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.

9 thoughts on “The Energy Problem

    • I think there is political will, as evidenced by the Green New Deal. (It’s hard for me to get excited about something so vague and un-focused, unfortunately.) And the states are doing a lot, whether it is good or not is still debatable, but there is certainly political will in WA, OR, CA and other places. DT won’t be around forever. And things like coal being phased out are happening regardless of his meddling.

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  1. This guy from Goldman Sachs has this to say about oil, renewables, and climate change:

    The global trend toward cleaner energy is clearly seen as a long-term headwind for the oil industry but experts like Della Vigna note that demand for oil remains robust, particularly among developing economies.

    “We hear a lot of stories of long-term substitution of oil demand with electricity but it’s going to take a long time. And in the meantime, demand remains robust, particularly in the emerging markets which continue to buy a lot of crude.”

    Goldman Sachs released equity research on energy assets in March which it said showed “tangible evidence that decarbonization is transforming the structure of the energy market into a concentrated industry with high barriers to entry through tightening funding and rising risk premium.”

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    • Depends. Solar power might just be more appropriate for a distributed approach. Every damn roof top in Ca and Az!

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  2. It will require a multi-pronged approach to get off fossil fuels, and we have no alternative but to do so. Yes it will be disruptive to the economy, but the matter is urgent. We cannot hope to survive if we continue or present course. Renewal power sources such as wind and solar are most certainly part of the solution. As are hydro-electric, geo thermal, and possibly nuclear. Ontario not really the best location for a solar array, so the example isn’t really illustrative of the best case scenario for solar. However there are other possibilities. Conservation measures, co-generation and carbon capture, all have a role to play. We have got to get going, or we’re up to our necks in doo-doo!

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    • Agreed. It will take a multi-pronged approach. I think, however, that this transformation will demand a huge commitment from existing energy sources. That is, we’ll need all the hydrocarbons we can get our hands on in order to build this Green New Deal and make it work! Not to mention that hydrocarbons will still be in demand for a long time, even if combustible fuels get replaced by other energy sources, because our society depends on those chemical products (plastics, pharmaceuticals, agro-chemicals, inks/dyes, adhesives, tires, roads, you name it).

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  3. “Goldman Sachs released equity research on energy assets in March which it said showed ‘tangible evidence that decarbonization is transforming the structure of the energy market into a concentrated industry with high barriers to entry through tightening funding and rising risk premium.'”

    This is true for all regulation. I participated in it for years.

    And oil companies have been trying to plan for a lower hydrocarbon future for years. What do you think is behind BP’s logo, now 20+ years old, that looks like a flower? It’s not just greenwashing, they want to remain in the business of supplying energy, even if it is not derived from oil. From today’s NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/07/business/energy-environment/climate-change-carbon-engineering.html

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    • Yeah, the oil companies understand the energy problem!

      I remember when the micro-brewery thing happened. Eventually, only a small percentage of those companies made it (mostly by getting bigger), and the major breweries gobbled some up as well as made products for the “more discerning” beer drinker. Now the only small micros left are local, with a local clientele. The rest are part of larger consortia, owned by billionaires, etc.

      Solar and wind and etc. can provide local entities with micro-grids, grid resilience, and power in places outside the reach of the electrical grid, but can’t supplant the big centralized power stations. Only the BIG companies have the capital (and labor force and expertise) to integrate all the forms of energy and use them to supply whole countries, especially developing countries that need massive infrastructure investments.

      In the Permian basin where all the Texas fracked oil comes from the majors are taking over and the small guys are selling out. Most of those companies have good cash flow but huge debt. The majors can absorb the debts, cut costs with economies of scale, and make some money even as the production rates decline.

      And these majors (BP, Total, Exxon, Shell, etc.) are just as invested in exploration for new oil and gas plays as they are in gearing up for The Age of Renewables. They have all re-branded themselves as “energy” companies.

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