Renewable Energy's Incurable Scale Problem
It’s summer. It’s hot. And once again, we are hearing from the usual suspects that we must change our entire way of living. Repent, they say. Carbon dioxide emissions are killing Mother Earth. Give up hydrocarbons and embrace renewable energy.
Doing so, we’re assured, will result in a gentler climate and myriad other benefits, including scads of “green” jobs. Sounds easy, no?
Alas, no matter how much they may wish it to be so, the proponents of alternatives — and better yet, “clean” energy — cannot overcome the problem of scale. A simple bit of math shows that even with the rapid expansion that solar and wind-energy capacity have had in the past few years, those two sources cannot even meet incremental global demand for electricity, much less make a dent in the world’s insatiable thirst for coal, oil, and natural gas. Indeed, had any of the myriad advocates for renewable energy bothered to use a simple calculator, they would see that their favored sources simply cannot provide the vast scale of energy needed by the world’s 7 billion inhabitants, at a price that can be afforded.
Consider this: between 1985 and 2011, global electricity generation increased by about 450 terawatt-hours per year. That’s the equivalent of adding about one Brazil (which used 485 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2010) to the electricity sector every year. And the International Energy Agency expects global electricity use to continue growing by about one Brazil per year through 2035.
How much solar would be needed to produce 450 terawatt-hours per year? Well, Germany has more installed solar-energy capacity that any other country, with some 25,000 megawatts of installed photovoltaic panels. In 2011, those panels produced 18 terawatt-hours of electricity. Thus, just to keep pace with the growth in global electricity demand, the world would have to install about 25 times as much photovoltaic capacity as Germany’s total installed base, and it would have to do so every year.
Let me repeat that: just to meet the world’s increasing demand for electricity — while not displacing any existing electricity-production facilities — the world would have to install about 25 times as much photovoltaic capacity as what now exists in Germany. And it would have to achieve that daunting task every year.
The scale problem is equally obvious when it comes to wind. In fact, wind-energy’s scale problems are even more thorny because wind energy requires so much land.
At the end of 2011, the U.S. had 47,000 megawatts of installed wind-energy capacity. (Only China, with 62,000 megawatts, had more capacity.) In 2011, all of the wind turbines in the U.S. produced about 120 terawatt-hours of electricity. Thus, just to keep pace with the growth in global electricity demand by using wind energy, we would have to install about 3.75 times the current installed wind capacity in the U.S. every year. That means that global wind-energy capacity would have to increase by about 176,000 megawatts each and every year.
That would be an enormous challenge given that between 2010 and 2011, global wind-energy capacity increased by just 41,000 megawatts. That’s a record increase, and one that advocates of renewable energy are quick to laud. But those same advocates refuse to acknowledge the energy sprawl inherent in wind energy nor will they admit the growing backlash against the wind industry.
Let’s consider the extent of the energy sprawl if the wind-energy sector were to supply that 450 terawatt-hours per year of incremental electricity demand.
The power density of wind energy is roughly two watts per square meter or about five megawatts per square mile. That means that by the end of 2011, the U.S. had covered a land area of about 9,400 square miles with wind turbines, a land area just slightly smaller than the state of Maryland. Therefore, just to keep up with the growth in global electricity demand by using wind energy alone, the global wind industry will need to cover a land area of some 35,000 square miles — about the size of Indiana — with wind turbines. And it will have to do so every year.
That metric’s still hard to grasp, so let me put it another way: in order to merely keep up with the pace of growth of global electricity use, the wind industry would have to cover 96 square miles every day, with wind turbines. That’s an area about the size of four Manhattans.
Glib economists might suggest that such a feat could be achieved, but that ignores another key question: Where will we put all those turbines? That’s a touchy question given that the backlash against the wind-energy sector is global and it’s growing. Europe alone has more than 500 anti-wind groups. That backlash was typified by a move made last month by the Lincolnshire County Council, which imposed a rule prohibiting construction of large-scale wind projects within a 1.5-kilometer radius of any residences. The county council’s leader, Martin Hill, told a local newspaper that “enough is enough…Not only are these things spoiling our beautiful countryside for future generations, they could also seriously damage our tourism industry, who wants to spend their holiday looking at a 400-foot turbine?” Hill went on, “People enjoy living in Lincolnshire because we have a great way of life, not because the landscape’s blighted by wind farms.”
The point of this essay is not to argue about climate change. When it comes to carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, I’m a resolute agnostic. You can insist that carbon dioxide is good. You can insist that it’s bad. I don’t care. I routinely read both sides in the climate debate, which has devolved into a vituperative morass of name-calling and vitriolic tribal warfare that pits the “deniers” against the “catastrophists.”
The key question isn’t your tribal affiliation. Instead the essential issues are these: If you believe that carbon dioxide is bad, how can we meet the world’s soaring demand for transportation fuels, and more particularly, for electricity? And can we do so while phasing out coal, the energy source which remains the cheapest, most abundant, most reliable choice for electricity production?
The answers to those questions, are obvious and interconnected. I have long advocated N2N, that is, natural gas to nuclear. Choosing those sources offers the best “no regrets” strategy. Supporting N2N doesn’t require membership in a CO2 tribe. Instead, it only requires understanding that for more than two centuries, the people of the world have been steadily moving toward fuels that contain less carbon and toward power systems that have high power density.
During combustion, natural gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal. And thanks to the domestic abundance of natural gas, the US, according to the International Energy Agency, has, over the past five years, cut its carbon dioxide emissions faster than any other country on the planet. Better yet, as we are now finding out, natural gas is not only abundant in the Earth’s crust, it is super-abundant. The shale revolution, which has unlocked galaxies of natural gas in the US, is only part of the story. Over the past few years, huge conventional fields of natural gas have been discovered in Israel, Australia, Africa, Mexico, and elsewhere. That abundance of gas is great news as it should allow more people access to more energy.
With regard to nuclear, my stance is simple: if you are anti- carbon dioxide and anti-nuclear, you are pro-blackout. And no energy source can compare to nuclear when it comes to power density. The core of a nuclear reactor has a power density that is measured in hundreds of megawatts per square meter. That allows nuclear facilities to have a very small footprint, the opposite of energy sprawl.
Fortunately, some of America’s leading environmentalists are recognizing that nuclear must be a major part of the energy mix. Last month, I attended a conference in California that was sponsored by the Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute, a group founded by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Nordhaus and Shellenberger are leading critics of the big environmental groups and they’ve also become staunch advocates for nuclear energy.
On the opening night of the conference, filmmaker Robert Stone showed a segment from his upcoming documentary, Pandora’s Promise. The film explains why nuclear energy, which Stone calls “mankind’s most feared and controversial technological discovery” is now being “passionately embraced by many of those who once led the charge against it.” Among the people featured in the film is Stewart Brand, the longtime environmentalist and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand, who attended the Breakthrough conference, tells Stone that for years you had to be anti-nuclear if you were to call yourself an environmentalist. Now, with the threat of carbon dioxide emissions and climate change, Brand said the question has been turned around. “Can you be an environmentalist and not be pro-nuclear?”
While N2N remains an obvious pathway as we go forward, the key issue, when it comes to carbon dioxide is coal. Between 2001 and 2010, U.S. coal consumption fell by 5 percent. But over that same time period, global coal consumption soared by 47 percent, or the equivalent of 23 million barrels of oil per day. Put another way, over the past decade or so, global coal consumption increased by about the same amount as the growth in oil, natural gas, and nuclear combined.
For countries ranging from China and India to Vietnam and Germany, coal continues to present a compelling value for electricity production because deposits of the fuel are abundant, widely dispersed, easily mined, and are not controlled by any OPEC-like cartels. Combine those facts with the world’s soaring demand for electricity – recall that it’s growing by about one Brazil per year – and it’s readily apparent that coal won’t go away any time soon. Indeed, between 2010 and 2011 alone, global coal consumption increased by about 3.9 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. Put another way, in one year, global coal demand increased by an amount that’s nearly equal to the entire energy demand of the United Kingdom.
So where does that leave us, particularly if we are concerned about carbon dioxide emissions? Well, the obvious answer is that we need to find an energy source that is cheaper – a lot cheaper – than coal. And we must deploy it quickly. But keep in mind that even if such an energy source is found, energy transitions happen very slowly.
In a recent essay, Vaclav Smil, one of the world’s foremost thinkers and writers on energy and power systems, points out that our existing energy infrastructure depends on coal, oil, and natural gas. In fact, those three sources now combine to provide about 215 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, or about 87 percent of global energy demand. That infrastructure “constitutes the costliest and most extensive set of installations, networks, and machines that the world has ever built, one that has taken generations and tens of trillions of dollars to put in place.” Smil goes on saying it is “impossible to displace this supersystem in a decade or two – or five, for that matter.”
So the next time you hear someone from the Sierra Club or Greenpeace, or any of the other groups on the Green/Left who are insisting that we need to quit using fossil fuels immediately, do them – and yourself — a favor: buy them a calculator.
Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.