“Electricity is the foundation of modern civilization.”
As you read this article, you may wonder if I have factored in the continued advancements of electrical energy efficiency in homes, office buildings, retail establishments, and industrial plants. More efficient appliances, better building design and insulation, improved heating and air conditioning systems, and the like. I have not.
I hope the government estimates of how much electrical energy this nation will need in the future (see below) are on the high side, but one thing is clear for the present. When it comes to a sufficient supply of electrical energy, we’re going the wrong way.
“Considering this past winter’s severe cold and Polar Vortex,” Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski noted at a Senate hearing that the U.S. electrical system was at its limits. “Eight-nine percent of the coal electricity capacity that is due to go offline was utilized as that backup to meet the demand this winter,” Murkowski said. (Translation: the next time regions of the U.S. experience a bitterly cold winter such as occurred in the upper Midwest and Northeast in 2013-2014, it’s blackout and/or brownout time for tens of millions of people. Same rationale applies to an unseasonably hot summer.)
Not the time for a blackout.
Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken argues this is no laughing matter. “We need state flexibility in addressing those kind of issues, especially on the new rules that the EPA will make on existing coal fire plants,” he said. “We’re talking about grid security — it’s a serious issue.”
“Add the fact that EPA is proposing new source performance standard, what this is going to do will effectively ban the construction of any new coal plants,” West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin said. “How do we keep the lights on so people’s lives will not be in danger?”
There you have it. Three U.S. senators, who sit on the liberal left (Franken), the center (Manchin), and the conservative right (Murkowski) in the political spectrum, are in lockstep agreement on the issue of electrical energy in this nation vis a vis the coal industry.
Let’s crunch some numbers. According to Reuters, since 2008, 15,000 megawatts of electricity has been lost from coal-fired power plants that shut down because they couldn’t afford to, or simply couldn’t, meet increasingly stringent EPA standards of air pollution. The damage doesn’t end there. According to the Associated Press, 204 more coal plants across 25 states are scheduled to be shut down by the end of 2015, and that will amount to an additional 31,000 megawatts of electrical power lost. That’s equivalent to shutting down the entire electricity supply of Ohio.
A grand total of 46,000 megawatts of base load power has, or soon will, disappear (base load power is available 24/7/365). Whoosh. Gone. To put that number in perspective, the LARGEST POWER PLANT IN THE UNITED STATES is the Palo Verde Nuclear Plant west of Phoenix, Arizona which has a capacity of 3,900 megawatts of power and serves millions of customers from California to Texas. Thus, the EPA has forced, through irrational policy, the elimination of the equivalent of more than 11 Palo Verde power plants.
The U.S. currently has a total electrical power output of ca 1,000,000 megawatts. In 2009, the Energy Information Agency estimated that, in the next 30 years, we will need to ADD 325,000 megawatts to the grid to satisfy demand from population and business growth. But if we already have or are about to SUBTRACT 46,000 megawatts, that figure has just jumped to 371,000 megawatts, which is approaching the power output of 100 Palo Verde nuclear power plants.
Let’s use another “green power” example, this time hydroelectric. The Grand Coulee Dam in Washington is the U.S.’s second largest power plant with a 3,600 megawatt output. So, we will need 100 MORE Grand Coulee Dams to meet future demand. One big problem. The U.S. has tapped out all of its useful sources of hydroelectric power. All major dams that can be built, have been built. Hydroelectric power if off the table. Not an option.
Not available anymore.
So, where is all that new electrical power going to come from? Most energy experts say natural gas, which produces 2/3 of the air pollutants of a coal-powered plant, and nuclear, which produces zero air pollutants. None. Just steam aka water vapor. However, there are glitches to both natural gas and nuclear.
The availability of natural gas in the U.S. is increasing rapidly, but mining it through fracking operations is still politically contentious. The state of Ohio just suspended fracking operations around the city of Youngstown for its “suspected” relationship to recent very minor (no damage) earthquakes in that area. Nuclear? The technology for building a super-safe nuclear reactor producing over 1,100 megawatts of power is on the table, approved by the Atomic Energy Commission, and ready to build (a few are being built in South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia). But let’s face reality. The nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima have created a huge negative public and political perception problem.
And here’s where any major source of future electrical power WON’T come from, at least in the foreseeable future: solar and wind. Currently, about 5% of the power (50,000 megawatts) produced in the U.S. is solar and wind, with wind turbines producing the vast majority. Solar is less than 1% of our national power and still hyper-expensive on a commercial scale. Example. The largest solar power plant in the U.S. is the newly-opened Ivanpah Solar System in California’s Mojave Desert. Output: ca 400 megawatts. Cost: $2.2 billion ($1.6 billion came from a government loan). Yikes. In addition to the fact that Ivanpah is functional only 31% of the time as opposed to a base load plant’s functionality of 100%, it sprawls out over 4,000 acres. Wind farms are cheaper and consume much less space, but they too have a huge problem when it comes to functionality. And it’s worse than solar. Wind farms are functional, on average, 25% of the time. The best science in the world can’t stop the sun from setting or winds calming down.
Sorry, solar is not ready for prime time.
Neither is wind.
Which brings us back to natural gas and nuclear as the only two viable options for power sources in the foreseeable future. Nothing else is on the table, including pipe dreams such as thorium salt reactors and tidal power, both theories of which have been around for decades and have gotten nowhere.
So where does that leave this nation? In three words, “natural gas, nuclear.” That’s it. You want the lights to come on when you flip the switch, then you have no other choice. You want cleaner air, then you have no other choice. You want clean water to come out of the faucet when you turn on the spigot, then you have no other choice (people tend to forget that water and waste treatment plants need a lot electrical power to operate, and so do water wells and water pumping stations). The only way to a reliable and secure supply of electrical energy is to build as many natural gas and nuclear power plants as fast as they are needed. And stop shutting down coal-fired plants until they’re fully replaced by one of those two sources.
We have about 30 years to come up with more than 370,000 megawatts of new electrical power. Let’s get started by slowing down the closure of coal plants while we build new and replacement plants. The next cold winter OR HOT SUMMER demands it. This is the last thing you want to see or experience on a regular basis.