Jul 27, 2020
Earlier this month, Joe Biden released an energy plan that calls for spending $2 trillion on building efficiency, electric vehicles, and, most important, an overhaul of the electric grid so that it relies solely on “clean” electricity by 2035.
Biden’s grid plan is ambitious. But is it plausible?
The prompt for taking a closer look at the numbers behind the “Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy Standard” came from Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado who writes frequently on climate and energy issues. During our conversation on last week’s episode of the Power Hungry Podcast, Pielke said that any plan for transforming our energy and power systems should explain when and where new infrastructure will be built as well as when coal- and gas-fired plants will be shuttered. Pielke did some calculations on what Biden’s plan implies and posted them on Twitter. Inspired by his work, I wrangled up some comparisons of my own.
It didn’t take long to see that replacing the electricity now being produced in the United States from natural gas and coal will be — to put it charitably — difficult. The challenge, as is usually the case when it comes to power and energy systems, is about scale. Last year, natural gas-fired generators produced about 1,700 terawatt-hours of electricity and coal-fired plants produced about 1,050 terawatt-hours, for a total of 2,750 terawatt-hours. For perspective, that’s nearly three times as much juice as what was generated last year in Japan. Here are three more comparisons:
- Replacing the 2,750 terawatt-hours of electricity now being produced every year by burning coal and natural gas with nuclear energy would require as much nuclear capacity as now exists on the planet.
- Replacing that 2,750 terawatt-hours with solar would require 25 times as much solar capacity as now exists in the U.S. or nearly four times as much as exists on the planet.
- Replacing it with wind would require installing nine times as much wind capacity as now exists in this country or roughly twice as much as current global capacity.
Before going further, let me be clear: this is a basic analysis of what would be needed. Any retrofit of the electric grid would not rely on a single type of generation. Instead, it would likely use a mix of renewables and nuclear, or perhaps include some gas-fired plants fitted with carbon capture and storage. But that technology hasn’t been proven at scale. To keep things simple, I did not add generation capacity to charge the batteries needed to offset the intermittency of wind and solar. I also ignored land-use conflicts, even though those conflicts are already slowing or stopping many renewable-energy projects.
So, yes, these are basic calculations. But they illustrate the enormity of our electric grid and electricity use. If elected, Biden will have 14 years to overhaul a sprawling electrical network that relies on tens of thousands of generators that are owned by more than 3,000 different electricity providers, a group that includes investor-owned utilities, publicly owned utilities, cooperatives, power marketers, and federal power agencies. Those disparate entities manage 1.1 terawatts of generation capacity and distribute juice over an area of some 3.1 million square miles in the continental U.S.
As for what would be needed to decarbonize the electric grid, going all-in on nuclear energy would make the most environmental sense. Nuclear has extraordinarily high power density (meaning it generates large amounts of power from a small footprint) and it can be built near cities where most of the electricity demand is. It’s safe, reliable, and can use much of the existing transmission infrastructure.
Last year, the global nuclear sector produced 2,796 terawatt-hours of electricity. Thus, replacing the 2,750 terawatt-hours of electricity now produced by gas and coal with nuclear would require the United States to roughly duplicate existing global nuclear capacity. We can also calculate the number of reactors that would be needed by using the Indian Point Energy Center in New York as a metric. Before it was prematurely shuttered in April, the Unit 2 reactor at Indian Point which has a capacity of about 1 gigawatt, was producing about 8 terawatt-hours of electricity per year. Therefore, to decarbonize the electric grid with nuclear energy would require building about 344 new one-gigawatt reactors between now and 2035. That amounts to about 24 reactors per year, or roughly one new reactor every two weeks.
What about solar? Last year, the US had about 62 gigawatts of installed solar capacity which produced about 108 terawatt-hours of energy. Therefore, producing 2,750 terawatt-hours of electricity per year with solar would require installing 25 times as much solar as now exists in the US, or about 1,550 gigawatts or 1.5 terawatts. Global solar production last year was about 724 terawatt-hours. Therefore, replacing gas and coal-fired juice with solar would require installing nearly four times the amount of existing solar capacity.
What about wind? Last year, domestic wind turbines produced about 303 terawatt-hours of electricity. Global wind production was about 1,430 terawatt-hours. Thus, to generate 2,750 terawatt-hours of electricity per year would take about nine times as much wind capacity as now exists in the US, or nearly twice as much as now exists in the world.
These are daunting numbers. So is the likely price tag. Last year, energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie estimated that “full decarbonization of the US power grid” would cost about $4.5 trillion. The firm said that “From a budgetary perspective, the cost is staggering at US$35,000 per household – nearly US$2,000 per year if assuming a 20-year plan.” Wood Mackenzie’s estimate brings up two other key questions: how will Biden pay for his plan? How will it affect electric bills in low- and middle-income households?
In addition to questions about its plausibility and cost, Biden’s plan highlights the challenge of energy transitions. Today, nearly 140 years after Thomas Edison launched the Electric Age in Lower Manhattan with a coal-fired power plant on Pearl Street, the black fuel is still being used to generate about 23 percent of the electricity produced in this country and about 38 percent globally. As Matt Ridley notes in his new book, How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom, energy transitions are “crucial, difficult and slow.”
There’s little doubt that coal’s share in the U.S. electric mix will continue to decline and that wind and solar will grow. But eliminating natural gas (which provided about 38 percent of domestic electricity last year) from the electric grid won’t be cheap or easy. As Pielke noted in the podcast “Until you have a plan that translates the target into a deployment schedule and a decommissioning schedule,” then it’s not a real policy proposal.
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