There is a looming electricity crisis that is about to overtake the United States. While our demand for electricity continues to increase due to construction, computers (data centers take up a significant portion of electricity demand), and potentially even electric cars, essentially no new “base load” supply of electrical generation is being added to the market. We do get the occasional wind farm or solar or geothermal source of energy, and a bit of conservation is on the rise, but these tiny dents in supply and demand, respectively, don’t even begin to cover growth much less the fact that many electricity plants are aging and will face retirement in the future. Due to the long lead times involved with getting a new plant on line (at LEAST 5-10 years in the case of large base load coal or nuclear plants, best case), our problem is that we aren’t doing anything NOW to head off the crisis LATER, when we won’t have any options at all. If you are interested in any background or more detailed analysis of the energy situation and in particular our Illinois issues go here to see the posts I have written on this topic.
Recently I was in London and I noted a similar situation was emerging in that country. Unlike the US, where conservation measures are still haphazard and sporadic, London seemed to have “smart” meters installed in many hotels (like I noted in Italy) and the entire culture embraces the “concept” at least of saving energy.
As in the US, however, the situation in Britain is going to be desperate soon. This graph from the April 5, 2008 issue of the Economist shows in a great, simple diagram how the declining use of coal and nuclear power is going to cause an energy crisis in Britain. Britain, like the US, has an ample supply of coal and can import much more from reliable allies like Australia, and has been a pioneer of nuclear power technology and is quite capable of building and operating these plants. While Britain does have North Sea natural gas available, the supply is declining and has other uses (industrial, heating) beyond power generation.
The problem is that the NIMBY crowd in England is even fiercer than those of the US; while the chances of building any nuclear or coal plants in the US will fade if the Democrats take the White House in November, even the most liberal US Democrat seems like Attila the Hun compared to anyone in Europe when it comes to greenhouse gases and pollution.
Even today power is short, in particular in London. The situation will grow more dire as the years go by and localized plants are decommissioned. It is unimaginable that new sources of serious generation will be built anywhere near London or the left would go bonkers. The likeliest courses of action is that over time businesses that aren’t forced to be localized (retail, financial services) will bolt London for other parts of the country where the power situation isn’t so terrible. Local businesses will likely start to rely more and more heavily on backup power as the grid becomes more unreliable (on peak days it can fail overall, but it is more likely to just become less reliable over the years).
I don’t know how people can go on consuming electricity and products that require electricity and just pretend that adding new generation isn’t an option; while conservation is useful and perhaps even some localized elements like solar can help they aren’t sufficient for a serious, first world economy unless rotating blackouts a la Nigeria are viewed as OK. Of the options, nuclear emits the least greenhouse gases and new, modern coal plants are quite efficient and emit far less noxious compounds than their predecessors. While these 2 options clearly are not without flaws, they have to be part of the solution else reliability will just crater over time and inefficient local solutions will have to jump to the front.
I am somber on any hope that generation will be built; today the water situation in London is already a mess. The pipes are so old in central London that they can’t turn up the pressure or water will just leak out everywhere; thus water pressure is generally poor. Houses and businesses have appliances that bring in water and basically store it locally so that they have pressure when you turn on the tap; this refills after you turn off the water so that you have some capacity available on notice.
Is this efficient? No. But this is the likely outcome for energy, too. The central model is dying, piece by piece, thanks to weak government leaders and desperate NIMBY opposition. Nothing really is coming up in its place except for jerry-rigged solutions, higher prices, and some modest conservation & renewable solutions which aren’t economic on a grand scale.
Meanwhile, the coal we aren’t using here is being burned left and right in China and India and across the developing world, without most of the “clean” technology that we take for granted here. It is hard for me to see what is actually being accomplished as we move our industry that requires energy overseas, where they make dirty power and become industrial powerhouses and we fade into irrelevance in the developed world for our failure to come to grips with this situation.
Cross posted at LITGM