Renewable timetable is a long shot
by Rolf E. Westgard
Al Gore’s well-intentioned challenge that we produce “100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years” represents a widely held delusion that we can’t afford to harbor.
The delusion is shared by the Minnesota Legislature, which is requiring the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, to get at least 24 percent of its energy from wind by 2020.
One of the most frequently ignored energy issues is the time required to bring forth a major new fuel to the world’s energy supply. Until the mid-19th century, burning wood powered the world. Then coal gradually surpassed wood into the first part of the 20th century. Oil was discovered in the 1860s, but it was a century before it surpassed coal as our largest energy fuel.
Trillions of dollars are now invested in the world’s infrastructure to mine, process and deliver coal, oil and natural gas. As distinguished professor Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba recently put it, “It is delusional to think that the United States can install in a decade wind and solar generating capacity equivalent to that of thermal power plants that took nearly 60 years to construct.”
Texas has three times the name plate wind capacity of any other state — 8,000-plus megawatts. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas manages the Texas electric grids. ERCOT reports that its unpredictable wind farms actually supply just a little more than 700 MW during summer power demand, and provide just 1 percent of Texas’ power needs of about 72,000 MW.
ERCOT’s 2015 forecast still has wind at just more than 1 percent despite plans for many more turbines.
For the United States, the Energy Information Administration is forecasting wind and solar together will supply less than 3 percent of our electric energy in 2020.
On biofuels, the U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 is calling for 15 billion gallons of ethanol from corn by 2022. This will require nearly 40 million prime crop acres dedicated to corn for ethanol to supply just 7 percent of our gasoline consumption.
There is a role in our energy needs for alternatives like wind, solar and biofuels.
But the assumption that they will make a major, near-term supply contribution is distracting us from hard choices involving aggressive conservation, life style changes and major investments in energy efficient public transport.
We do have serious issues with fossil fuel burning. Coal is an increasing environmental problem, and oil supplies may well peak in the near future.
We need to improve energy efficiency with upgraded buildings, high-mileage vehicles and electric public transport.
The way we produce and transport food may have to be recast to avoid transporting so much of it for great distances.
Funding and encouraging these efforts will likely require unpopular but affordable energy taxes, especially on gasoline and coal production.
Above all, we need more realism and less political dreaming as we approach a difficult energy future.
As we look toward our energy horizon today, energy analysts don’t see those multicolored renewable rainbows our political leaders and their lobbyists are depicting.
The primary color out there for analysts who don’t have to run for office is coal-dust black.