By: Stanley Ralph – March 31, 2022
The human race has grown accustomed to a quality of life dependent upon energy. Energy in the form of fire brought heat, safety, light, and the concept of cooked food. Throughout history fire was fueled by wood, coal, naturally occurring oil. The taming of electricity in the 1880s began a worldwide transition from direct energy consumption by burning fuel to delivery of electricity, a pipeline of electric energy into every nook and cranny of our existence.
Electricity comes from somewhere. Large scale plants produce electricity from steam power, rotating a turbine. The steam is created from heat. Heat comes from fire. The fire comes from oil, gas, coal, and nuclear. There is no free lunch.
Recently, green energy advocates reject all current forms of electricity production and advocate windmills and solar panels.
Yes, they talk a good game about nuclear or geothermal, but they don’t at all mean that. The former is, oh, so dangerous; the latter would ruin the national parks.
So let’s go slowly. The total electricity requirement for the United States in 2020 was 4,000 billion kilowatt hours. That number looks like: 4,000,000,000,000,000 watt-hours. Folks, as an electrical engineer, I can assure you this is a big number.
In engineering, a requirement means it’s not optional. You must meet the number. And all good engineers will allow for growth in requirement (i.e. demand) over time. Allowing for growth in demand is also a requirement for a growing society.
I am not a fan of energy conservation. All the Greenies cringe at that thought. Rather, I am a fan of innovation. Once there is mandated a lid on demand, innovation dies. Please hold the thought.
Where are we? Let’s look at windmills. An average windmill will produce about 4,300,000,000 watt-hours in a year with a relatively steady wind of at least 27 mph. This number accounts for periods when the wind is not blowing, rendering the turbine idle.
Doing the simple math, we get 930,000+ wind turbines. Is there land in the US with steady wind to support that number of turbines at 1.2 acres per unit? No. They are also noisy and kill birds.
Scratch that. Let’s look at solar panels. Being generous, a solar panel (2’ x 4’) will generate about 400 watts of electricity… when the sun shines. With about 8 hours of sun per day reduced by 10% for cloudy days, we get 1,051,200 Watt-hours per year. Again, doing the math, we end up with 3.6 billion solar panels. Where will we put them? What happens overnight? No sun, no electricity.
So, the answer is to store the energy during the day so that we can draw upon it at night. Giant batteries made with rare earth metals, obtained in countries that mostly don’t like us.
These are the sorts of proposals that only work in physics labs or faculty lounges. The carpet baggers of our time, John Kerry and Al Gore before him, preach climate change with no real solutions to offer.
Let’s be clear. Reducing our dependency on the current fuels we use to generate electricity is a good thing. Cutting that dependency without a viable replacement is very dangerous. We see evidence of it everywhere today.
What to do? We can’t use solar or wind because neither is viable at scale. It might work for Martha’s Vineyard, but America is a vast country with immense energy (electricity) needs. The only alternative technology available today is nuclear, with some designs chemically and nuclear safe. The fear factor must be addressed with science and engineering. We know more now, and we can do it. But it is not an instant fix. It takes time. The task is not as challenging as landing on the moon. We need to get busy.
In the near term, a fossil fuel of choice should be natural gas. America has about 200 years’ worth under our feet. No “miracle” need occur except the political one. Conversion to natural gas for electricity production is very straightforward. Using natural gas for trucks would also be helpful.
Technology is on the horizon that will address this challenge. We need a secure bridge until that technology can transition to production scale.
Modern life around the world is sustained by energy delivered by electricity.
Electricity is Life.