Episcopal Renewable Energy Proposal
Many organizations, including religious institutions, publish mission statements to do with climate change that are not really feasible. Or at least 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 recently 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 Policy 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 or large scale geothermal.
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, 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
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 29 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 the 29 years.
Let’s assume that the replacement is to come from nuclear power. A large nuclear reactor, such as one of those installed 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 over the course of the next 29 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 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.