Agnostic or Promoters — DOE and energy sources …

When it comes to choices about energy, is the Department of Energy agnostic, seeking the best, most holistic set of choices between energy efficiencies, usage requirements, and fuel/source options?  Or, is it promoters of specific solution sets, perhaps even sets that put this nation at risk?


From DOE’s coal page: “Coal is one of the true measures of the energy strength of the  United States. … Coal-fired electric generating plants are the cornerstone of America’s central power system. …  economically-vital energy foundation …”

From DOE’s wind page: “Wind energy uses the energy in the wind for practical purposes …”

No editorializing difference there …

And, well, DOE just released a report that takes this to a new level …

As noted over at Grist, the DOE just released a report from the Office of Fossil Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) entitled Tracking New Coal-Fired Power PlantsFrom the DOE press release, this report provides “a snapshot of coal’s resurgence in the generation of electric power.” 

Now, of course, don’t worry yourselves about any complications since the report doesn’t mention any complicating factors, like that minor little inconsequential thing of so-called Global Warming.

Instead, this report simply tracks coming electrical power generation from coal.  As the press release tells us:

Highlights from the report, which includes summary charts of proposed advanced boiler technologies and feedstocks in slide format, include the following:

  • One hundred forty-five (145) gigawatts of new coal-capacity are projected to be needed by 2030 according to the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration.

Let us note, for the record, that this additional power requirement is basically BAU (Business as Usual), without any serious efforts to pursue energy efficiency and an improved economic structure.  Of course, as well, that totally discounts the potential for Peak Oil and a disruption to the world’s energy system.

  • Ninety (90) gigawatts of new coal-fired power plants are under consideration or have recently become operational.

If built, the plants will be critical in helping to meet future electricity demand in the United States. The new and proposed plants would theoretically produce enough electricity to power 90 million homes.

The quibble here … “will be critical” as Global Warming considerations might drive us (US) to shut them down “if built” to reduce their GHG impact.

Coal is vital to the nation’s energy security. Providing more than 50 percent of U.S. electricity, coal is an abundant, domestic energy source with more than a 250-year supply at current use rates.

 “more than a 250 year supply at current use rates”.  Hmmm … isn’t the coal industry pursuing serious increases in the use of coal? And, what happens to that supply with a doubling of use? 

America’s coal reserves, estimated at 272 billion tons, contain more energy potential than all of the oil in the Middle East.

Estimated … estimated … hmm … well, do we have full confidence over these numbers? Well, that is a different discussion.

Proposals to build new power plants are often speculative and the ultimate decision on whether a plant will be built is based upon the economic climate of regional power generation markets. Although comprehensive, the information in the new report is not intended to represent every possible plant under consideration, but instead illustrates the large potential emerging for new coal-fired power plants.

Okay … well coal is bursting at the seams, ready to solve America’s energy challenges.  There are many issues with the above, as per some of the comments.

But, what is more interesting is what is not mentioned. Neither in the press release nor in the report is there any discussion of global warming implications.  Just so that we understand what we are talking about, another portion of the Department of Energy, the Energy Information Agency, reported that

Coal ranked a close second as a source of carbon dioxide emissions from the consumption and flaring of fossil fuels in 2004, accounting for 39.2 percent of the total. World carbon dioxide emissions from the consumption of coal totaled 10.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2004, up 30.8 percent from the 1994 level of 8.1 billion metric tons. China and the United States were the two largest producers of carbon dioxide from the consumption of coal in 2004 and together they accounted for 56 percent of the world total. India, Russia, and Japan accounted for an additional 15 percent.

Okay, Global Warming (and CO2 emissions) is not what NETL’s data-based examining of electrical power generation is focused on. While it might frustrate the lack of discussion of free-ride implications, this is simply reporting on that electrical power generation.

But, look at the report for a moment.  Page 3 is a chart about adding electrical power generation, with columns for natural gas, renewables, and coal.

First, you have to wonder how there can be no mention of , considering the noise about it, nuclear power generation?  Is the DOE predicting that there will be no nuclear-power generated electricity added to the system in the next 25 years?

Second, however, you simply have to wonder about the reliability and factual nature of this chart (and the NETL research).  Examine the projected “capacity additions” by GigaWatt (GW) by five year period, from 2005 through 2030.

* 2005-2010 shows roughly 40 gigawatts of power generation addition, half from Natural Gas and the other half roughly split between renewables and coal. (somewhat more from coal).

* 2011-2015: perhaps 15 GW total, 90+% by gas and coal, with miniscule renewables

* 2016-2020: roughly 40 GW total, about 23 from coal, 16 from natural gas, maybe 1 from renewables

* 2021-2025: 65 GW total, 45 from coal, 19 from NG, 1 from renewables

* 2026-2030: 80+ GW total: 55 coal, 24 NG, 2 renewables

Notice anything odd about this? In addition to coal’s skyrocketing potential, there is the 90% or so fall-off in renewable capacity additions and, at most, neglible contributions to electrical capacity generation capacity from renewables over the 2011-2030 time period.

To be polite, but WTF?  The people who produced this graphic certainly are not on the same planet that I’m on. And, they evidently are not operating on the same planet as the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.  NETL could take a look at the DOE’s colleagues from NREL’s work, such as the Green Power Marketing in the United States: A Status Report (pdf) which shows a tripling of green power electricity marketed in the US between 2001 and 2004. 

NETL could have looked to the private community, such as Clean Edge‘s annual Clean Energy Trend reports (2007)  which forecasts a huge growth in

both the global and US clean-energy sectors. In this, our sixth edition, we find markets for our four benchmark technologies — solar photovoltaics, wind power, biofuels, and fuel cells — continuing their healthy climb. Annual revenue for these four technologies ramped up nearly 39% in one year — from $40 billion in 2005 to $55 billion in 2006. We forecast that they will continue on this trajectory to become a $226 billion market by 2016.

What about actual additions to generation capacity? Writ large, let’s look at another recent private analysis, Global Energy DecisionsUS Renewable Energy Wall Map.

“We’ve mapped a 50% increase in operating renewable facilities, and a 75% increase in planned renewable facilities during the past three years, creating the most comprehensive view of United States renewable energy,” said Jason McMahan, President of Global Energy’s Maps unit. “Wind continues to dominate the renewable energy landscape, but solar, geothermal and, for the first time, tidal power — at 14% of new proposed capacity — are starting to make inroads. Diversification in technology is becoming a necessity of implementing our growing commitment to renewable sources.”

In other words, we’re seeing real growth (50% increase) in actual power generation, growth (75%) in planned renewable, and a diversification in renewable resources being brought to the renewable energy table.

How about some specific areas:

  • As per the American Wind Energy Association, wind generating capacity has been growing by 25+% per annum for years now. As per the wind basics, “Wind power is one of the fastest growing energy sources on a percentage basis over the past five years – 29% annually from 2001-2005.” As long as there is some form of Production Tax Credit (PTC, double-digit growth will continue for years to come. Wind right now is roughly 1% of US electrical generation capacity.  At current growth rates, it gets to the 20% range about 2020.
  • Solar is growing at 40% rates right now. New potential breakout technologies and options are getting announced almost daily.  Does anyone expect solar to disappear off the face of this earth? Now, solar is at a low level of power generation (roughly 0.1% of US electricity currently) but currently growth rates could have it at meaningful percentages by the middle of the 2010s … even without breakthrough technology introduction.
  • Oh, yeah, there is also biomass, ocean (tidal, wave, thermal), new hydro, geothermal … which are likely to add to the electricity generating capacity in the nation.

From the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency World Energy Overview 1994-2004,

The generation of geothermal, solar, wind, and wood and waste electric power increased by 170 billion kilowatthours between 1994 and 2004, or at an average annual rate of 7.4 percent. The United States led the world in geothermal, solar, wind, and wood and waste electric power generation in 2004 with 97 billion kilowatthours.

Note, however, that this lumps the accelerating growth of solar and wind with slower growth (but higher based) “geothermal … wood and waste electrical power”.

According to the NETL report coal “accounts for 59% of new capacity additions”. Of course, that number results from (a) assuming away any coming limitations due to Global Warming concerns and (b) assuming that renewables simply disappear off the face of the earth.

While we know that this perspective is simply wrong, I hope that it is horribly wrong.  The nation (and globe) would be far better served if it were the coal that would disappear off the chart.

NOTE: Just so that we are all onboard with NETL, Wanted: Young Minds for Coal Research (title is DOE’s at the Fossil Energy homepage).


5 responses to “Agnostic or Promoters — DOE and energy sources …

  1. 25% growth implies doubling of capacity every three years. Wind is now 1%. There’s nothing wrong with the growth rate, the problem is that the rate is applied to a very small starting point. One assumes that (other than Nantucket) the best spots for wind energy would be the ones developed first, so the grid bang-per-buck will at some point decline as wind farms are placed in second-tier sites.

    I think the reason that nuclear isn’t considered is that the newest nuclear plant is around 20 years old, further growth having been NIMBY’d out of existence in the 1970s. Rather than planning new reactors, any projection of energy needs and supplies will have to take into account the mothballing of plants that date from the 1960s. There have been some changes in licensing since 1992 that make it easier to build nuclear power plants, but the economics of a nuclear plant (source here) are still so unfavorable and front-loaded that without a heavy carbon tax it’s unlikely electrical companies will be willing to make the switch from coal. Since natural gas has less of a CO2 impact than coal and is substantially less expensive than nuclear to build, it’s unlikely that even with a carbon tax proportionate to CO2 emissions nuclear will be selected over natural gas.

    Natural gas has gotten more expensive over the last couple of decades, coal has actually become cheaper. When it’s your job to look at how things are now, and how they’ll be in the future, absent hard numbers on a carbon tax it’s not reasonable to include the effect of a carbon tax in projections of future needs. Here and now:

    – Coal is cheaper than natural gas, and plentiful.
    – Wind energy is infinitesimal, and even if the growth rate can be maintained is likely to be so for a while
    – There is no carbon tax to deter coal utilization
    – A few new constriction permits have been issued by the NRC so far, but the planned units will not replace the capacity lost by decomissioned units in the last 10-15 years
    – Coal has come to provide 50% of US electricity as of 2002

    When those are the ground rules, the projections will come out that the baseload generation of electrical power will probably still be coal-fired, with some contribution from natural gas.

    It takes an agenda to determine otherwise.

  2. Darren,

    The point re the increased capacity … Renewables are a sizable portion for 2005-2010 (roughly 25% trying to read from a graph). Half of this is “known”/proven data and basically all the rest is solid.

    Yet, despite the huge growth rates, renewables fall off the chart (almost literally) for 2011-2030. Even with the huge growth rates, they go from adding 25% of the new capacity to adding perhaps 1-2% of new capacity. Hmmm?

    Off the top of my head:

    Wind is, roughly, 1% of US electricial grid.

    It is adding roughly 26% this year, or roughly 0.26% of the currently capacity.

    Total generation capacity growing at about 1%.

    Wind providing roughly 1/4th of new generation capacity.

    And, with acceleration rates, wind is expected to grow 25+% in 2008 on top of 1.26 times wind’s generating capacity as of 31 Dec 2006. And, then, in 2009, 25+% of roughly 1.57 times wind’s generating capacity as of 31 Dec 2006.

    In any event, the chart that I am focusing on is not focused on total power production but on new generation capacity. The projection that, somehow, starting in 2011, renewable power will basically stop being added into the US electrical system is simply a joke. A bad one.

  3. Did you miss the part on the chart that says, “Source: EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2007”?

    That’s the source document, it’s available here. The offending chart comes from page 83. Renewables are prominently mentioned on pages 85-87. Carbon dioxide emissions are discussed on pages 101-102. The comparison to energy projections made by other organizations begins on page 106. The only other projection with a 2030 time horizon is from Global Insight, Inc. (GII), there is another projection from Energy Ventures Analysis, Inc. (EVA). The total of “hydroelectric/other” generated power projected in 2015 and 2030 in billion kWh is:

    EIA: 487/522
    GII: 492/719
    EVA: 523/no projection for 2030

    The EVA projection assumes a $6/ton carbon tax beginning in 2013, and still (including hydropower) it’s only about 10% above EIA’s projection, which does not include a carbon tax.

    The people paid to make projections inside and outside the government apparently do not see as rosy a picture for wind/solar as others in the wind/solar industry do. Given the current numbers, and without putting a thumb on the scale for emotion, they come pretty close to the same numbers.

    If you read the title on the Press Release page, the intended audiance for the report on coal is people in the fossil-fuel industry. It’s not classified or restricted, but you’re presenting an industry publication of planned coal capacity and a chart from the EIA as some sort of guidebook, when it’s not.

    Context, context, context.

  4. Darren,

    Both a thank and some clarification.

    A. You did additional further checking that I should have taken on.

    B. It did not say “source” but “data derived from” … I failed to pick up that the graphic was a direct lift (although, there are a few changes it basically is a direct lifting).

    C. Time for me to read through all of the 2007 EIA report. But, even going to it right now, this points to reason for discomfort — which should be directed at that report rather than the specific coal report.

    Due to uncertainty over wind, the 2007 report basically freezes wind: “In the AEO2007 reference
    case, generation from wind power increases from
    0.4 percent of total generation in 2005 to 0.9 percent
    in 2030.” [p 85] Actually, that .9 percent is basically the level reached in 2010 and then growth ends. Renewables growth is pretty much all biomass.

    That there is significant growth in, again, wind that magically ends in 2010 simply does not comport with a reasonable projection space. And, well, the comments about wind — there are tremendous untapped wind resources in this country. Both water (Cape Winds, included) and on land.

    By the way, “Techlines provide updates of specific interest to the fossil fuel community” — this is not an industry publication, but a government publication …

    But, again, should have gone to the source for my challenge rather than the referencing document.

  5. DOE projections of future electrical generation energy sources are always interesting, but very academic in the context of what electric utilities are really thinking. For an electric utility executive looking at what tye of power plant will be built to supply his native load, the largest issues are (1) what can I get a permit to build, (2) what can be operated reliably and economically over the next thirty years, and (3), most importantly, what can I get my rate commission to pay for. This is where issues of renewable energy take center stage. Renewables portfolios, as have been mandated in California, put GHG emissions squarely into the utility generation mix.

    Electric utilities are a reflection of public policy. In most states, the utility regulatory commission is elected or appointed by elected officials. If the regulatory commission establishes are requirement for GHG reduction, the utility will comply, just as they did in the 1970s when the Federal government mandated that natural gas could not be used for power generations, resulting in a huge round of coal and nuclear power plant construction. So let’s not let the utility regulatory commissions off the hook. They should reflect our concern for GHG reductions in their regulation of electric utilities. In turn, as rate payers, we must be willing to bear a reasonable additional cost to achieve objectives in the pubic good. Without this, we simply put electric utilities in position where nothing gets built. This a a lose-lose situation for both the utility and the rate payer.

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