Will Coal Power Climate Studies Supercomputer?

NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center

NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center

The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) will build a new climate studies supercomputer. NCAR is headquartered in Boulder, Colorado but a new $66 million facility that will house the supercomputer will be built in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The primary reason is cheap electricity. In Wyoming for an industrial user the price is 5.16 cents per kilowatt hour. In Colorado it is 6.89 cents per kilowatt hour. This makes a big difference when you will be running one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, consisting of more than 100,000 processors. It will be 20 times more powerful than the current NCAR computer.

The overall project is called the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC), encompassing the design and construction of a world class center for high performance scientific computing in the atmospheric and related geosciences. Says NWSC:

Our goal is to build a world class scientific supercomputing facility that does not compromise on energy efficiency or sustainability, and that is adaptable to the ever-changing landscape of high-performance computing.

In 2007, Wyoming’s electricity generation was 45,633,000 megawatt hours. 43,127,000 megawatt hours came from coal and 1,484,000 megawatt hours from renewables. Coal generates 94.5% of Wyoming’s electricity and renewables 3.25%.

I wonder how much of Wyoming’s cheap coal will power the new climate studies supercomputer?

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Wyoming gets supercomputer for climate studies
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1.3 Billion Wind Turbines Needed to Replace Coal

McFadden Ridge Wind Project

Tennessee wind turbines similar to McFadden Ridge
Tennessee wind turbines similar to McFadden Ridge

Construction of Rocky Mountain Power’s McFadden Ridge I wind project is underway in Albany County, Wyoming, near the towns of McFadden and Rock River. The project consists of 19 General Electric wind turbines, capable of generating a combined 28.5 megawatts of electricity.

See the Update section at the end of this post for a recalculation of the number of wind turbines needed to replace coal.

1.3 Billion Wind Turbines Needed

Now for a little back-of-the-envelope math. The McFadden Ridge project has 19 wind turbines producing 28.5 megawatts of electricity. Each wind generator therefore produces 1.5 megawatts. 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) wind turbines to replace coal. And coal only accounts for 48% of electricity production.

651 Million More Wind Turbines

Petroleum liquids (49,505,000 megawatts), petroleum coke (16,234,000 megawatts), natural gas (896,590,000 megawatts), and other gases (13,453,000 megawatts) account for a total of 975,782,000 megawatts. To replace these sources of power you would need an additional 650,521,333 wind turbines. In these calculations we are not replacing the 21% of electricity generated from nuclear power. Even so, removing fossil fuels from the equation mandates the need for 2 billion wind turbines. And remember, wind power costs twice as much as electricity from coal.

Growing Electricity Needs

Rocky Mountain Power says:

To meet the growing electricity needs of its customers, Rocky Mountain Power is investing in new generation, transmission and distribution facilities in Wyoming and other states, as well as purchasing the output from wind projects owned by other entities.

These wind projects are to meet the growing electricity needs of its customers, not to replace coal generating plants. Construction of the McFadden Ridge I wind project is not even included in the 2 billion number cited. The wind turbines being constructed today are to meet growing demand, some of which will be met by even more expensive solar power. I would be very careful about trusting politicians that want to eliminate fossil fuels without giving an explanation of how we are going to replace them with the needed 2 billion wind turbines.

But whatever happens, please don’t put me in charge of turbine maintenance.


A co-worker, Josh, pointed out to me that my calculations were wrong. First the 1.5 megawatts output of the wind turbine needs to be multiplied by the number of hours in a year. Then the ratio of the maximum possible output to the typical output, called the capacity factor, needs to be calculated. For our purposes I will use a capacity factor of 30%. So now we arrive at the following:

1.5 megawatts x 24 hours x 365 days x 0.3 capacity factor = 3,942 megawatt hours.

Now with a more realistic divisor we arrive at the number of wind turbines needed to replace coal:

2,016,456,000 megawatt hours / 3,942 megawatt hours = 511,531 wind turbines.

I still don’t want to be in charge of turbine maintenance.

External Articles

This list is updated occasionally, with newer additions listed first.

Americans for American Energy Act

Enrico Fermi Nuclear Power plant, on Lake Erie
Rob Bishop is the representative of the district in which I live. I have reproduced here a simplified list of his energy act, H.R. 6384, which has already been co-sponsored by more than two dozen other lawmakers and runs some 215 pages long. The 12 steps to greater and less rickety energy independence are to:

1. Increase the supply of natural gas.
2. Development of American oil resources.
3. Develop oil shale.
4. Utilize America’s coal supply.
5. Increase the use of nuclear power.
6. Invest in renewable resources.
7. Promote greater energy efficiency and conservation.
8. Increase America’s gasoline refining capacity.
9. Adopt regulatory relief and tax reform.
10. Improve America’s transmission and energy infrastructure systems.
11. Restore our energy workforce.
12. Develop new energy technologies.

I can simplify the list even more. This is what I think we should do in order of priority:

1. Replace oil and natural gas electrical generation with coal.
2. Replace oil furnaces with natural gas. Heavily promote natural gas and electric vehicles.
3. Greatly expand nuclear power generation of electricity.
4. Invest heavily in solar power.

What is your take on all of this? What would be your priorities? Your comments are welcome.