Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
A couple months ago I wrote a post called “Bright Green Impossibilities“. In it, I showed the impossibility of converting all global energy to zero-CO2-emission fuels by 2050. But what about a simpler task? A number of US states have committed to converting, not total energy but just electricity, to zero-emission fuels by 2040. How tough can that be?
Let me start by looking at the history of US electrical generation. Figure 1 shows US electrical generation from 1985 to 2019 by fuel source.
Figure 1. US electrical generation by fuel source.
From that, it doesn’t look too hard. After all, you can see that renewables (orange) are increasing.
But when we look at it by percentage of generation by fossil versus zero-emission fuel sources, we find a curious thing:
Figure 2. US Generation by type of fuel, zero-emission and fossil fuels. Zero-emission generation is by wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and nuclear.
Doesn’t look so easy now. In fact, if we continue at the rate of change since 2010, it will take 75 years to get to zero-emissions …
But wait, as they say on TV, there’s more. As of 2019, the US was using 4,400 terawatt-hours of electricity per year.
There is also a big push to go to electric vehicles … and that will require more electricity. The current US generating capacity is about 1,000 gigawatts (GW), of which about 675 gigawatts (GW) is fossil-fueled. By 2040, the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimates we’ll need about 1500 GW of generating capacity. This means we’ll need another 500 GW of new generating capacity to get to 1,500 GW, plus 675 GW more to replace existing fossil capacity. That’s 1,175 GW of new generating capacity needed by 2040.
As Texas has just proven beyond doubt, no matter if we supply part of this with wind or solar, we’ll need 100% backup. Nuclear is not ideal for this, but the new generation of reactors are said to be able to respond quickly enough to balance out the load when wind and solar fail. So either way we’ll need about 1,175 GW of new nuclear power by 2040 … and there are about 975 weeks until 2040.
Now, typically it takes about ten years to find a site, get the permits and licenses, overcome the objections, construct, test, connect to the grid, and commission a new nuclear power plant. Figure 3 shows an overview of that whole process.
Figure 3. Typical nuclear plant timeline, from initial study to final startup. SOURCE.
But we don’t have ten years per nuclear plant. With only 975 weeks until 2040, and the need for 1,175 GW of new CO2-free generating capacity by 2040, we’ll need to create a feasibility study, find and survey a site, obtain the licenses, design, purchase, construct, excavate, install, test, and commission a 1.2-gigawatt nuclear power plant every single week for 975 weeks in a row until 2040.
Anyone who believes that that lovely green fantasy can actually be completed out here in the real world, well, I want some of whatever green stuff they’re smoking.
And bear in mind, that’s just electricity. It doesn’t include the huge amount of fossil fuel used directly by industry, and for transportation, and for space heating …
TL;DR version? 100% CO2-free electricity by 2040? Can’t. Be. Done. Fuggeddaboutit. Not. Possible.
My very best to all,
The Customary: If you are commenting please quote the exact words you are discussing, so we can all be clear on exactly what you are referring to.
An Expected Objection: I suspect some folks will say, “We need another 500 gigawatts of generating capacity even if we don’t go CO2-free … how is that going to be possible?”
It will be possible, albeit difficult, because it is infinitely easier to add another gas-fired generator to an existing generating station than it is to add a new nuclear plant. First, the permitting process is far simpler. Second, the site requirements have obviously already been met because there’s a power plant there already. Third, the infrastructure in the way of power lines, switching stations and the like is already in place, and only needs expansion rather than creation de novo.
This is not to say it will be easy, particularly with the foolishness of the proposed bans on fossil-fueled cars and fossil-heated homes and offices. Those unrealistic goals will make even fossil-fueled expansion of electric generation a huge challenge.
But it will be doable.