We have written posts that were shorter than the title of this one. Sorry.
We talked about America’s energy consumption in this earlier post. The U.S. currently consumes about 100 quadrillion British Thermal Units a year. This is not expected to change much over the next few decades. Which is easy for calculations, being one hundred. Of that 100 ‘quads,’ at the moment about 11% is renewable (but this includes hydro-electric power) and a further 9% is nuclear. The rest of our fuel portfolio consists of oil (37% of the total), natural gas (29%) and coal (14%).
It’s a lot of energy–about 15% of all the world’s energy consumption happens here.
Of our current renewable energy, a quarter of it is provided by hydroelectric facilities (25%), 21% by wind, 6% by solar and a whopping 45% by the various types of biomass–waste, biofuels and burning wood.
It’s a tall order–hence the use of the word ‘gulp’ in the title of this post.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration projects that over the next decade or so, the use of natural gas and renewables will increase, while coal and nuclear will decline. They expect both hydro-electric and biomass to pretty much stay the same.
Changing the shape of any of these curves is expensive. Changing all of them more so. Changing all of them in the nine years between 2021 and 2030 is frankly not feasible. But the IPCC says we have until 2050, so we can break it into two phases, the first of which we do here.
2021-2030: A Good Beginning
From the standpoint of getting to zero emissions, we need to remember two things–first, coal is the enemy. Burning coal produces more CO2 than any other fuel.
But second, natural gas is the key competitor. It is growing more quickly than renewables, it is denser and easier to move around, it doesn’t quit when the sun goes down or the wind disappears. And as a ‘bonus’ that allows energy companies to talk greenly, it emits half the CO2 of coal when burned. Natural gas is seductive, it fits in well with the way of life we have constructed–but it serves as the warming water for the unsuspecting frog.
We’ll do this exercise using solar power, as the figures are easier to come by. We could do the same exercise for wind power, of course. In all probability we’ll use both. We won’t consider biomass, as ethanol isn’t useful in electric vehicles…
If 100% of the 16 million cars we expect to be sold next year are electric (let’s say Nissan Leaf), that will cost $368 billion at the car dealer. With the average age of cars being 8 years we can assume that most of the fleet of American passenger vehicles could be turned over and cleaned up by 2030 at an overall cost of $3.3 trillion. But the cost to the taxpayer would be whatever subsidy is required to persuade (compel?) us to make the switch. We pay the sticker price out of our own pocket now and that won’t change. The current federal subsidy is $7,500. We’re assuming the passenger fleet is 144 million cars, SUVs and pick-ups. $7,500 x 144 million comes to $1.08 trillion over the next decade–call it a bit more than $100 billion a year.
Putting a 6KW solar array on 70 million detached houses will cost approximately $1.15 trillion. We’ll leave offices and apartment buildings for another post, perhaps another phase.
The average output of a coal-power plant in the U.S. is 59 megawatts. There are 359 remaining coal plants in the country producing 21,181 megawatts.
Replacing the remaining coal-fired electricity plants with 1 megawatt solar farms would cost $211.8 billion. It’s hard to say who’s going to pick up the tab–federal subsidies would probably have to increase and the government will in all likelihood have to offer compensation to energy companies for the early retirement of assets that cost a lot of money to put up.
But providing electricity to all cars in America magically converted to electricity by 2030 would require more solar panels to charge them.
“The average thermal energy content in gasoline is 33.41 kWh per gallon. This gives 4,443 TWh of thermal power going to gasoline road vehicles in the U.S. per year. If we assume electric vehicles use energy with four times the efficiency of gasoline vehicles (a reasonable round number), it would take 1,111 TWh of electrical energy to replace that gasoline energy.”
That’s an increase of about 30%. And that doesn’t count trucks, diesel powered vehicles, trains or planes, which we will also address later, and which also might end up in Phase 2 of our grand experiment. But let’s add another $500 billion just to get us going.
The cost of a smart grid is estimated at $476 billion, and we’ll need a smart grid to manage all of this. We’ll also need to use some kind of natural gas power generation as a backup for solar.
This is not a total cost–but it’s enough to get us started. Call it Phase One for 2030. Phase 2 will have to be done between 2030 and 2050. At any rate, the total cost of what we’ve listed here, dodgy assumptions and all, is $3.4 trillion, or $340 billion a year.
To put that in perspective, taking the average of several estimates of the annual cost to the U.S. Treasury of President Trump’s tax cuts, it’s roughly the same. The current federal budget is $4.75 trillion. Phase 1 of the emissions reduction program through 2030 would be less than the interest we pay on the federal deficit each year. Considering the scope of the economic and social changes that other parts of the Green New Deal are proposing, the cost of cutting emissions is not insane–it’s just expensive. If we decide it’s worth it, we can afford it.
Considering what we’ve left out–costs related to charging stations, decommissioning the coal stations we’re shutting down, and a lot more, readers should assume that actual costs will be higher. But not incredibly so.
It’s do-able. And it’s do-able renewable.