Friday, January 2, 2009

7. The limited Energy Growth Options of the Future

We’re now getting closer to the start of the new Administration, with President-elect Obama having travelled to Washington, to begin his residence there. And, with his arrival, one can start to look forward to the change that his Administration is going to bring, in many of the Departments that form the Federal Government.

Obviously the one that most concerns this site is going to be that of the Department of Energy, although rulings from the EPA on the future of coal power plant emissions, and a number of issues that relate more to the Departments of the Interior and to the Department of Agriculture will also impact the supplies of energy that we will need more critically as the Obama years develop. Given the very clear message that the nominees to head these various divisions have already articulated in regard to the need to move away from technologies that are being blamed for climate change, one might, at first think that their path forward was clear, but I suspect that a harsh dose of reality is going to temper some of the steps that lead into that path.

Consider first of all the options that have prevailed until now, in the basic forms of energy that we use, and how those must change in the future. It was over at The Gristmill just over a week ago, that Sean Casten gave this table on recent power construction:
Our total U.S. electric grid has a peak capacity of just over 1,000 GW. (That's 1 billion kilowatts or, if you prefer, enough to power 10 billion hundred-watt light bulbs.)
Of that total, here's what we've installed just since 1995:
~200 MW of solar PV

~10,000 MW of wind

~45,000 MW of combined heat & power

~200,000 MW of natural gas (about half of which was combined cycle, which runs at almost 2x the fuel efficiency of the U.S. grid)
He then goes on to note that in the same time interval there has been no construction of coal or nuclear power plants.

In the same time interval the amount of ethanol produced from corn in the United States has grown to meet mandated demand, with the stated goal of having this at 15 billion gallons/yr by 2022, by which time ethanol from cellulosic sources is mandated to reach at least 16 billion gallons for a total of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel a year (that’s 2.3 mbd roughly). By September 2008, the industry was producing 0.64 mbd against a demand of 0.69 mbd. In November the largest ethanol producer, VeraSun, filed for bankruptcy protection.

Cellulosic ethanol, as I noted last week has yet to yield any significant production plant performance.

So here you are with a clean slate, and where would one then start developing future supplies. One could presume that the initial thought would be “more of the same,” particularly given the lack of other alternative options in the immediate future.

That would imply, given the hostility toward coal that is evidenced in at least some of the remarks attributed to Dr. Chu about this being his worst nightmare, that the focus remains on solar power, wind and natural gas.

And that is where the rub comes in, for there are a number of issues that will start to come to the fore as the current technologies move closer to larger-scale adoption.

Consider, for example, solar power, Robert Rapier recently invited Tom Standing to comment on a couple of these, and he looked at An Arizona Plant and a review of plans in France. His conclusions, that a 280 MW plant in Arizona would cover about 6 sq. miles (at 50% collector density) and produce around 1.8 billion kWh per year. This is about 2.3% of the growth in U.S. electrical demand per year. Thus even if the plants could be made sufficiently cost-effective that they can compete with the cheaper electricity from coal and nuclear (in delivered cost/kWh) they are unlikely to be a major player within the next few years. And that perhaps reflects the percentage of the total build of the last decade.

Moving on to wind turbine development, this is very much a question of where to put them to best advantage, and how then to distribute the power.

Montana, for example, has lots of wind potential, but as Ben Arnoldy in the CSM points out there are two problems left unaddressed. The first is the installation of transmission lines to carry the power to where it is going to be used, and the second is the provision of standby power for when the winds don’t blow. And here one comes back to that comment about coal again, because the logical back-up might be a coal powered plant, given all the coal in Montana. However, the resistance of the new Administration might be such, that the development of coal bed methane might be a better alternative, although there is some opposition to the idea.

But that brings us back to natural gas, which is where, in the above table, some 80% of the power growth has been. And this is a real concern, since the presumption is, in much the same way as has been presumed in Europe, that there will be enough natural gas going into the future, not only to supply the existing plants, but also to supply the growth needed in the future. And that is where there has to be concern.

As I pointed out in an earlier post back in my Oil Drum days the current oversupply of natural gas in this country is based on increasing amounts of production from wells in the shales of the country. These wells are expensive to create and relatively short in life. Betting the whole of our energy future on them seems to be highly rash.

Which brings us back to the apparently unacceptable options of coal and nuclear power plants. It will be interesting (since the utility companies seem to think that they are the best option, given that they are planning on installing more than 100 of them) to see how this plays out over the next four years.

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