Engineering and Project Management Realities

A core theme of this site is it is vital for people of faith to understand the scientific, engineering and project management realities to do with climate change. This understanding is a part of the theme 'Understand and Tell the Truth'. If we promote ideas and solutions that simply will not work then a lot of time and effort will have been wasted, and the church’s credibility will suffer. Two examples at this page illustrate the importance of facing these realities. The first example is Net Zero by 2050, the second is An Episcopal Policy Statement’.

Net Zero by 2050

 
Annual-CO2-Emissions-Projected

The chart shows CO2  (carbon dioxide) emissions for the last two centuries from human activities. The value on the y-axis is gigatons or billions of metric tons per year. Up until the year 1950 emissions were low — less than 5 gigatons per annum. But then emissions took off. By the year 2020 the value was close to 40 gigatons annually. (The pandemic in the year 2020 caused a slight dip, but emissions have already “recovered”.)

 

In response to the consequences of climate change many organizations and large companies have committed to a target of ‘Net Zero by 2050’ (NZ2050). They aim to have zero emissions of greenhouse gases from their operations less than 30 years from now, as shown in the dashed line on the chart.  (The topic of 'Net Zero by 2050' in the energy and process industries is discussed in detail at the Sutton Technical Books site.)

It can be seen that, in order to meet NZ2050 goals, CO2 emissions will have to be reduced at a faster rate than they have been increasing during the last 70 years. This is, to put it mildly, a challenge, given that emissions and economic prosperity go hand in hand. There are few signs that the world community is even close to making such a commitment. The scope of the engineering, project management and financial challenges are almost impossible to comprehend.

Barring some type of social transformation, it is unlikely that we will achieve the Net Zero goal within three decades. Therefore we face the prospect of a world where the climate becomes so serious that crop failures and mass migrations become normal. Bad as this may sound, the situation does provide an opportunity for the church and for people of faith to provide leadership to a perplexed and struggling world.

However, this insight — such as it is — does mean people in the church need to see their work in context. Programs such as recycling, less driving and the installation of solar panels deserve our full support. However, we should understand that such programs are hardly going to make in a dent in the CO2 emissions curve. 

In other words, we need to understand the truth — in this case the fact that our programs are mostly modifying a system that really needs structural change.

Episcopal Policy Statement
 

Many organizations, including religious institutions, publish mission statements to do with climate change that are not really feasible. Or, even if they can be carried out technically, meeting the called for goals would require an enormous commitment of time, money and resources. If they are to be credible, mission and program statements should be evaluated for engineering, project management and financial realities.


A Policy Statement published in the year 2019 by the Episcopal Church illustrates the need for a reality check. The intent and spirit of the Policy Statement is something that calls for broad acceptance and that deserves our full support. However, proposals such as this need to be fully defensible or they lose credibility. 


The statement included the following paragraph.

Ambitious policy is needed in order to support the transition away from fossil fuels and to facilitate the introduction of renewable energy. An eventual goal of attaining 100% renewable energy is ideal, and it is very important that we keep that lofty goal in our sights.

 

Before analyzing the statement, it needs to be expanded and fleshed out so that its parameters are better defined. The following factors need to be considered.

  1. No timing is provided. However, many similar statements from various sources suggest that transitions such as these should be complete by the year 2050 — twenty eight years from now.

  2. The term “renewable energy” is not defined. There are three possible avenues given the short time frame: nuclear power, wind and solar. Each has many challenges, but they are our only choices. We do not have enough time to research, develop and implement futuristic energy sources such as nuclear fusion or large scale geothermal.

  3. There is an unstated implication that there will be no need to severely cut back our current energy-profligate lifestyle.

  4. Energy consumption in recent decades has increased at a rate of about 2% per annum. Meeting the stated goals will be difficult enough without continued growth, so, for the purposes of this discussion, we assume that energy consumption remains at current levels, i.e., that the economy will not grow.

When these factors are included, the policy statement can be written as follows (emphasis mine),

 

Ambitious policy is needed in order to support the transition away from fossil fuels by the year 2050 and to facilitate the introduction of nuclear or renewable energy (solar or wind power). An eventual goal of attaining 100% renewable energy without needing to make significant cuts in our current energy consumption and without any growth in energy use is ideal, and it is very important that we keep that lofty goal in our sights.

 

The above statement can now be analyzed for technical feasibility. The calculations here are for the United States. They are very, very approximate, but they give us a feel as to what can be achieved.
 

 
Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant

Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in the year 2019 the total energy consumption for the United States was around 85 quadrillion Btu. Of this total, 7 quadrillion Btus came from nuclear, and 6 quadrillion from renewables. The remainder came from fossil fuels: coal and natural gas. Therefore, 72 quadrillion Btu needs to be replaced over a 28 year time period.

There are about 100 nuclear power plants in the United States. Therefore, if we are to replace fossil fuel energy with nuclear-generated electricity around 1,000 new plants will be needed. Spread over a time period of 28 years this means that we need 36 new facilities every year for the next three decades. In other words the existing nuclear fleet will have to be replicated every three years.

It takes many years to plan, design, build and commission a nuclear power plant, so the rate at which they will have to be built is probably closer to 50 per year. But there are many other factors to consider, including the following:

 

  • The existing nuclear fleet is aging. Many of the existing nuclear power plants will have to be replaced.

  • The electrical grid will need to be massively expanded to provide energy to the transportation fleet.

  • Disposal problems to do with nuclear waste will increase by a factor of ten.

  • Supplies of uranium may be limited — particularly if other nations are implementing a similar program.

  • Massive amounts of fossil fuel energy would be needed to rebuild the our energy system, thus creating a large “carbon pulse”.

  • If energy use increases at the historical rate of 2% per annum then the number of new reactors called for goes up to around 1,750.
     

But the fundamental problem is that any program on the scale just described would call for a total commitment of everyone, every business and every government. There are no signs that such a commitment is even being considered.


Calculations such as these show that many of the “green goals” espoused in policy proposals such as the one that started this section are not realistic. Even if the calculation is “off” by a factor of two or three or five, the result is the same — we cannot meet the goals of the Episcopal policy statement using nuclear power within the time constraints provided.

A similar calculation for solar and wind reaches the same conclusion. Indeed, the conclusions are worse because fossil-fuel capacity is required to fill in the gaps when these intermittent sources are not providing power at the time that it is needed. Moreover, because their energy density is so low, immense amounts of land will be needed for the solar and wind farms, and for the transmission lines that will take the power to the customers.

A Revised Policy Statement

The point this type of analysis is not to throw cold water on alternative energy projects. They are needed, and they deserve out full support. But they are not going to come close to meeting all of our energy needs in the specified time frame. The unfortunate reality is that the clause ‘without needing to make significant cuts in our energy consumption’ needs to be removed from the Policy Statement. The Policy Statement then becomes,

Ambitious policy is needed in order to support the transition away from fossil fuels by the year 2050 and to facilitate the introduction of renewable energy (nuclear, solar or wind power). An eventual goal of attaining 100% renewable energy is ideal, and it is very important that we keep that lofty goal in our sights. This goal can only be achieved if we make immediate and drastic cuts in energy consumption.

We cannot have our alternative energy cake and eat it.

Radical changes and cutbacks in lifestyles are called for. This is where the faith community can provide leadership.