“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.




15 thoughts on “WE’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY”

  1. Says everything I have to say, except that gas is going to be off the menu sooner than we are being led to believe.

    The ‘easy’ gas is gone and we are left with what we can get by hydrofracturing. Given the relatively low yields and rapid depletion rates of these wells, we can expect natural gas to be in steep depletion within 20 years, if not less. Those who say we have “plenty” of gas are not considering what an increase in consumption of 5% every year will do to our supplies, but the rule of 72 works the same way it does with the compounding interest on your credit card balances.

    Nuclear is really all we have.

  2. I agree with Chicago in that the amount of natural gas reserves we reportedly have under us is a misleading number.

    Two minor quibble: First, you mentioned Grand Coulee Dam, then posted a picture of Hoover Dam.

    Secondly, the Atomic Energy Commission went away back in 1974. The NRC is the government entity that regulates commercial nuclear power in the U.S.

    More and more I think that at some point whomever is in charge of things will come to the conclusion that there needs to simply be a lot less people. No need to build all these new plants if you could reduce the population by 50% or more.

  3. I think oil, and more specifically liquid fuel, is the substrate on which our civilization is built. Although we will collapse without either electricity or oil. I switched from nuclear engineering to electrical and computer engineering back in the late 70s. Boy was that a good decision at the time. I believe nuclear will make a comeback out of necessity. But uranium just like all other natural resources will become scarce. The only other alternative is harnessing the binding energy in matter in some other way than we currently are. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that though. I 100% agree on your two choices for generating electricity given our options at this point in time. I wonder what options China will take. Like Eugene said, solid post!

  4. Justsaying is not as stupid as I thought.I still think you are a lying piece of shit and a dick sucking fag but you are right about nuclear power.Nuclear power is the cleanest ,safest and most efficient type of energy production we have.We need about 100 new plants to replace the older ones.This is what happens when you put socialist and communists in charge of the EPA or any other position of authority.They always work to undermine the nation .

  5. “Two minor quibble(s): First, you mentioned Grand Coulee Dam, then posted a picture of Hoover Dam. Secondly, the Atomic Energy Commission went away back in 1974. The NRC is the government entity that regulates commercial nuclear power in the U.S.”

    I couldn’t get an image of the Grand Coulee Dam to post in WordPress. Every one I tried turned into an “x” box, so I just gave up and posted a pic of the Hoover Dam.

    You are correct about the AEC. I should have said NRC.

  6. “But uranium just like all other natural resources will become scarce.”

    Not as scarce as you think. There are plentiful supplies in Australia and Canada, two of our most reliable allies and trading partners.

    There are also some excellent deposits in the U.S., particularly in Arizona and Utah. The freakin’ federal government is doing an excellent job of BLOCKING mining for uranium, though. And all with the backing and support of the usual suspects: the EPA, its fellow travelers in the nihilist environmental organizations, and sympathetic judges in the federal court system.

  7. I’m all for nuclear, except for the fact that it’s run by the government. Chernobyl–plant run by incompetent bureaucrats, results in nuclear disaster. Tepco, a subsidiary of the government, results in a nuclear disaster. Three Mile Island, run by incompetent idiots, results in a nuclear disaster.

    Nuclear plants are so heavily regulated by incompetent government drones that every plant is a disaster waiting to happen. Everything the government touches and regulates is degraded, corrupt, and run by people that couldn’t get a job in the private sector, were in the bottom half of their class, and were the imbeciles everyone hated and felt sorry for. Well, they got jobs in government, of course, and are now responsible for people’s lives, especially in regards to the tremendous danger posed by nuclear power.

    The human race will one day be wiped out, not because of disaster or God, but by incompetent, corrupt bureaucrats mis-managing our resources. Until such time as the incompetent government is taken out of the nuclear equation, it will never be safe and should never be used. Put competent people in charge of nuclear power, and it would be the cheapest, cleanest source of power we have access to.

  8. That picture is the Hoover Dam, not the Grand Coulee Dam. Here’s the Grand Coulee:


    As to the Hoover Dam, imminent disaster could be in store for Los Angeles and Las Vegas:

    “Faced with the shortage, federal authorities this year will for the first time decrease the amount of water that flows into Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, from Lake Powell 180 miles upstream. That will reduce even more the level of Lake Mead, a crucial source of water for cities from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and for millions of acres of farmland.

    Reclamation officials say there is a 50-50 chance that by 2015, Lake Mead’s water will be rationed to states downstream. That, too, has never happened before.”

    “If Lake Mead goes below elevation 1,000” — 1,000 feet above sea level — “we lose any capacity to pump water to serve the municipal needs of seven in 10 people in the state of Nevada,” said John Entsminger, the senior deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.”

  9. @ Rise Up

    Here’s what I said to TJF, who made the same observation as you re the pic of the Hoover Dam.

    “I couldn’t get an image of the Grand Coulee Dam to post in WordPress. Every one I tried turned into an “x” box, so I just gave up and posted a pic of the Hoover Dam.”

  10. “I’m all for nuclear, except for the fact that it’s run by the government. Chernobyl–plant run by incompetent bureaucrats, results in nuclear disaster. Tepco, a subsidiary of the government, results in a nuclear disaster. Three Mile Island, run by incompetent idiots, results in a nuclear disaster.”

    First of all, TMI was NOT a nuclear disaster. It all began with a faulty cooling pump and ended with zero deaths or injuries. It was a nuclear incident. Serious, yes. Disaster, no.

    And you need A LOT more education on the nuclear industry in the U.S. There are government safety guidelines and inspections at nuclear power plants for sure. But the plants themselves are privately owned, and the employees who work there are in the private, not public, sector.

    Do the names of Exelon, Entergy, Duke Energy, and Dominion Resources ring a bell with you? They sure do with me because several of them are in my stock portfolio. They own and operate power plants, including nuclear power plants. And U.S. corporations such and GE and Westinghouse are the ones that have designed Generation Three+ nuclear reactors, not some government agency.

    Now, what were saying about imbeciles in the U.S. nuclear industry?

  11. There are many new designs that are inherently safe. The French have demonstrated that it can be used in a safe manner. If my memory serves me right, I believe there are close to two hundred years of uranium in the ground. There are many assumptions however. That is at the current rate. That also assumes there are liquid fuels to mine it and transport it. As the cost of oil increases, more and more of the uranium will stay put in the ground. For the short term, nuclear energy can keep our party going.

  12. SSS
    Excellent article, balanced productive analysis of our most pressing issue as a Nation. Your position in the article tackles energy issues from a National level versus and individual level, hence your ability to dissmiss solar and wind so easily. I have installed a number of PV systems for clients, both off grid and grid tied, that have solved their energy issues for the time being, the oldest going on 12 years now. Granted, we didnt solve any National energy budgets, or State, or County, or even neighborhood.

    There are a couple of points that bear mention though, for the individuals that have installed PV, a level of democratization has occured, they now own power, and the means to produce power. One who has a 10k system produces enough power for electricity budget, heat, domestic hot water, and enough spare to power an Electric Vehicle for about 100 miles a day. This is progress. Small, admittedly.
    Mighty forces stand against this type of progress, people producing their own power cannot be trusted.
    This is why the Big’s want solar farms, Macro production, and precisely why solar will not work. Solar has the power to save suburbia, most(at least a decent amount) suburban lots have enough insolation to generate enough power(energy, including transportation) for the family that resides there, at current technology levels. Anyway, thanks for the article, it was a good read.

  13. @ ottomatik

    Thanks for the comments. I agree with your thoughts.

    Make no mistake, I am NOT against solar power. I live in Arizona, where solar’s maximum potential can and should be realized.

    But you have it just right. Solar has limitations which should be recognized and applied accordingly, as you suggested. Unfortunately, the federal government picked it as a “winner” and fucked up the market big time. Solyndra, anyone?


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