-led study commissioned for the Powering Arizona energy forum, the baseline forecast assumed
that if natural gas provided all new electricity generating capacity, Arizona’s carbon emissions would rise from 100 million tons annually to 133 million by 2030, an average annual increase of 0.9 percent.
Researchers examined a variety of alternative energy combinations (scrubbed coal, IGCC with carbon capture, advanced nuclear, solar with hybrid plug-in vehicles) as a substitute for three-fourths of this incremental increase in natural gas use to try to determine the optimal solution from a cost and carbon emission standpoint.
No matter what choices were made, carbon emissions were not reduced very much through 2030, according to lead researcher Tim Considine of Penn State University (see AnalysisOnline report, “Perfect Storm: The Challenge of Keeping Electricity Affordable”
Weighing the energy alternatives on an axis of real generation costs per megawatt hour of electricity and resulting carbon emissions, the study found a fourth choice – a portfolio of all three technology choices (IGCC, Advanced Nuclear and Solar with Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles) emerged as the best option
for Arizona, he said.
Electricity Costs Are Critical
Policy makers and journalists need to keep future costs of electricity in the forefront of the energy policy discussion because Americans battered by economic forces on every side are certainly going to be placing their emphasis on cost.
Arizona’s electricity costs are expected to increase by 20 percent through 2015 and by 33 percent through 2020, even if – and it’s a big “if” – natural gas prices rise by only 3 percent per year in real dollars. By 2030, Arizona’s electricity prices are expected to be up 60 percent.
The transition to carbon-free energy sources like solar and wind will raise the cost of electricity even more – by 2015, 20 percent more than under the natural gas scenario; by 40 percent more beyond that, Considine noted
Former Vice President Al Gore asserts the U.S. can be free of fossil fuels in 10 years, but look at how the numbers over almost the last four decades shake out:
From 1971 through 2007
, the way American generates electricity has changed remarkably little:
Renewable energy’s share of electricity generation was 0.1 percent in 1971 and did not rise above 0.5 percent until 1989, when it hit 2.2 percent and stayed hovering below 3.0 percent until 2006.
During the same period, coal use in power generation (44.1 percent in 1971) increased steadily and reached more than 50 percent in 1980. It has stayed above 50 percent for many years and only recently dipped below that line to come in at 48.6 percent in 2007.
Natural gas and nuclear energy each provide about 20 percent of power generation needs today; in 1971, natural gas held 23.1 percent and nuclear energy, a mere 2.4 percent of the market.
Hydropower has fallen more than 10 percent from 16.7 percent in 1971 and future scarcity of water supplies is a strongly emerging policy concern (see AOH, “Next Challenge: Water”
Large energy and power systems were conceived to handle the massive energy needs of the United States. Ironically, some environmentalists, such as Amory Lovins, who provided a guest post on the New York Times
, claims the answer now may be small, distributed power systems – with households having their own “power company” onsite, perhaps using wind or solar power. But, here again, scale is the difficult question. Certainly it could work for supplemental energy, but could it work for all?
Power Generated by One Nuclear Plant Equals…
A number of sources seek to compute equivalencies in power generation – for example, how many windmills are needed to equal the amount of power generated by one nuclear plant.
notes a typical nuclear power plant produces 1,000 megawatts of electricity per hour, an amount of power that would require 60,000 acres and 2,400 to 2,800 turbines – at least on the face of it. Calculating the percentage of time wind turbines are idle, the need rises to 240,000 acres (375 square miles) and 9,600 to 11,200 turbines.
This source calculates 20,000 acres of solar panels (31.25 square miles) would be needed for 1,000 megawatts of electricity per hour. Similar calculations also have raised concern about the huge size of the blades used and the expanse of land required for wind farms – raising a compelling question for policy makers: what does a sweeping transition to renewable energy mean for land use in America?
Renewable Energy: Rape of the Land?
A study by climate change researcher Jesse Ausubel – reported by New Scientist
in July 2007 but still useful in pondering the land use aspect of massive conversion to wind and solar power – focused on the massive geographic scale of even a fraction of the imagined renewable energy facilities.
He says renewables are “boutique fuels” in that they look most attractive as energy options when they exist on a small scale, but become worrisome when trying to make the jump to a nationwide scale as a primary, mainstream energy source. When land use is considered, renewable energy cannot truly be considered green, according to Ausubel.
Fox News Junk Science
also reported on the study, noting:
“A wind farm the size of Texas would be required to extract, store and transport annual U.S. energy needs. Every square meter of Connecticut would have to be turned into a wind farm to provide all of New York City’s electricity demands.
“Solar power would require a 150,000-square kilometer area of photovoltaics, plus additional land for electricity storage and retrieval. The photovoltaic industry would have to step up its production by 600,000 times to produce the same amount of power as that generated by a single 1,000 Megawatt nuclear plant.”
Renewable Energy on a Global Scale
“The oft-stated argument that renewable energy can compete with sufficiently high priced fossil fuel breaks down when global limits are approached. No matter how much fossil fuel costs, and no matter how cheaply solar collectors and windmills can be built if mass-produced, there will always be a limit on how much energy per year is available in renewable energy. Proper analysis of this issue should be done not in terms of present incremental costs or projected extrapolations, but rather in terms of attainable power per unit area.”
This statement was made in research by David Eichler
, professor of physics at Ben Gurion University in Israel who received his Ph.D. in 1976 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He notes that if all of the sunlight hitting the top of the earth’s atmosphere could be converted to useable energy it would represent about 10,000 times as much as present energy demand. But he surveys the various uses of sunlight made by the earth, the actual sunlight that does hit the surface, and he factors in considerations such as land use and per capita energy consumption to conclude that even sun has limitations and eventually humankind will have to make some very hard choices.
On solar energy, he notes,
“…the current cost estimates for solar energy systems, which are area-intensive, typically assume only the small incremental costs. When production is massive enough that it strains the supply of land, or the supply of metals and other materials for the reflecting surface and structure, a proper cost analysis should figure in the sharp rise in costs that such high demand would create.
“Even at current incremental costs, supplying overall energy needs with solar energy would, to say the least, require a revolution in the world's economy.”
He examines California’s planned Topaz solar energy facility
and how much land it will use for the amount of power it produces and says it amounts to “about 8 parts in a million of the world’s human power consumption” and “0.17 part per million of its land area.”
“Supplying the world's energy consumption would, at this efficiency, require over two percent of the world's land area, and would cost, at current incremental costs, over 125 trillion dollars. Supplying California's overall energy consumption, which is about 8 times the world average in power consumption per unit area, would require about 17 percent of California's area. Each acre of land would generate 20 kilowatts, which, at a market price for energy of 10 cents per kilowatt hour, would be $17,600 worth per acre annually. Well outside big cities, California land, at current market levels, does not add appreciably to the price tag of the solar energy collectors - over $160,000 per acre. One wonders, however, what the prospect of solar energy will do to the price of rural land, which until now has been generating food at typical annual yields of the order of $1000 dollars per acre. Hint: California, one of the world's richest agricultural regions, produces about 30 billion dollars worth of agricultural output per year, and lately spends between 75 and 150 billion dollars per year on energy.”
“The true cost of large amounts of renewable energy must include the cost of the land that supports it, and the cost of land can increase sharply as demand rises. The recent sharp rise in food prices following a very modest increase in ethanol farming illustrates this point."
Global Limits of Renewable Energy
Eichler seeks to envision what would happen to the cost of renewable energy if all nations are pushed to exploit it to the uppermost limits. He believes this course, embraced by climate change advocates, would push energy costs mercilessly higher:
“We are accustomed to thinking of mass production as introducing economy of scale. Solar energy panels may be expensive, the argument goes, but, if a company were to receive a large number of orders, the price would surely come down. That is the way things have worked up until now.
“As global limits are approached, however, the cost per unit energy of any given form increases with volume. It thus becomes less competitive relative to other forms of energy as it becomes more popular. By the same token, it enhances the attractiveness of other forms of energy by relieving the demand on them and thereby reducing their cost per unit energy.
“The different ways of producing usable energy then enter into a relationship that is more cooperative than competitive. While each is limited by the same basic problem, the finite supply of area, they may share that area is complementary fashion.”
No one single supply can fulfill all world energy needs, he says, but economics are best for society when they are put together in the mix: “By relieving demand on the others, each source lowers their cost per unit volume when the latter would rise with increasing demand.”
The two factors mentioned at the very beginning of this article – the onward march of population growth and economic growth (energy demand)
may make big decisions in legislative hearing rooms moot. He notes:
“As demand for energy grows insatiably, driven in part by the US role model for developing nations, renewable energy is becoming less relevant. The limited supply of renewable energy will soon be too small to meet the growing demand.”
He advocates “a price floor on fossil fuel, enforced in the form of an energy tax, to help support the market competitiveness of alternative energy sources, lower consumption, and keep the world from driving up the price of renewable energy by excessive demands on land area” as the world becomes more developed and insatiably energy-hungry.
Nuclear Energy Prominence
Although nuclear opponents have raised safety concerns in the past, and still today, he forecasts that as time goes by the equation will rapidly change:
“(Nuclear energy) … may be dangerous or incur expensive security costs to keep it safe. (But) it seems the only non-fossil fuel alternative to renewable energy. As the limits on the latter are approached, and people witness the consequences first hand, it is not unlikely that nuclear energy will be regarded as the lesser of dangers.”