We Are So Boned

Bad news, Obama’s Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Jon Wellinghoff, is bad at math

No new nuclear or coal plants may ever be needed in the United States, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said today.
“We may not need any, ever,” Jon Wellinghoff told reporters at a U.S. Energy Association forum.
Wellinghoff said renewables like wind, solar and biomass will provide enough energy to meet baseload capacity and future energy demands. Nuclear and coal plants are too expensive, he added.

Okay, let’s look at the numbers, shall we?

[Update (2009-4-24 4;30pm): When I originally wrote this I accidentally dropped the kilowatt hour from the measurements. So, in the below the U.S. consumes 4.1 trillion kilowatt hours or 4.1 Tkwh. I assume that Wellinghoff below is talking about a maximum wind capacity of 1.0 billion kilowatt hours or 1.0 Tkwh. Corrected typos in red. ]

Wellinghoff says:

There’s enough renewable energy to meet energy demand, Wellinghoff said. “There’s 500 to 700 gigawatts of developable wind throughout the Midwest, all the way to Texas. There’s probably another 200 to 300 gigawatts in Montana and Wyoming that can go West.”

Wow, that’s a thousand billion kilowatt hours or 1.0 trillion kilowatt hours of power just waiting to be captured! Obviously, we can depend on wind power right?

[ Some commenters have suggested that Wellinghof was talking about name plate capacity which is just a summation of the theoretical output of generators. Most people won’t use name plate capacity to estimate windpower potential because, well, the wind doesn’t blow at the same velocity all the time. I am assuming h meant the number of kilowatt hours that windpower could produce.]

Well, no. Right now, the U.S. consumes roughly 4.1 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity and heat from electricity generation. That means that at most wind power will produce a little under 1/4 of our current power needs.


But it gets better. The U.S. gets 19.4% of its power from nuclear power. That comes to 790 Gkwh. These nuclear power plants will start going offline in 2020. That means over 75% of the most optimistic wind power projections will be eaten up just replacing nuclear plants. Coal plants produce 1.99 Tkwh

So, if we don’t build replacement nukes and we start phasing out coal plants we will be 1.7 Tkwh in the hole based just on current consumption. Future consumption is estimated to be anywhere from 5-6 Tkwh  by 2030. If we get a breakthrough that makes electric cars practical, we will see almost a doubling of electricity use by 2030.

Oh, what is the total contribution of all alternative electricity sources? Currently, it’s 2.5% of 4.1 Tkwh, so that comes to 102 Gkwh. In order to just replace nuclear and coal plants in use today we have to increase alternative generation by a factor of 27. We would have to accomplish most of that within twenty to thirty years!

Nothing, absolutely nothing about Obama and the American Left today scares me as much as their delusional energy policy. A modern economy is basically just a mechanism for using electricity to turn dirt into useful things. No electricity, no economy. As I wrote before, the great danger that Obama’s delusions pose is that it’s easy for Obama to cripple coal the, gas and nuclear electricity generation we have now but very difficult, perhaps impossible, to create practical alternative energy sources that meet all the parameters that Obama wants. Obama can wreck our energy grid with the stroke of a pen, and the effects will only become apparent decades in the future. 

We are currently in the grip of a mass delusion about alternative energy, just as we were in the grip of a mass delusion during the ’73-’83 energy crisis. The majority of Americans seem to be buying the innumeric argument that wind and solar can completely replace fossil and nuclear power and can provide for future increases in energy consumption. Obama will find it easy to muster support for crippling the energy grid.

China and other countries will invest in serious, dense, reliable energy such as coal and nuclear while we spend trillions on technology that leaves us starved for energy. 

We are so boned. 

[Update: The World is Powering Up While We are Powering Down ]

24 thoughts on “We Are So Boned”

  1. I think it a scientific travesty to talk of “consumption” of “terawatts.” Power is not consumed; consumption of energy can be denominated in tera-watt-hours–a product of power and time. Maybe the OP needs to speak of “(average) rate of consumption amounting to x terawatts.”

    Who knows? Hoi polloi around Amerika have no clue, in any case, and in our federal government, there are only some 6 legislators trained in science and math, none in the executive (since Taft and Carter!) and none on the Supreme Court, except for Breyer, who have demonstrated any sophistication in math or science.

    We are a country led and largely populated by scientifically illiterate lawyers and touchy-feely humanities majors.

    Darwin help us!

    SCOTUS undergrad majors:
    Roberts: History
    Stevens: English Literature
    Scalia: History
    Kennedy: Economics
    Souter: Philosophy
    Thomas: English
    Ginsburg: Government
    Breyer: Economics
    Alito: Public and International Affairs

  2. What’s needed is some sort of BI tool so that you can pop in your address and your employer’s address, ID which power plants your juice comes from, and get some sort of “when are the brown/black outs going to start” estimate based on whatever future consumption model you think is likely. That way you can figure out when you’re going to lose your job and when you’re going to have to move to warmer climes so that power loss won’t be that dangerous.

    Give people the right information using a simple, understandable interface and they’ll do the right thing and throw the right SOBs out. But nobody seems interested in giving the general populace the right tools.

    Funny that, it could be a money maker.

  3. Taking that seriously for a second, a smart grid would be a good information source for that BI tool but it wouldn’t give you all the data points you need, like regulatory mandates to close a plant by a certain time, etc.

    News organizations could make money off of that but they’re too trapped in the idea of sending out reporters to get ‘stories’ that they can’t see how a BI tool could be used to leverage discrete reporting efforts into many more stories than they currently produce by running stories on the actual data found as well as 2nd, 3rd, and 4th order effects that are going to happen because x,y, or z has changed in a complex system. That’s valuable analysis and stuff the general public is missing in virtually all aspects of their lives.

  4. Uh, Shannon. I think you are referring to the 4.16 TWh (Tera-Watt hours) that the US consumed in 2007. That is a measure of production not a measure of production capacity.

    Annual Energy Review 2007
    Report No. DOE/EIA-0384(2007)
    Posted: June 23, 2008
    Next Update: June 2009

    Table 8.2a Electricity Net Generation: Total (All Sectors), 1949-2007

    If you had plants running 24*365, you would need about 500 GW of generating capacity. That doesn’t happen, and the total generating capacity is almost a TW.

    I cannot tell from the article, but when knowledgeable people discuss wind energy installations, they are usually referring to the “nameplate capacity”, i.e. the productive capacity of the machine, if it run under optimal conditions. Of course optimal conditions occur less than full time, and most wind turbines yield about a third of their capacity.

    The inconstancy of the wind is a byword. The sun sets every evening. Any of these systems needs back-up by fossil fuel generators, mostly natural gas. They also will need systems to store and redistribute energy. All in all we are talking about an incredible expense. Nuclear is far cheaper, and uses far fewer resources.

  5. Right now, the U.S. consumes roughly 4.1 terawatts of electricity and heat from electricity generation.

    Check your units, here. I think you biffed it.

    Renminibi and Robert are right, I think. Per the lower right-hand number on this page (http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/txt/ptb0802a.html) the US generated some 4,160 billion kilowatt hours (i.e. 4,100 terrawatt hours, i.e. 4.1 petawatt hours) of electric energy in 2007. Dividing by 8,760 hours in that year gives overall average power generation of a little under 500 gigawatts.

    Obviously peak capacity has to be higher than that 500 GW average. This page (http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/epat2p2.html) says that nameplate power capacity was a little over 1 terawatt in that same year.

    I still think you’ve got an article here; I expect Wellinghoff’s numbers are delusional. But unless you’ve got some completely different data source that’s better than the DOE I think your numbers are junk as well.

    Could it be that your math’s worse than the Obama administration’s? Man, that’s just sad.

  6. Setbit…it’s hard to believe that peak (total nameplate) capacity is only 2X average 24-hour-a-day use:

    1)diurnal curve–the 24hr number includes midnight to 8 AM when power demand is much lower
    2)seasonality–heavy seasonal influences, especially for air conditioning in summer
    3)regional factors–nameplate capacity in Georgia doesn’t do any good for demand in California
    4)mainenance–units have to be taken out of service occasionally for maintenance, and sometimes just plain break…

  7. Ok, I think I may have messed up the numbers also.

    From AER (linked above) table 8.2a, Total Electricity Net Generation for the US in 2007 was:
    4,159.5 Billion Kilowatt hours = 4.1595 * (10e3) * (10e9) * (10e3) Wh = 4.1595 * 10e15 Wh
    So, Setbit is correct call it 4.2 PWh.

    Dividing the 4.2 * 10e15 Wh by the 8760 hours in a year we get 0.47 10e12 W = 475 GW of generation. The peak summer capacity for generation at ~1 TW is given by Table 8.11b.

  8. Commendations to all for the math, but I think the most interesting comments above are #1 by Jimbino and #2 by TM Lutas. In reverse order:

    I suggest that there is already one metric we can look at: the price of electricity where we live. If it’s cheap, brownouts are unlikely. If it’s expensive, things may be a lot closer to going over the edge.

    I also suggest that we vote with our feet and be prepared to move to places not yet put in jeopardy by the techno-illiterates. Notwithstanding my suggested criterion above, these may not always be easy to identify. I think the authorship and readership of this blog is more aware than most that there is no truly pro-science political party in the US, and that “intellectual,” for the politically active, rarely includes a significant mathematical component.

  9. Setbit…it’s hard to believe that peak (total nameplate) capacity is only 2X average 24-hour-a-day use:

    Yeah, that seems counterintuitive to me as well, but both the links I gave and the one Shannon gave say basically the same thing: a little over 4000 GW hours total energy generation and around 1000 GW total power capacity. Not knowing exactly how those two numbers are arrived at, I can’t say if it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, but the orders of magnitude are consistent.

    The per-source subtotals line up pretty well, too. For example, nuclear and natural gas constitute similar percentages of total energy production, but natural gas has about 4 times the peak power capacity of nuclear. That makes sense when you consider that nuclear plants run at or near capacity as much as possible, while natural gas plants spin up and down as needed.

  10. Okay, I apologize to everyone.

    I did in fact mean 4.1 trillion kilowatt hours (4.1 petrawatt hours) and all my linked sources are in watt hours. I dropped the hours because I had previously been doing some calculations in Quads (quadrillions of btu’s) and I dropped the hours of the terawatt hours by a kind of unit sympathy. That used to bedevil me in the lab all the time in college.

    The problem here is that the kilowatt i.e. one thousand (10^3) watts is the basic unit of measurement of electricity generations and consumption. So the link to the Energy Information Agency shows that American consumes 4,157 billion kilowatts hours. So, tidying that up that comes to (4.1*10^3) * (1.0*10^9) * (1.0*10^3)=4.1*10^15 watt hours.

    For simplicity sakes it would be best to use kilowatt hours of kwh as the base unit. In that case, the U.S. consume 4.1 trillion kwh per year which we could write 4.1 Tkwh.

    I assumed that Wellinghoff was speaking in watt hours because that is the standard measurement. If so then his maximum claims for wind generation would be 1,000 billion kilowatt hours or (1.0*10^3)*(1.0*10^9) * (1.0*10^3)= 1.0*10^15 watt hours (1.0 Tkwh). That translate to 1 trillion kilowatt hours per year of roughly 1/4 of present consumption. So my original argument remains.

    Wellinghoff might have been talking about Declared Net Capacity or Nameplate capacity both of which are based on the theoretical output of a generator system. The U.S. currently has 1,087,791 megawatts of nameplate capacity which translates in 1,089 gigawatts of name plate capacity. So perhaps that is what Wellinghof is claiming that windpower could produce up to 1,000 gigawatts of name plate capacity which would be almost enough to provide our current power needs.

    However, name plate capacity tells us nothing about how much power you actually get out of wind generator. With fossil fuels, hydroelectric or nuclear the operator can determine how much power comes out of the generator. With wind power, the weather determined out put which cam be anywhere from zero to the rated power. Most people don’t even try to give a name plane or DNC for windpower because of it unreliability.

    For example, windpower currently has 1.08% of the U.S. nameplate capacity but it produces only 0.07% of current U.S. electricity production. Nuclear power by contrast has 9.8% of U.S. nameplate capacity but produces 19.4% of our power. Windpower underperforms due to it unreliability and nuclear power over performs because of its rock solid reliability.

    So, in short, Wellinghof is smoking crack either way.

  11. Shannon, thanks for the update and clarification.

    As you say, Wellinghoff is either postulating magical fairy wind generators that would have a combined peak power output approaching that of every coal, natural gas, and nuclear generator in the entire US (900 GW), or else he’s got his units and his math so messed up that you can’t tell what he’s claiming.

    So I repent of my suggestion that your math might be worse than his. Such an accusation was beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse. :-)

  12. I still think the Obamatron was talking about nameplate capacity, not energy generated during any finite time span.

    It is interesting to noodle through his prophecy. But it is best to start with some facts.

    GE, it should not surprise you, makes wind turbines. Their on shore 2.5 MW model is the apple of their eye. It has 100 meter long rotors. It’s a big boy.

    4 of them can generate 10 MW if the wind is between 28 and 56 mph. And 40 can generate 100 MW, and 400, 1 GW. 100 GW would require 40,000 of the pups.

    How far apart do they need to be? This document from Australia says 3 to 5 rotor diameters across the wind (N-S in the Great Plains) and that the rows need to be 5 to 7 rotor diameters apart. Trying to work this and be generous to the case for wind energy, I take the rotor diameter of the GE 2.5 MW turbines as 200 meters. I would guess that they need to be spaced about 0.5 km N-S and 1 km E-W.

    In the Great Plains it is about 2000 km from Mexico to Canada. 2000 km will host a N-S line of 4000 machines. Its nameplate capacity would be 10 GW. To get 1 TW there would have to be 100 rows spaced over 100 km. 200,000 km^2 is about the size of Nebraska. This is not a big project, it is pharaonic.

    And how much would it cost? I don’t know precisely, and I don’t think anybody does. My research tended to indicate that the generators themselves could be had for $1 to $2 per Watt, installed on dry land. (Anything in the water will cost a lot more). But that does not include things like land, service roads, and auxiliary buildings. Nor does it include any type of energy storage.

  13. I want to end tonight with a couple of quote from the NYTimes article to show you what is really thinking about:

    “the United States can reduce energy usage by 50 percent.”

    This is the Lovins fallacy. Greater efficiency in using energy does not cause the total amount of energy used by an economy to decrease. The truth is Jevon’s Paradox: “It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”

    Problems with unsteady power generation from wind will be overcome, he said. “That’s exactly what all the load response will do, the load response will provide that leveling ability, number one,”

    Load response is his way of telling us that if the wind isn’t blowing, the digital grid will turn off your stuff to keep from collapsing. Better have a UPS and a diesel generator.

    he said. “Number two, if you have wide interconnections across the entire interconnect, you’re going to have a lot of diversity with that wind. Not all the wind is going to stop at once. You’ll have some of it stop, some of it start, and all of that diversity is going to help you, as well.”

    This is pure hand-waving. It sort of makes sense, but you must remember, the weather is the product of systems that span the entire continent. The likelihood is that the winds are correlated.

  14. The geographical diversity help improve the odds that there will be some wind turbines, somewhere, which are available to feed power into the loads. It doesn’t change the fact that the nameplate capacity will have to be much greater than the average capacity…those 2.5MW turbines in places where the wind *isn’t* blowing are still sitting there, consuming cost of capital. Ditto for the lines and substations that connect them.

    I think what is really likely to happen is that a lot of capital is going to be deployed to wind and solar…but much of the actual generation will wind up being done by natural gas. This will, of course, increase electricity prices sharply. (It may also create investment opportunities in nat gas.)

  15. Shannon: Thank you for fixing that. You are most welcome for the link. It is we who must thank you for hosting us.

    David Foster: “but much of the actual generation will wind up being done by natural gas”

    According to Wellinghoff: “Natural gas is going to be there for a while, because it’s going to be there to get us through this transition that’s going to take 30 or more years.”

    After that, you will be on your own. I am suggesting diesel generators will be the new fashionable accessories, like sub-zero refrigerators.

    Jay Manifold: Let’s compromise on a one syllable word like nuts.

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