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Biden’s energy policy - a lost opportunity
by John Schoonover
There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true. The other is to refuse to accept what is true. – Soren KierkegaardNow that the brouhaha over electing a new president has settled down to a dull roar, I have taken a bit of time to look at Joe Biden’s energy policy statement. Since it’s probably reasonable to assume that the Proud Boys aren’t going to take over the country and that Biden is what we will have to deal with come January 20, let’s see what Joe has to offer.
“At this moment of profound crisis, we have the opportunity to build a more resilient, sustainable economy – one that will put the United States on an irreversible path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050.”
That looks like a good start. As I pointed out in my previous article, where I debunked the anti-nuclear movement, electricity production accounts for 27% of all US greenhouse gases. Here is how Biden proposes to get rid of them by 2050.
“Power Sector: Move ambitiously to generate clean, American-made electricity to achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. This will enable us to meet the existential threat of climate change while creating millions of jobs with a choice to join a union.”
What about the specifics?
“Marshal an historic investment in energy efficiency, clean energy, electrical systems and line infrastructure that makes it easier to electrify transportation, and new battery storage and transmission infrastructure that will address bottlenecks and unlock America’s full clean energy potential – built by American workers, using American-made materials. This revolution in the way we power our economy will leverage the breakthroughs we have already seen in distributed and large-scale renewables, onshore and offshore.”
What else does he want to do?
“Create a new Advanced Research Projects Agency on Climate, a new, cross-agency ARPA-C to target affordable, game-changing technologies to help America achieve our 100% clean energy target, including:
- advanced nuclear reactors, that are smaller, safer, and more efficient at half the construction cost of today’s reactors;
I just lifted the one element that interests me for this article. There’s more.
“spur the installation of millions of solar panels – including utility-scale, rooftop, and community solar systems – and tens of thousands of wind turbines – including thousands of turbines off our coasts – in Biden’s first term. It would also mean continuing to leverage the carbon-pollution free energy provided by existing sources like nuclear and hydropower, while ensuring those facilities meet robust and rigorous standards for worker, public, environmental safety and environmental justice.”
Now, we are getting somewhere. He wisely suggests that we shouldn’t get rid of nuclear power plants. No doubt, he checked on this with Angela Merkel. Germany has been shutting down nuclear, but now finds that their solar/wind electrical capacity is insufficient, so they are building new coal-fueled electric generation. Ooops! Not only that, but their wind farms are also shutting down as their startup subsidies end. Could it be that wind isn’t a money maker? It doesn’t look like Biden’s tête à tête with Merkel went far enough; he is all for solar and wind for the US. It seems that Biden is also setting his hopes on a new generation of small nuclear reactors that are still on the drawing boards. When they arrive, and I’m pretty sure they will, they will fill gaps where major electrical generating facilities are unnecessary. However, when an economy relies on heavy industry and large population concentrations, it needs large scale electricity production. This means multi-gigawatt sites, not roof tops.
It’s time to look into this solar/wind policy. The misunderstanding, or the refusal to understand what is involved, has been around since I was advocating for nuclear energy in the 70s and being told by people who have never done the back of an envelope calculations that all we need is solar panels and wind turbines.
Fossil fuel pollution kills more than three million people every year. It is a disaster in the immediate, and the mid-term. The most omnicidal culprit is coal, a major source of US electricity. In fact, the installed coal-fired electrical generation capacity is about 250.4 GW. What if Biden’s energy policy included a crash program to get rid of the coal menace starting January 20. He has two options: solar/wind or nuclear.
Let’s do the numbers. It’s a fairly easy back of the envelope calculation, but in the interest of transparency, I used Excel to generate the numbers.
Here’s what we know: we want to scrap 250.4 GW of coal fired electrical capacity. Let’s do it with the best available renewable option, desert-installed photovoltaic technology, which generates about 20W/m² [square meter]. Obviously, this is an idealization, since most of the US is not desert. Furthermore, no wind turbine result will give a calculation this optimistic. In one case, the actual output of a wind farm is 2.5W/m² But let’s see where the best-case scenario leads us.
First calculation: how many square meters of this high-quality solar option does it take to generate a gigawatt [one billion Watts] of electrical capacity? Divide 20 into a billion to find that your 1 GW best case solar power plant will cover 50 million square meters or 19.3 square miles. The proof is left to the reader. That is the best solar/wind technology will ever do. The figures for more realistic photovoltaic installations are worse. By comparison, the coal plant you want to replace generates at minimum 1000 W/m² which amount to about 0.4 square miles at most.
Second calculation: How many square miles of best case solar would it take to replace the entire 250 GW of installed coal-fired capacity?.
250.4 X 19.3 = 4834 square miles.
That is the surface area need to replace at most
250.4 X 0.4 = 100 square miles
of coal plants.
But wait! The sun doesn’t shine at night. How do we watch Saturday Night Live? Simple. You build a nuclear or natural gas facility to generate night-time electricity. Yeah, but nuclear. Yeah, but greenhouse gases. That’s right. Stage two of eliminating those nasty gases is going to be replacing the natural gas with something anodyne. Natural gas capacity is 533.7 GW, more than double coal. So, whatever area we need to replace coal with be less than half what we need to replace natural gas. This doesn’t look so good does it? At this point our solution is to build natural gas plants to back up solar, then tear down natural gas plants to get to carbon neutrality by 2035. And no more big nukes, just those little guys when they come along.
It looks like we are going to have to depend on Elon Musk’s batteries or some sort of grid energy storage to get through the night. That means we are not replacing 1 GW of coal capacity with 1 GW of solar. Our first gigawatt of solar is for daytime use. To get through the night we need additional GWs depending on how long the night is.
Third calculation: Back to Excel. The US extends over latitudes 25-50°N. On the shortest day of the year (December 21) daylight hours vary from about 8 to 10.5. That means that, depending on latitude, additional solar capacity will be needed to provide stored electricity for 13.5 to 16 hours. To make things simple and to give ourselves a rough idea of what we are up against, we are going to assume
- The sun shines all day every day with no rain, snow, or clouds.
- Storage capacity is 100% efficient.
When we run the numbers, it turns out that for every GW of solar capacity already accounted for we will need, depending on the latitude, an additional 2.3 to 3 GW solar capacity to keep the lights on. To provide nighttime service will require an additional 12,367 square miles of solar panels. Adding these to the results of the second calculation gives a grand total of 17,201 square miles of solar panels to get off the coal habit. That is a bit less than the combined area of New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware.
Fourth calculation: Now, let’s get rid of natural gas, that cleaner but still nasty greenhouse gas source. Divide natural gas capacity of 533.7 GW by coal capacity of 250.4 GW, then multiply by 17,201 square miles. That gives an additional 36,662 square miles of solar panels. Add that to the figure for coal and we get 53,863 square miles. Now that’s more than the area of North Carolina.
Imagine for a minute that we can install the capacity described here in solar panels or other so-called renewable technologies. That’s a lot of material to mine and fabricate. Some of the materials are relatively rare and not even available in the US. Furthermore, solar panels and turbines have a life expectancy of about 20 years. Then they need to be replaced. These limits are imposed by material science. It’s what happens when you leave things out in the weather and when they have moving parts. The big question comes down to what do you do with the waste?
These simple estimates only take care of the sources of fossil fuel pollution in the US that account for about 27% maximum. It should be obvious by now that wind/solar is not a viable solution. They may have niche uses, but massive electricity production is not one.
On the other hand, nuclear fission is a proven sure bet. In the 70s France committed to converting electricity production to nuclear. Today, 70% of production is from nuclear. France sells excess electricity to its neighbors. Consumers benefit from relatively low-priced electricity. The point is that a national commitment was made to free France from dependence on imported fossil fuels, and they achieved it. With the political will, the US can do the same thing.
Nuclear technology is not new. We know what to expect and what improvements can still be made. There is a lot of misplaced hysteria and fear of nuclear energy, thanks largely to the petroleum industry. We know how to build nuclear reactors, although US engineers are out of practice. It would be a good idea to drain some brains from the Middle East and Asia, where the knowhow is fresh, to get our engineers back on track.
I have a couple of thoughts about how we might accelerate a crash program to replace coal and natural gas capacity with nuclear. But first, let’s admire a beautiful nuclear installation.
Oops. Sorry. That’s a coal-fired site in New South Wales, Australia. In fact, if you see those cooling towers around, you are just as likely to be looking at a coal-fired plant as a nuclear facility. That gives me an idea. This is a hypothesis and needs to be checked with engineers in the field. Why don’t we save time and money by tearing out the coal plants, putting in nuclear reactors, hooking them up to the cooling towers and the power grid that are already in place?
I hope that I have been able to convince you that massive conversion to solar/wind electricity production is a pipedream. It never ceases to amaze me that the smart folks who are pushing it have never done these simple calculations that I first did in the 70s. It would be reasonable for Mr. Biden to change his energy policy to full out nuclear, but I’m not holding my breath.
We can save the planet in a smart way, or we can fail to save the planet because we “refuse to accept what is true.” It is entirely up to us.
^3000US citizens have no real political representation.
We don't live in a democracy. And our freedom is disappearing fast.
I don't want to be ruled by hypocrites, whores, and war criminals.
What about you? Time to push back against the corporate oligarchy.
And its multitude of minions and lackeys.
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