Tuesday, March 22, 2011

True or False: Renewable Energy Can Replace Nuclear and Fossil Fuels!

Many insist that renewable energy can replace coal, gas, and/or nuclear plants.  My first response to this declaration is to ask, by when?  Next decade?  Someday in the distant future?

Before answering those questions, please consider two sets of facts:

1. Coal (45%), gas (24%) and nuclear plants (20%) today provide 89% of America's electric power, with oil another 1%.  Including large hydro, renewable energy provides 10% of our power.  Nothing to sneeze at all but now just one-tenth of our total power.  See March 19th Posting Key Power Production Facts About Coal, Natural Gas, Nuclear, and Renewables.

2. Also our power production or demand will probably increase about 10% by 2021.  Power production escalated 20% since 1996.  It  declined from 2007 levels in 2008 and 2009.  But power production increased in 2010 to 2007 levels. It is growing again.

So could renewables replace all of coal, gas and/or nuclear power within 10 years? Or 20 years?  As sure as the sun comes up in the morning, the answer is: "no; renewables cannot replace the 90% of power now coming from coal, gas, and nuclear within 10 years or 20 years." 

But renewable energy can do a lot and will.  So here is a different question:

Can and will renewables increase from the current 10% of electric power supply to 20% in 10 years?

Renewables can and I think will provide 20% of our power in about 10 years.  Why?   Renewable energy normally has no fuel costs and capital costs are falling sharply, especially for solar but also wind.

Wind power costs are down, with capital costs $2,500 per kilowatt. Projects can be financed with power purchase agreements at an attractive 5.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Solar total costs (equipment plus installation) are down to $3.50 per watt for larger projects in Pennsylvania and are falling literally every month.

Attractive hydro opportunities exist around the country.  Many more biogas projects are possible at landfills, sewer plants, and at farms.   So growth for renewables will occur.  But how much?

If renewable energy goes from 10% to 20% of all power provided in the United States in the next decade, it would have had an excellent decade.  Achieving that goal would require a trippling of non-hydro renewables, going from 4% now to 12% of total supply.  It would require too a renaissance in hydro.

A doubling of all renewable sources from 10% now to 20% a decade later would mean that renewable energy effectively met all of the load growth (10%) in the USA plus a bit more over the next decade.  Approximately $600 billion over a decade or $60 billion per year of private investment would be required. 

Even after a tremendous growth decade for renewable energy, 80% of electricity would be coming from a mix of coal, gas, and nuclear.  Using less gas means more coal and/or nuclear.  Less nuclear means more gas and/or coal.  Less coal means more gas and/or nuclear.  That also is our world for the next 10 years and longer. 

Technology can and is changing that world but not at the speed of light.


  1. I can't imagine a future for some time where there is no coal or oil or gas power, but I could imagine a world where -- if we shifted the massive subsidies to all those other industries, we could start building renewables really fast.

    The Coal Industry is right that sometimes the wind doesn't blow and the sky is cloudy, but that's not much of a problem. We don't completely mothball our existing capacity, we keep it running real, real low and if electricity storage capacity runs out we temporarily ramp up fossil fuel energy supply.

    But the real low hanging fruit is energy efficiency. I'm surprised you haven't covered the California miracle on here. To me, that's the true amazing story of energy technology, and it started in the 60s.

  2. Brady:

    Storage technology is innovating and improving. Batteries are getting better but still have a long way to go to power economically buildings. For cars, batteries have also made real jumps but have more innovation necessary to compete on cost head to head with the internal combustion engine.

    Some solar thermal plants already have an ability to dispatch power for considerable portions of the time when the sun does not shine.

    Going from 4% non-hydro renewables to 12% or 14% in 10 years will require a much faster deployment of renewables than has taken place up to now. Wind provides about 2% of US power and it takes 40,000 megawatts of wind capacity to do that. If wind were the renewable technology that provided the increase from 10% now to 20% a decade from now, the country would have to build 200,000 megawatts of wind in the next 10 years or 20,000 per year. Our record year to date was about 10,000 megawatts.

    It won't be all wind. But the above gives an idea of just how aggressive going from 10% to 20% is.

    You are right tht policies will affect the future of renewables. They are also critical to new nuclear plants. And tax policies and other ones impact fossil fuels.

    But more important is cutting the costs of renewables and what has been done already to cut their costs is impressive.

    Going from 10% to 20% would not even be a political/economic possibility but for the large fall in costs of renewables.

    Wind and solar industries especially have driven down their costs, with solar certain to decline much further of the next 5 and 10 years.

  3. Why is this a fact: "our power production or demand will probably increase about 10% by 2021."?

    That proposition leaves untouched the possibility that the environmental movement will gain steam in the coming decade and that our demand could decrease...which surely it must do if the planet is to survive climate change and other environmental catastrophes.