Half-way to Doubling Renewable Energy


In 2008, President Obama declared that the U.S. would double the amount of energy that comes from renewable sources by the end of his first term. Later, in a televised address to a joint session of Congress, he proclaimed that we’ll reach that goal in three years, not four. But given the Energy Information Administration’s own data, Obama and his energy advisors should realize that reaching his goal is simply not possible.

Indeed, Obama’s proclamation with the impossible deadline may be symptomatic of the uncritical, naive trust with which our president accepts advice. And his claim about doubling the amount of renewable energy reflects the apparent hopes of environmental activists rather than from the realities that can be found in objective, easily obtainable, government-collected data.

In 2007, the EIA attributed 229 gigawatts of total US power production (annual average) to renewable sources. Doubled, that number becomes 458 GW by no later than 2011. That’s highly unlikely given that total US consumption from all energy sources in 2007 was about 3,400 GW. (That calculation assumes no energy loss in the conversion of energy into power.)

But perhaps the “green” energy advocates can reach Obama’s goal by twisting the definition of renewable sources. First, a quick review of what is considered renewable. There are six renewable sources recognized as such by the EIA. Grouped into three basic categories, they are:

  • Geothermal source; it utilizes earth-heat for electricity and/or heating.
  • Direct solar; it utilizes sun rays for electricity thru a photovoltaic process (PV panels) or thru a thermal process (such as a steam engine driving a generator), and also for non-incidental heating such as with swimming-pool solar heaters.
  • Indirect Solar source; it utilizes the sun rays energy in the form of wind, rain and bio-growth. Those can be converted into electricity, or into heat, or bio-fuels or into kinetic energy such in sail-boat motion.

In 2007, the power contribution of those renewables was as follows:

Geothermal: 12 GW.
Solar Direct: 2.6 GW.
Solar Indirect: hydro, 82 GW; biomass, 121 GW; wind, 11 GW.

(Notice that I am using the unit watt (W) here and throughout the treatise. That unit is both familiar and shorter than others that one could select to express the annual average energy usage. The ‘G’ stands for ‘giga’, i.e., billion. The GW is the only unit needed for these kinds of analyses, and using it exclusively enables immediate comparisons.)

The graph below illustrates the history of the production of electricity by renewables during the last decade. Hydro, at 41 GW in 1997 and 28 GW in 2007, is not included because the other renewables would not be distinguishable on that scale. Electricity delivered from all renewables combined decreased from 49 GW in 1997 to 34 GW in 2007 mainly because of the drop in hydro and despite the illustrated increase in wind-derived electricity. For comparison, while renewables’ contribution declined, overall electricity consumption in the US grew from 403 GW in 1997 to 440 GW in 2007.

Renewable Energy Output

The current statistics shows that renewables provided 8% more energy in 2008 than in 2007 and 9% more in 2009 than in 2008. With the percentage so low, this should end any discussion about the prospects of reaching Obama’s goal. But let’s continue, as there are other possibilities.

When evaluating the potential of the individual renewable sources for achieving a large increase, hydro and bio are logically the most promising candidates and should be considered first. It turns out that the two prominent sources have been close to maxed-out for some time as shown in the graph for bio sources and enumerated for hydro . However, what has been maxed-out by nature can be un-maxed by a legislature.

For instance, in California, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. reports the following distribution for its electricity sources: Natural gas provided 39%; nuclear 22%, hydro 16%, Coal 8%, renewables 14%, and “other” 1%.

The 14% for renewables is broken down thusly: Geothermal 34%, biomass 32%, hydro 20%, wind 14%, and direct solar less than 1%.

Notice hydro – it is listed twice. Apparently, one hydro-electricity comes from renewable rain, the other from non-renewable rain. How does PG&E know which is which? Policy makers decide. It turns out that, so far in California only, hydro-plants under 0.030 GW installed capacity have their reservoirs filled with renewable rain. The bigger ones do not. By law. How much difference does it make? For a comparison, Hoover dam is rated at 2.1 GW which is seventy times more than one 0.03 GW dam. Should other states establish such a regulation in the upcoming months, and enact it retroactively to 2007, hydro-electricity baseline would drop to a fraction of the above 82 GW thereby lowering the baseline for all-renewables.

Learning about the PG&E trick I challenged myself to see how many similar tricks could be introduced to help attain Obama’s goal. With the bio sources, for example, virgin forests could be proclaimed non-renewable and only the newly planted forest be counted as renewable. That would lower the bio number drastically. Consequently, with the two big ones, hydro and bio, shrunk administratively close to the tiny geothermal and direct-sun numbers, the 3-years-doubling goal looks almost as if it could be taken seriously.

Another trick could utilize the oddity in the EIA’s accounting for electricity. Several renewables in the primary-energy table are assigned values about 3 times higher than the amount of electricity they actually produced. To see that, compare the wind electricity numbers in the listing above under Solar Indirect with the ~4 GW in the graph. I selected the wind source to make the comparison easy as it generates no other form of energy but electricity. The missing two thirds (4 GW vs. 11 GW) reflect the hypothetical energy that would be needed to produce that amount of electricity from fossil fuels plants that have typical efficiency of 33%. Abolishing that EIA practice retroactively would lower the 2007 baseline for wind mills and hydro by 66%. With the direct solar, however, not 3 times but almost 40 times (0.068 GW of electric power vs. 2.7 GW of primary power) for most of that energy is used for heating, not for making electricity.

Another trick could stem from the difference between capacity and production. Note the wording of Obama’s commitment. It implies energy actually produced, not the installed capacity (also called name-plate capacity). To understand the difference, take a wind mill again. Each produces about one fifth of its capacity. Thus five towers would have to be erected to actually produce the name-plate power of one. In numbers, to produce 1 GW net average yield, a 5 GW wind project needs to be installed. That much power comes from about 5,000 typical wind towers. Similar arithmetic applies to direct solar plants except that twice (i.e., 10 times) as many plants are needed to actually produce the nameplate (usually peak, noon) power. Obama’s baseline could be neatly lowered by this terminology misuse.

Lastly comes the easiest trick of them all. Hydro may grow to the pre-2007 levels and this gain could surpass the growth of all the other renewables combined. Hydro-electricity used to be more plentiful. The net yield dropped 46% between 1997 and 2007. If the huge irrigation of the crop-for-bio-fuels stops, and with it also the watering for the ethanol processing, and/or if it happens to rain a lot more, a ten percent increase is possible. And if a few of the twenty-odd decommissioned dams are re-commissioned, hydro’s contribution could indeed lift the production for the whole group significantly. However, that consideration has not played a role in the 2008 proclamation.

I have concentrated on the tricks of a technical nature. But semantics could also play a role. Obama may have simply misspoken. In the sentence “from renewable sources” he may have “intended” to say “from a renewable source.” And by that he may have meant direct-solar made electricity. At 0.068 GW in 2007, its production could indeed be doubled to 0.14 GW but that is nowhere near the 458 GW but, on the other hand, what’s a few hundred percent error among politicians. They might argue – but it grew, did it not? Close enough!

One cannot but wonder how many decisions this administration has made without sound research. Worse yet, common sense would indicate that the four-year deadline was “good enough” to please the voters – why has Obama shortened the time frame by one year without any political gain in the offing? Why would anyone, let alone the president, be risking potential embarrassment for no political gain? It does not reflect on savvy leadership.

There is a strong possibility that the president devoted so much time promoting renewable energy in his oil-spill speech on June 16th because his conscience was telling him to do something (spend money) building renewable sources urgently. Not reaching his proclamation’s goal by such a huge margin as is now evident will be personally embarrassing and politically harmful.

On the positive side, we may actually be grateful for his failing the commitment because we are already experiencing an increase in residential electricity cost resulting from the expenditures for renewables.. Compare the utility bill trend for electricity in my household, illustrated in the graph below, with the graph above, and notice the trend changing in about 2005. That coincides with the renewable-energy investment growth, particularly for electricity generation. It seems that the more “free” electricity we have, the higher its cost. My utility bill includes a charge that makes me pay for the costly “green” toys producing expensive, unpredictable, and poor-quality power. I hope Obama’s failure to meet his stated renewables goal will help voters worldwide to demand that their governments stop wasting billions on renewable energy subsidies and research, most of which produces nothing of lasting value.

Residential Gas and Electric

Stan Jakuba, a metrication consultant and energy analyst, lives in West Hartford, CT.

© 2013 Energy Tribune

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