What it would take for the US to run on 100% renewable energy

11 06 2015

The internet never ceases to amaze me as a source of hopium.  This article on vox, Here’s what it would take for the US to run on 100% renewable energy, manages to knock the wind out of the techno-utopian belief that we could run Business as Usual with renewables, even though it totally misses the most important point about why it can’t be done…....

It sets the scene with:

It is technically and economically feasible to run the US economy entirely on renewable energy, and to do so by 2050. That is the conclusion of a new study in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, authored by Stanford scholar Mark Z. Jacobson and nine colleagues.

Jacobson is well-known for his ambitious and controversial work on renewable energy. In 2001 he published, with Mark A. Delucchi, a two-part paper (one, two) on “providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power.” In 2013 he published a feasibility study on moving New York state entirely to renewables, and in 2014 he created a road map for California to do the same.

This road map looks like this:

jacobson-us-renewables-2015At least, this road map shows a decline in total energy use over the period to 2050, which is fine, we absolutely have to reduce energy consumption.  Except of course I think we need to do this by at least 90%, but who’s splitting hairs…?

The author, , then goes on to explain what is required to do this:

The core of the plan is to electrify everything, including sectors that currently run partially or entirely on liquid fossil fuels. That means shifting transportation, heating/cooling, and industry to run on electric power.

Electrifying everything produces an enormous drop in projected demand, since the energy-to-work conversion of electric motors is much more efficient than combustion motors, which lose a ton of energy to heat. So the amount of energy necessary to meet projected demand drops by a third just from the conversion. With some additional, relatively modest efficiency measures, total demand relative to BAU drops 39.3 percent. That’s a much lower target for WWS to meet.

Fine……. so far.

So how could the economy be electrified on this ambitious timeline? Brace yourself:

Heating, drying, and cooking in the residential and commercial sectors: by 2020, all new devices and machines are powered by electricity. …

Large-scale waterborne freight transport: by 2020–2025, all new ships are electrified and/or use electrolytic hydrogen, all new port operations are electrified, and port retro- electrification is well underway. …

Rail and bus transport: by 2025, all new trains and buses are electrified. …

Off-road transport, small-scale marine: by 2025 to 2030, all new production is electrified. …

Heavy-duty truck transport: by 2025 to 2030, all new vehicles are electrified or use electrolytic hydrogen. …

Light-duty on-road transport: by 2025–2030, all new vehicles are electrified. …

Short-haul aircraft: by 2035, all new small, short-range planes are battery- or electrolytic-hydrogen powered. …

Long-haul aircraft: by 2040, all remaining new aircraft are electrolytic cryogenic hydrogen … with electricity power for idling, taxiing, and internal power….

Electrolytic cryogenic hydrogen?  My eyes glazed over here……….

Here’s what the paper says:

Power plants: by 2020, no more construction of new coal, nuclear, natural gas, or biomass fired power plants; all new power plants built are WWS.

2020 is just FIVE YEARS away………  but who’s counting?

…to meet most energy demand with wind and solar, you have to radically overbuild electrical generation capacity. To wit: the authors estimate that total US energy demand in 2050 will average 2.6 terawatts. To produce that much energy, they propose building power plants with a total of 6.5 TW of capacity. By way of comparison, the US currently has about 1.2 TW of installed electric generation capacity, so this plan would involve expanding generation capacity fivefold in 35 years.

Here’s what that would require:

… 328,000 new onshore 5 MW wind turbines (providing 30.9% of U.S. energy for all purposes), 156,200 off-shore 5 MW wind turbines (19.1%), 46,480 50 MW new utility-scale solar-PV power plants (30.7%), 2,273 100 MW utility-scale CSP power plants (7.3%), 75.2 million 5 kW residential rooftop PV systems (3.98%), 2.75 million 100 kW commercial/government rooftop systems (3.2%), 208 100 MW geothermal plants (1.23%), 36,050 0.75 MW wave devices (0.37%), 8,800 1 MW tidal turbines (0.14%), and 3 new hydroelectric power plants (all in Alaska).

That will meet average demand. Then you need 1,364 additional new CSP plants and 9,380 50 MW solar-thermal collection systems (“for heat storage in soil”) “to produce peaking power, to account for additional loads due to losses in and out of storage, and to ensure reliability of the grid.”

Is that realistic? asks Roberts……

Uh, no says Roberts….. No it isn’t. The authors inadvertently give away the game:

We do not believe a technical or economic barrier exists to ramping up production of WWS technologies, as history suggests that rapid ramp-ups of production can occur given strong enough political will. For example during World War II, aircraft production increased from nearly zero to 330,000 over five years.

The phrase “given strong enough political will” is open-ended enough to allow virtually anything through. But what would create this political will, equal to what gripped the US in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack? The authors don’t say much about it, other than a hopeful note at the end that their quantification of the benefits of such a transition “should reduce social and political barriers to implementing the roadmaps.”

But here’s the key thing for me.  exactly how would the US build an increasing quantity of renewables, growing year after year, while reducing fossil fuel use, year after year, at the same time..?  And we all know how much fossil energy it takes to build all those wind turbines…..

Something major would have to be abandoned.  Like maybe the US military?  After all, once the Arabs’ oil is no longer needed, it won’t need ‘defending’!  Dream on.  This is no Pearl Harbor.  This is civilisational change…..  and the only other time we’ve had change on this scale was when…..  fossil fuels were discovered and exploited!  I’m definitely not holding my breath, but you already knew this.




2 responses

11 06 2015
John Doyle

Yesterday, Science Daily published this study;


More hopium. It doesn’t go beyond electricity consumption for a start
I think the figures are just fanciful as too many variables are omitted.

11 06 2015
Chris Harries

When human beings have their backs to the wall it is true that sometimes they can be incredibly inventive. To some this provides hope, but for me it tells me that what we are going to do is insanely build millions of new machines to do the impossible and then find out that it wasn’t ever possible. But by then we are in a bigger hole than ever.

This thrust to attempt to drive highly complex and energy-hungry industrial civilisation on dilute energy sources has immense popular appeal because 1) the only alternative is seen to be collapse and 2) most citizens are not expert in the laws of science and thermodynamics and so for them magic can happen and will happen.

I don’t think anything can stop this mass delusion, it’s too entrenched, but it’s worth pointing it out just for the record.

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