(Page 2 of 2)
So what about the new America's Energy Future report from the National Academy? Just like in the 1980 report, energy efficiency is seen as the "nearest-term and lowest-cost option for moderating our nation's demand for energy." The experts who wrote the new report believe that the accelerated deployment of energy efficiency technologies could reduce energy use by 15 percent in 2020 and by 30 percent in 2030. Interestingly, this is roughly the same rate of efficiency improvement that was achieved over the past 30 years, largely without the help of government mandates and subsidies.
In the 1980 report, coal was king—and fossil fuel still reigns in the Energy Future report. Instead of predicting exciting new nuclear tech, the new report foresees a role for "evolutionary nuclear technologies," upgraded reactors very similar to the ones operating today.
Although climate change was mentioned in passing in the 1980 report, concerns over man-made global warming loom much larger for many energy experts today. Instead of getting excited about new kinds of nuclear power, the new report focuses on today's trendy technology of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). The idea is to safely bury huge quantities of carbon dioxide underground rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. How huge? A single standard 1,000 megawatt coal-fired electricity generating plant would have to bury 300 million cubic feet of carbon dioxide per day. According to the NAS study, this is equivalent in volume flow to about 160,000 barrels of oil per day, comparable to the daily output of a large oil field.
The new NAS report suggests that the entire existing coal power fleet of generating plants could by replaced by CCS coal power by 2035. Considering that there is currently 336,000 megawatts of coal generating capacity, this implies that CCS technology by 2035 would be injecting carbon dioxide underground at a rate equivalent to 53 million barrels of oil per day. To understand the scale: that's double the volume of oil that Americans consume daily right now. The new report calculates that installing CCS technology would about double the cost of building an electric power plant and would use 20 to 40 percent of the plant's energy to capture, compress, and transmit the carbon dioxide produced.
The costs for CCS in the report are entirely speculative. The technical and commercial feasibility of sequestering vast quantities of carbon dioxide is completely unknown. So the NAS panel strongly recommends that the federal government embark immediately on a program to build at least 10 commercial scale coal-fired CCS plants by 2020 to find out if the technology can work.
Currently, the U.S. consumes about 4,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity. The energy content of 1 quad is equal to about 293 terawatt-hours. However, a typical electric power plant burning fossil fuels is only able to capture about a third of the energy from the fuel, so 1 quad of fuel actually produces about 97 terawatt-hours electricity. In best case aggressive deployment scenarios, the new NAS report finds that renewables could supply 1100 TWh per year by 2035; the entire existing coal power fleet could by replaced by CCS coal power by 2035 and provide provide 3,000 TWh of electricity per year; nuclear plants could supply 850 TWh of electricity by 2035.
Looking over the portfolio of new low-carbon energy technologies, including coal and natural gas with CCS, nuclear, and renewables, the report notes with considerable understatement, "Although the potential picture with these new supplies is promising, they will likely result in higher electricity prices."
Despite all the political agitation calling for "independence from foreign oil," the new report observes that "petroleum will continue to be an indispensable fuel" through 2035. The NAS experts accurately describe corn-based ethanol as a dead-end fuel source that they anticipate will be replaced with cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol would be produced using dedicated energy crops like switch grass grown on land currently in the Conservation Reserve Program.
The technology for producing cellulosic ethanol is unproven and even the new NAS report suggests that the fuel will be uneconomical unless the price of oil rises to over $115 per barrel. However, the NAS report suggests that a process that combines biomass with coal could produce 1.7 to 2.5 million barrels of synthetic liquid transport fuels by 2035. One environmental caveat: Producing synfuels using coal would likely boost coal production by 50 percent over the otherwise projected rate. The synfuels would be economical if the price of oil exceeds $70 per barrel.
The National Academy of Science reports are supposed to guide the thinking of policymakers about what is needed to advance future energy production. One constant in both reports is the unwavering faith of energy experts in the efficacy of government-subsidized energy research and development, and government intervention in energy production markets. Looking back we can see that the Energy in Transition report from 1980 was largely a failure as an exercise in technical and economic prognostication. More happily, we can also see that it had little apparent effect on public policy.
If policymakers believe that greenhouse gas emissions are dangerous and if they believe as a consequence that low-carbon energy technologies must be developed and energy conservation encouraged, there is a simple policy that will address all of those issues at a stroke: put a price on carbon dioxide. As environmentalists Miriam Horn and Fred Krupp wrote in their 2008 book Earth: The Sequel: "Mandates presume that the government already knows the best way to proceed on energy. But the government doesn't know any better than anyone else."
Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.