Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Green Energy Illusion

by Joseph Sternberg

President Barack Obama repeatedly touts "green energy" as the way of the future. Billions are being spent to subsidize wind and solar power to replace the use of fossil fuels (and, by the way, enrich Al Gore). Obama repeatedly asserts that this is the way to solve the carbon dioxide problem caused by using fossil fuels and that we are moving in the right direction by subsidizing green energy. He implies that if all the countries did the same the level of CO2 in the atmosphere could be stabilized at an acceptable level.

This claim is false. How do we know that it is false? The reports of the Energy Information Administration (EIA), which is part of the Department of Energy, provide the answer. The EIA  was set up years ago to  provide independent data and analyses for all forms of energy and associated emissions, not only in the US but also in the world. They are the administration experts, have access to all of the administration's programs, and the information they develop is publicly available on the web. Of course, it has to be recognized that "forecasting is difficult, particularly about the future." But the forecasts of CO2 emissions by the EIA have to be substantially more reliable than forecasts about green energy provided by proponents of wind and solar power. The EIA forecasts are provided out to the year 2035.

Before looking at the EIA reports, three points need emphasis. The world's production of energy is increasing. As a consequence, the rate of worldwide emissions is increasing. The priority for both China and India, with 2.4 billions of the world's population, is economic development which means increasing power generation resulting in increased emissions. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, took a delegation to China in an attempt to persuade them to sign on to the Cap and Trade program that the Democrats were pushing. The Cap and Trade program would be expected to decrease energy production, not increase it. The Chinese told her to get lost. Any approach to controlling emissions has to be an approach that can be embraced by China and India or it will fail.

The second point is that it is not sufficient to be just "moving in the right direction" as Obama is wont to say.  This statement is irrelevant because it ignores the magnitude of reductions that must be achieved,  and by when, in order to stabilize the level of atmospheric CO2. The  level keeps increasing despite the fact that CO2 is continually being absorbed by the ocean which, in fact, eventually will absorb most of it. However, the  absorption is a slow process taking hundreds of years. So before being absorbed in the ocean, the CO2 piles up in the atmosphere. All of this is not scientifically controversial.

Numerous studies have been conducted to determine how much decrease in emissions is required to stabilize the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Such estimates are not precise, but they are not scientifically controversial. What do they say?  The studies show that if the increase in emissions could be stopped by about 2035 and the level of emissions then decreased close to half by the end of the century, the atmospheric level of CO2 could be stabilized at 550 parts per million (ppm) by the next century. This is the goal set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and would be double the atmospheric level of CO2 at the beginning of the industrial age.

The third point is that green energy is being pursued by many countries, including China and India, but green energy has inherent limitations. For example, consider the first proposed US offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound. Because the wind doesn't choose to blow all the time, a representative wind farm will only produce about 30% of its rated capacity as compared with 90% of rated capacity currently being achieved by our nuclear plants. A wind farm delivering the same energy as a representative nuclear plant would cover an area of about 150 square miles. Wind energy requires a lot of area. As technology improves, green energy can be expected to have a place in future energy production.  But what is the basis for asserting that green energy is ready to replace the use of fossil fuels?  As we will see from the EIA data, there isn't any.

The largest contributor to emissions in the US is from the generation of electricity. Transportation is the second largest contributor. Nuclear reactors account for about 20% of electricity generation. The remainder of power plants use fossil fuels about equally divided between coal and natural gas. Renewables  include biomass, hydropower, geothermal, wind, and solar. All together renewables provided about 10% of electricity generation in the US,  about 2/3 of which has been provided by hydropower.  The total of solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, and wind provided about 4% of electricity generation. The use of renewables is forecast by the EIA to increase between 2011 and 2035. But the bottom line is that US emissions are forecast  to increase, not decrease, by perhaps 5%, between 2011 and 2035. The forecast increase in wind and solar power is not going to replace fossil fuels for electricity generation to any significant extent in the US.

What about China?  China is energetically pursuing the expansion of solar and wind farm development. They also are pursuing an ambitious program of nuclear power, and plan to have 60 nuclear plants in operation by 2020. Despite all that, the EIA forecasts that emissions from China are expected to increase substantially between 2011 and 2035. At present emissions from China exceed those from the US. It is clear based on the estimates from the EIA that green energy in not going to stop the rise in emissions from China. Worldwide, estimates indicate a 35% increase in emissions.

Obama's green energy program is an illusion. The result is to spend billions wastefully instead of spending the money accelerating the development of technologies that could also be employed by both the developed and the developing nations to reduce atmospheric emissions.

It is important to recognize some of the scientific uncertainties about the effect of increasing atmospheric CO2. The  IPCC concedes a possible variation of more than a factor of two in what the temperature rise might be due to increasing atmospheric CO2.  This is due to scientific uncertainty about how the atmosphere works. Scientists are working on the problems, but there is little prospect that the uncertainty will be reduced anytime soon. Second, if you assume a particular global temperature increase, there is considerable controversy and uncertainty about what the climatic consequences would be, including a rise in the sea level. Computer models are used to make the predictions, but the computer models are unproven. The global climate is very complex. So you are in something of a quandary about global warming. The paleoclimatology data from a hundred of million years ago indicates that a several-fold increase in atmospheric CO2 goes along with a large increase in global temperature, even including the disappearance of the earth's ice caps. But the levels of atmospheric CO2 now being considered are smaller than the historical levels and so are not much help in reducing the uncertainty.

Second, global warming is not the only concern. The surface ocean is being acidified. This is chemistry and is not controversial. What is uncertain is the consequence for the world's food supply.The Interacademy Panel on international issues representing a global network of science academies has issued a statement (2009) on ocean acidification. According to their statement, the rapid increase of acidity of the world's oceans has "-- potentially profound consequences for marine plants and animals especially those that require calcium carbonate to grow and survive and other species that rely on these for food. Marine food supplies are likely to be reduced with significant implications for food production--". Not much about this appears in the press, which focuses on global warming.

The difficulty here is that if it is discovered that the effects of increased atmospheric CO2 are causing effects on the high side of the predictions, no one knows what to do about it then. As one might say, it would be too late.

The belief that green energy will provide a replacement for the use of fossil energy is an illusion. The billions that are being spent in subsidizing green power should instead be used to  accelerate the development of technologies for carbon capture from fossil fuel plants. Where feasible, the substitution of natural gas for coal would help since for the same energy generated, natural gas emits half as much CO2 as coal. Coal is extensively used in China. Nuclear power can make a significant contribution. Limiting atmospheric CO2 must be accomplished in the face of a worldwide growth in energy production. China and India will not give up economic development.
Joseph Sternberg
Retired Professor of Physics
Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA


  1. Any idea what the cost would be of converting half of existing US coal-fired electricity generating plants to natural gas, as compared with the current cost of the Obama Administration's green energy program?

  2. Based upon EAI projections, the shift of generation from coal to natural gas since 2005 has reduced the expected US emissions in 2020 by 473 million metric tons of CO2. This is more than 25% of the reduction needed to reduce US 2020 emissions to 1990 levels. And this was achieved largely by market forces and the application of new technologies funded through private investment. Mr. Sternberg's central premise that a portfolio of government investments with a serious focus on fuel switching and clean fossil technologies is supported by this government data. Determining the cost of converting half of the remaining fleet is not something I can offer, but there remains substantial additional potential for similar conversions.