Steve Campbell November 2015
It is a habit of modern environmental advocates to insist upon doing away with fossil fuels and using only “renewable energy”. Fossil fuels are defined by as “a natural fuel such as coal or gas, formed in the geological past from the remains of living organisms.” (1). According to the US department of Energy, renewable energy includes “solar, wind, geothermal, bioenergy and water (hydroelectric)” (2).
If asked whether that replacement is possible or practical, most of those same environmental advocates (hereinafter referred to as: “Greens”) would enthusiastically reply in the positive, as if it is an obvious thing. It did not seem obvious to me and so I made an examination of modern energy use in the United States. At some point in the following pages, I will express a few opinions. But, I promise to end with some solidly founded conclusions.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory does a yearly assessment of energy use in the United States. It includes sources of energy, amounts of each source and what use is made of it by what sector of the economy. They publish a very interesting summary (3) of the results which you will see in Figure A. The amounts of energy are in Quadrillion British Thermal Units (which are mercifully referred to simply as “Quads”). A Quad is the equivalent of about 180 million barrels of petroleum. But, the important issue in this analysis is the portions that each source contributes to the total.
Figure A: Energy Use in the United States 2014
I will just look at the total energy use for this analysis. The numbers on the left side of the chart are detailed in the table in Figure B, below. The Non-renewables are in blue, the renewables in green. I have included Nuclear with the fossil fuels only because greens are as strongly opposed to that as they are to fossil fuels, if not more so. The table is depicted in a pie chart in figure C.
Figure B: Energy sources and amount contributed to the total
Figure C: Pie chart of values in figure B, labeled by percent of total
The next pie chart in Figure D, has the fossil fuels and Nuclear plotted as blanks to show what needs to be replaced in the “total renewable” scenario. The result speaks for itself. Ninety percent of the current energy use is unacceptable to the Greens.
Figure D: The renewable fraction of US energy use in the US in 2014
So, we are left with these ten percent which must expand to fill 100 percent. The simple idea that we just multiply the capacity for each source by ten will quickly run into some serious problems. I will, of course elaborate upon them next by considering each source individually.
Biomass in the transportation sector is mostly ethanol made almost exclusively from corn or biodiesel from other food crops like soybeans. Both are driving up the global price of food and are not profitable without government subsidies. I would just add that energy is used in growing crops, transportation to factories, fermentation, distillation and transportation of the biofuel to market (in tanker trucks because ethanol corrodes pipelines). Fertilizer is typically manufactured from natural gas. So, unless all that energy use is also converted to renewables, you have not accomplished much change.
According to the New England Complex Systems Institute (4):
“1. The amount of corn used to produce the ethanol in a gallon of regular gas would feed a person for a day,
- The production of ethanol requires so much fossil fuel energy that its energy benefit is only about 20%…
- The cost of gas made with ethanol is actually higher per mile because ethanol reduces gasoline’s energy per gallon…
The US used over 45% of its 2011 corn crop to produce ethanol, up from under 15% before 2005 …–a rise dictated by federal mandate and promoted by federal subsidies. The drought in 2012 is leading to questions about whether using corn for fuel is reasonable while people go hungry due to a world food shortage…
The total amount of ethanol produced in the US in 2011 was 13.95 billion gallons, enough to feed 570 million people that year.” (emphasis mine, SC)
I tried to check these numbers and I keep coming up with 535 million. Until I am able to resolve this difference, I will use the lesser figure. But the difference is small and number is still staggering.
In either case, that number was so staggeringly big that I reviewed the assumptions in the calculations in Albino, et al (4). There are a few mitigating factors. For one, the caloric requirements cited were the minimum for survival. Also, the field corn used for ethanol production is otherwise used for animal feed and for intermediate products like corn flour, meal, starch or oil. In all those cases, the food value ultimately is less than in direct consumption. Nevertheless, the 500+ million figure is still correct, in theory. The potential use of the corn produced for fuel could supply that much food.
As I mentioned previously, we are trying to imagine increasing by a factor of ten the portion of energy that is “renewable”. In the case of biofuels, to increase by ten times means that the United States alone would be burning enough food to feed over Five Billion People. That is more than two thirds of the Earth’s population. That is simply not acceptable.
You will note in Figure A that the majority of biomass contribution is not in transportation, but rather in Industry. The burning of agricultural and industrial waste for heat or to generate electricity is a good example. Imagine a sawmill that accumulates tons of sawdust. That waste represents a good deal of energy. You may note from Figure A that Industry is the most efficient of all energy using endeavors. They use biomass because it makes economic sense. I would imagine that most such opportunities are already in use. So, an increase by a factor of ten would seem impossible.
Hydroelectricity is quite efficient, clean and reliable. While it does require a specific sort of geological setting, it could probably be increased a great deal. A factor of ten might be possible, at least in theory. The problem with Hydro is that its Green “credentials” have expired. Greens are beginning to call for the removal of dams from rivers and are not enthusiastic about increasing hydropower. According to the Hydropower Reform Coalition (5):
I can only imagine that they are expecting an improved efficiency from “existing water and infrastructure”. Without new infrastructure, there can be no other way to increase production. Figure E shows the Energy Information Agency (EIA) numbers for amount of hydropower in the US over the years 1990 to 2010. While other renewables have increased, Hydro is in a definite decline. Note that the increase of “other renewable” is about equal to the decline in Hydro. This is far from a candidate for a massive increase. We will be lucky to retain what Hydro now exists.
Figure E: EIA graph of hydropower and “other renewable” electricity amounts.
Wind turbines can generate substantial amounts of electricity when the wind conditions are right. Because of government subsidies, wind power has expanded rapidly. As of 2014 Wind represents 2% of the energy mix in the United States. There is room for expansion. However, as it turns out this is a much more complicated subject than the previous energy sources.
The cost of wind power has been claimed by Greens to be less than fossil fuel power plants. This claim is ignoring a multitude of hidden costs, including massive subsidies at taxpayer expense. According to Ed Hoskins’ detailed analysis (6), the cost of wind is at least double that of natural gas. The chart in figure F shows these figures and I have included the Solar photovoltaic numbers to refer back to when I get to that source.
Figure F: Comparison of cost per unit energy for Solar, Wind and Natural Gas electric generation
But the point here is not cost, but rather reliability. Wind turbines have a range of wind speeds. There is a lower limit of wind speed below which the turbine cannot generate power. There is also a high speed limit where the turbine must be “feathered” or turned sideways to the wind to avoid damage to the blades. When those periods occur, the electric demand must still be met and other sources must be called upon to provide the power. There are electric storage systems like flywheels that can store power and smooth fluctuations, but their capacity can be measured only in mere seconds. This means that a coal or natural gas fired power plant has to be kept idling, ready to pick up the entire load with a moment’s notice. Idling is a particularly wasteful thing to do as it burns energy for exactly nothing.
There is one argument to the effect that “It’s always windy somewhere”. By that they mean to say that one windfarm can take over for another. There are regional weather systems where stagnant (i.e., near windless) high pressure sets in across most of the country. This can be during a heat wave or a frigid cold wave where power consumption is already high. The fact that it is windy in Romania is irrelevant. There is no free lunch. Wind power must have a 100% back-up or leave its customers in the dark when the going gets tough.
Now we get to the carnage. These wind turbines are sited in zones of prevailing wind, which by no coincidence are the same zones where birds migrate. Windmills chop up birds at a horrifying rate. The Greens are trying to sandbag this by pointing out that cats kill far more birds than windmills. I expect they are exaggerating, but it does not matter. My cat, for example brought me a few mocking birds and, once a blue jay. But he never dragged a Golden Eagle carcass up to my back door. Furthermore, nobody ever claimed that cats are “Green” as they have claimed about Wind for decades. Windmills do not discriminate and kill many thousands of birds of “endangered species” per year. Certainly they are endangered! Yet, Wind currently has a “Get Out of Jail Free Card” to do so for the next thirty years. They will not be fined.
Then there are the bats. For example, in Central Texas there are large populations of bats. Those flying rodents eat the insects that would otherwise eat our food (and Biomass!) crops. They are murdered by the thousands by the windmills there. You might think that their echo-locating senses would help them avoid the spinning blades. Well, they don’t even have to be struck by the blades. The low-pressure zones behind the blades collapse their lungs. Birds are much tougher, but they never see the blades coming, especially at night. The toll on bats is large – perhaps more than on birds.
While I would never be accused of being Green, I find the situation unacceptable and I object to these bird and bat choppers on environmental grounds. In my humble opinion, Wind ain’t Green. And Greens are starting to agree. They forced a wind farm in California named Altamont tear down their windmills and replace them with larger ones that supposedly kill fewer. I suspect, but cannot prove that the larger mills just throw the dead birds farther away so they are out of sight and not counted as damage.
Solar energy is not a new idea. It has been exploited for longer than human history. I am sure that my Ice Age ancestors dried their meat with Solar. For local reference, my mother used Solar to dry our clothes when I was young. Later, I saw coffee farmers in Venezuela, who to this day use Solar to dry their beans. Solar is respected in architectural and industrial design. In remote locations photovoltaics if properly managed can provide electricity in medium amounts but not continuously.
There is nothing wrong with Solar until someone wants to make it a baseline electricity source. Now we are in trouble – and for obvious reasons! Beyond the totally obvious fact that the sun goes down at night, there are times when the weather will cover the sun and not provide power, neither for photovoltaic, nor for solar thermal plants. You might put these way out in the desert where there are few clouds, but then you must build the powerline infrastructure to get the power to someone who will pay for it. That is far from free.
Now is when I will ask you to look back at Figure F, at that Cyan bar that shows that “Photovoltaics Large Scale” is almost four times the cost of natural gas generation. Looking further than cost, there is reliability to be concerned. In the desert, there might not be much concern about sunlight, but even there, the sun goes down. Storage of electricity is to this day, quite difficult and inefficient. To put it like Tom and Ray Magliozzi (Car Talk) when they speak of electric cars, “It’s all about the batteries and it always will be”. You might imagine that Elon Musk will build all the batteries we need with his mega-plant. You would be wrong. There is a place called Cushing, Oklahoma where there is a great tank farm that is the core of the distribution center of petroleum for the central United States. The reserve of energy in Cushing is such that it would take FOURTY of Elon’s “Super Factories” ONE HUNDRED YEARS to match it in energy storage. Cushing is the largest tank farm in the country, but there are hundreds of others.
(Wikipedia (7)) Geothermal energy is thermal energy generated and stored in the Earth. Thermal energy is the energy that determines the temperature of matter. The geothermal energy of the Earth’s crust originates from the original formation of the planet and from radioactive decay of materials (in currently uncertain but possibly roughly equal proportions). The geothermal gradient, which is the difference in temperature between the core of the planet and its surface, drives a continuous conduction of thermal energy in the form of heat from the core to the surface. The adjective geothermal originates from the Greek roots γη (ge), meaning earth, and θερμος (thermos), meaning hot…. …Geothermal power is cost effective, reliable, sustainable, and environmentally friendly, but has historically been limited to areas near tectonic plate boundaries.
Geothermal energy also works well, in appropriate locations. This is another source that could be expanded and maximized. In the US, it contributes 0.2 Quads (far less than 1 %) of the national total. While this analysis is about the United States Energy sector, it is instructive to note other countries’ efforts in this regard. While the US capacity is small, it still represents 29% of the Geothermal in the world! No one else comes close. Figure G (again from Wikipedia) shows the amounts and contributions of geothermal generation of various countries. Of particular note are Iceland, which supplies 30% of their national energy use and also the Philippines with 27% and El Salvador with 25%. These countries have the advantage of local geology that make Geothermal a convenient and cheap source of energy. The US has many such zones that have already been developed to some extent and there should be reason to expect more.
The drawbacks? Well, the first thing they do in geothermal development is to drill holes in the ground and then fracture the rock structure so the water can circulate and pick up heat. While I have no problem with fracturing, an entire radical, hysterical contingent of Greens do have such problems! If they will allow fracturing for geothermal then they are colossal hypocrites.
Figure G: Geothermal generation of electricity by country (Wikipedia)
- Biofuels right now consume enough food crops to feed over half a billion people. That is astonishing in itself. To multiply this burning of food by ten is nothing short of horrifying. This nation should stop the use of ethanol based fuel immediately, in my humble opinion.
- Hydro is being assassinated by Greens and will be fortunate to not decrease. It could otherwise be increased substantially.
- Wind is not a good idea for baseline power. Any increase will come at great cost and massive loss of avian life. And again, it must be backed up with Real Energy.
- Solar has many of the same drawbacks as Wind. Even if it does increase by ten times, it would still represent only about 4% of the energy total and it still needs 100% back-up.
- I see no reason why Geothermal could not increase by a factor of ten. That would make it about two percent of the energy mix.
- While I have skipped over it because it is opposed so vehemently by Greens, Nuclear could take the majority of the energy burden. Don’t hold your breath!
Question: Can Fossil Fuels be replaced?
Short answer: No!
- Defining “Fossil Fuel” http://www.bing.com/search?q=define+fossil+fuel&qs=n&form=QBLH&pq=define+fossil+fuel&sc=9-18&sp=-1&sk=&cvid=D3703532B4D94B9F8098F2638D006AED
- Defining “Renewable Energy” http://energy.gov/science-innovation/energy-sources/renewable-energy
- Lawrence Livermore Energy Use Chart https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/content/assets/images/energy/us/Energy_US_2014.png
- D.K. Albino, K.Z. Bertrand, Y. Bar-Yam, Food for fuel: The price of ethanol. arXiv:1210.6080 (October 4, 2012). http://necsi.edu/research/social/foodprices/foodforfuel/
- Hydropower reform Coalition hthttp://www.hydroreform.org/abouthydro/renewable
- Ed Hoskins WordPress.com site https://edmhdotme.wordpress.com/
- Geothermal energy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geothermal_energy