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Can We Replace U.S. Coal Power with Clean Energy?

John Miller's picture
Owner-Consultant Energy Consulting

During my Corporate career I provided manufacturing with power generation facilities’ technical-operations services and held different technical and administrative management positions.  In order...

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Coal electric power generation is under enormous regulatory pressure to substantially reduce stack emissions.  The EPA requires huge reductions in most coal plant emissions including carbon dioxide (CO2).  As a result, most new coal power plant projects are being cancelled and many existing coal plants are expected to shutdown prematurely. 

Congress has recently developed new Clean Energy regulations that will effectively replace most coal power with clean energy power sources.  Political supporters describe the regulations as facilitating the replacement of fossil fuels such as coal with ‘affordable’ and cleaner alternative energy.  The average cost to comply with Congressional Clean Energy bills has been estimated by Federal Agencies at $100-$160 per household per year.  To quote the EPA in 2009: (replacing fossil fuels) “would cost the average Household less than a postage stamp per day”.

Analysis of DOE/EIA evaluations of proposed Clean Energy regulations find extremely complex solutions involving expansion of all types of clean energy.  In addition, the Federal solutions to replacing coal include very complex systems of emissions/clean energy credits, establishing a carbon credit system (cap-and-trade) and purchasing substantial world market carbon credits.  My personal review and analysis of these proposed Clean Energy regulations and Government Agency’s evaluations finds the claimed compliance costs to be significantly underestimated.  Although this analysis is fairly complex, I will present a brief summary of important details and major findings.

Recent U.S. Clean Energy Regulations – The House of Representatives passed the ‘American Clean Energy and Security Act’ in 2009 (H.R. 2454, ACES) which would create a U.S. carbon cap-and-trade system and require total CO2 emission reductions of 17% by 2020 and 80% by 2050.  Study of CBO/EPA/EIA ACES evaluations finds that large amounts of foreign carbon credits are required for compliance.  A major concern with purchasing foreign carbon credits is that validating actual CO2 emission reductions from many international sources is extremely difficult-to-infeasible and international carbon credits are effectively ‘foreign taxes’, which do not directly benefit the U.S. economy.  The Senate did not approve the ACES.

The Senate is currently developing the ‘National Clean Energy Standard Act’ (S. 2146, NCES), which is supposed to facilitate developing all forms of clean energy including nuclear power.  Although the proposed NCES does not directly limit CO2 emissions, Federal Agency evaluations indicate that future total U.S. CO2 emissions could be reduced by 40% in 2035.  This is coincidently very similar to ACES requirements. 

Cost Impacts and Support for U.S. Clean Energy Regulations – The developing NCES is advocated to hugely benefit the economy by substantially growing U.S. clean energy supply.  Senate advocates state that NCES will have ‘zero’ impact on U.S. GDP and does not increase Federal tax revenues.  A recent Harvard survey (Willingness to pay and political support for a US national clean energy standard, http://www.climateaccess.org/sites/default/files/Aldy_Willingness%20to%20pay%20and%20political%20support.pdf) indicates that the Public is willing to support the NCES and pay increased average power costs up to $162/yr. or about 13% increased annual average power bills.  More recent Senate discussions would possibly limit average power price increases to 5% maximum.

Strategy to Increase U.S. Clean Energy Supply and Reduce Carbon Emissions – The Electric Power Sector’s coal consumption accounts for 31% of total U.S. CO2 emissions.  Although petroleum consumed by the Transportation Sector accounts for 33% of total U.S. CO2 emissions, the options for reducing petroleum consumption are very complex and expensive. Substantially reducing Transportation Sector petroleum consumption and associated CO2 requires replacing most of the current U.S. 200 million cars, SUV’s and trucks with much more efficient vehicles.  This includes substantially increased fleet CAFE standards, including building 10’s of millions of plug-in hybrid’s and electric vehicles (EV) over the next couple decades.  Rapidly expanding EV production is still challenged by needed battery technology improvements and expanded re-charging infrastructure costs. 

Coal accounts for 42% of total U.S. net power generation today.  A very feasible strategy to quickly and substantially reducing U.S. CO2 emissions is replacing most or all of the coal consumed within the Electric Power Sector.  The Power Sector consumes the vast majority of U.S. coal in about 600 power plants across the U.S.  Replacing coal power with clean energy or clean power also provides an excellent synergy for reducing future Transportation Sector CO2 emissions.   For future EV’s to eventually become ‘zero emission vehicles’ (ZEV’s) requires substantial reductions in fossil fuels used to generate U.S. electric power.  Replacing all coal with clean power facilitates the actual development of future ZEV fleets.

Strategy for Replacing Coal Power – The options for replacing coal power with clean power include nuclear, natural gas, hydroelectric, wind, solar and other renewable power.  Cost effectiveness of each clean power source varies considerably.  The EIA has estimated the ‘levelized’ (relative) cost for different power generation technologies (Table 1. Estimated Levelized Cost of New Generation Resources,  http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/electricity_generation.cfm).  Levelized power costs vary from $66/MWH for natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power up to $242/MWH for solar thermal.  Although clean energy technology developments are being routinely made, a sound strategy for determining the most cost effective options to replace coal with clean power is to possibly build on the recent historic clean power successes.  The two most successful clean power sources over the past couple decades have been on-shore wind and natural gas.  In just the past 5 years, wind and natural gas power have grown by 250% and 13% respectively, which exceeds the growth of all other clean power sources combined by a factor > two.

The huge recent historic growth of wind and natural gas power has also been designed and built primarily to provide centralize power capacity for supplying regional and national power grids.  An effective strategy for quickly displacing coal could be possibly installing 50% wind and 50% natural gas new clean power capacity.

Review of EIA Power Plant Capital and Operating Costs Data – The EIA uses a sophisticated computer model, National Energy Modeling System (NEMS), to make projections of future U.S. energy balances and costs, and to evaluate Federal regulations including ACES and NCES.  Besides the 100’s of assumptions required to model different regulations, large numbers of energy supply cost estimates are required.  To estimate the costs of new wind farms and natural gas power plants’ capital and operating costs the EIA uses data from a variety of sources (Table 1. Updated Estimates of Power Plant Capital and Operating Costs,  http://www.eia.gov/oiaf/beck_plantcosts/index.html).  Review of EIA power generation data found fixed & variable costs, capacity factors and heat rate estimates to be reasonable.  However, a significant gap was found in estimated capital costs for new clean power capacity and the assumptions used for properly managing very large increases of variable wind power supply.

Rather than working through the EIA bureaucracy to hopefully gain access to the NEMS Electric Market Module, I developed a new economic model.  Based on the latest EIA data and assumptions, the following Table 1 summarizes the results from this new model based on replacing all existing coal power with 50/50 new natural gas and wind power:

Table 1 – Unadjusted EIA Clean Power Costs

 

Annual Net Power Generation

‘Book’ and New Capital Costs

Total Annual Power Expenses

Average Delivered Power Costs

U.S. Power Technology

109 KWH/yr

$Billion

$Billion/yr

$/KWH

2011 Coal Power Plants

1,734

‘184’

68

0.099

 

New NGCC Base-load Plants

867

111

46

0.113

New On-shore Wind Farms

867

731

44

0.110

Total New Net Power Capacity

1,734 avg.

842

90

0.112 avg.

Note: all costs are based on 2011 dollars and EIA MER 2011 data 

The above calculation results indicate that replacing all existing coal power with new natural gas and wind power will require $0.84 Trillion in capital costs and increases annual power production costs from $68 Billion/yr. up to $90 Billion/yr.  This results in a 13% increase in average delivered power costs for the fraction of total U.S. power supplied currently by coal.  The increase in of delivered power costs based on replacing all coal with 50/50 natural gas/wind power results in total average U.S. delivered power costs increasing by 5%.  These calculated results appear to agree reasonably well with EIA NEMS estimates.

Improving EIA Estimated Costs for Replacing Coal with Clean Power – My review of recent EIA Clean Energy regulation analysis reports found a number of assumptions that can contribute to very low cost estimates for substantial new wind and natural gas power capacity.  Identified problematic EIA assumptions include: 1) all new clean power would be located adjacent existing facilities (off-site costs deficiency), 2) installing substantial ‘non-dispatchable’, variable wind power without adequate peaking power capacity (backup power cost deficiency), and, 3) not including the ‘stranded’ costs for prematurely shutting down existing coal power capacity (basic economics gap).  Off-site costs should include multiple miles of power lines and natural gas pipelines infrastructures.  Assuming all new clean power capacity is built adjacent existing power plants or wind farms and have access to existing public utility systems (makeup water, waste water treatment, etc.) is not a reasonable assumption on average.  The new clean power should be built in optimal locations to access ideal wind conditions, and must adequately supply the existing power grids to ensure system supply-demand balance stability.  This is required to displace existing fully ‘dispatchable, base-load’ coal power plants capacities.  Grossly underestimating required off-site infrastructure costs was a major contributing factor to cancelling the T. Boone Pickens’ 4,000 MW Texas wind farm project a few years ago (Cost Estimates of T. Boone’s Colossal Wind Farm Keep Rising, http://gigaom.com/cleantech/cost-estimates-of-t-boones-colossal-wind-farm-keep-rising/).

All non-dispatchable, variable wind and solar power generation built over the years have benefited from existing excess ‘peaking’ power generation capacity.  As wind and solar power supply drop off-line (loss of wind and sunlight), the lost power is supplied by quickly ramping up existing peaking fossil fuel power plant generation.  Existing peaking power capacity is critical to controlling power grid supply-demand balances and providing reliable uninterrupted power supply to end-use customers.  This past economic advantage, however, is rapidly coming to an end as wind and solar power continue to expand and exceed available spare peaking power capacity.  To substantially expand wind power generation capacity from the current 3% level up to 23% of total U.S. net power generation will require installing new backup peaking power capacity.  This is required to maintain stable power grid operations.  Displacing 50% of current coal power requires increasing wind power up to 23%.  This will involve installing new natural gas ‘combustion turbine’ (NGCT) peaking power plant capacity.

The combination of increased off-site infrastructure capital costs, required new NGCT peaking power capacity and paying all shutdown coal plant stranded capital expenses (assumes no bankruptcies) should significantly increase the original EIA clean power estimates to more reasonably accurate levels.  Refer to the following Table 2:

TABLE 2 – Adjusted EIA Clean Power Costs

 

Annual Net Power Generation

‘Stranded’ and New Capital Costs

Total Annual Power Expenses

Average Delivered Power Costs

U.S. Power Technology

109 KWH/yr

$Billion

$Billion/yr

$/KWH

Shutdown Coal Power Plants

(1,734)

‘184’

9

 

New NGCC Base-load Plants

867

124

47

0.114

New NGCT Peaking Plants

Up to 867

194

31

New On-shore Wind Farms

867

844

49

0.163***

Total New Net Power Capacity

1,734 avg.

1,162*

136**

0.138 avg.

*Excludes stranded coal power capital cost.  **Includes stranded coal power capital expenses.  ***Includes incremental NGCT costs.  Wind power total average delivered power cost = $0.116/KWH (standalone new wind farms) + $0.047/KWH (new NGCT backup peaking power).

The above calculation results show that by adjusting the original EIA estimates for more reasonable off-site costs, installing adequate backup peaking power capacity and covering all shutdown coal plant stranded capital expenses will increase the delivered average power costs from $0.099/KWH (coal power basis) up to a combined average of $0.138/KWH; an increase of 40% over original EIA estimates.  This is equivalent to increasing the average Household’s annual power expenses by about $225 per household per year; well above the level the recent Harvard survey indicated was acceptable to the general Public.

‘Standalone’ new on-shore wind power (excluding future needed new NGCT peaking power) is calculated to deliver power at $0.116/KWH, which is greater than the current U.S. average market price of $0.100/KWH.  This 1.6 cent/KWH ‘negative margin’ explains why The American Wind Association anticipates that construction of new U.S. wind power capacity will begin declining rapidly if Congress does not extend the current 2.2 cent/KWH subsidies that are scheduled to expire later this year (Wind-power firms on edge, http://www.wind-watch.org/news/2012/02/02/wind-power-firms-on-edge/). 

Analysis of Clean Energy Cost Impacts – The estimated increase of clean power cost from $0.099/KWH (coal basis) up to $0.138/KWH equates to about a 16% increase in total average U.S. delivered power cost.  This increase greatly exceeds the developing Senate NCES regulation, which may set the maximum power price increase at 5% or $70/Household-yr.  Under NCES all Households would theoretically only pay $8.4 Billion/yr. of the total increased clean power costs.  This implies that the Industrial, Commercial and Transportation Sectors will be required to pay the balance of increased annual clean power costs.  The more likely reality is that all increased clean power costs will be passed through and eventually paid by Residential Sector consumers.  This effectively increases Household annual direct + indirect expenses (assuming no markups) to $565/household-yr.  Also, note that total capital costs increased from $0.84 Trillion up to $1.16 Trillion.  This required $1.16 Trillion investment is about 8% of the total current U.S. annual GDP.  Although replacing all U.S. coal power with clean power will realistically take 10-20 years, this level of investment is huge compared to most past Federal Government capital intensive initiatives.

Other Expanded Clean Energy Impacts – Replacing all U.S. coal power with clean power reduces total annual CO2 emissions by about 1,320 million metric tons per year (million MT/yr.).  This is equivalent to a 24% reduction of total 2011 U.S. CO2 emissions.  Average CO2 reduction costs would be about $51.50/MT. 

Based on this analysis of replacing all U.S. coal power with clean energy, total U.S. CO2 emissions would also be reduced by almost 22% from 2005 levels; the ACES base year for target CO2 reductions.  Assuming other clean energy alternatives are competitive to replacing coal power with natural gas & wind clean power (i.e. $51.50/MT CO2), the total average-annual cost to achieve the ACES ultimate 80% CO2 reduction target would be about $220 Billion/yr.  This is equivalent to about $1,835 direct + indirect increased Household annual power related expenses or almost 4% of total average gross Household income.  This means the estimated ACES one postage stamp per household per day could actually cost up to $5.00/stamp vs. the CBO/EPA original estimate of less than 44 cents.

Factors That Affect the Costs for Replacing Coal with Clean Power – Replacing coal power with natural gas and wind power is subject to many variables that can affect actual costs.  These include relative inflation of materials & labor , fuel, land, etc.  One important variable is the price of natural gas.  The replacement of coal with 50% NGCC and 50% wind + NGCT backup power can increase U.S. natural gas consumption by almost 7 trillion cubic feet per year; a 28% increase from 2011.  Depending on future increased production successes and the level of environmental barriers, actual natural gas prices could be above the $5.93/million Btu estimate (2011 dollar basis) used in this analysis.

Another factor that can significantly affect the increased clean power costs is the actual ‘capacity factor’ of wind power.  To protect endangered birds and bats regulations are being developed, which will reduce the capacity factor of wind turbines significantly below EIA estimates (Wildlife slows wind power, http://www.wind-watch.org/news/2011/12/11/wildlife-slows-wind-power/).   A 10% wind power capacity factor reduction (33% to 30%) will increase total calculated clean power annual costs by almost $5 Billion/yr.

About 23% of total annual costs for replacing coal with clean power come from building and operating new NGCT peaking power capacity.  These backup power costs can be feasibly reduced by installing new commercial scale power storage such as hydroelectric pumped storage or other successfully developed new technologies.  The need for some peaking power capacity could also be reduced by possible future ‘smart’ grid upgrades and significant expansion of current energy efficiency improvement initiatives.  The feasibility of these power grid control-demand improvements off setting possible increases in natural gas prices, reduced wind power capacity factors, and other costs requires further study.

Future Clean Energy Development – During my 30+ year career I have designed, built, operated and managed many large energy related projects including refining units and co-generation power plants, and the associated utilities and infrastructures.  I have experience with many successful projects that still operate profitably today, and projects that were cancelled due to poor scope development and economics. 

Before the U.S. invests $100’s of Billions in future clean energy projects we need to be very certain that the estimated costs are reasonably accurate and the benefits justify the costs.

Image Credit: Danicek/Shutterstock

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David Norris's picture
David Norris on Jul 31, 2012

First, this was an excellent article.  It was technical enough that I could understand your reasoning but short enough to be readable.  Very good.

Secondly, your conclusions are quite reasonable with other studies I have seen.  For example, the estimated costs for wind power generally run aroun $.18/kwhr.  Furthermore, this is the reimbursement rate that existing wind power plants most often get.  So, your estimate of $.163/kwhr is close.  I am sure that when you actually build more of these, we might find that $.18/kwhr is actually the better number.

Thirdly, I think the assumption that natural gas prices stay low is very questionable.  Why would the energy companies want to keep those prices that low.  Even now, designs are being done to create LNG plants to ship natural gas overseas to take advantage of the higher prices there.  What happens to this model when natural gas goes to say $4.50/million btur?

 

 

Edward Kerr's picture
Edward Kerr on Aug 1, 2012

John,

Interesting analysis of the problem of transitioning to "clean energy". However, to me, it looks like a Three Card Monty situation. (where is the clean energy card?) Natural gas, aside from not being anything that resembles clean energy, has a whole host of exigent costs and other variables, future cost being one of the more glaring ones. The idea that we have "all the time in the world" to accomplish replacing coal with clean energy is a dangerous fallacy.

Bill McKibben, a co-founder of 350.org (so his outlook is biased but his math is correct) has recently written a sobering article on the CO2 issue {read it here: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/07/24-2} and, if he is accurate your assessment needs an overhaul.

The question is not "Can we replace US coal with clean energy". The issue is we MUST replace coal with clean energy but how do we best accomplish the task (which as you note will be an Hurculean one at best). I've personally averred on my blog that the fate of humanity hangs in the balance of what we do or do not do right now and I reiterate that sentiment here. Suggesting otherwise is irresponsible and misguided.

Ed

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Aug 1, 2012

Ed, the basis for my post is using the ‘clean energy’ definition as proposed in the developing U.S. Senate NCES regulation.  You are correct, by a strict zero carbon standard, natural gas would not qualify.  As you may be aware, carbon free solutions to replacing coal are severely constrained by power storage technology.  For zero carbon solar and wind to supply modern societies’ energy needs, commercial scale power storage is required.  Today in the U.S. only hydroelectric pumped storage is available, with about a 6 billion KWH average annual capacity (EIA MER 2011).  This compares to my estimated 867 billion KWH needed to replace just 50% of coal power with wind power.  My estimated cost for natural gas (NGCT) peaking power required to backup this new wind power is $0.047/KWH.  This figure can possibly provide a reasonable basis for the economics of developing new power storage options needed in the future.  Some envisioned power storage options include solar thermal salt-heat systems, hydrogen fuel cells, distributed batteries (including EV’s), compressed air, fly wheels, etc.  My quick evaluation of these technologies finds the overall power cycles to be extremely inefficient and much more costly than the NGCT option shown in my post.  Commercially proven hydroelectric pumped storage is probably the most economically viable solution currently available, but its environmental impacts will likely continue to be a major constraint.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 1, 2012

Ed, once again I agree with you.

I know many on this blog are selling something, so I hope you don't take my suggestions as more cheap promotion. But the concept of "solar biofuels" has really caught on in private circles. Storing solar energy in high energy product chemical fuels derived from biomass waste. All the carbon sequestered in soil and other bioproducts retain value as well. While ultra high temperature chemical reactions produce fuel from stable biowaste.

A second concept with some possibilities is near infrared fuel cells. I noticed IBM (et.al.) is working on direct bandgap PVs that don't require the rare earth dopants. The concept is, as hydrogen (from eg. methane) oxidizes to H20 and relaxes O-H vibration as it cools it emits very selective light frequencies. These photons can then generate electricity, while other molecular modes can simply heat residential hot water.

I don't really care if you or anybody here believes me. It just serve to suggest there are alternatives far outside the "either/or" options many present.

Edward Kerr's picture
Edward Kerr on Aug 1, 2012

John,

I hope that you didn't take my comment as any kind of attack on your person. From the standard paradigm your analysis is comprehensive and accurate. My complaint, if you will, is that we are confronted with a situation that is going to take some expansive "out of the box" thinking. Dealing with the "variability" of our present "alternative" power sources (wind and solar) are, admittedly, a BIG PROBLEM. Storage (of the most perishable commodity in the world-electricity) by itself will not, as you note, be enough. The grid itself is also going to need upgrading. Natural gas 'ramping' will be with us a long time (if we have a long time) and is a step in the right direction. Obviously, to be effective, alternative energies will need to have a large built in redundancy along with better distribution in order to serve our needs.

All of the technical problems we face are solvable. However, the political problems, surrounding clean energy, don't seem to be lending themselves to any consensus. This could prove to be the "fly in the ointment". Without 'political' support we will never have even a chance. The market place seem to me to also suffer from the schizophrenia that the congress does. Both need to be on the same page for any success to happen in time. The Senate's NCES regulations are not an appropriate response to this most pressing of human problems. Within it's confines, though, your work is "right on", as the youngsters say.

With best personal regards,

Ed

 

Edward Kerr's picture
Edward Kerr on Aug 1, 2012

Rick,

When I suggested to John that the solution to the clean energy issue will take some "out of the box" thinking I was referring to the type of things that you mention here. It will take a multifarious approach to completely move to a carbon-less energy paradigm. No single option, short of utilizing the earths magnetic field to produce currant, will make it happen. There may be, in time, a single answer but for now we need to scale up those technologies that we presently have available.

With the Sun providing all of the energy that we can ever use we don't have an energy problem. What we have is a problem of "imagination" and "politics".

Regards,

Ed

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Aug 1, 2012

David, thanks for the feedback.  Your identified estimated cost of $0.18/KWH is possibly more accurate.  The post $0.163/KWH is an average cost developed significantly from EIA data.  My sensitivity analysis indicates that $0.18/KWH wind power is well within the reasonable range of costs.  With all the Federal subsidies over the years and likely in the future I wish the Government would create a data base for real-world costs of all renewable power projects that receive taxpayer dollars.  Besides documenting actual installed and operating costs, routinely reporting actual capacity factors would be of value.  A year ago the EIA used 37% for ‘average’ wind capacity factor and recently updated the value to 33% (used in my post).  My personal research indicates that actual capacity factors are 25-35%.  A contact a few years ago told me that Texas budgeted 20% for average annual wind power.

You are correct, my assumed average $5.93/million Btu (used to duplicate the EIA basis estimates) could be much lower than supply-demand fundamentals would indicate.  If U.S. total natural gas consumption increased by my estimated 28% the price could easily increase up to at least $10/million Btu (same level as we experienced in 2005).  This would increase natural gas power costs: NGCC base-load power $0.114 to $0.143/KWH and NGCT peaking-load $0.046 to $0.053/KWH.  This would also increase the total power costs including wind power $0.138 to $0.156; almost a 60% increase above current estimated coal power costs (vs. 40% in the post).

The Natural Gas Industry’s plans to export LNG are economically justified by the current U.S. over-supply situation and the much higher world natural gas market prices.  This strategy appears to be fairly shortsighted based on the regulatory pressure facing coal power and from a U.S. ‘energy security’ perspective.  If the Federal Government is serious about cleaning up coal power plants, reducing CO2 emissions and increasing U.S. energy security (reduced oil imports), they would not approve LNG exports and would put renewed and expanded support on converting MD/HD vehicles to natural gas.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Aug 2, 2012

Willem, my model and estimates are based on EIA data which assumes that the wind power nominal capacity is 100 MW per wind farm.    Analysis of their cost estimates indicates modeling 1 MW turbines vs. state-of-art 3-5 MW.  The natural gas usage of the peaking NGCT is based on idling or operating this backup power in ‘hot standby’ 24 hours a day.  As you are aware, this continuous standby backup power is required due to the fact that on any given day the wind can be unpredictable due to changing weather conditions.  Since the estimated wind power can produce KW’s > the required design 867 billion/KWH-yr. (replacing 50% of coal power) during part of the year, the assumption is that all peaking power produced above the idling mode would be offset (i.e. other peaking and intermediate power would be turned down).  You are correct that the NGCT peaking power plants are less efficient than base-load NGCC plants (10,850 Btu/KWH vs. 7,050 Btu/KWH nominal heat rates respectively).  The peaking power plants must be operated and staffed continuously to provide backup power when the wind dies or is too strong.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 2, 2012

Willem, I have always agreed with your expansion of GW "culprits." Some additional positive feedback culprits are readily apparent today.

While emissions are a concern, we have plowed up most arable land and replaced existing plant life with crops that usually don't breathe renewed air until well after prime spring growing season. We are emitting CO2 and not consuming CO2. This non-steady state is accelerating CO2 build up far beyond measures of CO2 emissions.

And we plant crops that are heavy consumers of water, thus rapidly depleting water reserves. We could not try harder to create a desert oven in the center of the continent.

I have followed this map from NOAA (it has explicitly shown the climate disaster);

http://graphical.weather.gov/sectors/uppermissvlyLoop.php#tabs

And we watch other areas of the country's forest burn and die; again, no more air and water (climate) control. Where is any awareness of our biological context? Where do people think our food, air, water, and climate come from?

We are facing generic GW, food loss, excessive heat, drought, lost exports, high unemployment, debt, etc. Each of these is impacted by each other. This is a highly non-linear instability. And non-linear relations are hard to pin numbers on without proven analytic relations that don't exist. The business barometer reflects these concerns.

My fear is we are heading to collapse. And many feel good lollipop solutions are a pychological defense you vainly try take away. The forest and cropland now failing are the map, are the climate, are our life support.

You are clearly very capable. I really wish you would redirect your fine skills and present more constructive ideas on a map scale. We need a way out of this, quick.

 

Joe Giambrone's picture
Joe Giambrone on Aug 2, 2012

This article limited the option to wind and obfuscated by labelling wind as "clean energy" a term that encompasses many more technologies.

Enhanced Geothermal Systems should be on everyone's radar.  It is small footprint, widely dispersed, and does not peak.  It is a reliable, near infinite source of clean energy that has been stifled in the United States.  A 2005 MIT study shows that EGS is the best answer for future energy systems (and for God's sake certainly NOT coal, or nuclear).

Solar "Power Towers" have recently conquered the problem of the sun going down by storing enough heat during the day (at the Spain site) to continue generating electricity all night until the next morning.

Confining the discussion to wind and concentraiting solely on the problems associated with wind is a major mistake.

 

 

 

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Aug 3, 2012

Polfilm, you are correct that geothermal is potentially a good option for clean power.  It is fully dispatchable, has a very high capacity factor, very small carbon footprint and relatively low variable operating costs compared to natural gas power.  Unfortunately, geothermal capital costs are fairly high.  For a number of reasons U.S. geothermal power capacity has been relatively constant since 1989.  Some research I have seen indicates the U.S. has plenty of geologically suitable areas to substantially expand geothermal power generation; if supported by private and public entities.

Solar thermal is another option, but also has relatively high capital costs.  Analysis of the thermal efficiency of molten salt heat sink-power generation systems indicates that this storage technology is relatively inefficient and costly.  Further R&D can possibly help improve this technology in the future.

Joe Giambrone's picture
Joe Giambrone on Aug 3, 2012

The cost is for the first one of its kind.  Of course it will be a bit pricey.  How much is it worth to keep New York City above sea level?  How much to keep the babies of Northern Japan from coming out with mutated limbs and tumors?

A lot of cost calculations ignore the "externalized costs" that are paid by the environment, by future generations, etc.  Fossil fuel has artificially lowered the "cost" of energy -- with a one-time limited and highly costly in terms of pollution and rising temperatures -- option.  Price is relative and other factors are arguably of greater importance: what we're buying -- and NOT buying.  After all the question isn't "what's the cheapest alternative?"  It's "What's the best for humanity and the environment?"

You seem to have very good research skills. How about putting them toward Ehnanced Geothermal?  The heat is already there.  You might also put them into finding out the true effects of radiation on those left behind in the contaminated zones before endorsing nuclear, which is a morally indefensible technology.

 

 

 

 

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 3, 2012

Editor's Note: This comment has been modified from it's original form.

It has become customary on TEC to pull some cost out of the air (to some remarkable fraction) and float it as fact. Willem Post and Geoffrey Styles do this, as now does John Miller.

They claim is that in a closed economic system, the money cited to build (eg. a concentrated solar plant) sustainable infrastructure facility is the same money used to buy a loaf of bread. Money is never spent while wealth is created.

In a fossil fuel system, wealth is, by definition, lost. It is never a closed system consuming fuels and environment. It might be true wealth is created from useful work, but sometime wealth is lost.

We need some good ideas, not more of the same.

 

 

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 3, 2012

Kent, we went on a little trip yesterday to an old mining town (1900) in Minnesota. The road had several repair sites as it travelled for hours through intense forest and wetlands, broken only by a few towns with populations averaging 100. There were a few logging trucks on the road, dwarfed by their surroundings, trying to haul to who knows where. Along the way were several abandoned railroad beds converted to recreational motor sports like snowmobiles and 4wheel scooters.

We are literally buried in climate critical, sustainable fuel that reaches to Hudson Bay, and industry has been moving backwards for 50 years at full speed. The only interest in wind is if it blows the forest onto the road there will be too few people to clean it up. We have been successfully re-educated into complete dependency of resources and information.

Michael Carter's picture
Michael Carter on Aug 3, 2012

John,

Really enjoyed the article, gives some perspective as to challenges we face as we attempt to decarbonize our energy supply. I have a few questions about your own model:

(1) $/MWH is based on current gen technology (i.e. 1 MW turbines not state of the art 3 - 5 MW)? Does the analysis account for expected price decreases or increases between now and 2017?

(2) How did you develop the your cost for backup power needed to accommodate new wind? Did you take into account existing auxiliary NG systems or hydro systems or did you assume all back-up would be new installations? I found the following extremely informative about wind integration methodologies and would recommend both:

http://www.nrel.gov/wind/systemsintegration/pdfs/2010/ewits_final_report.pdf

http://www.nrel.gov/wind/systemsintegration/pdfs/2010/wwsis_final_report.pdf

(3) How did you estimate the cost of transmission needed for new generation capacity? Did you discount any amount for required grid upgrades (to keep the grid in running shape)? 

I understand that your model may contain proprietary information you wish not to share, also I hope the above doesn't seem too nitpicky I am just attempting to gain further understanding of how your numbers were derived.

Thanks,

Michael Carter

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Aug 3, 2012

Michael, some answers to your questions,

  1. All dollars are based on 2011.  I normally find that keeping inflation out of the mix avoids confusion and has more flexibility.  You can then apply any reasonable inflation factor over whatever period is assumed to represent the timeframe needed to build and startup the new power generation capacity (5 or 10 or 20 years+).  My estimate for natural gas was fixed at $5.93/MBtu (vs. $4.71/MBtu: EIA MER 2011 annual average).  This estimate basis is somewhat complex.
  2. I assumed that all backup power was new NGCT.  I do not have access to enough information to reasonably determine the current average U.S. level of excess peaking power available.  Based on the level of wind power needed to displace 50% coal power and EIA data of actual capacity usage, I doubt that available hydroelectric pumped storage is significant.  Your NREL reference is an excellent suggestion for more detailed review.
  3. I kept the transmission costs very basic.  Review of EIA data showed that they basically assumed all new wind power was built adjacent or to expand existing wind farms.  I do not believe this is reasonable for substantial expansion of on-shore wind power across the U.S.  As you are aware we can’t feasibly built wind farms on the East Coast to supply power directly to the West Coast.  After developing a number of new wind farm location options based on my understanding of ideal locations across the continental U.S., I estimated that new transmission lines were likely be required between 5-50 miles on average for each new wind farm.  In my model I used 25 mile per new wind farm of new transmission lines based on $1.5 million per mile including substations, switchgear and controls.  This I believe is a relatively conservative estimate and probably needs further evaluation to improve upon.

Hope this is helpful.

Roy Wagner's picture
Roy Wagner on Aug 4, 2012

I cannot understand your price for coal generation it seems way to low less than 1 cent a KWH? his map is based on the same oranizations figures.

http://www.nma.org/pdf/c_map_use_cost_electricity.pdf

 

What are you not including Mining, Delivery, Scrubbers, Ash disposal ? Interest on the Cost of Power Plant construction or considerably longer than 25 Miles of transmission  lines. Maintenance.

Roy Wagner's picture
Roy Wagner on Aug 4, 2012

I apologise I misread the price stated please diregard last post.

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