The word “whence” is a Middle English term that means “from where”. Use of this word has the advantage of eliminating dangling prepositions (as in: Where does electricity come from?) and avoidance of sounding like Yoda (Comes from where, electricity does?).
A great many people have the idea that it is possible to eliminate “fossil fuels” and nuclear power from our energy supplies and that “electricity” is the means by which that will be accomplished. That “Renewable Ideal” is founded upon a grand misconception and a stunning lack of common sense – as will become apparent while we contemplate this question: “Whence Electricity?”.
The Reality as it Exists (2016)
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory does a survey of US energy use every year. The results are published in a flow chart that requires considerable snaky-eyed concentration to understand. But, I eyed the 2016 Livermore data for you to make this simple pie-chart of electricity in percentage by source:
All graphs are generated by the author and the numbers are from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories
Note: For purposes of this report, commercial sources of energy are capitalized – as in the graph above.
The most obvious lesson here is that Coal, Natural Gas and Nuclear power (with a tiny bit of Petroleum) provide the vast majority – some eighty five percent – of electric generation in the US. The remaining 15% that might be considered to be “environmentally correct” – we will refer to them as “Renewables”.
If you did not know this before, you will be further surprised that the amount of “Fossil Fuel” (and Nuclear) to be replaced in the electric grid is just the beginning of the task.
There are some limitations that characterize the sources called “Renewables” that must be considered.
Hydro-Electric Generation (Hydro)
Hydro is a simple, inexpensive and reliable source of electricity that – unfortunately – has lost its “Green Credentials”. Environmental “wisdom” doesn’t like those dams on rivers and they are now “all-in” on tearing them down. Hydro is dwindling slowly and can be expected to die a slow, lingering death by Green politics. You may think of Hydro as “Renewable” and that’s fine. If you want to claim it is reliable, this reporter will disagree. Your Humble Narrator once visited his in-laws in Bogota, Columbia (he’s a diplomat). They had rolling black-outs because their Hydro projects were suffering from an extended drought (and funds for electrical development that somehow were mis-directed to politicians’ pockets). Blind luck that the Bogota (La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora, Santa Fe de Bogota) has a climate mild enough to do without power at home for 8 hours. Kerosene lamps, candles and propane stoves were enough to get by. Business is another matter and the streets of the Capital were filled with gasoline generators running furiously outside the buildings and snaky extension cords going inside. Hydro requires back-up – even if ad-hoc.
The source of Biomass in electricity generation is mostly industrial and agricultural waste that is burned to generate electricity. Those sources exist because engineers are making efficient use of what would otherwise be an expense nuisance. Most of those opportunities have already been realized, but you may count on that increasing as industry itself expands. Ethanol and biodiesel are generally not used to generate electricity but do make up a small percentage of transportation fuel (which we have not addressed in this electric discussion).
The U.S. has the most Geothermal generation of any country and it is still quite small when compared to the total. It could be expanded, but since it typically involves drilling holes in the Earth, fracturing and using groundwater for a working fluid (unlike petroleum operations), it is also in danger of losing its “Green Credentials”.
Wind is currently subsidized by tax credits and production mandates which make them quite profitable to build. There are major windfarms now under construction. This author has seen fields of hundreds of turbines now being erected in Texas and Kansas – as well as a vast staging yard with parts for hundreds more. Wind provides the dominant part of growth in Renewable generation.
Photoelectric and solar-furnace generation is small but growing, though not as quickly as Wind.
Wind and Solar provide pretty much the only significant growth in Renewables. And that growth amounts to: 0.29 Quadrillion BTUs per year. You see that growth rate graphed as a vertical green bar (i.e., flat green square) next to the orange bar representing 2016 total Conventional electricity capability that the Renewable Ideal would have us replace.
To examine what this “replacement” will require, we will assume that
- Electric Demand will not increase (except for all that transportation now fueled by Petroleum).
- That ONLY Gasoline and Natural Gas will be replaced. This allows us to avoid the obvious problems in making electric airplanes, trains and ships. The alert reader will point out that ships and trains already are propelled by electric motors. And, the author will point out that those vehicles get their electricity by burning Diesel fuel.
- That Wind and Solar plants either last forever or for 50 years (both are unrealistically long).
The graph below shows the timeline for replacement of the Conventional Electric Generation (orange line) and for replacement of both that and the Gasoline and Natural Gas transportation.
The orange line represents total “Conventional” electric generation for 2016 and we have assumed that will not increase. The yellow line is the total of Conventional electric and Gasoline energy expended in the Transportation sector. We have assumed that neither of these will increase. The green line represents Renewable generation increasing at the same rate as the last two years – when it has been quite actively increasing at unsustainable rates. It is assumed that Renewable installations last forever.
In that case, full replacement of Conventional generation can be had by 2109 and replacement of that plus Gasoline and Natural Gas by 2169.
If – on the other hand – it is assumed that such installations last 50 years (a bit more reasonable, but again, overly generous) the years of both “replacement” points can be changed to “never” – as indicated by the blue curve.
There is More
Wind and Solar – which make up the Lion’s share of Renewable growth – are intermittent by their very nature. Solar interruptions are mostly as predictable as the sunset and cause about a 60% full-blown outage every single day. Wind on the other hand, can fail you at any moment – either by calm or storm. Your Humble Narrator has seen whole wind farms in Wyoming standing idle in the fierce winds that frequent that state. They would have been torn apart in the shifting, gusting conditions if they weren’t locked down.
Intermittent energy sources are dependent on other sources of generation. The most clearly relevant of those others are Coal and Gas. Nuclear has so long been long demonized and over-regulated that it will, at best stay constant, and will be of little help in backing up Wind and Solar.
One might come up with the idea of more Renewables as backup. It does not require much thought to see the flaw in that reasoning.
What that means is that Conventional sources of electricity simply cannot be replaced unless you can convince every electric customer to live with intermittent service. That did not happen in the aforementioned Bogota example and will not happen here. However, the attempt would make for Gargantuan sales of home generators – make mine a diesel, please.
So, the “All renewable” points in that graph are nothing less that Absolute Fantasy. Wind and Solar must be backed up completely (that is to say 100%) with Fossil Fuels or Nukes!
Even if we imagine that windmills and solar panels last forever – after 90 to 150 years of hideous expense, there will be just as much “non-renewable” electric capacity as before. The difference will be that the non-renewable plants will mostly be wastefully idling, waiting for the Sun to go down or the winds to calm.
P.S. Some of you are saying, “What about batteries, then?”
First off, you sound like Brits.
Second, I will address this in “Around Robin Hood’s Barn in an Electric Car – Part Two”
For more on US energy use – including non-electric consumption – see my articles called Changing Energy Use in the United States. and An Ill Wind