Just how much power do we need anyway?

We all know we need to get off fossil fuels and replace them with carbon-neutral alternatives. The question is not IF we should choose this path, but how best to get where we need to go. There are those who, fairly enough, worry that those clean renewables aren't up to the job. This is a critical question, because if renewables can't fill the void, then we are left with no option but to build more nuclear reactors, with all the myriad problems that accompany them, most notably price, which is forever rising. So much money is at stake that we need to sort out this question, soon.

It all boils down to power demand. How much power do we need? If the number is such that the most realistically rapid installation rate of new wind, water and solar power supplies won't be enough to satisfy our needs in say, 2030 (by which time we need to have at least made a sizable dent in replacing the existing oil, gas and coal plants), then we have a problem. So what is a reasonable projection of power demand in 2030?

Unfortunately, that depends on whom you ask. Even estimates of current power consumption vary widely For example, over at Yale's e360, David Biello turns to MacArthur fellow Saul Griffith for a scenario that assumes

.. the U.S. will require roughly 4 terrawatts of power by 2050 (a conservative estimate, given that we already use more than three)...

You can find similar projections all over the place. But two other analysts, Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi, who survey the issue in some detail in a pair of papers discussed here, say current U.S. end use is only 2.5 TW, significantly less than 3 TW, not more. The higher figure is what we produce, the lower is what we use. The difference is lost during transmission and distribution, and to wasted heat. (Current end use figures, which are based on the U.S. Energy Information Administration data don't appear in the Jacobson-Delucchi papers, but they are available at Jacobson's website here in an Excel spreadsheet.)

Furthermore, because most electric power options are more efficient than those based on the internal combustion engine, and efficiency is expected to improve across the board in the coming years, they expect U.S. demand to be only 1.78 TW in 2030 if we convert all fossil fuels to wind, water and solar. And make sure we tighten up on the transmission and distribution losses, both of which will be significantly lower if power generation is decentralized and produced closer to where it's used.

Jacobson and Delucchi write in Part 1 of their two-part paper that

... the direct use of electricity, for example, for heating or electric motors, is considerably more efficient than is fuel combustion in the same application. The use of electrolytic hydrogen is less efficient than is the use of fossil fuels for direct heating but more efficient for transportation when fuel cells are used; the efficiency difference between direct use of electricity and electrolytic hydrogen is due to the energy losses of electrolysis, and in the case of most transportation uses, the energy requirements of compression and the greater inefficiencies of fuel cells than batteries. Assuming that some additional modest energy-conservation measures are implemented (see the list of demand-side conservation measures in Section 2) and subtracting the energy requirements of petroleum refining, we estimate that an all-WWS world would require ~30% less end-use power than the EIA projects for the conventional fossil-fuel scenario.

What about 2050? Well, it's reasonable to assume that by 2030 the U.S. as a whole would have learned how to do what California has done for the past 30 years -- keep power demand growth near a flat line even while GDP expands greatly. So by mid-century, power demand likely won't be much more than 1.78 TW. Let's say 2 TW to be conservative. That's only half of what Griffith estimates -- quite a difference, almost certainly more than enough to change the answer to the question at hand.

Global use and demand trends are comparable in the Jacobson-Delucchi vision. This might be debatable, in that what is possible for the U.S. may not be as likely to occur in developing nations. But one can make good arguments that developing nations are actually more likely to embrace efficient technologies than countries where existing fossil-fuel power plants still have decades top run before they're paid off.

This discussion will be familiar to advocates of rapid deployment of renewables. Say, as most climatologists who have studied the problem insist, we need to cut our emissions of greenhouse gases by 80-90& over the new three or four decades to avoid irrevocable and/or catastrophic global warming. That sounds daunting. But if we can cut demand in half through improvements to the efficiency of existing infrastructure, introduction of new technologies that are more inherently more efficient, and stop wasting so much heat and energy in the first place by making some strategic changes to how we work and get around, the task isn't quite so daunting after all.

Building enough wind turbines and solar PV arrays to replace 85% of our energy mix will be difficult. Building enough wind, solar thermal and PV, geothermal, small-scale hydro and tidal generators to replace 42% sounds doable. And just so Griffith isn't cast as the villain here, I'll give the last word to one of his less pessimistic observations:

If society's efforts were turned in different directions, shifting from making fewer consumer products to making more devices to capture renewable energy, the transition might ultimately fuel itself. After all, beverage makers now produce some 300 billion aluminum cans per year, Griffiths notes, which is enough production capacity to manufacture 100 or 200 gigawatts of solar thermal annually. "So we could do 1 terrawatt of solar in 10 years if Pepsi and Coca-Cola and all the breweries became solar companies," he says. "We have the industrial scale. We are just right now prioritizing what we want to make with it and we are making disposable aluminum cans instead of solar mirrors. That gives me reason for optimism. We can do it.


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Well - the only savior here will be peak oil, and economic collapse. Otherwise you better crank up your models on the highest output of CO2 plus some. We'll likely be burning coal from blown off mountain tops and denying funding as a government to any climate science... Sorry cranky today, but as of right now, isn't that the most likely scenario?

"We all know we need to get off fossil fuels and replace them with carbon-neutral alternatives." - JH

Really, "all" know this?

"We have the industrial scale. We are just right now prioritizing what we want to make with it and we are making disposable aluminum cans instead of solar mirrors." - J&D

Except that soda cans are profitable and solar mirrors, not so much.

Of course you aren't planning on markets to do the heavy lifting are you? Coercion by government is the only way that you could push Coke and Pepsi into such a foolish endeavor.

Good luck with that.

I fear a future where we continue to burn coal by the billions of tons annually, while also wasting a significant portion of (fungible) energy produced from other sources on the ridiculous nonsense of "carbon sequestration"

By Bob O`Bob (not verified) on 21 Feb 2011 #permalink

So build nuclear reactors. How dim can you get?

I believe that it's better to create independent "green" energy "cells" in each community. That would reduce the energy loss on transfer and would allow the communities to self regulate the amount of energy they really need and educate the members. The ugly truth is that we've become very energy greedy.

It's an interesting philosophical question: If Jacobson and Delucchi think we can get by with less than 2 TW that is a value judgment. Of course, that would require not just tightening up "waste," but also eliminating high energy processes like making steel or cement.

But if we're not making steel or cement, then either we're importing it from overseas (continuing the long trend of outsourcing both jobs and, wait for it, emissions and thereby *not* solving the global climate change challenge) or we can't make the wind turbines, PV farms and the rest of the infrastructure required to deal with this problem. This is not to dismiss Jacobson and Delucchi, after all, we published them!


It's more to really think critically about this problem. We can have the energy use growth here or we can have it elsewhere but energy growth is, most likely, coming.

Or we can just radically change our lifestyles. That's, of course, a possibility. We shall see what we choose...

The "myriad problems" of nuclear reactors are a myth. In particular you note price, but the reality is that the nuclear power plants are cheaper to build than weather harvesting systems on a real-capacity basis. A 100MW peak solar system will deliver more like 20MW average over a years operation. A 100MW wind park might manage 25MW average. Both will require additional infrastructure - usually inefficient open-cycle gas turbines - to cope with high levels of variability. Once these costs are recognized, nuclear power looks a lot cheaper.

Jacobson is one of the less scrupulous anti-nuclear analysts of nuclear power. His previous deparate efforts to tilt his numbers against nuclear power have conjured carbon emissions from burning cities destroyed in nuclear explosions.

The choice you pose in the opening paragraph is better stated the other way around. If we can't produce a legislative environment which produces reasonable confidence in nuclear power investments, as opposed to today's random political interventions and punitive bureaucratization, we'll be left with no option but to cope with the vagaries of weather generation systems, along with the then-entrenched hydrocarbon-burning support systems.

If the problems of nuclear reactors are such a myth, why doesn't the nuclear industry prove us all wrong and just build them? Don't bother with subsidies, because nuclear is so efficient and so good they don't need them. I'm sure they'll get built on time and budget as well.

Oh wait - they do want all the subsidies they can get, they are hugely behind their expected completion dates (Finland...its the place where I want to be!), and are well over budget. That's OK, because I'm sure they can recoup the large costs of construction, make a profit for their operators and put enough aside to cover the enormous costs of decommissioning. Or possibly not...

In reality, we are going to have to use less energy, simply because of the cost rises we'll see in gas prices over the next decade or two, and hopefully the caps put on carbon emissions, if only to a token degree. If California can do it so quickly after facing such steep energy cost increases, we all can, and will. Needs must.

It's more to really think critically about this problem. We can have the energy use growth here or we can have it elsewhere but energy growth is, most likely, coming.

MikeB, the problems that face nuclear construction are the tangle of shifting regulations and bureaucracy that put a massive scare into investors. The problems faced in Finland are mostly about the relationship between constructor and regulator - actual construction issues have been trivial.

Reactors built recently in Asia - Japan, South Korea - have been built on time and budget. But that would pop the myth so you don't want to know about those, do you?

Subsidies? The nuclear power industry, such as it is, gets the opposite. They have massive special fees and extra responsibilities. Talk of a privileged financial position is so diametrically opposite the truth as to be laughable.

The "myriad problems" traditionally hoisted by nuclear power opponents are not generally centered on cost - that is a recent fashion. But with the advent of the Internet, falsehoods about plutonium and such-like are less easily defended, and have been less conspicuous. Likewise the ludicrous idea that a state that already has nuclear weapons should worry about proliferation that has anyway never arisen from nuclear power plants is less popular now also. And the stupid idea that a small amount of easily contained and tracked wate that can be passively left in a deep mine is any kind of problem is slowly fading away in the light of scrutiny, too.

There is an added problem not shown here. Most of the renewable sources are intermittent. Where I live (the Neherlands) they've done some studies aimed at long term storage to compensate for this. Costs are estimated at around 100 to 120 million euros for 1 GWh (at a 1.5 GW draw) of storage. Further those reports estimate that to make best use of windpower with a peak of 10GW (4GW average) a storage capacity of 800GWh is needed (this includes a reserve to cover periods of upto 10 days where windgeneration is between 0-4GW).

By who cares (not verified) on 22 Feb 2011 #permalink

We need a lot less than what we currently use, that's for sure. One of the biggest problems is that people, from householders to multibillion dollar company managers, tend to absolutely suck at capital expenditure vs. running cost calculations. All they ever look at is the up-front badge price.

Say you're faced with two items to do the same job. One costs $0.50 up front, but will cost $5.50 a year to run and will need replacing in 1-2 years. The second costs $10, but costs $0.50 a year to run and will last for at least 20 years. An analysis of the long-run savings favours the second option hands down, but time and time again people go straight for the first.

The example I've used above is more-or-less real: 50W halogen vs. 4W LED downlights, run at 3h per day, at an electricity cost of $0.10/kWh. Of course, here in Australia where electricity is $0.19/kWh it's even more of a no-brainer - yet people don't do it. Similar story for pretty much everything you can think of - there's always a (usually far) more efficient way of doing it, that just costs a bit more up front.

@12: kinda a case in point. $80 billion for energy storage sure sounds like a lot, huh? But let's do some comparisons:

Based upon recent reports that a 300MW coal-fired power station would cost about $1-1.2 billion, that's $30-40 bilion up front. Then, to run those power stations, you're looking at somewhere between $3.5-7 billion per year at current coal prices. That could reach $80 billion total cost in as little as 6 years.

"Of course, that would require not just tightening up "waste," but also eliminating high energy processes like making steel or cement."


Port Talbot steelworks changed their site and reduced their energy waste yet managed by the same changes to increase their throughput.

Efficiency is great and there's no reason not to pursue it. But no matter how much efficiency Port Talbot pursues it can't get past the simple fact that to make steel, today, one must burn coking coal. How much coal can be changed but not burning any coal is not an option. So do we pursue carbon capture and storage? Or do we forgo steel (and thus products like solar thermal power plants, wind turbines, etc. that require steel)?

The problems faced in Finland are mostly about the relationship between constructor and regulator - actual construction issues have been trivial.

I'm really not sure that I'd describe sub-standard, out-of-spec welds on a critical pressure vessel, or the inability to pour the reactor foundation plinth without it cracking, "trivial". Cracked foundations would be a major construction defect in a condo development, never mind a nuclear reactor.

Reactors built recently in Asia - Japan, South Korea - have been built on time and budget. But that would pop the myth so you don't want to know about those, do you?

Actually, I'd be fascinated. Do share the details.

Well, Dunc, I'm not surprised you haven't heard about successes because we all know what grabs headlines. As a result it's very hard to find headlines about success.

There have been construction problems at Olkiluoto - I claimed "trivial" before, but they are still real - but to some extent even those are the result of poor communication of expectations, and even some of those "construction problems" are actually documentation problems (eg. the welds). I should have added "operator" into the relationship mix as well as constructor and regulator. Please understand that I take regulation to be a good thing, but it should be aiming to enable success rather than merely blocking problems.

Considering the PR resources of the nuclear industry, you would have thought such news would have been shouted from the rooftops. On the other hand, I note that the people operating the plants, KEPCO 'remains a transmission and distribution monopoly'. Its also a largely government held company (79%), so hardly a model of the free market in action.

If the Finns are so behind, then surely the French must be doing better (OK, their building the Finnish reactor as well), but no, they have big delays as well.

In reality, governments have no problem with certifying nuclear, and the regulations are no more than you'd expect for a technology which could go bang. As for subsidies, Climate Progress http://climateprogress.org/2008/05/09/nuclear-subsidies-enough-is-enoug… has a list from a couple of years ago of the number of sweet deals the industry gets, and he also has details of just how much new nuclear costs http://climateprogress.org/2009/01/05/study-cost-risks-new-nuclear-powe… .

How about nuclear actually operating in the free market for a change? If it can make a go of it, well done. If not, then let other solutions get their chance instead.

MikeB - I fail to see how the ownership of the construction company makes any difference to the cost/schedule achievement.

Ah, climateprogress. Yes, Romm has done good in clarifying to many people the climate threat, but unfortunately simply can't shake off his anti-nuclear instincts. Occasionally he pretends that "if only" something were different, he'd support it; but it's just more opposition really. Romm fails to observe that the list of subsidies, only a few of which apply to new nuclear power stations, is dwarfed by the direct subsidies on offer for renewable energy. Really though, pork is a Congress disease, not a nuclear disease. And Romm's promotion of Severance's opinion of costs does not make it any more accurate.

Nuclear in the free market - you mean the free market that is screwing up the atmosphere? What's so good about that, again? The free market will build gas burners, because the capital requirement is less, the regulations are less, the waste product is dumped without cost and the price variability is passed to the end user.

Thanks for that link Joffan. The next obvious question to ask is: why is it that places like South Korea and Japan can build these things on time and to budget, when (supposedly) more experienced nuclear constructors in Europe apparently can't?

Dunc - I wish I could understand that too. My guess is that the regulators there are more inclined to enable success rather than just block problems. The Finnish reactor (still progressing and past all major construction bottlenecks) might perhaps be regarded as a set of players unfamiliar with the process, but the French reactor should not be as badly affected under such a hypothesis.

I should note that not all is rosy in Japan as regards bureaucracy, as evidenced by the fantastically complicated permissions process to restart each of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa's reactors. Not technical approval - government.

My guess is that the regulators there are more inclined to enable success rather than just block problems.

What does that even mean (please be specific), and what does it have to do with a subcontractor being unable to weld properly or pour concrete without it cracking?

Well, it's back to clear lines of communication, well-understood expectations and a co-operative approach. For illustration: a regulator that is being pro-active would engage early and describe clearly what they need to satisfy safety requirements, set up methods of checking and documenting, advise and troubleshoot in co-operation with the constructor. A regulator that is being reactive would turn up when the job is done and require various proofs of adequacy and evaluate them as good enough or not, and just tell the constructor to re-do if not satisfied.

The two regulatory approaches could both produce safe plants, but one is likely to avoid problems rather than simply fix them.

Of course a large (government owned) international company with years of experience in nuclear construction might actually try to get things right the first time, rather than have a regulator point out their failings (in fact the welding had been passed by the subcontractor, Areva & TVO), but why spoil the idea of bad regulators who block success.

Joffan - 'I fail to see how the ownership of the construction company makes any difference to the cost/schedule achievement'.
If the French use a (apparently Polish) sub-contractor with little experience of nuclear construction, that's one thing. But Flamanville is home turf, and you would expect the most experienced and trusted contractors to be employed. Yet similar problems with concrete and welding have emerged. And this is with a company owned almost entirely by the French state, building a reactor for a company owned almost entirely by the French state. Its difficult to believe that the French inspectors are being overly picky in such circumstances. Basically the whole EPR is in big trouble http://www.powermag.com/blog/index.php/2010/11/04/epr-reactor-in-crisis/.

My favourite quote is from a comment made by someone in reply to this FT blog article http://blogs.ft.com/energy-source/2009/09/17/finlands-new-nuclear-react… 'If losing â¬2.3 billion is "not Areva's finest moment", and a mere â¬700 million extra on â¬3.3 is a sign of improvement, what's worse: to be an Areva customer or stockholder? I support nuclear power by the way. ' That was in 2009. Now the Flamanville plant is at least 1.7 billion Euros over budget...

If Romm doesn't like nuclear, perhaps that's because he can read a balance sheet. And talking of balance,
'In the US, the federal government has paid US$74 billion for energy subsidies to support R&D for nuclear power and fossil fuels from 1973 to 2003. Nuclear power R&D alone accounted for nearly US$50 billion of this expenditure. During this same time frame, renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency received a total of US$26 billion.' http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_subsidies .

Reality, nuclear sucks up subsidy money (although far less than fossil fuels). The renewables are all less than 20 years old, at least in subsidy terms, while nuclear has been around for 50 years or more. Its time to level the playing field.

So, in a situation where the pre-approved designs specify double-sided welds, and the regulator has clearly laid down the required qualifications for both welders and welding supervisors, then a subcontractor employs under-qualified welders and welding supervisors who produce sub-standard, single-sided welds, whose fault is that?

Nice rhetoric Dunc, but the Finnish regulator specifically debunked that particular piece of Greenpeace "outrage".

If I'm misinformed, I'm happy to be corrected, but I'd like something more than your word for it. Link?

Interesting article.

Here is a n authoritative forecast on Energy Scene in 2030:

BP Energy Outlook 2030

Emerging Economies to Lead Energy Growth to 2030 and Renewables to Out-Grow oil,Days BP Analysis.

Release date: 19 January 2011
Quick Bit: Get DT on your Kindle!
BP's 'base case' - or most likely projection - points to primary energy use growing by nearly 40% over the next twenty years, with 93% of the growth coming from non-OECD (Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Non-OECD countries are seen to rapidly increase their share of overall energy demand from just over half currently to two-thirds.

Over the same period, energy intensity, a key measure of energy use per unit of economic output, is set to improve globally led by rapid efficiency gains in the same non-OECD economies, under these projections

According to the BP Energy Outlook, diversification of energy sources increases and non-fossil fuels (nuclear, hydro and renewables) are together expected to be the biggest source of growth for the first time. Between 2010 to 2030 the contribution to energy growth of renewables (solar, wind, geothermal and biofuels) is seen to increase from 5% to 18%.

Natural gas is projected to be the fastest growing fossil fuel, and coal and oil are likely to lose market share as all fossil fuels experience lower growth rates. Fossil fuelsâ contribution to primary energy growth is projected to fall from 83% to 64%. OECD oil demand peaked in 2005 and in 2030 is projected to be roughly back at its level in 1990. Biofuels will account for 9% of global transport fuels.

Transport growth is seen to slow because of a decline in the OECD. The regionâs total demand for oil and other liquids peaked in 2005 and will be back at roughly the level of 1990 by 2030. Toward the end of the period, coal demand in China will no longer be rising and China is projected to become the worldâs largest oil consumer.

OPECâs share of global oil production is set to increase to 46%, a position not seen since 1977. At the same time, oil - and gas - import dependency in the US is likely to fall to levels not seen since the 1990s, because of improved fuel efficiency and the increased share of biofuels. Global consumption growth is also impacted by higher oil prices in recent years and a gradual reduction of subsidies in oil-importing countries.

The fuel mix changes over time, reflecting long asset lifetimes. Oil, excluding bio-fuels, will grow relatively slowly at 0.6% per year; natural gas is the fastest growing fossil fuel with more than three times the projected growth rate of oil at 2.1% per year. Coal will increase by 1.2% per year and by 2030 it is likely to provide virtually as much energy as oil excluding biofuels. The strong carbon policy drive in OECD countries risks being more than offset by growth in emerging economies.
Wind, solar, bio-fuels and other renewables continue to grow strongly, increasing their share in primary energy from less than 2% now to more than 6% projected by 2030. Biofuels will provide 9% of transport fuels and nuclear and hydropower will grow steadily and gain market share in total energy consumption.

According to the Energy Outlookâs projections, oil continues to suffer a long run decline in market share, while gas steadily gains share. Coalâs recent gains in market share, on the back of rapid industrialisation in China and India in particular, are reversed by 2030, with all three fossil fuels converging on market shares around 27%. The diversifying fuel mix can be seen most clearly in terms of shares of growth. Over the period 1990-2010 fossil fuels contributed 83% of the growth in energy; over the next twenty years fossil fuels are likely to contribute 64% of the growth. Renewables (excluding hydro) and biofuels together account for 18% of the growth in energy to 2030.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

By Dr.A.Jagadeesh (not verified) on 26 Feb 2011 #permalink

@28: Thanks for that link Joffan, but it appears to be from August 2008, whereas the flaws I was referring to [url=http://stuk.fi/stuk/tiedotteet/2009/en_GB/news_567/]halted welding temporarily in October 2009[/url]. Now obviously, defects do occur and get dealt with in projects all the time, but there does seem to be something about nuclear construction in Europe that is more defect-prone than one might expect...

Ah, crap... Well, you can see where that link was supposed to be going.

Well their next press release, 5 days later, http://stuk.fi/stuk/tiedotteet/2009/en_GB/news_569/ , certainly says to me that this is not regarded as a major problem as all parties concerned have responded and are permitted to continue work.

And yeah... I'm not say that everything is always perfect and regulators never need a problem-catching role.

But also, I'd point out that a lot of your original rhetoric @#25 does not accord with this actual reported situation, but better with the debunked claims I previously responded to.