Inconvenient Energy Realities

Every week it seems another city or county announces that they will no longer allow new natural gas connections or mandate that their energy providers – electric utilities, natural gas suppliers and transportation companies – must provide carbon-free services by a certain date not too distant into the future.

People want to believe so badly that we can replace fossil fuels, so they abandon common sense and believe any scheme that promises carbon-free energy. They want a miracle solution to the carbon issue so badly that they are willing to ignore the laws of physics and energy. They are willing to believe that energy and fuels can scale similar to the computing technology that has driven economic growth over the past couple of decades.

The carbon issue will not be resolved with magic dust or dreams. A true answer to the carbon issue will require real solutions that will dramatically change how we live our lives, how society operates, and that conforms to the laws of physics.

To better explain the challenges of a carbon-free economy, I have included a summary of some of the realities underlying the carbon issue made by Mark P. Mills in his report for the Manhattan Institute, The New Energy Economy: An Exercise in Magical Thinking. Mr. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a McCormick School of Engineering Faculty Fellow at Northwestern University. These thoughts are his and not mine, although I agree with them.

  1. Solar and wind energy supply about 2% of global energy. That 2% growth in renewable energy required more than $2 trillion in cumulative global spending. The next 98% renewable growth will be more expensive.
  2. If the world’s four billion people currently living in poverty increase energy use to just one-third of Europe’s per capita use, global energy demand would rise by an amount equal to twice America’s annual total consumption.
  3. A 100 times growth in the number of electric vehicles would result in 400 million electric vehicles on the roads by 2040 but would only displace 5% of global oil demand.
  4. Renewable energy would have to expand 90-fold to replace global hydrocarbons in two decades. It took a half-century for global petroleum production to expand 10-fold.
  5. Replacing U.S. hydrocarbon-based electric generation over the next 30 years would require a construction program building out the electric transmission grid at a rate 14-fold greater than any time in history.
  6. Since 1995, total world energy use rose by 50%, an amount equal to adding energy demand twice as high as the United States’ total annual energy demand. The large majority of that growth was served by fossil fuels.
  7. Storing two days’ worth of U.S. electric demand in batteries would require 1,000 years of production by the world’s largest battery factory, Tesla’s Gigafactory.
  8. Over a 30-year period, $1 million worth of utility-scale solar or wind produces 40 million and 55 million kWh, respectively. A $1 million investment in shale oil produces enough natural gas to generate 300 million kWhs.
  9. It costs less than $0.50 to store a barrel of oil or its equivalent in natural gas, but it costs $200 to store the equivalent energy of a barrel of oil in batteries.
  10. The shale revolution collapsed the prices of natural gas and coal, the two fuels that produce 70% of U.S. electricity. But electric rates haven’t gone down, rising instead 20% since 2008. Direct and indirect subsidies for solar and wind consumed those savings.
  11. 11Politicians and pundits like to invoke “moonshot” language. But transforming the energy economy is not like putting a few people on the moon a few times. It is like putting all of humanity on the moon—permanently.
  12. The common cliché: an energy tech disruption will echo the digital tech disruption. But information-producing machines and energy-producing machines involve profoundly different physics.
  13. If solar power scaled like computer-tech, a single postage-stamp-sized solar array would power the Empire State Building. That violates the laws of physics.
  14. If batteries scaled like digital tech, a battery the size of a book, costing three cents, could power a jetliner to Asia. That violates the laws of physics.
  15. There will be no digital computing-like 10 times gains for solar technology. Physics limit production from solar cells (the Shockley-Queisser limit) at a maximum conversion rate of about 33% of photons into electrons. Commercial solar cells today are at 26%.
  16. There will be no digital computing-like 10 times gains for wind technology. Physics limit production from wind turbines (the Betz limit) at a maximum conversion rate of 60% of energy in moving air. Commercial turbines currently achieve 45%.
  17. There will be no digital computing-like 10 times gains for battery technology. The maximum theoretical energy contained in a pound of oil is 1,500% greater than the maximum theoretical energy contained in the best pound of battery chemicals.
  18. About 60 pounds of batteries are needed to store the energy equivalent of one pound of hydrocarbons.
  19. At least 100 pounds of materials are mined, moved and processed for every pound of battery fabricated.
  20. Storing the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil, which weighs 300 pounds, requires 20,000 pounds of Tesla batteries ($200,000 worth).
  21. Carrying the energy equivalent of the aviation fuel used by an aircraft flying to Asia would require $60 million worth of Tesla-type batteries weighing five times more than that aircraft.
  22. It takes the energy-equivalent of 100 barrels of oil to fabricate a quantity of batteries that can store the energy equivalent of a single barrel of oil.
  23. A battery-centric grid and car world means mining gigatons more of the earth to access lithium, copper, nickel, graphite, rare earths, cobalt, etc.—and using millions of tons of oil and coal both in mining and to fabricate metals and concrete.

Totally replacing fossil fuels with renewable resources will not be nearly as easy as many would lead you to believe. It will cost more than you pay today – very likely a lot more. There will be no breakthrough carbon-free technology unless there is an advancement in nuclear power not imagined today. The fact that we want it will not make it true.

Mr. Mills recognizes the challenges and the hype. I hope it helps you understand the challenge, and I hope you have a good month.