Monday, March 09, 2009

No Alternative

One of the main pillars of President's Obama's plan to "transform the American economy" (shudder) is "investing" in "green technology" and "alternative" energy sources. In fact, Mr. Obama has audaciously promised to double (yes, double!) the amount of energy that the US generates from "renewable" sources in the next three years.

Sounds hopeful until you consider a couple of things:

1. Under the reins of that oil-loving cowboy President Bush, the US already managed to double its output of energy from renewable sources.

2. Even if President Obama were to realize his renewable energy goal, it would barely make a dent in meeting America's overall energy requirements. You could double it, double it again, and double it another time and still not even be supplying 10% of what we need.

Robert Bryce is the author of an excellent book on energy called Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence. We were fortunate enough to interview him on the NARN First Team last August and he brings much needed sanity and common sense (along with a gusher of facts) to the often ill-informed debate over energy.

Last Thursday, he had a piece in the WSJ that laid out some of these facts to argue that Renewable Energy Is Insufficient to Replace Hydrocarbons:

Let's start by deciphering exactly what Mr. Obama includes in his definition of "renewable" energy. If he's including hydropower, which now provides about 2.4% of America's total primary energy needs, then the president clearly has no concept of what he is promising. Hydro now provides more than 16 times as much energy as wind and solar power combined. Yet more dams are being dismantled than built. Since 1999, more than 200 dams in the U.S. have been removed.

If Mr. Obama is only counting wind power and solar power as renewables, then his promise is clearly doable. But the unfortunate truth is that even if he matches Mr. Bush's effort by doubling wind and solar output by 2012, the contribution of those two sources to America's overall energy needs will still be almost inconsequential.

Here's why. The latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that total solar and wind output for 2008 will likely be about 45,493,000 megawatt-hours. That sounds significant until you consider this number: 4,118,198,000 megawatt-hours. That's the total amount of electricity generated during the rolling 12-month period that ended last November. Solar and wind, in other words, produce about 1.1% of America's total electricity consumption.

Bryce is not against solar or wind power per se (in fact he has taxpayer subsidized solar panels on his own home). He's just arguing that given the scale of the US energy needs and the amount that wind and solar can viably supply, it's unrealistic to expect them to replace a significant amount of the energy that we currently get from carbon sources anytime in the foreseeable future.

One of the other ways that President Obama plans to transition the US to renewable energy is by building "smart" energy grids. The intermittent nature of solar and wind power necessitates the need for such an upgrade. However, as William Tucker points out in the March 9th edition of National Review (sub req), there's more to it than just making the grid smarter:

This will not solve the supply-and-demand problem, however: If the wind dies down, power disappears, and even the smartest grid can't transmit electricity that doesn't exist. To increase the proportion of electricity coming from wind and solar to anything like Friedman levels, a vast network of electrical storage will also be required.

At present there is only one established technology for storing commercial quantities of electricity, "pumped storage." At night, such a system uses extra electricity to pump water uphill. During the day, when demand is high, the water is released, and the power is re-collected via turbines. There are about 30 pumped-storage plants around the country, with a total capacity of approximately 20,000 MW--3 percent of our total consumption. All the good sites are gone, and there will be no more.

A second method is to use excess electricity to fill underground caverns with pressurized air, but this is not yet in wide use. There is also talk of employing a national fleet of electric cars as a network of storage batteries, but that is far in the future.

I find it fascinating that with all the technological advances that have been made in the almost one-hundred-thirty some years since Edison patented a system for electric distribution, the best way that we've been able to figure out to store electricity is to use it to pump water water up a hill and then recapture it on the way down. Storage isn't the only problem that wind and solar present for the grid either:

The second problem, that of transporting wind- and solar-generated electricity to population centers, requires a completely different solution. Our 345 kilovolt (kV) transmission lines cannot transport electricity more than 300 miles without excessive losses to heat and friction. The only way to reduce line loss is to upgrade to 765 kV. That means building an entirely new national grid--at a time when our current grid has fallen into disrepair because no one wants transmission lines built near his neighborhood. The cost will easily surpass $1 trillion.

That cost probably isn't even taking into account all the court battles that will ensue as people seek to prevent the lines from being built in their back yards. How many years would it take to even get local approval for such a far-reaching project?

Finally, Tucker gets back to the ultimate problem with wind and solar that Bryce has oft noted, the scale:

That won't be the end of the matter, however--these updates will address the distribution of electricity, but not its generation. To supply more wind and solar energy, we'll need windmills and sunlight collectors on an almost unimaginable scale. In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, Gore downplayed the cost this would impose, claiming that all of America's electricity needs could be provided by a southwestern solar facility "100 miles on each side" (10,000 square miles). To support this assertion, he referenced a January 2008 Scientific American article.

But the article, "A Solar Grand Plan," actually says "46,000 square miles of land would be needed for photovoltaic and concentrated solar power installations."

What's 36,000 square miles between friends?

That's one-third of New Mexico, the fifth-largest state. The article also calls for a national network of pressurized-air electricity storage. The solar collectors would easily cost $1 trillion, the storage system a second trillion, and the rebuilt transmission grid a third. A trillion here, a trillion there...

...and you're starting to talk real money. Unfortunately, using such money to invest in wind and solar doesn't mean that you're talking about addressing America's real energy needs.

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