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.”