Electricity Generation and the Obama-Biden Plan

Energy and the Environment

Electricity generation is generally not one’s first priority when it comes to reading. However, I admit that I found it interesting when perusing Change.gov to find, among many, these three energy/environmental goals:

  • Ensure 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025.
  • Develop and deploy clean coal technology.
  • Implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

The first consideration is to ask what large energy sources are you going to replace? Nuclear (19.4%) and hydroelectric (6.0%) are more desirable than coal (48.5%) and natural gas (21.4%). It would appear that coal would be the main target to be replaced. In the chart below is a breakout of energy sources for the generation of electricity, measured in Gigawatt hours. A Gigawatt hour is a unit of electrical energy equal to one billion watt hours or one thousand megawatt hours. In 2007 the United States generated 4,166,507 Gigawatts of electricity which is enough power to light almost 8 billion 60 watt bulbs for a year.

Electricity Generation in the USA by Energy Source.
Source: Energy Information Administration

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25 Percent from Renewables by 2025

By examining current electricity generation we can determine how feasible the goals are. Let’s look at the first goal in our list. Hydro-electric and other renewables make up 8.5% of the total. A goal of 10% by 2012 would therefore be quite doable. There is nothing like an easy goal attained in the early stages of a project to give one energy to proceed to the next level. To reach a goal of 25% would take some effort. How likely in the current climate are new large hydroelectric projects? Not very encouraging. For example, consider the Glen Canyon Institute that wants to decommission Glen Canyon Dam. What about other renewable sources? Energy Information Administration (EIA) defines “other renewables” as:

Wood, black liquor, other wood waste, biogenic municipal solid waste, landfill gas, sludge waste, agriculture byproducts, other biomass, geothermal, solar thermal, photo-voltaic energy, and wind.

These sources would have to compete with coal. The levelized energy cost (LEC) is a cost of generating energy for a particular system. It is an economic assessment of the cost the energy-generating system including all the costs over its lifetime. Using the LEC, coal is seen as costing one half as much as wind power and a third as much as solar thermal. Photo-voltaics cost four times as much as coal. Clearly, if these goals are met we will be paying much more for our electricity. However, I do believe that advances in technology and economies of scale will close the gap.

Clean Coal Technology

Our second goal aims to improve coal, which is a wise move considering that it is responsible for almost half of electricity generation. It has been estimated that commercial-scale clean-coal power stations (coal-burning power stations with carbon capture and sequestration) cannot be commercially viable and widely adopted before 2020 or 2025. The concept of clean coal is said to be a solution to climate change and global warming by coal industry groups, while environmental groups maintain that it is a public relations tactic that presents coal as having the potential to be an environmentally acceptable option. Greenpeace is a major opponent of the concept because emissions and wastes are not avoided, but are transferred from one waste stream to another.

Whether clean coal technology makes coal more acceptable will remain to be seen. Because powerful environmental groups are opposing its use it seems that there will be as much progress in this arena as there is in building new dams.

Cap-and-Trade Program

The last goal again takes aim mostly at coal. A cap-and-trade program is often seen as a better approach than direct regulation or a carbon tax. For existing industries cap-and-trade can be cheaper because the initial allowances can be issued by taking into account the history of the emissions from that sector. Politically it can also be more appealing. Presumably most of the money is spent on environmental activities. However, there are critics:

The notion that emissions trading is going to make a significant dent in global warming is deeply flawed, they say. Current emissions-trading schemes have proved to be little more than a shell game, allowing polluters in the developed world to shift the burden of making cuts onto factories in the developing world. (“The Carbon Folly“, Newsweek, 2007)

Because 2050 is so far out anything is possible. We may well reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by that year. I would like to see smaller percentage goals for years closer at hand. That way, progress can be tracked and timely adjustments made to reach the goals.

Summary

The energy goals on Change.gov are commendable. I have only covered three of them. However, I would like to see a table with goals for each year, starting in 2009. Each goal would state clearly its objective, along with measurable data, including costs, to track progress. I would like to see nuclear power expanded. I have no objection to wind and solar power generation even though it is much more expensive than coal. I believe the costs of solar will decrease significantly. One goal that is missing is to greatly expand telecommuting where one moves bits and not bodies. And the best goal of all is: “I will be a little less fanatical about global warming this year.” Now that would really clear the air.

External Articles

Exposing the Myth of Clean Coal Power
Nuclear’s Comeback: Still No Energy Panacea
Oil’s Expanding Frontiers

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Comments

  1. Electricity generation is the process of converting non-electrical energy to electricity. For electric utilities, it is the first process in the delivery of electricity to consumers. The other processes, electric power transmission and electricity distribution, are normally carried out by the electrical power industry. Electricity is most often generated at a power station by electromechanical generators, primarily driven by heat engines fueled by chemical combustion or nuclear fission but also by other means such as the kinetic energy of flowing water and wind. There are many other technologies that can be and are used to generate electricity such as solar photovoltaics and geothermal power.

  2. Very interesting! I think it will be hard for the Obama campaign to make the transition over into the electricity generation.

  3. I would like to see more realistic goals, otherwise there will be no meaningful change.

    The lady on your website sure looks happy to get her payday loan. A good name for the site, though I always thought money didn’t grow on trees.

  4. I think a reform in energy is someting in the near future. Obama needs to create jobs and the one industry we know that’s needed is an energy policy. Many of the jobs that’ll be created are something that cannot be outsourced because the installs are here. I hope he succeeds.

  5. Thank you for your comment. The thrust of my post is to point out that the goals outlined are unrealistic and are more for political purposes than for real change. Any big energy changes have to be economically sound to gain traction.

  6. Its really an appreciable post which had good information which is helpful to get clear idea of the clean coal technologies. And making use of the natural resources without any harmful affects.

  7. Mercblogger,
    If realistic goals are set they will have a good chance of being reached. The more grounded the goals are in real economics the more likely they are to be sustained. Hence it seems to me that coal is not going away any time soon.

  8. Francis says:

    Just as another incentive the current Obama stimulus bill the cap for renewable energy sources was raised from 30% with a maximum of $2000 to, 30% with no cap!

  9. Coal is the biggest at over 50%, followed by natural gas (about 25%), nuclear (about 20%), hydro is something like 3-5%, and Wind,Solar,Oil and everything else amounts to about 3%. At least in the US. In France over 75% of it’s power generation comes from Nuclear. If every solar and wind farm in the US disappeared, the grid would hardly notice it.

  10. the one industry we know that’s needed is an energy policy. Many of the jobs that’ll be created are something that cannot be outsourced because the installs are here. I hope he succeeds.

  11. John Walton says:

    Wow! What a beautiful site. I’m doing some research right now on both wind and solar for homes.

    • As a solar power enthusiast, I found the main stumbling block is the cost of solar panels, as silicon solar cells are very expensive. Alternatively could it really be possible to build my own solar panel from damaged solar cells! those are comparatively cheap.

  12. Travis Loizos says:

    Now is the time for everyone to be conscious of renewable energy and do there part.We can only make a differance if people get involved.Having our president involved really helps guide us. “we need his leadership on this”.

    • Sometimes it helps to have the Federal Government back a cause. However, in this the case the goals are not realistic and could cause economic harm. Also the national government should not trample on the rights of the states and the people.

      Energy goals could be framed in the context of reducing foreign oil dependence which is is not as controversial as all this CO2 madness.

  13. sydney electricians says:

    Here in Sydney Australia, the main source of electricity is from coal as this is a widespread natural resource. Although at the moment the coal is still burned and is highly polluting. It’s good to see that Obama is planing to use a lot of renewable resources for the future electrical generation.

  14. I do understand we need to make changes. Just not cap & trade. Clean coal , natural gas & nuclear power can all help us right now. Solar & wind should be promoted but cost is still very high compared to the three menched.Thanks for your artical.

  15. Nice post, I like the energy generation graph. I didn’t realise we got so much of our electric from coal!

    • That is why coal will be so hard to replace. It is also the cheapest fuel with which to generate electricity. The U.S. has 27% of the world’s coal.

  16. For a meaningful change Solar panels & Windmills should be considered but it’s generally too hard in the cities and towns to get a permit to build a windmill tower.

  17. Why all this talk of using the electric company as there sole source of power. I have known lots of people replace there entire relience on the Big Power Companies for electricity by using solar panels.

    We as a people should really look at better alternative ourselfs then relying on a goverment to do this for us.

    • When you say “we as a people should really look at better alternative ourselfs then relying on a goverment to do this for us” are you including the 30% federal tax credit on the purchase and installation of solar panels?

  18. I wish more governments would make the move to solar and help promote solar lights and other solar products!

  19. Hi There,

    Could you send me the direct link to the report on the whitehouse website, as I couldn’t find it myself.

    I can’t help think, that the government needs to look at the bigger picture and start investing in Geo-Engineering such as he idea of pumping Sulpher Dioxide into the stratosphere in order to block sun rays. After all the impact livestock has in terms of green house gases is much larger than that of humans today.

    What do you think?

    Sam

  20. solar in home says:

    World has seen the destruction of nuclear energy in japan. Now time has come that we should go for solar energy as it is the only alternative which can save this beautiful earth..

    • Looks like we will have to step up our use of coal. Solar is still too expensive and would have a difficult time of replacing the 20% of our electricity that comes from nuclear.

  21. S Rubicon says:

    Basically, I see a real issue regarding the use of wind turbines on a “mass generation” scale. I doubt the public will find the placement of one billion, nine hundred fifty million, five hundred twelve thousand, three hundred thirty three wind turbines, to be an acceptable alternative. First, wind is not viable everywhere, which means turbine locationing would be dictated by wind patterns. Second, if wind speeds exceed an acceptable level, the turbine must be shut down or it will shake apart. I suspect ‘on average’, most wind turbines actually operate at 56% efficiency. So we would add another 56% more wind turbines to actually replace the energy generated by coal. Thats a lot of turbines. Think the public would accept that? Lady Bird Johnson had an effective campaign to get rid of roadside billboards. Now, imagine her reaction to 1,950,512,333 wind turbines across the landscape!!!

Trackbacks

  1. […] In the United States in 2007 coal was responsible for generating 2,016,456 gigawatts of power (see USA Electricity Generation 2007 Chart). As 1 gigawatt equals 1,000 megawatts you would need 1.3 billion (2,016,456,000 megawatts / 1.5) […]

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