Newsweek: ‘We can’t get there from here’

March 26, 2009

A March 14 Newsweek article by Sharon Begley explains why we can’t get to renewable energy-CO2 nirvana from where we are today:

… The world used 14 trillion watts (14 terawatts) of power in 2006. Assuming minimal population growth (to 9 billion people), slow economic growth (1.6 percent a year, practically recession level) and—this is key—unprecedented energy efficiency (improvements of 500 percent relative to current U.S. levels, worldwide), it will use 28 terawatts in 2050. (In a business-as-usual scenario, we would need 45 terawatts.) Simple physics shows that in order to keep CO2 to 450 ppm, 26.5 of those terawatts must be zero-carbon. That’s a lot of solar, wind, hydro, biofuels and nuclear, especially since renewables kicked in a measly 0.2 terawatts in 2006 and nuclear provided 0.9 terawatts. Are you a fan of nuclear? To get 10 terawatts, less than half of what we’ll need in 2050, Lewis calculates, we’d have to build 10,000 reactors, or one every other day starting now. Do you like wind? If you use every single breeze that blows on land, you’ll get 10 or 15 terawatts. Since it’s impossible to capture all the wind, a more realistic number is 3 terawatts, or 1 million state-of-the art turbines, and even that requires storing the energy—something we don’t know how to do—for when the wind doesn’t blow. Solar? To get 10 terawatts by 2050, Lewis calculates, we’d need to cover 1 million roofs with panels every day from now until then. “It would take an army,” he says. Obama promised green jobs, but still.

Here’s more from the article:

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.

Of course, you might respond that renewables need to start somewhere. True enough — and to be clear, I’m not opposed to renewables. I have solar panels on the roof of my house here in Texas that generate 3,200 watts. And those panels (which were heavily subsidized by Austin Energy, the city-owned utility) provide about one-third of the electricity my family of five consumes. Better still, solar panel producers like First Solar Inc. are lowering the cost of solar cells. On the day of Mr. Obama’s speech, the company announced that it is now producing solar cells for $0.98 per watt, thereby breaking the important $1-per-watt price barrier.

And yet, while price reductions are important, the wind is intermittent, and so are sunny days. That means they cannot provide the baseload power, i.e., the amount of electricity required to meet minimum demand, that Americans want.

That issue aside, the scale problem persists. For the sake of convenience, let’s convert the energy produced by U.S. wind and solar installations into oil equivalents.

The conversion of electricity into oil terms is straightforward: one barrel of oil contains the energy equivalent of 1.64 megawatt-hours of electricity. Thus, 45,493,000 megawatt-hours divided by 1.64 megawatt-hours per barrel of oil equals 27.7 million barrels of oil equivalent from solar and wind for all of 2008.

Now divide that 27.7 million barrels by 365 days and you find that solar and wind sources are providing the equivalent of 76,000 barrels of oil per day. America’s total primary energy use is about 47.4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.

Of that 47.4 million barrels of oil equivalent, oil itself has the biggest share — we consume about 19 million barrels per day. Natural gas is the second-biggest contributor, supplying the equivalent of 11.9 million barrels of oil, while coal provides the equivalent of 11.5 million barrels of oil per day. The balance comes from nuclear power (about 3.8 million barrels per day), and hydropower (about 1.1 million barrels), with smaller contributions coming from wind, solar, geothermal, wood waste, and other sources.

Here’s another way to consider the 76,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day that come from solar and wind: It’s approximately equal to the raw energy output of one average-sized coal mine.

4 Responses to “Newsweek: ‘We can’t get there from here’”

  1. justbeau Says:

    Its an emotional issue for some folks.
    If a cup is 1 percent full, then it is what it is. If it doubles, it could become 2 percent full. This would still be a positive contribution, though modest in the big picture. The US is made more economically secure by broadening its sources of electricity.

    Once, all computers were central mainframes. Computing was in due course distributed to vastly more people via personal computers and the Web. With this transition in mind, it may not necessarily be a bad thing for homeowners to invest in solar or wind, earning some freedom of local monopolistic suppliers of electricity. Folks may enjoy choices as to energy suppliers.

  2. dublds Says:

    Bob,
    I appreciate the optimism, but taking it to the point of cognitive dissonance is no good to anyone. Remember in “Dumb and Dumber” when Mary tells Lloyd their chances of getting together were one in a million, and hes said “so you’re telling me that there’s a chance!”? That’s kind of how your post comes across.

    She is not touting the fact that we ARE building 10000 nuclear reactors a day, or solar paneling a million homes a day. She is saying that even if we did that, we wouldn’t be able to meet our needs the way we do, quite comfortably, with fossil fuels. So what I see as negativity is the insistence that our best available option be trashed for some less preferable one, just because some communist doublespeaker claims that this is a better way. It’s not

    You also point to the increase in venture capital in 2009 and the additional 70 going to greentech from the stimulus package as a cause for optimism. But what you gloss over is that many of these Greentech startups have already closed their doors and the venture capital money is GONE. I live in the Silicon Valley and the two startups ON MY STREET, are now out of business. So if the optimism that you’re trying to pitch us centers on the fact that (against the wishes of many) we’ve invested $70 billion dollars of taxpayer money in a sure loser then I’m afraid I don’t get it. Especially when that money could improve our existing grid and build multiple coal plants that will provide us efficient and dependable power for a century or more. But hey, why clutter your Obam-optimism with facts. The Messiah said it so you’re gonna make it true, facts be damned.

    Oh and if you believe the recent 20% jump in the stock market is cause for optimism, I personally invite you to put your money where your mouth is and invest your entire life savings there. You’ll learn the difference between optimism and reality really quick if you do.

    Wake up.

  3. dublds Says:

    Bob,
    I appreciate the optimism, but taking it to the point of cognitive dissonance is no good to anyone. Remember in “Dumb and Dumber” when Mary tells Lloyd their chances of getting together were one in a million, and hes said “so you’re telling me that there’s a chance!”? That’s what I get reading the article and then your post.

    She is not touting the fact that we ARE building 10000 nuclear reactors a day, or solar paneling a million homes a day. She is saying that even if we did that, we wouldn’t be able to meet our needs the way we do, quite comfortably, with fossil fuels. So what I see as negativity is the insistence that our best available option be trashed for some less preferable one, just because some communist doublespeaker claims that this is a better way. It’s not

    You also point to the increase in venture capital in 2009 and the additional 70 going to greentech from the stimulus package as a cause for optimism. But what you gloss over is that many of these Greentech startups have already closed their doors and the venture capital money is GONE. I live in the Silicon Valley and the two startups ON MY STREET, are now out of business. So if the optimism that you’re trying to pitch us centers on the fact that (against the wishes of many) we’ve invested $70 billion dollars of taxpayer money in a sure loser then I’m afraid I don’t get it. Especially when that money could improve our existing grid and build multiple coal plants that will provide us efficient and dependable power for a century or more. But hey, why clutter your Obam-optimism with facts. The Messiah said it so you’re gonna make it true, facts be damned.

    Reality check…

  4. bobdeskin Says:

    Optimism in Challenging Times, CleanTechnology and Solar Jobs, Wind Jobs etc. will be created !

    John F. Kennedy once said “When you have seven percent unemployed, you have ninety-three percent working. “ It is that type of optimism that we need to help us to move onto a path of growth and hope ! These days there is so much to keep us down and frightened about the future not just on TV but on the Internet and everywhere.

    So many people are focused on the negative and constantly playing the armchair quarterback in a negative way. The pundits in the media have an endless supply of bad news and speculative forecasts that if listened to and dwelled upon could cause people to wonder “why get out of bed tomorrow what’s the point”?

    Let’s focus on the good news because the glass is really “half full”:

    • Clean technology took over in the amount of venture funding received in 2008.
    • The amount invested in CleanTech by venture companies grew for 6 billion in 07’ to 8 billion in 08’ and while that is predicted to decline slightly in 09’ it is still well above 0’7 figures.
    • The total invested in Clean Technology grew last year from $75.8 billion to over $115 billion.
    • The US took over as the largest producer of Wind Energy in the World.
    • Smart grid investment is set to improve our use of electric power with new investment in new smart grid technology 08’ of over 3 billion.
    • The US stimulus plan has 70 billion in incentives to help grow CleanTechnology , which in turn should help create Wind Jobs, Solar Jobs, Hydro Job, Biofuel Jobs etc.
    • Of that 70 million in stimulus 17 million is devoted to help move solar and wind power from remote locations to the consumers.
    • The news in the stock markets in the US has been strong with a gain of 20%

    Being at the forefront of the leading technology that has the ability to shape the future of the World in many aspects from economically to environmentally, so let’s take the lead on having a positive attitude! So I am inviting anyone that has good news to post it as frequently as possible.

    Bob
    Attitude is everything!


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