Minor Role?

To the Editor:

One of the central concerns of the Carter administration (1977-1981) was the management of the “energy crisis” driven by the 1973 and 1979 Middle East oil embargos. The shift to renewable energy was to play a major role. The notion was widespread.

Amory Lovins suggested that by 2015, fossil fuel would play only a minor role in the energy arena. Clinton projected that by 2020 the United States would obtain 1,400 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually from photovoltaic (solar) sources. Total electric energy from all sources is now about 4,000 billion kwh without much increase projected to the year 2020. As seen from the data below, the annual electricity from solar energy is just 9 billion kwh, and from wind, 168 billion kwh per year.

According to the latest information from th  U.S. Energy Information Administration, the total 4,000 billion kwh per year breaks down as follows (in billions):

Coal – 1,580

Petroleum – 13

Petroleum coke – 13

Natural gas – 1,125

Nuclear – 789

Hydro – 269

Non-hydro renewables – 254

In the list above, there are three major players: coal, natural gas and nuclear. Oil, hydro and non-hydro renewables are small pickings.

The break-down of the “non-hydro renewables” includes wind (168 billion kwh) and solar (9 billion kwh). Landfill gas, geothermal, etc. are too small to count.

Two surprises are evident: Oil is mostly gone from the electric energy mix, and non-hydro renewables play only a minor role.

In 1953, I worked for Westinghouse on the design of the first commercial nuclear plant – the Shippingport Station. As a professor of engineering, I watched, and indeed participated in, some of the optimism about renewables saving the day. But any debate about wind vs. nuclear must include the cost of reaching the customer.

Not much electricity distribution infrastructure is needed to get the 1,200 megawatts from the Seabrook nuclear station in New Hampshire to the electricity load centers in the Boston area. To get the 10,000 megawatts of West Texas wind to load centers in Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth will require several hundred miles of transmission lines at over at $1 million a mile. The fraction of time that these high voltage lines carry their design load will be small.

To prove a reasonable return on investment requires much accounting legerdemain.

Richard C. Hill

Old Town

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