Let’s Get Real About Renewable Energy
During his address to Congress last week, President Barack Obama declared, “We will double this nation”s supply of renewable energy in the next three years.”
While that statement — along with his pledge to impose a “cap on carbon pollution” — drew applause, let”s slow down for a moment and get realistic about this country”s energy future. Consider two factors that are too-often overlooked: George W. Bush”s record on renewables, and the problem of scale.
By promising to double our supply of renewables, Mr. Obama is only trying to keep pace with his predecessor. Yes, that”s right: From 2005 to 2007, the former Texas oil man oversaw a near-doubling of the electrical output from solar and wind power. And between 2007 and 2008, output from those sources grew by another 30%.
Mr. Bush”s record aside, the key problem facing Mr. Obama, and anyone else advocating a rapid transition away from the hydrocarbons that have dominated the world”s energy mix since the dawn of the Industrial Age, is the same issue that dogs every alternative energy idea: scale.
Let”s start by deciphering exactly what Mr. Obama includes in his definition of “renewable” energy. If he”s including hydropower, which now provides about 2.4% of America”s total primary energy needs, then the president clearly has no concept of what he is promising. Hydro now provides more than 16 times as much energy as wind and solar power combined. Yet more dams are being dismantled than built. Since 1999, more than 200 dams in the U.S. have been removed.
If Mr. Obama is only counting wind power and solar power as renewables, then his promise is clearly doable. But the unfortunate truth is that even if he matches Mr. Bush”s effort by doubling wind and solar output by 2012, the contribution of those two sources to America”s overall energy needs will still be almost inconsequential.
Here”s why. The latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that total solar and wind output for 2008 will likely be about 45,493,000 megawatt-hours. That sounds significant until you consider this number: 4,118,198,000 megawatt-hours. That”s the total amount of electricity generated during the rolling 12-month period that ended last November. Solar and wind, in other words, produce about 1.1% of America”s total electricity consumption.
Of course, you might respond that renewables need to start somewhere. True enough — and to be clear, I”m not opposed to renewables. I have solar panels on the roof of my house here in Texas that generate 3,200 watts. And those panels (which were heavily subsidized by Austin Energy, the city-owned utility) provide about one-third of the electricity my family of five consumes. Better still, solar panel producers like First Solar Inc. are lowering the cost of solar cells. On the day of Mr. Obama”s speech, the company announced that it is now producing solar cells for $0.98 per watt, thereby breaking the important $1-per-watt price barrier.
And yet, while price reductions are important, the wind is intermittent, and so are sunny days. That means they cannot provide the baseload power, i.e., the amount of electricity required to meet minimum demand, that Americans want.
That issue aside, the scale problem persists. For the sake of convenience, let”s convert the energy produced by U.S. wind and solar installations into oil equivalents.
The conversion of electricity into oil terms is straightforward: one barrel of oil contains the energy equivalent of 1.64 megawatt-hours of electricity. Thus, 45,493,000 megawatt-hours divided by 1.64 megawatt-hours per barrel of oil equals 27.7 million barrels of oil equivalent from solar and wind for all of 2008.
Now divide that 27.7 million barrels by 365 days and you find that solar and wind sources are providing the equivalent of 76,000 barrels of oil per day. America”s total primary energy use is about 47.4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.
Of that 47.4 million barrels of oil equivalent, oil itself has the biggest share — we consume about 19 million barrels per day. Natural gas is the second-biggest contributor, supplying the equivalent of 11.9 million barrels of oil, while coal provides the equivalent of 11.5 million barrels of oil per day. The balance comes from nuclear power (about 3.8 million barrels per day), and hydropower (about 1.1 million barrels), with smaller contributions coming from wind, solar, geothermal, wood waste, and other sources.
Here”s another way to consider the 76,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day that come from solar and wind: It”s approximately equal to the raw energy output of one average-sized coal mine.
During his address to Congress, Mr. Obama did not mention coal — the fuel that provides nearly a quarter of total primary energy and about half of America”s electricity — except to say that the U.S. should develop “clean coal.” He didn”t mention nuclear power, only “nuclear proliferation,” even though nuclear power is likely the best long-term solution to policy makers” desire to cut U.S. carbon emissions. He didn”t mention natural gas, even though it provides about 25% of America”s total primary energy needs. Furthermore, the U.S. has huge quantities of gas, and it”s the only fuel source that can provide the stand-by generation capacity needed for wind and solar installations. Finally, he didn”t mention oil, the backbone fuel of the world transportation sector, except to say that the U.S. imports too much of it.