Sunday, March 08, 2009

Having Doubts

Mr. Obama is big into alternative energy. Wind. Solar. Geothermal. However, even his supporters have doubts about his energy plans.

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.

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).
I have my doubts too. There is a limit to the amount of intermittent energy sources the electrical grid can absorb. Some think it is ten percent. Some of the more optimistic folks think it is twenty percent. No way is it anywhere near 100%.

Our biggest wind resource is the upper Mid West. There is no where near enough transmission capacity to bring that resource to the loads in the lower Mid West and the coasts. And there is no way that transmission capacity can be built in three years when the permits haven't even been applied for. And that does not even include the NIMBYs and the Ultra Greens who will fight additions to the grid tooth and nail.

Evidently neither Mr. Obama nor his new Energy Secretary have run the numbers. That is no way to do engineering. Or as many of us like to say: Hope is not a plan.

Cross Posted at Classical Values


Anonymous said...

Good post. I think much of this renewable energy will have to be regional. What do you think?

M. Simon said...

I think much of this renewable energy will have to be regional.

For now.

It would really help grid stability to have a HV DC backbone crossing time zones in any case. Even more so with intermittent sources.

Glenn said...

"Our biggest wind resource is the upper Mid West."

Please, you just left that one wide-open ... I won't even say the obvious reply here, everyone can fill in the blanks.

Does renewable energy scale at all? I live near two wind farms in the midwest and even in our local papers it's acknowledged that they are efficient only in small scale.

M. Simon said...

What do you mean by efficient?

What do you mean by small scale?

BTW I'm kind of thick. Fill in the blanks for me.