Electricity: How Much? From Where? What Fuel?

New York's Net Energy Production by Source in Megawatts
Source: EIA

We will have some tough choices to make in the coming years, not just with transportation fuels, but also with electric generation. All energy fuel is linked together in  either as a direct input into the production / distribution of other types of energy or as a substitute for another form of energy. That's why as oil and natural gas prices have risen so have prices for ethanol, uranium and coal. And each state has it's own mix of energy sources. I found Baloghblog's questions from yesterday interesting to consider:

Where does your local power come from?

The answer for New York State's 138,000 Megawatt hours is surprising: 29% Nuclear, 20% Natural Gas, 17% Coal, 17% Conventional Hydro, 15% Petroleum and 2% Renewables (mostly wood and waste incineration)

This is a relatively diverse energy supply compared to most states which rely mostly on either coal, nuclear or natural gas. New York is an oddity in that it still uses petroleum to fire a considerable amount of it's electrical supply.

Which would you rather have within a 10, 20 or 50 mile radius of your home?  a) Nuclear Power, b) Hydro-power (large scale dam), c) Coal-fired plant, d) Natural Gas fired plant, e) Windmills

Where do you build future additional power capability? a) In city centers, high population poorer population, b) Suburbs, middle population density, c) Rural, farming country, d) rural, wildlife area.  You have to choose somewhere, where is it going to be?  There is no "none of the above".

The obvious first answer is to lower the local comsumption to as low a level as possible. I think New York could reduce it's electric demand by 25-40% as rising prices destroy demand and there is a massive conservation effort.

While imperfect, it seems to make sense to keep in place New York's existing diversified infrastructure of coal, nuclear, NG and Oil until the renewables can be ramped up to meet demand (which should be shrinking). They can serve as a diversified bridge to the next phase. This may take a long time, but until then it makes no sense constructing any more fossil fuel electric generating capacity.

In terms of siting new renewable electric units, it seems to make sense to have them as close to the consumer as possible. For instance if there is a major industrial consumer of electricity, they should have an electric generating unit co-located onsite or close by to offset their demand. And knowing how little space there is in highly urban areas, the capacity will not be able to meet local demand, thus new units will have to be built in rural areas or offshore (wind, tidal, other hydro). Income and energy security from this new local electrical generating capacity will be able to offset whatever inconveniences there are to the local population.

But the real pain is not where to put the new renewables, it's how we reduce demand to a level that can be sustainable.

One thing about conservation and efficiency has always struck me: nobody seems to account for the effect of deminishing returns. Here you go:

until the renewables can be ramped up to meet demand (which should be shrinking)

How come "which should be shrinking"? Let's suppose we make a tremendous conservation effort and manage to cut our electricity consumption by 20% (mind you this is a LOT) in the next 5 years. Question is what comes next? Another 20% the next 5 years? Is this realistic (ok, absent a nuclear war or bird-flu pandemic)?

The obvious conclusion is that efficiency/conservation is a short-term solution, especially for the elicticity where we don't really have what to replace it with. Meanwhile we'll have to be building something to meet future growth and replace NG and oil. Here I have my opinion about the ability of renewables to do it, which I've stated a lot of times.

Some conservation gains (like replacing normal bulbs with CFLs) will be a one shot deal, but have lasting impact since you reset the demand base at a lower point for the future. Other efficiency gains (like moving from CFL to LED) will take time to kick-in. And if we get serious about it, there maybe some unexpected synergies as we go down that road.
You did not address my point - we can invest a lot of money in efficiency, but this will solve the problem just temporary and very soon we will reach a point where we are going to need new generation.

It is just like with wind - until 5% penetration it is all good and everybody is happy. At 10% you already have problems and at 20% you find yourself pouring money in an endless well.

Clearly efficiency/conservation could only be some part of the solution and can buy us some time, but it will not be that much. I need to stress that I am talking about electricity generation. In transportation the wasted energy is such an astounding amount that I will not be surprised if we can cut it by half with only a minor effort.

You and I have different assumptions. With good conservation/efficiency efforts I think we can get to a point with electricity production where we won't have to increase production beyond it's current levels for quite some time. Even more so with transportation fuels, which I agree has a lot more slack.

Given what you have written here and on the last post, and the lack of alternative ideas you have put forth, do you assume that nothing that currently exists will work in the face of peak oil? What's your solution?

I'm sorry peakguy, I've layed out so many times what I think needs to be done that I assumed for myself that it is implied. Or maybe I got tired of repeating, don't know.

I must admit that 2 things formed my quite negative attitude towards your initial post. First of all for thousandth time I see the proposed solutions to our energy woes summurized in the words "efficiency, conservation, renewables" without mentioning or analyzing the limits and problems associated with each one of them.

Like I said conservation and efficiency have their limits. More importantly they can not be relied upon. You can make an estimate how much you would achieve by implementing this and that but you can not enforce everybody on the other end of the generation-consuption line to implement the measures you want. IMO you will be surprised how many people just don't care - even don't care what their bills are.

For the wind & solar generation I also see about 20% as a practical limit. Again question is what happens next?

The second thing that disturbed me in your post were the questions you quoted, which IMHO are a little below the level of this blog. What do I want, where do I want it... this is a typical case of questions asked in order to get politically correct answers. Such questions are the same type of crap the media is giving to the public to feed its constant immature "I want, I want" attitude. Of course if you ask the average person what he/she wants he/she will tell you that would very much want windmills located some 10 thousand miles away from his house. Or in the back of the Moon - even preferable. This is self-evident and asking it in the form of a poll to people, most of which understand little to nothing of electricity generation is a very shallow trick IMO. What if I wanted a hydroelectric plant near my house - does this mean that I can demand utilities to create an artificial river and a lake by my neighbourhood?

Regarding the solutions I defend, if I were given a hypothetical budget I would spread it out the following way:

  1. 50% for nuclear
  2. 30% for renewables
  3. 20% for encouraging efficiency and conservation
Like I was defending until now, points 2) and 3) are partial solutions and presenting a partial solution as an end-point is very dangerous IMO. Therefore we need something else as an energy source for the future, and nuclear is the obvious choice for me.
First of all, these questions were not posed "as a poll" -- they were posed as a hypothetical, and meant to provoke thoughtful responses from the readers of this blog.  I agree with you that conservation and renewables, will not cut it as far as future development goes.  My point is that we will have to think seriously about the type and placement of future power plants.  I think that your response is fairly flip, and not constructive:

Of course if you ask the average person what he/she wants he/she will tell you that would very much want windmills located some 10 thousand miles away from his house.

This is not true, as ericr voiced as a comment on the previous post, who would not like windmills near his home.  However, future energy needs will need to be met somewhere.  "10 thousand" miles was not a choice in this hypothetical.  Living within 50 miles of a nuclear plant is more common than people would think.  I live within 50 miles of two nuclear plants.

You can make an estimate how much you would achieve by implementing this and that but you can not enforce everybody on the other end of the generation-consuption line to implement the measures you want. IMO you will be surprised how many people just don't care - even don't care what their bills are.

I agree, it is staggering the number of people that are ignorant of conservation and the energy crisis this nation faces.  However, the same way that you state that you cannot enforce everybody on the other end of the line to implement conservation measures, you cannot force the idea of new nuclear plants to be constructed in their neighborhoods either.  It would be political suicide for a government official to propose new nuclear in their district.

I think this is a legitmate poll to ask "Joe Everyman":

would you rather see rolling blackouts (a form of forced conservation) or new nuclear power built within X (50? 100?) miles of your home.  I don't know how the public would judge or answer this question, but it may be a situation that the country faces in the short term.

You propose 50% of your hypothetical budget for new nuclear, half of which will have to be spent convincing residents of the proposed area that it is a necessary to build it where they live.

First of all, these questions were not posed "as a poll" -- they were posed as a hypothetical, and meant to provoke thoughtful responses from the readers of this blog.

So it is not a poll, but a poll with argumentation. I appreciate that of course, but my experience in arguments tells me that you can defend any thesis if you accept a given set of assumptions. I definately could not accept the assumptions layed out in the initial post and even in the question asked and I don't think it is correct or fair to continue on that basis.

This is not true, as ericr voiced as a comment on the previous post...

That's why I used the exaggerated figure of "ten thousand miles away", because the instictive desire of everybody is to pick the option that least affects him/her and benefits him/her mostly, without balancing it with the consequences or even with the reality in general.

If I had to make a questionarie to Joe Everyone (whom I personally do not separate from) I would ask:

  1. Would you rather live by a nuclear plant and accept the minimal risk (hundred times lower than you to die in your car or from nose bleeding) for it to fail and emit radiation. The risks from radiation are... (btw much lower than it is percieved)... the waste will need to be stored which will cost... ta da ta da

  2. Live by wind mill farms, and accept with almost certainty that you will have to face power shortages in the near future, becoming ever worse with time going by. 99%-100% certainty of drastically increased energy costs (ok, now you will have to pay double or triple what you pay today, possibly rising with time). 90-95% certainty you will be subject to rationing or other forms of restrictions... A very great certainty your children will live worse than you etc. etc... (btw personally I dismiss the sound/landscape argument, as being too evaporative in face of shortages)

  3. Coal... also becoming more expensive... carbon dioxide... global warming... ruined landscapes... radioactive and other heavy metals emitted in the atmosphere, water and soils etc. etc.

An informed choice, that's what I'd try to offer. Anything else are half truths which are much worse than a complete lie. Like the good journalists very well know - answers are not that important, it is the question that matters.
These are the types of discussions about hard choices we need to start having. I remain open to all ideas, but I'm still not convinced that:

A) Conservation and efficiency gains can't reset our demand at a much lower level.

B) Taken together, a number of alternative energy projects (wind, solar, tidal, unconventional hydro, biomass, etc) can't get us past 20% of our needs and handle peak capacity issues.

C) Re-localizing energy production through distributed energy systems / batteries can't smooth out peak demand and reduce waste over the transmission lines.

Until we try these ideas in earnest, it's hard for me to support building additional supply. Specific to Nuclear, NY already gets about 30% of it's supply from that. Adding in conventional hydro and other renewables gets you to just about 50% from non-carbon sources. If we can reduce demand significantly and ramp up renewables, we could lower NY's dependence on fossil fuels from 50% to 20-25%. That's a much better place to start an analysis of how we would switch the remainder over to non-fossil fuels.

Sorry to disappoint you LevinK, but I didn't remember you from among all the other people who post on the site. One thing you can do in the future is link to previous comments that you think summarizes your perspective.

But I'm glad you've stated your affirmative case on what you would do besides conservation and renewables:

nuclear is the obvious choice for me.

This post was meant to stir discussion on this and see what the full range of ideas are out there. I am willing to put forth my ideas and I welcome other constructive ideas. The negative attitude you met was that you were simply tearing down ideas without affirming your own. The point of this post was basically "pick your poison".

IMHO we should try to do as much as possible with conservation and renewables before adding more capacity on any non-renewables, including nuclear. In particular, we should try to shave off peak electrical demand during the summer months.

My explanation was pointed out towards myself, I have not expected you to know my points. Maybe I was frustrated a bit, but I also had the point of going outside of the framework you probably unwillingly created with your initial post. I am sorry I have to poke it out - but if you return to it and reread it objectively, you did not create a platform for unbiased discussion, but rather tried to enforce your assumptions and wanted us to discuss on that background.

In my posts I tried to challange your assumptions, and of course this looked "distructive" for all people sharing them. I'm sorry but if we are going to discuss, first I need to know that we are on an even ground.

Regarding your point - I've thought about that too. It is beyond doubt that we can try and maybe succeed to patch things for quite a while. Probably by massive investments in wind mills and solar panels, by down-sizing and using more efficiently the energy we have, we could be able to meet both ends for a couple of decades (give or take) of declining fossil fuels.

In this 2 decades though, we will have to pray (and pray very hard) that somebody will finally come up with some breakthrough that will make renewable energy scalable enough, or with some other energy source that is better and less enviromentally destructive than the choices we have today.

I can not predict the future - we may or may not reach this breakthrough. Several points though:

First it is much more likely to happen if we are not in an emergency situation, and we live a little bit at large. Already resources are being redirected from research for the future to maintaining the status quo - a shining example - renewable energy funding now goes for maintaining our presence in Iraq. If we go for tightening the belts the same will start happenin on ever larger scale.

Second, even if someone in 20 years discovers room-temperature radiation-free cold fusion, there is a great chance that we will not have be able to build it, because all our efforts and resources will be directed at keeping up with our current needs.

And third if we don't reach this breaktrough this would mean that Olduvai was right and we will start descending with unpredictable consequences. Having a certain  opinion about the nature of Homo Sapiens though I don't expect it to lead to anything positive... there are simply too many of us and I see us burning every bit of carbon, cutting every tree (and every neighbour's throat we can reach) on the way down. I don't want this to happen.

Of course I could be wrong with the timing. It is possible that it is too early (or too late?) for making this choice but... here I have to rely on my gut feeling which tells me it is never too early.

"An April 2000 E.U. report found that, using existing technology, increased efficiency could decrease energy consumption by more than 18% by 2020. The U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that simple voluntary energy-efficiency improvements in buildings will reduce world energy use 10%-15% by 2020. They state that, with technology already in use, efficiency improvements in buildings, manufacturing, and transport can reduce world carbon emissions more than 50% by 2020." --from "A problem with wind power"

Short term or not, conservation and efficiency nonetheless roundly beats every other current alternative.

Can, possibly, could, potentially, would do... if we face it while energy is so cheap and efficiency improvements so expensive this would never happen.

Yes, of course energy costs will rise. But until they reach a point they will make efficiency improvements viable our whole economy will be in such trouble that these nice things you are talking about will be the last on the list. If we have a 20% unemployment and runaway inflation, who is going to invest in insulations?

On the other hand if it is decided the taxpayers to subsidize efficiency improvements we are going to end with another government induced madness on our heads. We are already paying ever larger amounts for that wind generation madness. What will be next?

Conservation (or demand destruction) is much more likely to happen sooner or later, but it will not be pretty at all.

I have trouble with this negative attitude.  Your point seems to be that efficiency improvements are not going to cut it and that development of windpower is a waste of money. Both might be true, however, rather than simply stating  this, and concluding that demand destruction is "not going to be pretty at all" I would also like to hear your opinion on the measures you would like to take to soften the impacts of PO.

No matter how gloomy the future might be, we should try to develop the best possible course of action and spend our "creative energy" productively.
So no windpower for you, but  will you just sit and wait until the world falls apart around you?

In the long run we need to switch to renewable energy, if it turns out the flux of that energy is not sufficient to maintain our current lifestyle we need to start rethinking that lifestyle now. An important aspects of that is a longer term view that will make efficiency improvements viable now rather than later (when it might be too late).  Labeling such attempts beforehand as "government induced madness" is not productive at al.

Of course you are right - I was being destructive here, and I did that on purpose.

I explained why, and also the positive side of my position in my answer to peakguy.

Regarding the location of generation plant, given that thermal generation using a steam cycle (coal, gas, nuclear, oil, bio-mass, waste incineration etc) accounts for the vast majority of electricity generation and is likely to for decades to come the plant should be as close to consumers as possible.  These thermal plants waste two thirds of the heat output up the chimneys and cooling towers (only(!) half for CCGTs).  This waste heat should be reused in district heat and power systems thus increasing the efficiency from ~30% to more like ~80% requiring the plant to be local.

There are pollution issues with large scale combustion close to population centres but `technology' can go a long way to clean the kinds of pollutants that local populations is concerned with.  City centre nuclear plant is unlikely to be popular neither is nuclear district heating though it is used in Russia.

Interestingly, I think as we move into the post peak scarcity, attitudes toward living next to a generating plant will change, viewing them as a community asset rather than blight.

This is the new Combined Cycle Plant in my old neighborhood of Astoria.

I can't remember where I read it (Big Gav? Sustainablog?), but someone recently discussed a report which said that having wind turbines within 2 miles of your home caused stress, sleeplessness, irritability, etc from the noise that they produce.

Well, look, NYC is already so freaking noisy, how much more can turbines add? I say we should stick some mini-turbines right in the middles of our streets! The large-building-wind-tunnel effect is so powerful that I bet we can generate tons of wind power, and we'll never notice the extra noise.

(OK, I might be kidding, but honestly, I wonder if they really would make a difference in a landscape that's already really noisy.)

Hey, it might just add a little white noise to drown out the rest of the urban soundscape.

Here's an Artist's sketch (pre 9-11) of urban windmills