Skip to main content

Energy Tribune Gets it Right on Renewables, Nuclear and the Big Picture on Energy

Stan Jakuba at Energy Tribune wrote a piece titled "Obama’s Stumble: Wind Power" in which he explains the limits of President Obama's renewable goals and what the President should promote as well (I'm copying the whole thing because I think it's that good):
I like Barack Obama but I have doubts about his presidency when I hear him saying that the US will “double the amount of energy that comes from renewable sources by the end of my first term." He should know that that’s not possible. But instead, during his State of the Union speech, he proclaimed that we’ll reach that goal in three years, not four.

Most anyone who has studied the energy situation must wonder about Obama's, or his advisors', energy experience. Presented with the numbers from the table (see below) he would realize that the majority of the renewable power comes from hydro and from wood, about 154 gigawatts. Readily available data show that the 6 percent for hydro and bio is pretty much all we can hope for. Trying to increase those yields we would have to ask: Where shall we find the extra rivers to dam? Lease the Amazon? And where do we find the extra land to double the wood and corn production? Annex Canada? Ukraine?

Understanding those limitations, Obama apparently relies on direct solar, wind, and geothermal energy growth. All three sources are presently producing about 19 GW. To reach the goal of generating 2 x (154 + 19) = 346 GW by 2012 (or 2011), the output of the three sources would have to increase nine-fold. That implies building many times more wind mills, solar plants, and geothermal stations in three years than have been installed in the previous decades.

The cost of these projects, projects that will provide extraordinarily expensive electricity (five to ten times more than coal or nuclear) is enormous even on the scale of the anticipated deficit spending, pardon me, stimulus package. While the cost would be prohibitive, the real question is whether the four-year, now three-year, deadline is at all realistic. Before we look into that, perhaps a comparison with past prophesies will give us a hint.
Nuclear advocates, I'm sure, get tired of hearing how the predictions of thousands of nuclear reactors by 2000 never came to fruition as well as how nuclear energy is not "too cheap to meter" (even though that's not quite what Lewis Strauss was referring to). Well, here's one of my favorite parts of Jakoba's piece that I'm sure I'm going to reference many times in the future:
During the 1970s, Jimmy Carter committed the US to derive 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2000. Let's check: The proportion of renewable energy production today, 9 years after the deadline and almost 40 years from inception, is essentially the same as during Carter's presidency. Worse yet, the percentage has declined recently from 7.5 to 6.7 percent over the past 10 years.

In 1978, Ralph Nader said “Everything will be solar in 30 years.” Notice that the 30-years mark just passed; the production is somewhere between 0.08 percent and 0.11 percent – depending on what is meant by “everything.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists, projected for the millennium end: “Wind farms will provide 0.68 quads of electricity” (the amount was 94 percent less than predicted), “direct solar 0.60 quads” (the amount was 87 percent less).

In 1973, Walter Morrow, Associate Director of Lincoln Laboratories at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicted that the US would generate 750 to 1500 GW, or 10 to 20 percent of total energy from direct solar by year 2010. The actual production is 3 GW or 0.078 percent. On the positive side, there are three more years to go.

The above were predictions. Obama has made a commitment. How is he going to fulfill his goal? Realistic hydro and bio additions are insignificant. Wind electricity is cheaper than solar, and that's probably where the emphasis will be. Ordering wind turbines will create manufacturing jobs, but unfortunately many of them will be in Denmark because that's where most of them are made. In the US, there will be jobs for a handful of construction workers erecting the mills.

That leaves us with the geothermal source, a source for both electricity and heat. It amounted for 0.35 percent of the total energy for many years. Unfortunately, some sites have exhibited decline in output after a few years of operation. Regardless, the environmental impact studies for new sites will hardly be completed in three or four years, let alone a significant number of new plants started by then.

There is a proven solution to the energy scarcity and pollution – not renewables because their potential output is negligible as said -- but nuclear plants. Nuclear often is unfairly compared to renewables. Wind and solar plants have been popularized partially due to the unrecognized difference between their name plate (which is heavily advertised) and the average power rating. While a name plate 1 GW nuclear power plant produces that level of output for most of its life (93 percent for 24/7, i.e., 930 MW continuously), a 1 MW wind mill will net a fraction of that rating, about 1/5th (200 kW) on the 24/7 basis. That means that not 930 of the 1 MW mills would replace one nuclear plant, but rather 5 x 930= 4,650 of them. Obama has committed to 428 GW, not just 1 GW.

Three or four years is too short a time to forget about a commitment. Obama should start retreating from his goal now, before funds for this extraordinary spending are cast into the concrete foundations of wind mills.
Well written!


Anonymous said…
It's easy, but not especially informative or productive, to pick apart decades-old energy predictions. In the early 1970s, Nixon's Project Independence projected 1,000 nuclear units in the US by 2000.
David Walters said…
The issue of course is carbon. It's not, nor should it be 'renewables' which simply does not, cannot address climate change seriously. This is where Obama is NOT listening to Dr. Chu or Dr. Hansen.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous - yes this seeming mid-term future of nuclear growth predictions by US govt. agencies between 1970-1973 appears to be the major culprit of the later Ford/Cheney/Carter (*) various regulatory actions against nuclear energy industry. Or rather the respective blowback of the major loser from such scenario, which happens to be one of the largest, well established, and connected industry.

(*) 2006/Special_Report.pdf

Together with magical fears of "invisible powerful radiation" made a perfect storm, didn't they?

The world needs to completely stop putting-- excess- carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the next few decades if we want to avoid placing a substantial amount of our coastlines underwater in the next few centuries. And nuclear energy is clearly the cheapest and most environmental benign way to do that.

Marcel F. Williams
Anonymous said…
Both nuclear and renewable energy advocates predicted large contributions by the year 2000, and by 2000 nuclear had a 70% share of all non-fossil electricity generation while non-hydro renewables had reached just a few percent. A pretty big difference.

The less commonly discussed issue is the fact that wind and solar do require back up power. This is well known, but the problem is that the only practical technologies to provide this backup are large hydro (not expandable) and fossil generation units. When we build windmills, we build into our electricity generation system a structural requirement to also burn fossil fuels. Of course, there is some hope that eventually electricity storage costs will come down enough to economically store wind energy over the week to month long periods of weather variability, but this is a very optimistic hope.

So when we build windmills, we are locking ourselves into a likely long-term commitment to also burn fossil fuels. Ouch.

Popular posts from this blog

A Billion Miles Under Nuclear Energy (Updated)

And the winner is…Cassini-Huygens, in triple overtime.

The spaceship conceived in 1982 and launched fifteen years later, will crash into Saturn on September 15, after a mission of 19 years and 355 days, powered by the audacity and technical prowess of scientists and engineers from 17 different countries, and 72 pounds of plutonium.

The mission was so successful that it was extended three times; it was intended to last only until 2008.

Since April, the ship has been continuing to orbit Saturn, swinging through the 1,500-mile gap between the planet and its rings, an area not previously explored. This is a good maneuver for a spaceship nearing the end of its mission, since colliding with a rock could end things early.

Cassini will dive a little deeper and plunge toward Saturn’s surface, where it will transmit data until it burns up in the planet’s atmosphere. The radio signal will arrive here early Friday morning, Eastern time. A NASA video explains.

In the years since Cassini has launc…

Missing the Point about Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Plants

A group that includes oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania released a study on Monday that argues that twenty years ago, planners underestimated the value of nuclear plants in the electricity market. According to the group, that means the state should now let the plants close.


The question confronting the state now isn’t what the companies that owned the reactors at the time of de-regulation got or didn’t get. It’s not a question of whether they were profitable in the '80s, '90s and '00s. It’s about now. Business works by looking at the present and making projections about the future.

Is losing the nuclear plants what’s best for the state going forward?

Pennsylvania needs clean air. It needs jobs. And it needs protection against over-reliance on a single fuel source.

What the reactors need is recognition of all the value they provide. The electricity market is depressed, and if electricity is treated as a simple commodity, with no regard for its benefit to clean air o…

Why Nuclear Plant Closures Are a Crisis for Small Town USA

Nuclear plants occupy an unusual spot in the towns where they operate: integral but so much in the background that they may seem almost invisible. But when they close, it can be like the earth shifting underfoot., the Gannett newspaper that covers the Lower Hudson Valley in New York, took a look around at the experience of towns where reactors have closed, because the Indian Point reactors in Buchanan are scheduled to be shut down under an agreement with Gov. Mario Cuomo.

From sea to shining sea, it was dismal. It wasn’t just the plant employees who were hurt. The losses of hundreds of jobs, tens of millions of dollars in payrolls and millions in property taxes depressed whole towns and surrounding areas. For example:

Vernon, Vermont, home to Vermont Yankee for more than 40 years, had to cut its municipal budget in half. The town closed its police department and let the county take over; the youth sports teams lost their volunteer coaches, and Vernon Elementary School lost th…