THOUGHTS ON RENEWABLE ENERGY IN THE UNITED STATES
by Chris Geerlings
New World Century
August 2, 2007
This essay is a follow up to my previous analysis of United States oil reserves. Many of the numerous comments I received about that essay pointed out that the use of alternatives could allow for reductions in fossil fuel consumption, and certainly that is the case. Here, I address two alternative energy solutions that are being touted currently; a renewable transportation fuel�corn ethanol, and a renewable electricity source�wind energy. The point of these brief exercises is to demonstrate that solutions that may be good on a small scale might simply be unworkable when applied on the much larger scale that is relevant to the amount of energy that we actually consume in the US. While I'm not a pessimist I do believe that healthy skepticism is a good thing. Keep in mind of course that statistics and efficiencies change over time, and that numerous other solutions exist as well. (And the most effective of these solutions might simply be changes in our habits and expectations.) That having been said, let's proceed.
Corn Ethanol Solution
Suppose that 75 million automobiles in the US were able to run, and did run, on corn-based E-85 ethanol. I chose this number because it represents about half of the total number of vehicles in the United States based upon approximately 500 registered automobiles per 1000 citizens in the US�a fairly current statistic. Since corn is a renewable resource, this would reduce the amount of fossil fuel we consume significantly, right?
Problem One. As some very credible studies have pointed out, the amount of fossil fuel required to plant, fertilize, harvest, transport, distill, and re-transport any given amount of corn ethanol is approximately equal to .7 times the energy equivalent of the resulting corn ethanol. Put another way, fossil fuel consumption of the 75 million ethanol-burning automobiles would decline by only about 30%. By extension, the overall fleet of 150 million automobiles would consume about 15% less fossil fuel. Another catch is that once the mileage decrease of approximately 20-25% associated with using corn ethanol versus gasoline is factored in, any fossil fuel savings would virtually vanish.
Problem Two. With only a relatively tiny number of E-85 vehicles on the road today, the resulting demand for corn has already increased corn price volatility quite significantly. So just how much corn does it take to power an ethanol-burning vehicle? A recent Foreign Affairs study demonstrated that the amount of corn that goes into a single fuel tank fill-up of 25 gallons is over 450 pounds! For the record, this is roughly the calorie equivalent sufficient to feed a single human being for an entire year. If each of these 75 million E-85 vehicles filled up every other week (which is possibly a conservative estimate) that would equal two billion fill-ups per year. In other words, if 50% of US vehicles ran on corn ethanol, that fleet would collectively consume the calorie equivalent in corn of one third of the world's total annual food supply for humans. Corn ethanol is clearly not a candidate for gasoline replacement.
Wind Energy Solution
Regardless of anyone�s opinion about the war in Iraq, one thing is for sure: It is expensive. We are currently spending about $1.3 billion dollars per week there. For the purposes of this brief study, let us suppose that it was possible to immediately begin diverting that sum into developing renewable energy. Let us also suppose that the focus of this huge renewable energy project would be electricity generation, specifically focused on wind farms. (This is because under ideal conditions, wind energy is more cost effective and has a better return on investment that other renewables such as solar.) Let us further suppose that acquiring the necessary sites, equipment, personnel and environmental permits would not hider our progress. The purpose of this hypothetical project would be to simply replace natural gas and petroleum based electrical production (which together account for about a quarter of total US electrical production) with renewable wind energy. For comparison, nuclear power and hydroelectric power together account for another twenty-five percent of US electrical production, with coal accounting for the remaining fifty percent.
Wind energy installations typically cost approximately one million dollars per megawatt�or one dollar per watt. Therefore, $1.3 billion per week would finance a 1300 megawatt wind farm installation per week. Since the average capacity factor for a wind turbine is approximately .25, this means it will produce, on average, 25% of its maximum rated output at any given time. Over the course of one year (8760 hours), a 1300 megawatt wind farm would produce 2.85 million megawatt hours of electricity. The US currently generates over four billion megawatt hours per year of electricity. This means that in order for our hypothetical wind farm to produce 25% of our current electrical generation capacity, the project would need to continue for 351 weeks (seven years) before this goal would be reached. The total cost would approach half a trillion dollars: $456 billion, not including externalities.
In theory, if it is possible to spend 5% of GDP on a war, then it is possible to spend that amount on any other project in its stead. However, as for this hypothetical wind project, logistics would be difficult to impossible, and simple impracticality would preclude implementation to a much greater extent than simply the dollar cost. The math is there simply to illustrate the scale of the challenges we face. In the end, we must ask, are these modes of alternative energy steps in the right direction? Or are we merely deluding ourselves by proposing solutions that feel good, but in reality are unworkable? Perhaps we need to focus not on �how can we continue to produce and consume so much energy?� but instead on �how can we live so as to require not so much energy?� False hopes do nothing productive for anyone and merely forestall other action that could make a much bigger difference. Very simply, before honest solutions can be talked about, we must first be honest about the problem.
© 2007 Chris
New World Century