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What does the US need to do for renewables in 2022?

Doug Houseman's picture
Visionary and innovator in the utility industry and grid modernization Burns & McDonnell

I have a broad background in utilities and energy. I worked for Capgemini in the Energy Practice for more than 15 years. During that time I rose to the position of CTO of the 12,000 person...

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  • Jan 6, 2022
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If we want an 80% zero-carbon in 2030 here are the goals we need to hit in 2022.

All goals are in billions of Kilowatt-hours (BK) 

New non-carbon generation:  200 BK

New storage: 5 BK with enough project starts to hit 20 BK in 2023

Number of residential premises brought to high standard of insulation: 10,000,000 (130 million total residences need upgrades)

New standard for building codes for insulation: R-50 in the walls and R-80 in the attic

New Energy Star Standards: air fryers, cell phone chargers, tablet and chargers, Higher standards for Freezers are needed. 

New Electric Transmission Rules: Limit the reasons someone can sue and if they fail make them pay costs and for the cost of the delay. 

New manufacturing capacity in the US: 15 GW of solar PV, 5GW of wind turbines, with factory starts to build 5 GW of offshore turbines in 2023. At least 20 GW of transformers large enough to rebuild substations (e.g., 20-200MW with a high side of more than 69KV)

Off-shore wind support fleet: 4 tower erection ships, 2 nacelle lift ships, and a dozen off-shore support craft capable of towing floating solar, placing anchors, and laying electric cable. 

New mining and processing capability in the US: 300,000 tons of lithium per year – both mining and processing. Rare earth mining (e.g., Neodymium oxide) needs to increase from approximately 40 tons per year to 200 tons in 2022 with processing capability to do all the processing in North America. 

New research – sodium ion battery research needs a huge kick in the pants, given the lack of lithium in the world. Better ways of recycling batteries and other renewables components. Ways to reduce the cost and time of undergrounding electric lines, and hydrogen storage improvement (e.g., metal hydrides and sorbants). 

2023’s goals are even more aggressive. But if we don’t get aggressive now…it will be worse later. 

DOE could help immensely by requiring at least 60% US material content in all loans and grants.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 6, 2022

An interesting prescription, Doug, but you're making a difficult job even more so. You can eliminate 90% of the work you've created for ourselves by upping the 200 TWh ("BK") per year of wind/solar energy to 300 TWh/yr of new nuclear. Unnecessary (and harmful) is:

  • New storage
  • New insulation
  • New Energy Star standards
  • New electricity transmission rules
  • An "offshore wind support fleet"

Why?

  • 80% carbon-free isn't good enough. We need to be 100% carbon-free, and we need it yesterday.
  • With a robust new nuclear buildout, inefficiency is not a problem. No emissions, no penalty. Cheap fuel. Use as much electricity as you need, or can afford.
  • Would it be possible to build 300 TWh of new nuclear/year? Not only possible, but it's already been done (in the early 1980s, new nuclear plants were coming online at the rate of one per week*).
  • Add 200 TWh of new renewable energy digs us deeper into the hole with dependence on natural gas (natural gas is increasing faster than new renewable generation).

Anyone who believes we can halt, or even slow, the advance of climate change with renewable energy either A) Has an unhealthy, non-science infatuation with medieval sources of power, or B) Has an irrational fear of nuclear energy, or C) Doesn't realize how bad, and how immediate, the effects of climate change will be, or D) All of the above.

*If we had continued (instead of following the advice of the Rockefeller Foundation) we wouldn't be in the mess we're in now.

Roger Levy's picture
Roger Levy on Jan 10, 2022

Two thumbs up!

Alyssa Sleva-Horine's picture
Alyssa Sleva-Horine on Jan 11, 2022

Bob, I agree that nuclear is a great option for providing zero-carbon energy, and should be used for some of our energy needs in the future. What is your plan for the nuclear waste that would be produced if we went entirely nuclear?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 12, 2022

Alyssa, good question (in no small part, because you're asking it). In my experience, many have decided nuclear energy is a bad option, but it's a decision based on misinformation about nuclear waste. For example:

"Nuclear waste remains dangerous for [insert suitably large number here] years."
Many are surprised to learn the fuel that powers nuclear reactors is harmless. It's radioactive, but the alpha radiation it emits can't penetrate your skin - you can hold it in your hands. While it's in the reactor, though, it's transformed into other materials that emit powerful radiation - gamma rays, x-rays, high-energy neutrons. When it's removed from a reactor, spent fuel is deadly. It's moved robotically to pools of water, where it's allowed to cool off for a period of roughly 7 years.

Fortunately the most harmful materials in spent fuel decay the fastest, so after 7 years it's already hundreds of times less radioactive. Then it's moved to sealed, steel casks for semi-permanent storage, where it would remain harmful for 500-1,000 years. Like harmful chemical waste from industrial processes, it needs to be stored responsibly (mostly, where it can't pollute water supplies). But unlike harmful industrial waste, it has two advantages:

1) It will eventually be recycled. When spent fuel comes from a nuclear reactor, only 1% of the latent energy in it has been consumed. Because new reactor designs will permit burning spent fuel, no nuclear physicist considers spent fuel "waste". It's stored in canisters, not deep holes in the ground, so that it can be retrieved and used again, and again, and again.

2) The volume of spent nuclear fuel, compared to waste produced by other fuels, is tiny.  A pellet of uranium fuel the size of a thimble carries as much potential energy as one ton of coal, 149 gallons of oil, or 17,000 cubic feet of gas, and the spent fuel it produces is correspondingly small. For example: if all the electricity you use in your lifetime was generated by nuclear power, its spent fuel would fit inside an empty 12oz Coke can.

Put in these terms, you can see most concerns about nuclear waste are ones based on misperceptions, not facts - and the fact is, spent fuel from a nuclear power plant has never harmed a single person, animal, or plant (compare that to the 13,000 Americans who die each year due to respiratory illnesses caused by the waste from coal plants).

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jan 13, 2022

New nuclear power plants built in the West (Europe, USA) are excruciatingly expensive. At such price points, it is not remotely financially prudent to build new units. Please note, I am not an anti-nuclear zealot. However, the public should not be forced to pay for projects that are not even close to being fiscally sound. Zero carbon does not mean “at any price”.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 13, 2022

Hoover Dam was "excruciatingly expensive" too, Michael, and the public was forced to pay every penny. It's still producing carbon-free electricity 85 years later, earning the United States Bureau of Reclamation $63 million/yr - in nominal dollars, that's 130% more than it cost to build the damn thing.

Fiscally sound?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jan 13, 2022

"With a robust new nuclear buildout, inefficiency is not a problem."

That a defining attribute of a first-rate energy source! 

It's rather telling that no one ever seems to say that about renewables.  I guess we all understand that solar, wind, and especially biofuels use so much land that when those sources dominate, any energy usage that isn't urgently needed becomes very shameful.

Eric Neihaus's picture
Eric Neihaus on Jan 6, 2022

Anaerobic Digestion of food waste (including fats, oil, and greases) would generate biogas that could be used for power generation. Instead of the food waste decomposing in a landfill (generating methane gas), we should use the biogas for power generation.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jan 10, 2022

Green energy needs to get out of the federal pig trough. No more subsidies for production. Only help in form of tax breaks for construction  costs. Enough of the “zero carbon” marketing strategy employed by the elite investment class attempting to pad their financial nests at the expense of the poor and middle class. The planet’s distant climate will be fine.

Roger Levy's picture
Roger Levy on Jan 10, 2022

Nice inventory Doug but you forgot the waste disposal and landfill requirements.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jan 13, 2022

What about the rest of the world Doug?

 

Think of the cities and towns in developing countries that have weak power grids.  Variable generation such as solar and wind can't be readily added to those grids; they need firm capacity first, since the first priority is relieving the generation short-falls that lead to black-out and rolling brown-outs. 

 

In these location, micro-grids are a great way for rich people to create little islands of brightly lit prosperity for themselves, while their less well-off neighbors sit in the dark.

 

For affordable energy and prosperity for all, that takes dispatchable power: fossil fuel, hydro, and/or nuclear.  Once the grid is functioning well, then it's ok to add some variable renewables, but as France found out, it will be really hard to add renewables without an adequate amount of fossil fuel generation!

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