The Energy Problem

A former coal-fired power plant in the Canadian Province of Ontario was decommissioned a few years ago and has been mostly dismantled. The site, called Nanticoke, is now home to a solar facility. The new power plant consists of 192,431 solar panels and produces 44 megawatts (MW) of electricity. The old coal plant, at full capacity, produced 4000 megawatts (MW).

Using coal to produce energy has a myriad of drawbacks of course, from the massive air pollution to the degradation of the soils and waterways in places where coal is mined. So replacing coal-burning power with cleaner sources is a good thing.

But 4000 MW is a hell of a lot more than 44 MW! How did Ontario deal with this rather significant shortfall? For one thing technological improvements in the transmission of electricity and the devices that heat, light, and cool our homes have resulted in greater efficiency. Even with growing populations we can do more with less. But that’s not enough.

It turns out that Ontario is heavily invested in nuclear energy. Over half of the electricity generated in the province comes from the Pickering and Darlington Nuclear Power Stations. Their combined capacity is about 6600 MW.

The Green New Deal seems mostly agnostic on the subject of nuclear power. Or maybe that’s not the right word—perhaps “confused” would be better. Right now the world gets about 10% of its electricity from the atom, and in the States the figure is about 20%. How much do we get from solar? About 2% overall.

The transition to “clean” and “carbon-free” or “carbon-neutral” sources of energy will require enormous investments in our existing energy sources. Manufacturing solar panels, building wind turbines, improving efficiency in our buildings, and all the other things we need to do take energy. LOTS of energy. The terrible dilemma we face is that we are going to have to drill for lots more oil and gas and burn lots more fossil fuels in order to wean ourselves off these sources!

Cheap energy is our primary source of wealth. Without abundant, available energy, our economy cannot create the foodstuffs, manufactured goods, and other things like a transportation infrastructure that we must have in order to live. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are dependent on access, by everyone, to adequate sources of energy. And that’s not just for Americans. Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world want a better life, one that they see Americans enjoying. And we enjoy those things because of our energy system which supplies us with inexpensive electricity as well as affordable fuels.

Humans use about 20,000 terawatts (TW) of electricity per year. That’s 20,000,000 gigawatts (GW) or 20,000,000,000 megawatts (MW). Note that this is just ELECTRICITY consumption, not total energy use! (That 6600 MW from the Ontario nuclear plants would be 6.6 GW and 0.0066 TW.) Combustible fuels (coal, oil, natural gas, biofuels, etc.) account for 2/3 of the world’s electrical generation.

The most optimistic estimates for solar energy project to a possible 2700 TW by 2030. That’s 13.5% of current consumption. Where’s the rest supposed to come from?

There are no simple solutions to the energy problem.