How Realistic is Obama’s Green Revolution?

January 28th, 2011 at 12:24 pm | 7 Comments |

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President Obama called in his State of the Union speech for securing 80 percent of U.S. electricity from “clean” sources by 2035.

Is it doable? Sure. As my dad used to say, all it takes is money. But, with due respect to the old man, it would take a fair bit more.

The first problem is settling on the definition of “clean sources.” How clean is clean?

In the SOTU, Obama wasn’t entirely clear. He said that we would need wind, solar, natural gas, nuclear, and clean coal. He didn’t spell out what clean coal is. He left out several renewables. And he didn’t mention energy efficiency.

Taking a few liberties with POTUS’ thinking, assume that by “clean coal,” Obama meant coal-fired generation that sequesters CO2 emissions. Also assume that he supports efficiency and all renewables.

Where does that leave us in relation to his 80 percent benchmark? We’re more than halfway there. In 2009, nearly 54 percent of U.S. electricity came from nuclear, natural gas, and renewables. The lion’s share of the remainder was coal-generated (45 percent), while the remaining 1.7 percent came from a scattering of minor resources like fuel oil, pet coke, and waste gases.

Getting to 80, then, would mean cleaning up or displacing more than half of the nation’s coal-fired generation.

Getting there would take a price on carbon emissions – expressed as a tax or perhaps as a clean energy standard similar to what Lindsey Graham has proposed. Getting there also would take a boost in federal R&D budgets, to pay for the long-range, risky technology research that industry isn’t prepared to fund.

Obama also moved the goal post with his shout-out to electric cars. EVs create electric power service issues. The time of day when EVs are charged would make a big difference to utilities. In 2009, for instance, Southern California Edison estimated that plug-in hybrid-electrics could account for as much as 11 percent of its system load by 2020 and increase its peak loads by thousands of megawatts without proper management.

Other issues include adequacy of home service panels and distribution system transformers; the need for monitoring systems enabling utilities and their customers to manage their loads, and persuading customers to sign up for demand-response programs that delay EV charging to the wee hours.

Imagine the impact on the EV market if too many customers blow out their circuits charging cars during early summer evenings when the air conditioner is running, the dishwasher is churning, the water heater is heating, and the plasma TV is blaring Glenn Beck’s latest revelations from the sixth dimension.

So, how to knock down and/or clean up coal-fired generation? Efficiency would be a good place to start. A 2009 McKinsey & Co. study estimated that investing half a trillion dollars in efficiency could drive down total U.S. energy consumption by about 9 percent of today’s levels by 2020, yielding some $700 billion in net savings.

McKinsey pointed out, however, that “multiple and persistent barriers” must be overcome to achieve that level of efficiency investment in the private sector. McKinsey recommended a mix of codes, standards, incentives, and education to break down the barriers.

Could gas displace a significant amount of coal? The outlook is hopeful. Reserves of the cleanest hydrocarbon are growing by leaps and bounds. The most recent biennial survey of the Potential Gas Committee, a group of industry experts, estimated that total reserves are equivalent to a century’s worth of current annual net domestic production.

A 2010 Congressional Research Service report suggested that firing up underutilized gas-fired power plants could hypothetically displace one-third of coal-fired generation. There are transmission and gas price issues to resolve to make that strategy workable, however.

Gas would get a further boost if Congress lets EPA do its job. Tougher clean air standards would give clean gas a leg up over unclean coal.

Could the atom give coal a run for its money? A 2007 study from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a utility industry think tank, said nuclear’s share of generation could be raised to 25 percent by the late 2020s and nearly half by 2050, up from 20 percent today, if plant operating lives could be extended to 80 years, if cost-saving technology improvements were installed, and if the waste management problem is fixed through storage and closing the nuclear fuel cycle. That would be ambitious.

Sequestration is the great hope for the coal industry. The good news is that there is plenty of subterranean capacity within U.S. borders to sequester carbon dioxide. The bad news is that sequestration has never been tried on the colossal scale that would be necessary to bury emissions thrown off by coal plants. A lot of R&D, with utility-scale demonstrations, would have to be carried out before sequestration could be counted as a sure thing. That would be ambitious.

How do renewables stack up for decarbonizing the energy economy? Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, a no-nonsense book that U.K. physicist David MacKay wrote in 2009, laid out a hypothetical all-renewables energy budget for the U.S. If you express all energy consumption from all sources – including oil – into kilowatt-hours (kWh), the average American goes through 250 kWh per day.

Heroic expansion of wind, geothermal, and hydro could only meet one-fourth of that demand, he estimated. Filling up a land area the size of Arizona with concentrating solar power plants, however, would be enough to supply every American, Canadian, and Mexican with 250 kWh daily. That would be ambitious.

MacKay’s take-home message is that a goal like Obama’s 80 percent by 2035 is doable, but it would mean a willingness to accept energy choices that don’t fit snugly with the typical spin from either the Left or the Right. The Left hates nuclear and the Right sneers at solar. Tough toenails, MacKay says, we’ll likely need both.

As MacKay wrote: “We need to choose a plan that adds up. It is possible to make a plan that adds up, but it’s not going to be easy. We need to stop saying no and start saying yes. We need to stop the Punch and Judy show and get building.”

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7 Comments so far ↓

  • armstp

    Jim DiPeso,

    You have got nothing to say or show from your side (Republicans), so all you can do is critize Obama’s plan. By the way, Obama is the very first president to have a forward looking green energy policy. Your side has gone no where but backwards.

  • balconesfault

    Getting to 80, then, would mean cleaning up or displacing more than half of the nation’s coal-fired generation.

    That’s assuming that electric power demand remains flat.

    But we’re already talking about a massive new increase in electric power demand if we’re going to be charging a fleet of electric vehicles each night (and your worry about late afternoon summer charging will disappear as smartgrid technology with on-demand pricing becomes the norm in a few years – unless someone NEEDS to be charging during daytime hours, they’re going to end up charging at night when electricity prices will plummet thanks to decreased demand through the rest of the grid, and increased supply at night from wind power).

    So … our population will be growing … our auto fleet will be growing … it’s not outlandish to assume by 2035 that 10% of our automotive consumption will be electric powered.

    Currently we burn about 150 billion gallons gasoline/year for transportation, or more than 5,000 billion MWh equivalent. We consume about 4 billion MWh of generated electrical power.

    Do you see where I’m going with this? Just replacing 10% of our current automotive gasoline consumpti0n with electrical power exceed our current generation.

    So the question isn’t how are we going to displace coal with renewables … it’s what forms of generation we’re going to rely on to double, or more, or electric power generation in America?

    If we do that all via clean energy sources, rather than increasing coal fired power production, it’s Mission Accomplished!

  • corwin613

    The “Left” does not hate nuclear. I support nuclear, but there are obviously some issues that must be addressed: How to dispose of the waste, how to make the reactors as safe as possible, the use of water, and national security are my big concerns. If these can be worked into any plan, I am perfectly willing to support wider use. But we should also remember that fissionable material is itself a limited resource that will not last forever. By reprocessing the uranium, we would have a much greater supply, as well as reduce the waste.

  • armstp


    The biggest problem with nuclear, other then they are a environmental disaster, is that the technology costs too much. Private investors will not invest in nuclear technology unless there are massive subsidies from the government and tax payers. Obama just gave the go ahead to build the first nuclear reactor in over 30 years in the U.S., but he had to pony up $8.3 billion of tax payer money to get it started.


  • ggore

    It’s said that nuclear power is too expensive, yet in the rest of the world there are hundreds of nuclear power plants generating power and more on the drawing board.

    It’s said that we can’t do cross-country high-speed rail, it’s too expensive, yet in the rest of the world there are dozens of high-speec rail projects either built, being built, or on the drawing boards.

    It’s said we can’t do solar or wind or whatever, it’s too expensive, yet in the rest of the world there are plants already operating and wind generation facilities being built at a fantastic rate of speed, and other countries well on their way to self-sufficiency in their power needs.

    Just how is the rest of the world managing to do all this without all the impending “doom” we have been hearing about from the Republicans for the past couple of months? I wish someone woul explain it.

    The US is becoming a backwater, plain & simple. We will be full of non-goods-producing, hunkered-down in our little cave-people in short order if we continue on this current path.

  • JohnD

    The best way for the USA to “go green” with renewable energy is also by far the cheapest way – and that is to provide the necessary funding for basic research, particularly on solar energy (e.g., photvoltaics). Focus on moving the technology forward – looking for breakthroughs and broad advances – for example, in areas such as advanced materials. Do this, rather than subsidizing the less advanced and uneconomical green technologies of today.

    Advancing the science and technology is the best way of ensuring that not only the USA “goes green” but also the developing countries, particularly India and China, which are currently building numerous coal plants. What the USA or anyone else does is immaterial if these countries keep on building all those coal plants – that would swamp everything else.

    Solar is probably the best bet, as the sun is the ultimate source of power, and the USA has abundant sunshine in the southwest. Solar is also the way to go from the viewpoint of national security, for the simple reason that various unstable or unfriendly countries in the Middle East and South Asia have abundant sunshine – huge amounts of it. If research brings down the cost of solar to less than nuclear, then these countries could never claim that their nuclear power programs were “peaceful”. If this were the case today – if solar had been a priority all along – then Iran would be unable to argue that its nuclear program is “peaceful” and that it had a “right” to nuclear power. I would much rather see solar power plants rather than nuclear reactors all across the Middle East – if reactors become numerous there, then al Qaeda will have many opportunities to get their hands on radioactive bomb-making materials.

  • greg_barton

    China just started a molten salt nuclear reactor project:

    The guy leading up the project is the son of a former president of the PRC. Methinks it’ll happen. :)