Climate Change, Chapter 11


Chapter 11 – Available Sources of US Energy

By Michael Belsick

 

Figure 39 and Figure 40 show the current sources of energy used to generate electricity in the US and their percentage of use. What do these figures tell us? Fossil fuels were used to generate 63.6% of all electricity made and used in the US in 2018.  It is extremely doubtful that one could grow the current 17% of renewables to 80.6% in just 12 years.

Figure 39. Sources of US Electricity Generation, 2018

Figure 40. US Electricity Generation by Source

 

Thanks to the movie “The China Syndrome”, the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl and the one in Japan, the American public distrusts nuclear power plants.  Currently however, there are 61 commercial operating nuclear reactors in 29 States meeting 19.4% of the US electrical needs.  The largest nuclear power plant, Palo Verde in Arizona, provides 3.9 gigawatts of electricity to 4 million customers.  Due to the building and operating costs and the political perception, it is doubtful that any new nuclear reactors will be built in the US.

Let’s look at the renewable sources

Hydro-electric

Hydro-electric is by far the best energy source to generate electricity.  For energy comparison, the Hoover dam generates 4.5 gigawatts of electricity (more than the largest nuclear plant) for 8 million people.  Just for cost comparison, hydroelectric power costs 0.63 cents per kilowatt compared to 1.33 cents per kilowatt using nuclear, 2.26 cents per kilowatt using coal, and 4.54 cents per kilowatts using natural gas.

Falling water is all that is needed to turn a turbine to generate electricity.  However, to use falling water, one needs mountains and a fair amount of rainfall.  Dams can be built in hills for water storage, but one needs a good vertical height difference to turn a turbine to generate electricity.  The Midwest has no mountains.  One is left with the Sierra Nevada, the Rockies, and the Appalachians as the major mountain ranges.  One also needs Liberals to stop preventing dam construction and desire to tear down all existing dams.  California Liberals have prevented California from building any substantial dams (over a million acre) since 1979, even though California is in a constant state of drought since most fresh water is mandated to flow into the ocean to preserve wetland habitats.  Even the last small flood control dam was built in 2012.  Hetch Hetchy is a major dam servicing the San Francisco Bay Area with water and electricity.  However, Liberals want to tear it down to restore the pristine Tuolumne River flowing out of Yosemite Valley.  For as excellent as it is for generating electricity, the US is not likely to increase hydro-electric generation much beyond the existing 7%.

Wind

Currently, wind power is used to turn large turbine blades to generate electricity that amounts to 6.5% of US production needs.  The problem with wind turbines is that you need an area with lots of constant wind.  Low velocity wind will barely generate any electricity at all.  Mountain passes work well because the wind is channeled through the pass increasing the velocity of the wind but isn’t consistent.  There are two problems with wind turbines.  First, no one wants to look at them.  A picturesque mountain valley becomes an eye sore with a field of thousands of wind turbines.  As such, one will never find wind turbines near major population centers.  Put it this way, with all the good coastal winds in Martha’s Vineyard, you will never get the rich people that live there to approve wind turbines ruining their views.  The other problem with wind turbines is once again Liberals call for their removal because many birds, like eagles and hawks, are killed by the turbine blades.  In the future, one might be able to build more wind turbines where only the poor or middle class will complain.  Just as a guess, wind power may be able to grow from 6.5% to 20%.

Biomass

Biomass energy source is relatively new, meeting only 1.4% of US energy needs.  The problem with biomass energy creation is the competition for available arable lands required for growing food.  There are also potential environmental issues as well.  In my opinion, and many others, biomass energy is a nice experimental project but one that will never be able to meet the US energy needs.  If biomass energy grows at all, it may only get up to 5% at best.

Geothermal

Geothermal is currently only 0.4% because there are very limited areas of geothermal energy available to harness.  Senator Harry Reid’s brother was able to get a huge stimulus package of Obama money to build a geothermal plant ($79M loan guarantee plus $66M in grants).  Currently, that company is failing but is still able to provide energy for 35,000 homes but only 22 employees were ever hired for all that stimulus money provided.  While very optimistic in my opinion, an MIT study indicated that geothermal might be able to supply 10% of US energy needs in the far future.

Solar

The final energy source is solar which can be broken down into two types: solar thermal and solar photovoltaic which provide 0.1% and 1.4% of US energy needs, respectively.  Solar thermal plants are typically only located in deserts.  Thousands of large mirror panels are arranged around a central tower a couple hundred feet above ground.  All the mirrored surfaces on the ground reflect sunlight to the top of the tower.  With all these mirrored panels reflecting sunlight to the same spot, the top of the tower gets incredibly hot.  Water is circulated to the top of the tower where it turns into steam and expands to turn a turbine attached to a generator.  The average power capacity for one of these solar thermal energy stations is approximately 0.12 gigawatts.  The disadvantage of this type of power generation is that all the mirrored panels must be computer operated to turn as the sun moves.  These power stations only work during the day and are less affective on cloudy days, they require a lot of land, and on top of that, any bird that happens to fly through this light is toast.  Due to geographical limitations, growth here is probably limited to 5% max.

Solar photovoltaic electricity generation is basically electricity generated from solar panels, usually located on rooftops.  Theoretically, if one could greatly increase the number of solar panels in the US, one could replace coal and natural gas.

There are a number of issues with solar panels that make this theoretical unrealistic. First is the solar panel quantity/size needed to produce a useable output.  A typical solar panel is 16.5 square feet and can produce up to 320W in perfect conditions. The actual amount of electricity generated depends on the number of hours of peak sunlight. This varies depending on the latitude, the direction the panels face, the season, and even weather conditions. The solar energy and sun time diminish the further from the equator the panels are located. Summer days are longer than winter days. Obviously, there is more solar energy on sunny days than cloudy or rainy days. Other weather impacts include damage from hail storms or being covered by snow. Solar panels also lose efficiency over time. Assuming that a solar panel provides an average of 250W per month and a typical home uses 7.5kW per month, a minimum of 30 panels would be needed which would require at least 495 square foot of south facing space. Furthermore, keep in mind that solar panels do not work at night.  In addition to the solar panels, one would also need to either have a large battery to store power or use power from the grid at night.  While excellent is some ways, solar photovoltaic panels have major environmental issues.  Several hazardous materials/chemicals are used in their manufacture and there are toxic chemicals that must be disposed after production.  Based on manufacturing “costs” (manufacturing and disposal) and location viability, US energy growth could reach to 15%.

Will it be enough?

Figure 41 indicates that the use of coal to generate power (thanks to President Obama) has greatly decreased.  Natural gas is still increasing, even at an accelerated rate once fracking become more prevalent.  Nuclear power has been about constant since around 1990.  Renewable energy has been increasing but at a slow rate of increase.  Can you look at this graph and the rate of change for renewables and honestly say that you believe that renewables can replace all electrical power generation from coal and natural gas in 12 years?

Figure 41. US Electricity Generation by Major Energy Source, 1950-2018

Figure 42 shows a summary of potential energy changes per my and other opinions:

Source Current Use My Estimated Use Change
Nuclear 19.4% 19.4% No Change
Hydro 7%  7% No Change
Wind 6.5% 20% +13.5%
Solar Thermal 0.1% 5% +4.9%
Solar Voltaic 1.4% 15% +13.6%
Biomass 1.4% 5% +3.6%
Geothermal 0.4% 10% +9.6%
Estimated Growth 45.2%

Figure 42. Summary of Potential Energy Changes

Even though I believe that a 45.2% growth in renewable energy sources is an extremely generous prediction, the US needs renewable energy to grow by 63.6% so that all forms of fossil fuels could be abandoned.  You are 18.4% short from being able to accomplish the goal.   Renewable energy cannot replace fossil fuel in the near timeframe for US energy needs.  As I previously mentioned, Liberals are preventing construction of any new dams for hydro-electric power. Liberals are also making it harder for other renewable energy sources due to a desire to conserve nature.  As mentioned, nuclear has a negative connotation.  If that could be resolved, there is still the issue that Liberals have billions of federal acreage preserved for “nature” which cannot be mined.  If you want more nuclear power plants, then you need more sources of uranium.  (The Obama administration allowed the sale of 25% of US uranium to Russia.)  However, vast uranium deposits are not allowed to be mined.  The same impact would be on the necessary minerals to make solar panels.  If you cannot get the materials needed, the expansion of renewable energy is impacted.  The US has 2 options: 1) do what you can but keep using fossil fuels as required; or 2) do what you can but greatly cut back on electrical use if you cannot meet the 63% total of fossil fuel current usage.

Keep in mind that we have not even addressed gasoline or diesel for vehicles or jet fuel for airplanes.  The cost of using fossil fuels is relatively cheap. The cost to convert to alternate energy sources is very expensive in terms of actual dollars and potential environmental costs.

Battery cars are becoming more prominent, but they need electricity.  Battery production and disposal is also a significant environmental concern.   Also, there are more carbon emissions with manufacturing of an electric or hybrid car than gas cars.   If one converted to all electric vehicles tomorrow, then your electric needs across the US just exponentially expanded.  As such, your renewable energy source just estimated is way too short.

As for solar panels on planes and cars, that is nearly impossible per engineering principles.  There was an experimental plane that was powered by solar panels.  It was a very large winged aircraft and was only able to carry one person, the pilot.  There is not enough energy from solar panels to power an airplane for all practicality.  The plane would need a lot of more solar panels, requiring much larger wings, which would require more energy, which would require more solar panels…

There have also been experimental cars which ran on solar panels.  They were incredibly light weight vehicles carrying only the driver and drove on a very flat road (no hills).  Here again, solar panel powered cars are currently not engineering feasible.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells

There is a potential for a non-fossil fuel source with a lot of energy output potential – Hydrogen Fuel Cells.  A fuel cell is a device that converts chemical potential energy (energy stored in molecular bonds) into electrical energy, simplistically shown in Figure 43.  A PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) cell uses hydrogen gas (H2) and oxygen gas (O2) as fuel.  The products of the reaction in the cell are water, electricity, and heat.  This is a big improvement over internal combustion engines, coal burning power plants, and nuclear power plants, all of which produce harmful by-products.

I understand that there is great potential here.  However, even as an engineer, I am cautious.  I remember my high school chemistry class.  My teacher filled a balloon with hydrogen, let it float to the ceiling, then with a match on the end of a long stick, he ignited the hydrogen which produced a very large BOOM.  Hydrogen as in the Hindenburg is extremely flammable to being almost explosive.

Currently, Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda have cars with hydrogen fuel cells.  Naturally, one would need a proliferation of fueling stations before one would consider buying one of these cars.  Personally, I would also wait quite a while to see if there are any problems.  As I explained however, there is great potential here for the future, but not yet for me.

I also understand that Germany now has a train that uses a hydrogen fuel cell.  There is even a small personal aircraft that uses a hydrogen fuel cell.  Promising…

Figure 43. Hydrogen Fuel Cell

The takeaway from this chapter is a shared opinion by me and many other competent sources that renewable energy will not be able to replace all fossil fuel use in just 12 years.  It will be several decades to accomplish if at all.  While a noble goal, there will be significant costs to the consumer and to the US economy.  As of now, the US is energy independent.  For those old enough to remember it, the oil embargo that started in 1973 saw the exponential rise in gasoline prices plus the rationing of gas.  All of that was because the US was dependent upon Middle Eastern oil.  As a result of that nightmare, there was a desire for the US to become energy independent.  The US has reached that goal and is exporting oil and natural gas.  As such, oil prices, after inflation, are now only slightly more than they were decades ago.  With the low price of oil and natural gas, the cost to replace them will seem to be higher.  I do not believe that AOC will be successful with her Green New Deal.  Not only is it not practical or even achievable, but it will be hugely expensive.

Summary

There are renewable energy sources as an alternate to fossil fuels. However, even being optimistic, renewable energy cannot replace fossil fuel in the near timeframe for US energy needs.  And remember, the US energy usage is only a portion of the world’s energy use. While renewable energy options appear to be the best environmentally, some of the renewable energy options contain hidden environmental and cost factors/impacts that need to be addressed.

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