Episcopal Renewable Energy Proposal
The Mission Statement for this site includes the phrase, “technically sound leadership”. All too often, organizations publish worthy policy or mission statements that are not feasible. Either they cannot be done within the constraints of the laws of science (physics, thermodynamics, biology), or else they cannot be achieved due to financial or project management constraints.
In this page we take a Policy Statement published by the Episcopal Church (USA), and use it to illustrate some of the difficulties just mentioned. It must be stressed that we are not opposed to the intent or spirit of such proposals — just the opposite — we need more action to reduce our impact on the natural world. However, our proposals need to be fully defensible.
The Episcopal Statement
In the year 2019 a statement to do with renewable energy was published by the Episcopal Church USA. 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.
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 nine years from now.
The term “renewable energy” is not defined. There are two possible avenues given the short time frame: nuclear power or wind/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.
There is an unstated implication that there will be no need to severely cut back our current energy-profligate lifestyle.
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 we will assume that energy consumption remains at current levels.
When these factors are included, the policy statement becomes something on the following lines (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 per capita 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 approximate, but they give us a feel as to what can be achieved.
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 30 year time period.
Converting from energy to power, we see that 2.38 * 10EXP(6) MW (megawatts) of new capacity from alternative energy sources is required, spread over 30 years.
Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant
Let’s assume that the replacement is to come from nuclear power. A large nuclear reactor, such as one of those at the Turkey Point plant in Florida, has a generating capacity of about 802 MW. Therefore, we need (2.38 * 10EXP(6)/802) new reactors to be built and commissioned during the next 30 years. This means that, in round numbers, 3,000 new reactors are needed, or 100 per year, i.e., two per week. Currently, the United States has about 104 operating nuclear power plants, so we would have to duplicate the entire fleet every year. (If we assume that energy usage increases by 2% per annum then, over a period of 30 years, 5,400 reactors will be needed.)
Calculations such as these show that many of the “green goals” espoused in policy proposals such as the one that started this post are not close to being 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.
A similar calculation for solar and wind reaches similar conclusions. Indeed, the conclusions are worse because fossil-fuel capacity is required to fill in the gaps because these renewable power sources are so intermittent. 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.
The point of calculations such as these 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.
Given these technical challenges to the church’s proposed policy statement, a more realistic form for the proposal could be on the following lines.
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 all make immediate and drastic cuts in their energy consumption.